Five links on Syria

Here’s a fascinating, long Mediapart piece on Syria. Among much else, you’ll learn that the Russian exit strategy was meant to be a general ceasefire but ended up being scaled down to local arrangements. Also, a major obstacle to it was that Assad wouldn’t accept any restriction of violence – even proposed by the Russians.

Leur recherche d’un cessez-le-feu sur l’ensemble du territoire n’a pas marché. Il a fallu cette approche par étape qui consiste à définir des zones qu’ils ont appelées, modestement, « de désescalade », sans encore parler de cessez-le-feu, pour mettre fin à cette catastrophe humanitaire. Cela permet aux Russes de s’attribuer le “refroidissement” du conflit.

C’est vrai qu’ils sont réellement soucieux d’en finir avec les sièges et la stratégie d’affamer les populations comme le régime s’y emploie. Ils étaient en tension réelle avec lui, trouvant qu’il est totalement inutile de se mettre dans une situation à ce point condamnable. Après avoir refroidi le conflit, ils souhaitaient qu’Astana aille le plus loin possible dans l’achèvement d’un cessez-le-feu, que des mesures de confiance soient prises, comme les échanges de prisonniers – j’ai l’impression que Moscou ne se fait pas trop d’illusions et que le régime ne lâchera rien – et, troisième point, pour faciliter l’accès humanitaire. On en est à cette phase de désescalade qui est loin d’être achevée, le régime continuant à bombarder les régions qui lui paraissent stratégiques.

When you’re too much of an arsehole for Putin. Anyway, how’s that getting on? Well, the Jordanians seem to be convinced that at least one “de-escalation zone” can work and they’re a fairly crucial actor. From Reuters:

An official and two senior diplomats told Reuters the powers have made progress in drawing up a map of the de-escalation zone, including Quneitra province bordering Israel, alongside the southern Deraa province adjoining Jordan.

The official and diplomats said Washington had also secured an understanding with Moscow that militias backed by the Syrian government’s ally Iran must be pushed 40 km (25 miles) from the border.

That might help allay Israeli and Jordanian concerns about the presence of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group in the area.

Diplomats said Lavrov also pressed Jordan to re-open its Nasib border crossing with Syria, something Amman has so far resisted, saying it needs more security. But it has strongly backed the broader de-escalation deal, seeing it as paving the way for an eventual return of tens of thousands of refugees in its territory.

Rebels say the ceasefire remains fragile and fear Syria’s army will return to attack them once it has consolidated gains in the north and other areas. Insurgents say the de-escalation zones merely free up Syria’s army to make territorial gains elsewhere.

There’s the rub, of course. War on the Rocks discusses the way this conversation of violence/potential violence between the US and Russia is being carried out through the daily operations of the USAF’s regional air movement coordination centre. A serious problem, with getting on for a dozen air forces operating in close proximity, is whether policy is driving events or tactical events driving policy. A more fundamental one is to what extent arranging a “de-escalation zone” extends a guarantee of protection to the people in it.

The downing of the two Iranian drones and the Syrian aircraft in quick succession, and the subsequent agreement on deconfliction zones in eastern Syria, raise two broader policy questions: What does the United States intend to do to protect partner forces it has relied on, up until this point, to fight the Islamic State? And how do these questions intersect with the tactical perspective, wherein aircrew and personnel will be asked to make rapid decisions to protect U.S. or partnered forces?

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made clear that American-supported forces are going to continue to move down the Euphrates River towards the border with Iraq. At the same time, the regime and Iranian-backed forces are slowly pushing towards Der Ezour from Palmayra and from positions south of Tabqa. This will bring U.S. and regime allied forces into closer proximity, making it all but inevitable that questions of rules of engagement and self-defense will arise again.

Thus far, the United States has managed to de-escalate such situations. In the wake of the downing of the SU-22 near Tabqa, for example, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported that the two sides agreed to a 130-kilometer deconfliction line from Tabqa to the town of Karama. The arrangement is similar to the 55-kilometer deconfliction zone around a military garrison near Tanf, a border town on the highway connecting Damascus with Baghdad. The establishment of these two zones raises difficult questions: Does the United States intend to defend these areas from regime and regime-allied attack, and, if so, for how long?

You could also ask: from who? Lines are being drawn, not in the sand so much as on a tactical pilotage chart or its digital equivalent. This blog post from Jean-Dominique Merchet, now at L’Opinion, is revealing.

Si les Rafale ont définitivement remplacé les Mirage 2000D sur la base H5 en Jordanie pour les opérations en Irak et en Syrie, c’est à la suite d’une demande des Américains. Selon nos informations, l’état-major de la coalition dirigée par les États-Unis a considéré que les Mirage de l’armée de l’air ne disposaient pas assez de capacités air-air pour pouvoir être engagés sur ce théâtre moins « permissif » que les précédents. Les autorités françaises ont soigneusement évité de communiquer sur le sujet.

The French air force’s Mirage 2000D aircraft, pure bombers, have been withdrawn in favour of the multi-role Rafales, precisely because they might encounter hostile fighters. The SIRPA-Air statement that follows is a masterpiece of non-denial denial, then followed up by another journalist reporting that they have been restricted to permissive operations only. I feel this kind of confirms the first and second posts in the light of the third.

And then there’s this. The Hill reports on the fate of a convoy of ISIS combatants and their families evacuating that “de-escalation zone”.

“To ensure safe de-confliction of efforts to defeat ISIS, coalition surveillance aircraft departed the adjacent airspace at the request of Russian officials during their assault on Dawyr Az Zawyr,” the coalition said in a statement.

Right. On the other hand:

A U.S. spokesman for the coalition told reporters Thursday that it has been striking ISIS fighters walking away from the convoy or trying to link up with the group, estimating that 85 ISIS fighters have been struck since the start of the standoff.

The coalition has not struck the convoy itself and has allowed food and water to get through, citing the women and children in the buses.

Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition, also said Thursday that the United States had used the so-called deconfliction line it uses to communicate with the Russians to try to separate the women and children from the ISIS fighters. But Dillon said that effort had “not gained any traction.”

As Bassma Kodmani says in the first link, the idea of making Syria a “homogenous society” makes a cold shudder run down your back, and shipping jihadis from the de-escalation zone over to the Islamic State, such as is left of it, definitely fits with that. That said, the very discrimination in violence made possible by precision-guided weapons and advanced C4ISTAR systems also seems to make a new kind of refined perversity possible. Have another cold shudder. Then, there’s a reason why the Russians wanted the surveillance aircraft out of the way.

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