PHOTO: President Obama and his soon-to-depart envoy for Iraq and Syria, General John Allen
UPDATE 1800 GMT: The US military has denied that the commander of US-trained fighters handed over the unit’s weapons to the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra, soon after the troops entered northern Syria:
US Central Command has no indication that any New Syrian Forces fighters have defected to Al Nusra Front, contrary to several press and social media reports. Additionally, all Coalition-issued weapons and equipment are under the positive control of NSF fighters.
Reports earlier this week, including a Facebook entry from the commander, indicated that fighters had broken all links with the US military (see below).
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Challenged by Russia’s military intervention and embarrassed by the failure of operations in northern Syria, the Obama Administration is beset by fighting over policy and operations.
Columnist David Ignatius, often used by anonymous US officials to put out their opinions, wrote on Tuesday of the desire for some for a push on the ground alongside a Kurdish force of “more than 25,000 battle-hardened fighters” in the north. An offensive would move on the Islamic State’s main position in Syria, the city of Raqqa.
Ignatius said US “special operations forces” are already “providing air support, training, and supplies” for the Kurdish YPG militia. However, “about 100 pallets of arms and other aid” have been held up at a US airbase in a Gulf State, awaiting authorization for an airdrop.
“Several US officials” said that White House approval has been awaited for more than a week, but that the operations had been complicated by debate over Russia’s military escalation. One spoke of a process of “analysis-paralysis”.
However, even as Ignatius describes the battle within the Administration, he writes of other barriers to US moves. Kurdish political leader Salih Muslim insists that a drive on Raqqa must come from Syrian rebels allied from the YPG, rather than from Kurdish units.
Meanwhile, Ignatius never mentions the issue of operations against the Assad regime. That is left to former military commander and CIA Director David Petraeus, who outlined a policy on Tuesday centered on safe havens and support of rebels against the regime as well as the Islamic State.
Petraeus also told a Senate committee that the US should take military action to stop the regime’s barrel-bombing of civilian areas:
It is frequently said that there is no military solution to Syria or the other conflicts roiling the Middle East.
This may be true, but it is also misleading. For, in every case, if there is to be any hope of a political settlement, a certain military and security context is required, and that context will not materialize on its own. We and our partners need to facilitate it — and over the past four years, we have not done so.
Petraeus is no longer in public office but probably speaks for some who are still within the Administration. This summer he has advocated an effort to make contact with rebel factions to encourage further recruitment and support. The plan came to attention after the media distorted one of the recommendations: an effort to separate fighters from the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra and bring them into rebel units.
The Obama Administration’s headline program on the ground, a train-and-equip program to put rebels in the battlefield against the Islamic State, was publicly humiliated last week. The head of US Central Commander, General Lloyd Austin, admitted in a Congressional hearing that “only four or five” troops were still active inside Syria, out of 54 that entered the country in late July.
Some of the men were killed or captured by Jabhat al-Nusra attacks on their host division, the Free Syrian Army’s Division 30, within days of their entry.
Earlier this week, the program suffered another setback when the commander of a second group of fighters — estimated at 50 to 75 — defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, turning over the unit’s weapons and promising not to cooperate with the US.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) September 23, 2015
The Obama Administration had set a goal in autumn 2014 of 5,000 fighters by the end of 2015.
In a further sign of the difficulties within the Administration, four US officials said this week that General John Allen, the President’s envoy for the effort in Iraq and Syria, is leaving in early November.
The public reason for Allen’s departure will be the need to care for his wife, who is suffering from a long-term illness. However, the officials said that the General “has been frustrated with White House micromanagement of the war and its failure to provide adequate resources to the fight”. According to them, Allen tried and failed several times to convince the Administration to support safe zones in northern Syria, as well to allow US tactical air control teams to deploy on the ground to scout targets for airstrikes in Iraq.
Petraeus told Senators on Tuesday:
Russia’s recent military escalation in Syria is a further reminder that when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum — often in ways that are harmful to our interests….
The central problem in Syria is that Sunni Arabs will not be willing partners against the Islamic State unless we commit to protect them and the broader Syrian population against all enemies, not just ISIS [the Islamic State].
Russia: 2012 Geneva Communiqué Does Not Mean Assad’s Departure
The Russian Foreign Ministry has declared that the “transition” sought by the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012 does not mean that President Assad must leave power.
After months of negotiation following Russia’s veto of a Security Council resolution seeking to end the Syrian crisis, the Communiqué set out the commitment to “an end to the violence and human rights abuses and the launch of a Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and enables them independently and democratically to determine their own future”. The “transitional governing body…could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and [would] be formed on the basis of mutual consent”.
Foreign powers, including the US and most Arab and European states, interpreted the clauses as a leadership without Assad. However, Russia has held out against that view.
On Wednesay, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the US must agree that “the Syrian people themselves should decide their future” or withdraw its signature to the Communiqué.
“If they have not recalled their signature and state their commitment to the document, then there can be no modeling of scenarios for the development of the situation and its practical implementation. Otherwise, the US is deceiving everybody,” Zakharova said.
She said this meant Washington must renounce any call for Assad’s departure: “If the US remains committed to the Geneva communique, then how can it mention at the UN General Assembly proposals of certain forms and concepts for shift in power?”