What ceasefire? Iranian-trained sniper kills last doctor in besieged Syrian town (& Israel’s daring Syrian rescue mission)

April 10, 2016

* Israeli Special Forces risk their lives to help 5-year-old wounded Syrian girl receive a bone marrow transplant.

* American freelance journalist Kevin Dawes, one of several hostages held in Syria by the Assad regime, is released, as Obama moves to prop up Assad despite his continued bombing and ethnic cleansing (into Europe) policies.

* Putin’s attack helicopters and Iranian ground forces continue the war in Syria unabated – not on ISIS, but on moderate Sunnis that the West is supposedly supporting.

* Former CIA operative: Obama rejected 50 plots supported by Petraeus, Gates, Hillary Clinton and others, to oust Assad; Obama abandoned non-Jihadist Free Syrian Army after initially encouraging them.

 

John Kerry and his wife Teresa enjoy some fine dining in 2009 with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who at the time had for many years already been one of the world’s leading torturers of liberals and political prisoners. As chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry was so close to Assad that he was known in Washington as “the man who had Assad on his speed-dial”. Today the Obama administration (of which Kerry serves as Secretary of State) appears to be turning a blind eye as Assad ramps up his killing of Sunnis Arabs, despite misleading reports of a “ceasefire”

 

WHAT CEASEFIRE?

[Notes below by Tom Gross]

One of the most misleading aspects of news coverage in the New York Times (which stated again a couple of days ago – in a story abut John Kerry and Iran – that there is a “cessation of hostilities in Syria”) is the impression the paper has given that there is an effective ceasefire in Syria. Or that Russia has withdrawn its forces. Neither is true. One can only presume that New York Times editors are eager to defend the policies of the Obama administration, which helped negotiate the failed ceasefire in Syria.

I attach seven articles below. There are summaries first of some of these articles.

There are also still reports in the Iranian media every day, about the funerals of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and other Iranian-backed Shia mercenaries who died fighting in Syria. For example, this IRGC commander, Amir Ali Mohammadian, died in Aleppo province on April 8.

For example, on April 6, IRGC members Mohammad Jabali and Abufazl Rahchamani, both from Tehran, were killed in Syria.

On the same day, three members of the Afghan Shia militia Fatimiyoun Brigade and four members of the Pakistani Shia militia Zainabiyoun brigade were killed in Syria. The Zainabiyoun and Fatimiyoun Brigades are among the Shia militia that have been brought in by Iran to support of the Assad regime. There are pictures of their funerals here from the Mehr News Agency.

And so on.

But Western media that want to pretend the Iranian government is moderate, or not at the forefront of orchestrating the killings and ethnic cleansing in Syria, fail to report on this.


ARTICLE SUMMARIES

ONLY IN ISRAEL

From the start of the Syria conflict over five years ago, Israel has treated wounded Syrian civilians (see the video here for example, and here.

Israeli media reported this week that a five-year-old girl treated in recent weeks at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for severe wounds she received in the Syrian war, was found to have cancer. Israel’s security services then took the unprecedented steps of risking their own lives by crossing into an enemy state to bring a relative of the girl who wished to help with a bone marrow transplant. The girl is currently undergoing treatment and her relative is also in Israel. Her name has not been released in order to protect her family from retaliation in Syria.

(There are few other countries in the world who would do this for a citizen of an “enemy state” but it is unlikely that the BBC and other anti-Israel media will report it.)

 

NO ONE LEFT TO TREAT THE WOUNDED

An Iranian-trained Hizbullah sniper has shot dead Mohammed Khous, 70, the last doctor in the Syrian town of Zabadani, where Assad, Iranian and Hizbullah forces continue their campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing (into Europe) of Syria’s majority Sunni Arab population.

Dr. Khous was known to Zabadani residents as a generous and skillful surgeon who would recite poetry at the town’s cultural center before the war began.

Following Dr. Khous’s assassination, regime snipers have continued to shoot other residents of the town. Ibrahim Ahmad Deeb was a close friend of the hospital administrator, Burhan. “He suffered a pretty serious wound, and as we do not have doctors, we didn’t know how to treat him,” Burhan told the AP. “We watched him pass away.”

Zabadani has been held since 2012 by the Free Syrian Army, not by an Islamist militia. The FSA has been betrayed by the Obama administration which initially encouraged them.

The Associated Press: Nearly half a million Syrians remain trapped in sieges, according to the UN. Most are besieged by government forces. Dozens of people have died from starvation or illness related to malnutrition in besieged areas across Syria.

 

THE WASHINGTON POST WRITES IN AN EDITORIAL:

There is “no real cease-fire in Syria. The accord brokered by the Obama administration with Russia has not stopped the regime of Bashar al-Assad from continuing offensives against strategic territory held by rebel forces that joined the truce. It also has not opened corridors for humanitarian aid into those areas, which are occupied by hundreds of thousands of people.

“Much of the regime’s military activity has been aimed at the suburbs of Damascus, including an area known as Eastern Ghouta. According to reports by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, the government has continued to block aid to at least six areas in the region, populated by 250,000 people, since the cessation of hostilities began on Feb. 27. Even where humanitarian convoys have gotten through, aid workers say Syrian government forces have stripped them of vital medical supplies, including surgical equipment and antibiotics.

“Meanwhile, the bombing continues. Last Thursday, a government airstrike hit the Damascus suburb of Deir al-Asafir, killing 33 people, including at least a dozen children.”

 

RUSSIA HAS NOT STOPPED KILLING SYRIANS

James Miller writes in Foreign Policy magazine:

It has now been several weeks since Putin announced his withdrawal, and there is much evidence that the Russian presence in Syria has not been significantly reduced. An analysis conducted by Reuters shows that Putin has sent more supplies to Syria since announcing that his mission was accomplished.

There are signs of new Russian weapons in Latakia, where Moscow maintains a large, and recently revamped, forward-operating base. The Russian Defense Ministry released videos of these aircraft taking off from the Hmeymim air base, about 10 miles southeast of Latakia, and sharp-eyed analysts noticed two types of attack helicopters that had never been seen on the Russian air base before. The Mi-28 “Havoc” is a potent attack helicopter, boasting a formidable array of rockets, or missiles, and the 30 mm Shipunov 2A42 autocannon, capable of ripping through armored vehicles…

Over the past two months, a coalition of international fighters – including Hezbollah militiamen, elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, and Shiite militias sent from Iraq – have bolstered Assad’s depleted army...

Another myth that needs to be dispelled is that Putin and Assad entered into this cease-fire in order to pursue an agenda of peace or political compromise. Instead, Moscow and Damascus are doing what they have done so many times since the start of this conflict – taking advantage of diplomatic developments to advance new goals.

The truth is: Russia wasn’t attacking the Islamic State. Russia was simply trying to make it look like it was doing so.

Instead, Western-backed rebels and civilians were the ones bearing the brunt of the Russian bear. Meanwhile, Islamic State forces took full advantage of this situation and attacked some of these same rebel groups. And as long as the terrorist group was further weakening Assad’s enemies, it was fine with Damascus.

 

* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.

 

CONTENTS

1. “Israeli doctors, spies rally to save 5-year-old Syrian girl” (Times of Israel, April 7, 2016)
2. “Sniper kills last doctor in besieged Syrian town” (By Philip Issa, AP, Apr. 8, 2016)
3. “Syria: No real cease-fire, no real consequences” (Editorial, Washington Post, April 6, 2016)
4. Assad claims “IS in deadly gas attack on Syria army” (AFP, April 5, 2016)
5. “Putin’s attack helicopters and mercenaries are winning the war for Assad” (By James Miller, Foreign Policy, March 30, 2016)
6. “Russia helps secure Syria’s release of US detainee” (AFP, April 8, 2016)
7. “Former CIA operative: Obama rejected 50 plots to oust Assad” (By Richard Spence, London Daily Telegraph, April 5, 2016)


ARTICLES

ISRAELI DOCTORS, SPIES RALLY TO SAVE 5-YEAR-OLD SYRIAN GIRL

Israeli doctors, spies rally to save 5-year-old Syrian girl
Times of Israel
April 7, 2016

Almost from the start of the bloody conflict raging in Syria, Israel has agreed to treat in its hospitals any wounded Syrians who reached its border seeking help.

But one five-year-old girl from the war-torn land has led doctors, as well as Israel’s security services, to take unprecedented steps to try to save her life.

The girl arrived at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa in recent weeks with very serious wounds that she received after finding herself caught in a firefight between rival militias, according to an exclusive report Wednesday night on Channel 10.

Some two weeks after she arrived at the hospital, after her wounds had nearly healed, Rambam doctors discovered the young girl had cancer.

They refused to release her, insisting that they could not let her cancer go untreated. The girl had grown used to the hospital, and had friends among the other children being treated there, they said.

Security officials agreed.

And so a search began for a bone marrow donor, a search that led to a relative living in a Middle Eastern country designated an “enemy state” under Israeli law, a designation that prevented the relative from entering Israel.

It was at this point that Israel’s security services stepped in, mounting a secret operation in the enemy country that helped smuggle the relative out of that country and into Israel.

The relative arrived in Israel on Monday, Channel 10 reported. Both child and donor are now quarantined at the hospital, where the girl is expected to undergo a first round of treatment this month.

Nearly every detail about the girl’s identity and the operation to locate and retrieve her relative are classified.

 

REGIME SNIPER KILLS LAST DOCTOR IN BESIEGED SYRIAN TOWN

Sniper kills last doctor in besieged Syrian town
By Philip Issa
Associated Press
April 8, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) – Mohammed Khous was walking from the field hospital heading for his son’s house nearby to rest between operations. He would never make it: a sniper’s bullet to the head felled the 70-year-old in the street. With that, the Syrian town of Zabadani – under heavy siege by government forces and allied Hezbollah militia – lost its last doctor.

His killing last month drew attention to the continuing severity of Syria’s blockades, despite international efforts to defuse them as part of ongoing peace negotiations in Geneva.

Dozens of people have died in the past year from starvation or illness related to malnutrition in besieged areas across Syria. Nearly half a million Syrians are trapped in sieges, according to the United Nations, and humanitarian aid convoys have only been able to reach 30 percent of them this year. Most are besieged by government forces and another 200,000 by the Islamic State group, the Secretary General’s office told the U.N. Security Council on March 23.

“The daily misery in these areas shames us all,” Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council.

Conditions in Zabadani – once a popular mountain resort – are a microcosm of the cruel reality that has beset Syrians across the country.

Dr. Khous was known to Zabadani residents as a generous and skillful surgeon who would recite poetry at the town’ s cultural center before he was sucked into the country’s spiraling civil war.

“He had a knack for verse,” said Amer Burhan, the administrator of the town’s field hospital. “He loved Zabadani. He would sing about it.”

After security forces launched a brutal crackdown against anti-government protests in 2011 in the prelude to the country’s bloodstained conflict, Dr. Khous began quietly treating wounded demonstrators in his clinic in the nearby town of Baqin. Security forces were tracking down medical personnel who treated demonstrators, and he could not afford to attract the attention of government informers.

In 2012, the Free Syrian Army, which is aligned with the protesters, expelled government forces from Zabadani.

When the last surgeon left the town in 2015, Dr. Khous moved there to staff the operating room. One employee of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supports medical facilities in the country, said rebels forced Dr. Khous to fill the vacancy. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions.

It was there that Dr. Khous became trapped in one of the harshest sieges of the war, after Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia alongside government forces waged a pitiless campaign to dislodge rebel militias from the town. The Hezbollah campaign sent almost all of the town’s civilians fleeing to neighboring Madaya, which also fell under siege to government and Hezbollah forces last year. Engineers mined the areas around the two towns, and snipers took up positions to prevent anyone from entering or leaving.

For a while, Dr. Khous worked with Dr. Amal Awad Tatari, who did not have surgical training. But in January, she agreed to leave as part of a deal brokered by the U.N. between government and opposition forces to release injured people from four besieged towns across Syria.

She didn’t want to go, but she had sustained an injury a year earlier and the suffocating siege became too much for her to bear.

“It really exhausted us and my health deteriorated. I have a wound to my head, shrapnel in my hand and a slipped disk. It reached a point where I couldn’t walk,” she said from Turkey, where she is receiving treatment.

Tatari said the conditions inside the hospital were dire.

“We would have to ration the sterilization kits,” she said. “You can’t believe how difficult it was.”

Dr. Khous remained collected and professional, but the siege was taking its toll.

“You could sense he was living in another world, sometimes. We would be in the hospital for example, and there is shelling, but there are no injuries, and he’s sitting writing poetry,” Tatari said.

“We want to rebuild you, a paradise / O’, my heart, Zabadani,” he wrote in one poem shared by the SAMS with The Associated Press.

Dr. Khous continued to treat the gunshot and shelling wounds that regularly afflicted the 500 or so remaining residents on his own. SAMS was debating whether to cut support to the hospital, because most of those remaining in Zabadani were fighters.

Then, on March 25, Dr. Khous was shot by a sniper on his way back from work.

“We received a phone call that there was a martyr and we went and found Dr. Khous on the road,” said the hospital administrator, Burhan. “He was shot in the head – it was aimed to kill.”

The bullet came from the direction of the siege, said Burhan. “We are 95 percent sure he was killed by a government or Hezbollah sniper,” he said.

Tatari said two others in Zabadani were killed by snipers that day. She said there was no way Dr. Khous could have been confused for a militant. He never carried a weapon, she said, and he was always dressed as a civilian. “You could tell, too, that he was advanced in age. It was clear from a distance,” she said.

It took rescue workers three hours to remove his body from the street as snipers forced them to take cover.

A few days later, another man was shot in Zabadani. Ibrahim Ahmad Deeb was a close friend of the hospital administrator, Burhan. “He suffered a pretty serious wound, and as we do not have doctors, we didn’t know how to treat him,” Burhan said. “We watched him pass away.”

 

WASHINGTON POST: NO REAL CEASE-FIRE, NO REAL CONSEQUENCES

Syria: No real cease-fire, no real consequences
Editorial
The Washington Post
April 6, 2016

The Cease-Fire in Syria has now nominally lasted more than five weeks, at least in the sense that its death has not been declared by its international sponsors. It arguably has saved hundreds of lives: The Syrian Network for Human Rights counted 623 civilian deaths in the month of March, compared with previous monthly tolls well above 1,000.

It’s important to point out, however, what the accord brokered by the Obama administration with Russia has not accomplished. So far, it has not stopped the regime of Bashar al-Assad from continuing offensives against strategic territory held by rebel forces that joined the truce. It also has not opened corridors for humanitarian aid into those areas, which are occupied by hundreds of thousands of people.

Much of the regime’s military activity has been aimed at the suburbs of Damascus, including an area known as Eastern Ghouta. According to reports by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, the government has continued to block aid to at least six areas in the region, populated by 250,000 people, since the cessation of hostilities began on Feb. 27. Even where humanitarian convoys have gotten through, aid workers say Syrian government forces have stripped them of vital medical supplies, including surgical equipment and antibiotics.

Meanwhile, the bombing continues. Last Thursday, a government airstrike hit the Damascus suburb of Deir al-Asafir, killing 33 people, including at least a dozen children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Last weekend, a government plane bombed a hospital in the rebel-held town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey.

By the end of last week, anti-Assad forces had launched their own offensives south of the city of Aleppo, and in an area north of Latakia. The attacks, aimed at retaking ground that the government gained when it was supported by Russian bombing, were led by the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, which is not a party to the truce, but some elements of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army joined in. Commanders also said they were responding to the regime’s violations.

With the truce threatening to break down entirely, a task force set up by Russia and the United States to monitor violations looks virtually useless. With no enforcement mechanism, there has been no response to the attacks or to the blockage of aid. On Monday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that “what we have seen is that the Assad regime continues to be the biggest quote-unquote violator.” But as for consequences, he conceded: “That has not happened.”

As throughout the Syrian conflict, the Obama administration lacks the leverage to force compliance by the regime because of its refusal to take steps such as creating a no-fly zone or providing more military support to rebel forces. It can only hope that sheer jawboning by Secretary of State John F. Kerry with his Russian and Iranian counterparts will persuade them to bring Mr. Assad into line. Mr. Kerry will have to talk fast: At the rate events are moving, what’s left of the cease-fire doesn’t appear likely to last much longer.

 

ASSAD CLAIMS IS IN DEADLY GAS ATTACK ON SYRIA ARMY

IS in deadly gas attack on Syria army: state media
Agence France Presse
April 5, 2016

Beirut (AFP) - The Islamic State group has mounted a deadly gas attack against Syrian troops at a besieged eastern airbase, state news agency SANA said, the latest report of the jihadists’ use of chemical weapons.

SANA did not say precisely how many soldiers had been killed in the attack on the government-controlled airbase outside the divided eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

“Daesh (IS) terrorists attacked Deir Ezzor military airport with rockets carrying mustard gas, causing some people to suffocate,” it reported late Monday.

It is the latest in a string of suspected mustard gas attacks by the jihadists in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

On March 9, a suspected IS gas attack on the Iraqi town of Taza, south of Kirkuk, killed three children and wounded some 1,500 people, with injuries ranging from burns to rashes and respiratory problems.

While the chemical agents allegedly used by IS so far have been among their least effective weapons, the psychological impact on civilians is considerable.

A total of 25,000 people fled their homes in and around Taza last month, fearing another attack.

IS has been battling to capture Deir Ezzor airbase since 2014.

It provides the only supply route other than air drops to the government-held sector of the city, where more than 200,000 civilians are living under IS siege.

On Monday, an IS bombardment of two government-held districts of the city killed seven civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Two suicide bombers also blew themselves up in the village of Jafra near the airbase, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Deir Ezzor province is vital for the jihadists because it lies between their de facto Syrian and Iraqi capitals Raqa and Mosul.

In recent weeks, IS has faced intense pressure in Syria at the hands of both the Russian-backed army and US-backed Kurdish-led rebels.

An offensive by the army pushed the jihadists out of the ancient city of Palmyra late last month, opening up the possibility of a strike across the desert to relieve the siege of Deir Ezzor.

 


PUTIN’S ATTACK HELICOPTERS AND MERCENARIES ARE WINNING THE WAR FOR ASSAD

Putin’s Attack Helicopters and Mercenaries Are Winning the War for Assad
By James Miller
Foreign Policy
March 30, 2016

The George W. Bush parallel was lost on very few analysts when Vladimir Putin proudly announced that he was withdrawing a significant amount of Russia’s forces from Syria because their “mission is accomplished.” The announcement came just four days after the Atlantic published an overview of “The Obama Doctrine,” wherein U.S. President Barack Obama told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Russia was “bleeding,” “overextended,” and that Putin had made a terrible mistake. In both Syria and Ukraine, Obama argued, the Russian ruler had pursued policies that made his country weaker.

“The notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence,” the U.S. president said.

Yet there was Putin, proudly proclaiming the opposite. According to him, Russia could draw down its mission in Syria because it had achieved its goals. The White House, and the U.S. intelligence community, appeared completely surprised at the announcement of Russia’s drawdown. Once again, Vladimir Putin had defied American expectations and seemingly came out on top.

Putin’s announcement was filled with lies and distortions, but one glaring truth underscored his words – unlike Bush’s now-infamous declaration from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the Russian president indeed may have accomplished his mission.

Over the past two months, a coalition of international fighters – including Hezbollah militiamen, elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, and Shiite militias sent from Iraq – have bolstered Bashar al-Assad’s depleted army. Supported by a massive Russian bombing campaign, the combined force seems to have broken the backs of the anti-Assad rebels, pushing them out of key areas that had threatened the Syrian regime. Rebel groups that were rapidly advancing just weeks before Russia’s air campaign began have been in full retreat. Rebel battle lines that had held for years were smashed, disorganized, or surrounded.
Most of this was accomplished in the northern part of the country around the city of Aleppo, Syria’s prewar financial capital, but Assad has also gained ground in the south, in Daraa province, which borders Jordan.

Contrary to the predictions of Obama, Russia has not been bled to death in Syria. Putin achieved exactly what he set out to do – and then left.

Or did he?

Since the abrupt announcement of Russia’s departure from the Syrian battleground, it has become clear that Moscow is once again defying expectations. Putin’s first mission – the crushing of the Western-backed moderate Syrian rebel groups – was largely accomplished, but Moscow is not yet done in Syria. It has just moved on to the next goal.

The first stage of Russia’s mission in Syria, which began militarily last September and diplomatically in 2011, was to ensure that a popular uprising was crushed, a democratic movement discredited, and a Shiite puppet state propped up. The next stage seems to be more focused on not just Assad’s survival, but also the restoration of the Syrian state’s power. And what better way is there to strengthen a government than to ensure it has plenty of fossil fuel to sell on the open market?

Russia’s involvement in Syria is steeped in mythology and misconception. The latest myth that needs dispelling is that despite Putin’s often repeated claim that he has withdrawn the bulk of his troops from Syria, Moscow has barely reduced its forces at all. The U.S. military estimates that Putin has only pulled out about 20 percent of its fixed-wing aircraft – fast-moving, long-range jets that could return to the country on short notice.

There are even signs of new Russian weapons in Latakia, where Moscow maintains a large, and recently revamped, forward-operating base. The Russian Defense Ministry released videos of these aircraft taking off from the Hmeymim air base, about 10 miles southeast of Latakia, and sharp-eyed analysts noticed two types of attack helicopters that had never been seen on the Russian air base before. The Mi-28 “Havoc” is a potent attack helicopter, boasting a formidable array of rockets, or missiles, and the 30 mm Shipunov 2A42 autocannon, capable of ripping through armored vehicles. It’s similar in many ways to the U.S. AH-64 Apache attack helicopter – a reliable weapon for supporting ground troops and defending entrenched positions. The second new arrival, the Kamov Ka-52 “Hokum,” is the updated companion to the Mi-28. While the Mi-28 was designed during the Cold War, the Ka-52 first took flight in 1997. It can be equipped with rocket pods or an array of high-powered antitank missiles, and it is armed with the same 30 mm gun as the Mi-28. Its heavy armor, ability to run on a single engine should the other get damaged, and its considerable firepower allow it to fly ahead of its older peers, providing valuable reconnaissance for the rest of the fleet to coordinate attacks. The Mi-28 has a long enough range to be effective against rebels in Idlib and Aleppo and can be equipped with fuel pods that extend its range further. The Ka-52, however, is more than capable of hitting targets from the Turkish border north of Aleppo all the way to Palmyra in central Syria and Daraa in the south, all while equipped with a full load of rockets or antitank missiles.

These helicopters may be sent to defend Russia’s bases in Latakia against enemy threats – which is important since troops and aircraft are still conducting missions from these bases but are doing so with a smaller garrison. But these helicopters may also be deployed in offensive missions, as we’ve seen on several occasions over the last six months. Whereas the Russian mission thus far in Syria has been about brute strength – carpet-bombing, cluster munitions, etc. – the addition of the Mi-28 and Ka-52 enable Moscow to conduct more discriminating counterinsurgency and close air-support missions.

It has now been more than two weeks since Putin announced his withdrawal, and there is more evidence that the Russian presence in Syria has not been significantly reduced. An analysis conducted by Reuters shows that Putin has sent more supplies to Syria since announcing that his mission was accomplished. While it’s likely that a large amount of this cargo is equipment to keep Russia’s bases operational, it’s also testament to the fact that the “drawdown” is just another volley from the Kremlin’s disinformation machine.

The second myth that needs to be dispelled is that Putin and Assad entered into this cease-fire in order to pursue an agenda of peace or political compromise. Instead, Moscow and Damascus are doing what they have done so many times since the start of this conflict – taking advantage of diplomatic developments to advance new goals. Since the end of February, two weeks before Putin announced the Russian drawdown, a cease-fire has been in effect in Syria. And while it is broken everyday by Russian airstrikes and attacks launched by the Assad regime, overall violence has been greatly reduced across much of the country. But a closer look at what the Russian and Syrian militaries have done since gives insight into their real motivation: to ensure Assad is not removed from power anytime soon.

In order to dispel this myth, however, we have to move to a third myth, one that has been proudly echoed by several people currently running for the White House – that Russia’s mission in Syria was about fighting terrorism and destroying the Islamic State. By now, this should have been thoroughly debunked. Somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of Russian sorties hit areas where Islamic State forces are not even located. If Moscow wanted to crush the Islamic State, why weren’t its forces bombing positions to the north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey, since Islamic State fighters could easily slip across the border and reach Europe – or even Russia itself? Why weren’t they striking the Islamic State in the south, in Daraa province, on the Jordanian border, another area the Islamic State was exploiting rebel weakness to expand? At one point, the Russian government bragged that it was bombing Islamic State oil refineries, but an analysis of the videos released by the Russian Defense Ministry revealed that the targets were grain silos and water treatment plants – which one might suppose look like oil refineries to the untrained eye.

The truth is: Russia wasn’t attacking the Islamic State. Russia was simply trying to make it look like it was doing so.

Instead, Western-backed rebels and civilians were the ones bearing the brunt of the Russian bear. Meanwhile, Islamic State forces took full advantage of this situation and attacked some of these same rebel groups. And as long as the terrorist group was further weakening Assad’s enemies, it was fine with Damascus. Until, of course, these gains threatened the regime.

Southeast of Aleppo lies a major government base, the Kweres airport, which has been absolutely critical to Assad’s efforts to retake his former financial capital. While Assad was pummeling Aleppo’s non-Islamic State rebel groups before the cease-fire, the militant group was taking advantage of the situation and launching its own offensive against the embattled rebels. This one-two punch was devastating to the Western-backed groups, and the Islamic State was able to make significant advances in Aleppo province. But when the Islamic State got within sight of Kweres air base, a heavy Russian bombing effort ensured that the siege was broken. Islamic State forces were able to advance north of the city, however, an area not vital to the Assad regime at the moment.

When the Western-backed rebel groups had been crushed, a cease-fire was negotiated to stop the fighting. That cease-fire did not include the Islamic State, however, and as soon as the truce was announced, Russian airstrikes immediately shifted focus to bombing Islamic State positions south of Aleppo, which endangered the supply route between Assad’s positions in Aleppo province and the rest of the country.

Taking full advantage of the nominal cease-fire, the pro-Assad coalition of regime soldiers, foreign fighters, and Russian forces launched a substantial effort to recapture the city of Palmyra from Islamic State fighters. On March 27, Assad forces finally secured the city.

What has made fewer headlines, however, is that Russian ground forces played a significant role in the offensive. Just three days after the cease-fire was announced, Putin hosted a memorial service for four Russian soldiers who had been killed in fighting in Syria before the “withdrawal.” Nearly at the same time as Putin was holding the memorial service, the Islamic State was circulating a video of two recently killed men whom it claimed were Russian Spetsnaz, or special forces. An analysis of the equipment seen in the Islamic State video does suggest that the men were indeed Russian military, though another theory also circulated – that the soldiers were contract fighters, mercenaries working for either the Kremlin or Assad.

In fact, in 2013, it was discovered that a group of Russian mercenaries, the “Slavonic Corps,” were fighting the Islamic State in this area. Just two days ago, the St. Petersburg news agency Fontanka, which first broke the story about Russian mercenaries in 2013, published a major report of a new group of Russian “private military contractors” (PMCs) formed out of the remnants of the Slavonic Corps. The report details how a PMC group, named ChVK Wagner (after Hitler’s favorite composer), has been fighting major battles in both Ukraine and Syria – including near Palmyra. The more than 900 mercenaries in the group were reportedly each being paid 240,000 rubles a month (around $3,500), but 50 percent of their volunteers have been killed or wounded since the group was formed. When asked why they would take such a high risk for so little money, one of the fighters told a Fontanka reporter, “Have you been traveling outside your Petersburg recently? Beyond Moscow and Petersburg, there’s no work anywhere.”

The soldiers said that their company of mercenaries was leading the battles in Palmyra, directing artillery and airstrikes, and taking the brunt of casualties in each battle until Syrian special forces “merrily” joined the fight when it was already over – with “Russian state television crews with cameras at the ready to interview them.” The use of mercenaries significantly lowers the human and financial costs of Russia’s intervention. Still, mercenaries and attack helicopter sorties are not free. It’s indisputable that the Russian Air Force played a major role in the victory over the Islamic State in Palmyra, which suggests that the area has become a priority for the Assad regime and its ally in Moscow.

So, why Palmyra? The city is famous throughout the world for its ancient ruins, which have been threatened or destroyed by Islamic State occupiers. But Palmyra is strategically important for very different reasons. It is an oasis in a desert, a city that sits on the middle of a long road that travels from Syria’s capital all the way to the Iraqi border. This region is scarcely populated, which has allowed the Islamic State to move almost unseen between central Syria, its strongholds in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, and Iraq’s Anbar province. The road is a significant security threat to Assad, because it allows the Islamic State to strike Homs or Damascus. But it has also been largely ignored by the Assad regime for a large part of the conflict since both the Islamic State and the regime have had more urgent missions elsewhere.

Palmyra, however, is positioned near the largest natural gas fields in Syria. In 2013, the Slavonic Corps were deployed to this area to defend those fields but suffered heavy losses. Throughout 2014, the Islamic State launched several attacks against the Shaer gas field, Syria’s largest, and at times has controlled at least parts of Shaer, as well as several lesser fields. The two sides have been locked in back-and-forth combat in the area ever since. But events elsewhere forced a tactical retreat of government forces. In the summer of 2015, Western-backed rebels were advancing in Idlib province and threatening Latakia province. At the time, some analysts were again predicting the regime’s collapse.

Palmyra, located 120 miles from Latakia province and in the middle of a desert, was just not a priority for the Assad regime. When the Syrian military repositioned its forces to the northwest regions of the country, the Islamic State took advantage of the situation and conquered Palmyra. Now, with the rebels broken and parts of the conflict frozen, the regime and its allies can focus on their “reach goal” of ensuring that Assad is both militarily and economically protected.

It is hard to imagine the Assad regime ever being powerful enough to recapture the entire country, certainly not without a significant amount of outside help. This has led to some speculation that Putin, by withdrawing his troops, has somehow betrayed Assad. But Russia has never prioritized Assad retaking all of Syria. Instead, it has always been Russia’s goal to protect the Assad regime from collapse and prevent a pro-democratic (and potentially anti-Russian) government taking its place. And in the furtherance of that goal, Moscow seems content to play a game wherein Assad’s primary enemies – including the moderate Western-backed opposition, the Islamic State, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units – are too busy fighting one another to turn their attention to the Syrian regime. Russia’s airstrikes have accelerated that process and stressed America’s credibility with its allies.

At the moment, Russia is content to embarrass the West and ensure that a friendly government reigns in Damascus and Tehran. And for the foreseeable future, that’s exactly what Putin has achieved.

 

ASSAD REGIME RELEASES AMERICAN HOSTAGE

Russia helps secure Syria’s release of US detainee
By Dave Clark
Agence France Presse
April 8, 2016

Washington (AFP) - Russia secured the release of a US citizen detained in war-torn Syria and has handed him over to American authorities, Moscow’s foreign ministry said Friday.

In Washington, the US State Department thanked Russia for its assistance in the case of a man who was abducted in 2012 after crossing the border from Turkey.

“ was transferred to Moscow in a military plane and handed over to US embassy representatives,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

“Shortly afterwards he left Russia. We hope he doesn’t put himself in a similar situation again and that Washington will appreciate Damascus’ gesture.”

According to an FBI missing persons report that was taken offline Friday, Dawes is a 33-year-old “freelance photographer” from California.

But reports in US media since his disappearance in October 2012 in northern Syria have portrayed him as an adventurer and would-be guerrilla who once took up arms in Libya.

The Russian statement said Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime had detained him for “entering Syria illegally” and that he had arrived in Moscow on April 1.

A US spokesman would not confirm the identity of the released captive but did not dispute media reports that named him as Dawes.

“This individual was released in the last few days. He is no longer in Syria,” spokesman Mark Toner said, refusing to say where he is now.

Citing US privacy law, the spokesman said he could give no further information about the former detainee’s identity nor the manner of his release.

But he thanked Assad’s ally Moscow for assisting in the case.

“We are appreciative of efforts on the behalf of the Russian government that it undertook on behalf of this US citizen,” he said.

A number of US citizens, including but not limited to 31-year-old photojournalist Austin Tice, are still reported as missing in war-torn Syria, Toner said.

He would not be drawn on the full number of missing Americans.

A detailed profile published in GQ Magazine portrayed Dawes as an adventurer and “have-a-go guerrilla.” He appears in photographs in body armor and carrying a rifle.

Prior to disappearing in Syria, Dawes had taken up arms with a militia fighting Moamer Kadhafi’s regime in Libya, according to an interview he gave to NPR radio in 2011.

Despite Dawes’ somewhat different profile, the unexpected release has given hope to campaigners seeking the better known freelance journalist Tice’s freedom.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Syria, believing that Assad lost legitimacy after his crackdown on opposition protests triggered a civil war.

Nevertheless, Toner confirmed that US officials had direct contact with Syrian officials to lobby for information on the missing Americans.

And he thanked the Czech republic, whose embassy in Damascus represents the interests of Americans in Syria for their assistance in the matter.

“We continue to work through the Czechs on the ground to get information on the whereabouts of Austin Tice,” Toner said.

Tice is an American freelance journalist who worked for the Washington Post, McClatchy and other US media outlets until he went missing in Syria in August 2012.

According to the Post report, officials seeking Tice’s freedom see Dawes’ release as a positive sign. Tice’s family had no immediate comment.

Press watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it was “delighted that US citizen Kevin Dawes was released and hopeful that US journalist Austin Tice will be free soon.”

There have been reports that Washington has been leaning on the Russians to pressure Assad into giving up undeclared US hostages.

“We welcome Russia’s support wherever we can get it in terms of getting the release of any Americans who were detained in Syria,” Toner said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow last month and held closed-door talks with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

 

CIA: OBAMA REJECTED 50 PLOTS TO OUST ASSAD

Former CIA operative: Barack Obama rejected 50 plots to oust Syrian leader Bashar Assad
By Richard Spence
Daily Telegraph (London)
April 5, 2016

President Obama vetoed 50 plans put to him by the CIA to engineer the downfall of the Assad regime in Syria, according to a former operative working on the project.

According to a memoir he is publishing Tuesday, Douglas Laux was part of a team given the task of finding ways to put into effect Obama’s assertion in August 2011 that “the time had come for President Assad to step aside”.

The CIA, under then-leader David Petraeus, ended up running a scheme to arm rebels from the “non-jihadist” Free Syrian Army – but it never reached a scale that outweighed regime support from Iran and the Lebanese militia Hizbollah.

Laux now says that was because more elaborate schemes drawn up and backed not only by former General Petraeus, but by Hillary Clinton when secretary of state, and defence secretary Leon Panetta were all rejected by Obama.

“We had come up with 50 good options,” he said in an interview with the American television channel NBC.

“My ops plan laid them out in black and white. But political leadership? hadn’t given us the go-ahead to implement a single one.” Obama has been accused of vacillating on Syria since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, and encouraging rebels by implying they had U.S. support but failing to intervene decisively.

Laux’s account is the fullest yet of the attempts by the CIA and its supporters in the administration to push through plans to overthrow Assad, in line with Obama’s apparent policy.

One element of the various plans was to pay regime associates of Assad to push him out.

However, full details are not given in the book, which had to be heavily vetted by the CIA prior to publication, a standard rule for former officers.

Much of the book is an account of Laux’s time working in Afghanistan and Syria, and describes his bitterness with failures of policy, including over Syria, which eventually led him to quit.

After his plans for Syria were rejected, he recommended that the CIA pull out altogether, but that idea was also turned down.

A CIA spokesman said: “Sadly, Laux’s career at CIA did not work out. We hope that someday, maybe with age and greater maturity, he will have better perspective on his time here.” However, the CIA has not disputed the facts.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.