The news about the US in the Middle East has been focused almost exclusively on the fight in Kobane for weeks. There has been a lot of conjecture in the papers about whether the rebels can be trained, whether they are moderate, whether they can fight, whether they exist at all separate from ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, the local Al Qaeda front. No matter, everyone, daily news consumers and activists alike are watching the Kurds of Kobane fight for a city of 45 thousand souls, most of whom are now residing in refugee camps in Turkey along with many other Kurds from the area. A handful of Kurdish fighters are arrayed against a handful of ISIS fighters, and the US dropping bombs and supplies from the air. Unfortunately for the Kurds, ISIS has a reservoir from which it can replace those who die, replenishing it’s forces. The United States inhabits the safe zone in the air, with fighter jets and drones. Neither has invested more than a small subset of their resources in Kobane. But those Kurds are fighting for their home, and for their homeland. So they provide the lifeblood, quite literally of this scenario, which is the center of the universe from the way it is reported in the mainstream news.
But the truth is, that either ISIS or the US could, at any moment pull out, and the it would appear that either the Kurds (in the first case) or ISIS in the latter, has won. If each has a vested interest to win there, neither has a critical investment of forces. The US has won some potentially useful concessions from the Kurds in the course of this battle, but since I don’t see a meaningful end to it, I don’t know the real significance of these concessions. They actually allowed some FSA soldiers to come and fight with them. For most of the war, the FSA have treated the Kurds disrespectfully, while ISIS and al Nusra have been openly attacking them for some time.. With Turkey, which could actually hold the space which is right on it’s border, not engaged, there is no end to the battle of Kobane. But there is some real news in the region. Kobane is a frozen battle, but there are active battiles in the regions with clear outcomes that are likely to have some effect on the larger picture. You know, the one where ISIS is now IS the Caliphate, and recruiting an international force of Jihadis ready to come after us once they have completely destroyed, I mean conquered, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and who knows, maybe Turkey and Jordan.
Yesterday Jason Dietz of Antiwar.com reported that Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria wiped out The Revolutionary Front, a coalition of native Syrian opposition forces which includes some of the charter members of the Free Syrian Army. With their some time ally, ISIS, supporting them, al Nusra made short work of the Revolutionary Front this week, and retook Idlib, a Syrian province on the Turkish border. Whomever they were at the start of this war, the fighters in the Revolutionary Front are not the butcher, the baker and they yogurt maker any longer;. Some of the local fighters in Idlib were trained in Qatar in early 2011, and have been fighting ever since. Their families have been secure in Turkish refugee camps for the duration. But this isn’t the first time Idlib has been taken from the local forces. ISIS held the area for a while last year, then left, for their own reasons this spring. There’s a video on VICE News showing some rebels with the Wolves Brigade, part of the Revolutionary Front Coalition, moving from town to town, finding them abandoned and free for the taking.
Dietz says that the US presence in Syria gave al Nusra a reason to conquer the Idlib, but I don’t think that’s the point. When the Revolutionary Front capitulated, some men fled and others joined al Nusra. They brought with them a lot of supplies including some tanks and heavy weapons that had just been provided by the US through Saudi Arabia, to aid the ‘moderate’ rebels on the ground. According to a story in International Business News, Al Nusra, whom you might remember, we bombarded with cruise missiles from the Mediterranean last summer, now has US tanks and US TOW anti-tank Missiles, numerous vehicles and lots of ammo, and a shipment of food and other aid. So, yes, I suppose if we hadn’t armed and fed these ‘moderate rebel forces’, then the bully on the block wouldn’t have come along and taken those things away from them. And leave us not forget that a signifiant number among these favored moderate rebels joined the Nusra Front so they could continue fighting.
And this isn’t the first time that ISIS and al Nusra have carried out an attack on US supported forces to liberate their weapons and supplies. Just about a year ago, once ISIS had secured Ar Raqqa in eastern Syria as part of a coaltion with local rebel groups, the US sent along a cache of arms along with food and other resources. Col Okaidi, the representative of the Syrian National Coalition was in Idlib dispensing US weapons and other forms of assistance. A few days after the items arrived, ISIS overran his base, taking all the weapons and supplies. OOPs. Al Okaidi resigned saying that the rebel groups couldn’t work together. Funny thing is, he just signed on again with the US promising ot help fight ISIS and to build moderate rebel forces. And once again, US weapons have been handed over to the enemy (his frequent ally, in fact).
Foreign Policy’s latest scoop is an investigation into US funding of anti-Assad propaganda. And guess, what! It’s being cut. Yep. Here it is.
The U.S. State Department plans to cut its entire $500,000 in annual funding next year to an organization dedicated to sneaking into abandoned Syrian military bases, prisons, and government facilities to collect documents and other evidence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its proxies to war crimes and other mass atrocities during the country’s brutal civil war, according to the recipient of the assistance and a senior U.S. official.
Apparently they have given up their plans to take Bashar Assad before the ICC. Given the behavior of the opposition this would seem a reasonable choice. Given the realities on the ground, it is probably the only reasonable choice. “Sneaking into abandoned Syrian military bases, prisons and government buildings” sounds pretty dangerous. Most Syrian military bases are held either by the government or by the extremists. I suppose there are some prisons and government buildings in areas governed by moderate militias, or at least ones allied with the west. It seems likely the financial commitment was ended because the task was impossible. It would only be viable if there were a moderate rebel force that was winning the war and if claims that Assad is committing war crimes were true. Neither is the case.
The latest news from Iraq is pretty grim as well. In January, ISIS overran Fallujah a city of 300 thousand, after battle that lasted a little over a week. Last summer they took over Mosul, a city of 1.8 million before half a million fled on their arrival. ISIS is just outside Baghdad, a city of just over 7 million, even after 25 years of war and sanctions. I assume the US is providing air support for the Iraqi army as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, but we don’t hear the details very often. It appears that the much maligned Iraqi Army, with the support of local fighters is doing pretty well against ISIS in Diyala province, and not so well in Anbar. In Mosul, ISIS latest pogrom is against lawyers. Anyone who practices the old law is a criminal. It’s Sharia or die. There are complaints about Shia militias wreaking havoc in some Sunni areas, but the big stories are from the Sunni areas where the fight for control is between ISIS and local Sunnis. While in the US, day in and day out, headline after headline, Kobane is the center of the media universe and ostensibly the US strategy to put an end to ISIS. Go Figure.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army has been fighting along the western border, liberating one town at a time, and working towards Aleppo, the next big city they want to recover. Wherever possible, they have negotiated with rebel groups and reabsorbed man of these forces into the Syrian Arab Army. They flinched when a belligerent US first announced they would be bombing in Eastern Syria and wasn’t interested in their consent, but when no bombs came their way, Bashar Assad’s top general pretty much continued to conduct the war to liberate his country according to the same strategy he has been following for the last year. No one asked the Syrian government, and they don’t have the resources to throw out another battalion here or there. in hopes of maximizing a potential support they didn’t ask for and can’t rely on. There’s been a lot of speculation about their what communications may or may not have passed, but given their actions, we have to assume it was minimal. As US officials said they told the Syrian Government they were going to bomb ISIS in the their country, but “Don’t get the idea we’re on your side.” Well, it looks like that’s about it. The long slog to recover as much of the country as they can continues. Of course we don’t hear about that in the news either.