Interviews

Interview: Trump left a tripwire military presence in Syria

Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science who has written extensively on the Kurds told Shout News in an interview that the small remaining American military presence in Syria serves as a tripwire to deter any hostile intents toward the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in control of northeastern Syria.

Highlights from the interview:

  • "The U.S. will not leave the Kurds like Nixon and Kissinger did." American forces left in Syria serve as a deterrent should Turkey, Syrian regime forces and their Iranian allies backed by Russian airpower attempt to sweep through the territory that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control in northeastern Syria. A situation akin to the Cold War tripwire, where a small U.S. military force in Europe signaled America's commitment to an armed response to a Soviet attack.
  • A miscalculation in Turkey's high risk adventure in Syria could reverberate in President Erdoğan's presidency. While there are no serious contenders today, a Turkish military embarrassment by in Syria could create an opening and lead to President Erdoğan's removal from power.
  • "Syria's Kurds are much more noticeable today, and in a much better position than they were ten or twenty years ago, in a brighter position than they have ever been in modern times."
  • "Turkey is the power Syria's Kurds will need to get along with", despite a rhetoric that portrays Turkey "as evil" relayed by the media in the West. Historically, in the region nobody is 100% enemy with each other. Today's loss are tomorrow's wins. This long view of the conflict is largely absent in the media coverage of the war in Syria, but key to understand the conflict.

Go deeper: Syria's 2000 American troops: Strength is not in numbers

Exclusive

Syria's Assad is at risk of winning the war but losing the peace

As the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year, the news media is abuzz with stories about President Bashar al-Assad's victory on the battlefield. Yet, Syrians in government-controlled territory are increasingly expressing discontent with the president as living standards in the country continue to deteriorate even as the conflict winds down, the Washington Post reported.

Why it matters: Syria's president is at risk of winning the war but losing the peace if he fails to address a crippling shortage of fuel and electricity, provide jobs for the men returning from the front lines, and stabilize the Syrian currency. These challenges are compounded by inefficiencies and corruption amongst his government.

What Syrians are saying:

A Damascus-based worker for a non-governmental organization in an interview for Shout! News claimed that Syrians feel they have been betrayed by their government. They acknowledge, however, that the central government's control of territory outside the capital has weakened due to the partial devolution of state and military power to local authorities as a measure to fight the war. Local warlords emerged as a result.

"Military men don't behave like military anymore," the man said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Access to public services, as water, has been privatized by local strongmen and offered for a fee, he complained. He mentioned the example of a village he visited recently where public access to water is now run by someone close to the local strongman.

"Today's living standards are worse than during the war," but Western countries' sanctions against the Syrian regime are also responsible for their deterioration, the man said.

Programmatic propaganda in action in Syria's conflict: #OperationOliveBranch

The ongoing conflict in Syria blends conventional warfare with social media manipulation operations to influence public opinion, according to research.

The backstory: In January 2018, Turkey launched a military operation, code-named Olive Branch, in an around the northern Syria's city of Afrin.

Key findings: There is a social media manipulation dimension to Turkey's war in Syria. The Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence public opinion on the conflict, backing up the Turkish state message in a computer automated manner and orchestrated campaign connected with the Twitter hashtag #operationolivebranch.

The details: Research identified two ways the Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence audiences perception on Twitter.

  • Automated Twitter accounts that pose as journalist and political account: Two high-volume automated accounts, one that poses as a journalist/blogger @PelinCiftek, and the other a political profile AkPartiNet. At the time of the research these two accounts were tweeting at a rate of 465 tweets per day (on a seven day average) and sharing the same content from twenty two other accounts. These two accounts at first glance have nothing in common nor appear to be connected. Yet, research found they were operating in concert with the identical volume, timing and tweets themselves. These two accounts were created within one month of each other, and have nearly an identical tweet to like ratio, and following to follower ratio.
  • A network of automated amplifiers. These seemingly two unrelated (not directly connected) accounts are highly programmatic, and serve as the hubs of a tightly connected network that is amplifying the Turkish government message on the war in Afrin and other issues. This serves as an example of computation propaganda in action. Our research highlights how this network operates in a computer automated manner. Additional automated Twitter accounts amplifying the Turkish government's message about the war in Afrin and other issues. Research concluded these are likely government approved proxies or messengers (if not, it's highly improbable this content and network would exist) whose tweets are relayed by the two accounts above. At the time of the research it was noted that these ten accounts have a daily tweet average to classify them as cyborgs.

The big picture: Turkey's military operation in the conflict in Syria is the first invasion by Turkish ground forces into a sovereign nation since the Cyprus conflict in 1974.

Go deeper: A recent study by Oxford University shows widespread use of social media tactics by governments to shape public discourse and spread misinformation.

This analysis was first posted on Medium, including research findings and methodology.

Analysis

Syria: Tulsi Gabbard vs. the media

American media commentators criticized Presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)'s recent comments on President Bashar al Assad and the U.S. policy toward Syria.

What's happening: Congresswoman Gabbard refused to say whether she believed Assad was a war criminal during a CNN town hall. "I think that the evidence needs to be gathered, and as I have said before, if there is evidence that he has committed war crimes, he should be prosecuted as such," she told the host. The war in Syria has resulted in one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Critics from the media subsequently accused the Congresswoman of giving the benefit of the doubt to foreign autocrats, or worse. Washington Post reporter and CNN political analyst Josh Rogin casted her as "Assad's mouthpiece in Washington."

Between the lines: Rep. Gabbard's reluctance to condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad is a byproduct of her military service during the Iraq war, she explained. Tulsi Gabbard's position reflects a distrust of American military intervention and regime change and the justification provided that is prevalent amongst the American public, bruised by President George W. Bush administration's false statements to the American people and to the United Nations on the existence of weapons of mass destruction to launch a war in Iraq.

Why it matters: This argument between media personalities and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard could be interpreted as a disagreement about what standard of proof it takes to cast a foreign autocrat as a war criminal and back up military intervention abroad. Yet, it also raises questions on the role of journalism beyond telling the story. In what circumstances, if any, can journalists and the media arbitrate and the story?

Analysis

Israel's Syria map

The map of today's Middle East as seen by Israel displays only two colors: red and black.

  • Red: Countries with an Islamic State presence.
  • Black: Iran-controlled countries or influence.

Why it matters: The map (above), presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the International Homeland Security Forum organized by the Israel Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs last June, is an indication of Israel's perception of the Middle East as dominated by Iran's progress and influence and a metastasizing Islamic State, far from U.S. President Donald Trump's optimistic assessments about the jihadist group's defeat in recent months.

The state of play for Israel in Syria: The Syrian civil war was not a bad development for Israel, Haaretz reported, as the two main fighting sides, the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad and its jihadist opponents, deeply hated Israel. Yet, Iranian involvement and dominance in Syria as President al Assad gradually regained its control of the country and emerged as the winner of the eight years war have exacerbated Israel's concerns.

Analysis

Is Venezuela the 'Syria of the Western Hemisphere’?

Last Sunday, a former Venezuelan diplomat, Isaias Medina, in an interview for Fox News claimed that is country was the "Syria of the Western Hemisphere."

Big picture: A U.S.-supported opposition, an entrenched leader backed by Moscow, violent street protests, desperate people scrambling across borders, and the United Nations blamed for a weak response. The ongoing crisis around the last presidential elections left incumbent Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó battling for the presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and brought comparison with the conflict in Syria and its embattled leader Bashar al-Assad.

What they're saying:

  • Former Venezuelan diplomat Isaias Medina pointed to the same actors as in the Syrian conflict involved in in the current crisis in Venezuela, with Russia backing up the "dictatorship" of president Nicolás Maduro. The former diplomat to the United Nations who quit the Maduro government in protest over a year ago called for the use of force to remove president Maduro.
  • "[Nicolás] Maduro did not come to power in the same way that any of these dictators did. He did not lead a military coup, nor did he inherit a country run like a family estate from his father. He was democratically elected twice. There is little similarity between the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, which Chavez founded and Maduro now represents, and the forces that backed and maintained these Arab tyrants in power. Chavismo is a democratic, left-wing, popular movement that has sought to invest the riches of the state to empower and uplift the poor," analyst Hussein Walid said on Al Jazeera.
News

Syria sanctions bill passes Senate but stalls over anti-BDS

The Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation last Thursday that would impose economic and financial pressure on the regime of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad and send it to the House, where it stalled over the Combating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) provision. The House last month passed Syria sanctions unanimously without a BDS provision.

Why it matters: "S.1, Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act of 2019" passed with strong bipartisan support, but senior House Democrats have raised the same First Amendment concerns on the BDS language as their Senate colleagues who voted against it. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while not publicly stating her views on the bill, appears to share the position that the bill's anti-BDS provisions are a poison pill, Chad Brand, a government relations officer for the Syrian American Council, told Shout News. The legislation could remain stalled in the House.

What to watch: The Syria sanctions that the House initially approved (the "Caesar Bill") could take two alternative legislative routes in order to become law, Mr. Brand said.

  • Appropriations process. Feasible, but depends on a divided Congress and the president once again negotiating an agreement on what traditionally ends bring an omnibus spending package. Typically a compromise is reached where It could become law by the end of year - avoiding a government shutdown. However, as the current standoff between President Trump and Congress has proven, we could see a redux and have another shutdown where disagreements are not resolved until some point in 2020.
  • Defense authorization bill: Sanctions would be added to the defense authorization spending bill. Last year's authorization under a GOP-controlled Congress was passed and enacted in August 2018, a record time. In the absence of potential jurisdictional roadblocks, sanctions could become law by November or December of this year.

The defense authorization route is faster, Mr. Brand said, but expects that jurisdictional issues among key committee panels that oversee defense and foreign policy policy might not agree to include the Syria sanctions on the grounds that they are non-germane to the legislation. He noted that the conference report to FY 2019 defense authorization bill did not include targeted sanctions against Iranian-backed militias fighting in Syria and Iraq that were approved to the House-passed version of the bill.

Go deeper:

Interview: What's next on the latest U.S. sanctions against Syria?

Interviews

Interview: “America is a wounded elephant geopolitically”

A German academic who wished to remain anonymous and volunteered with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State told Shout News in an interview that America does not have a functioning foreign policy and warned that it has national security consequences.

Highlights from the interview:

Foreign policy capacity. "The U.S. does not have the capacity for any sustainable foreign policy at the moment. It is trying to survive instead of doing politics. At least this is how it looks like from the outside."

Foreign policy continuity. "Certain things need to continue [from one administration to the other] and no one in the current administration has the understanding how to, there is no one able to respond to day to day politics."

What I hear is that U.S. diplomats, military personnel, those responsible for negotiations and communication between parties on the ground sit there and wait for orders and directions they don't receive.

National security consequences. "The next war is brewing right now, next conflicts are getting in motion, but no one is interested. It is an enormous scandal and not in the interest of the U.S."

"No one is stopping Russia. That we are worried about Europe's eastern border should tell you something. It used to be completely controlled by the U.S. There are similar developments all over Africa."

Taking America seriously. "You need a well functioning secure and stable U.S. administration in order to stand up to a NATO partner and regional bully like Turkey. Otherwise, look at what happened. The Turks don't take America seriously. How can a U.S. president let a foreign president insult him publicly and not respond [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatened to "slap" President Trump in March 2018]. It is embarrassing."

"Commentators don't understand the implications of a weak administration and president, of not being sure if the president will still be in office in the next six months. It might be entertaining for American talk shows, but it signal that it is geopolitically weak, plowing through."

Analysis

Syria’s Kurds oil deal with Assad tests governance

America's military ally in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supplies oil to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Oil revenue could be a first indication of the economic viability of northern Syria under SDF control and a good governance test: will the oil revenue benefit the territory and population groups under SDF control?

Details:

  • The oil deal should come as no surprise. The agreement between Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad government in Damascus on sharing oil revenues is more than a year old, Shout News learned.

What to watch:

  • The oil revenue sharing agreement with the Assad government may also provide insight on how northern Syria will shape following the announced U.S. military withdrawal.
Analysis

Syria’s Kurds long walk from political isolation

Several years into the winning fight against the Islamic State, America's feet on the ground are making few to no progress in leveraging and extending the military recognition and support they received from the United States into political ground and capital.

The current visit to Washington of Ilham Ahmad, a leader of the Kurdish-led political party affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, has so far not involved an invitation to visit the White House and meet with the president of the United States. Contrast with the White House's 1980s meetings with Afghan mujahideen.

This policy-or lack of thereof--reflects the ambivalence of America's engagement with its partner on Syria's ground in the fight against the Islamic State: Pentagon, yes; White House, no.

The big picture: Any formal acknowledgment of the Syrian Democratic Forces' political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council, would anger Turkey, the U.S. NATO ally, weary of any Kurdish political project and military strength in northern Syria.

What's next: The implementation of President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. It will leave Syria's Kurds and allied Arab and other groups, who fought and died in the winning battle against the Islamic State, vulnerable to an attack by Turkey.