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US-Iranian Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term – Stratfor

U.S.-Iranian  Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term is republished with permission of  Stratfor.”

Read more:  U.S.-Iranian Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term | Stratfor

By Reva Bhalla Vice President of Global  Affairs

As U.S. President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy team begins to  take shape, Iran remains unfinished business for the U.S. administration. The  diplomatic malaise surrounding this issue over the past decade has taken its  toll on Washington and Tehran. Even as the United States and Iran are putting  out feelers for another round of negotiations, expectations for any breakthrough  understandably remain low. Still, there has been enough movement over the past  week to warrant a closer look at this long-standing diplomatic impasse.

At the Munich Security Conference held Feb. 1-3, U.S. Vice President Joe  Biden said the United States would be willing to hold direct talks with Iran  under the right conditions. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded  positively to the offer but warned that Iran would not commit unless Washington  shows a “fair and real” intention to resolve the issues dividing the two  sides.

An Uneven Record in U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy

This diplomatic  courting ritual between the United States and Iran has occurred a handful of  times over the past several years. Like previous times, the public offer of  talks was preceded by denials of secret pre-negotiations. (This time, Ali Akbar  Velayati, a presidential hopeful and senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied that he met with a U.S. representative in Oman.)  Meanwhile, as a sideshow to the more critical U.S.-Iranian bilateral track, Iran  has announced it will hold negotiations with the P-5+1 group Feb. 25 in  Kazakhstan to demonstrate its willingness to seek a compromise on the nuclear  issue as part of a broader deal. For good measure, Iran has balanced these  diplomatic moves with an announcement that it is upgrading uranium centrifuges  at the Natanz enrichment facility. Though this  will rile Israel, the thought of Iran accelerating its nuclear program could  add just the right amount of urgency to propel the talks.

The first step to any negotiation is defining a common interest. For the  United States and Iran, those interests have evolved over the past decade. In  2003, they shared an interest in bringing Saddam Hussein down and neutralizing a  Sunni jihadist threat. By 2007, it was a mutual interest in relieving  the U.S. military burden in Iraq. In 2011, it was a common interest in  avoiding a war in the Strait of Hormuz. In 2013, as the region fragments beyond  either side’s control, Washington and Tehran are each looking to prevent the  coming quagmire from undermining their respective positions in the Middle  East.

But talks have also stalled many times due to issues of timing, misreading of  intentions, lack of political cohesion or a number of other valid reasons. At  base, timing is everything. Both sides need to create a favorable political  climate at home to pursue controversial negotiations abroad. Complicating  matters, both sides have the mutually contradictory goal of negotiating from a  position of strength. In 2007, Iran could still claim to hold thousands of U.S.  troops hostage to attacks by its Shiite militant proxies in Iraq. In 2011, a Shiite  uprising in Bahrain threatened to upset the balance of power in the Persian  Gulf in Iran’s favor while Iran could at the same time shake energy markets with  military maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran, however, couldn’t hold that position for long. With time, Tehran’s  still-limited covert capabilities in the eastern Arabian Peninsula were exposed.  Meanwhile, the United States built up its military presence in the Persian Gulf.  With minesweepers  now concentrated in the area, Iran now must think twice before carrying out  provocations in the strait that could accidentally trigger a military  intervention.

Before Tehran could recover, the regional climate flipped against Iran. In  2012, the Sunni rebellion in  Syria gained steam, in no small part due to a growing regional imperative to  deprive Iran of its Mediterranean foothold in the Levant. As Iran’s position in  Syria and Lebanon began to slip, the Sunni momentum predictably spilled into  Iraq, where massive Sunni protests against the Shiite government in Baghdad  already are under way.

Now, Iran no longer poses a strategic threat to U.S. interests in the way it  did just a few years ago, and the prospect of Iran solidifying an arc of  influence from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean has evaporated. Iran is  on the defensive, trying to help its allies survive in Syria and Lebanon while  at the same time being forced to devote more resources to holding its position  in Iraq. And while Iran’s overseas expenses are rising, its budget is  simultaneously shrinking under the weight of sanctions. U.S.-  and European-led sanctions over the past two years have gradually moved from  a policy of targeted sanctions against individuals and firms to a near-total  trade embargo that has prompted some Iranian officials to openly admit that  Iran’s oil revenues have dropped more than 40 percent.

At this point, the United States has two options. It could allow the regional  forces to run their course and whittle down Iran’s strength over time. Or it  could exploit the current conditions and try negotiating with Iran from a  position of strength while it still has the military capacity to pose a  legitimate threat to Iran. Iran may be weakening, but it still has levers with  which to pressure the United States. Preparations are already under way for  Alawite forces in Syria to transition to an insurgency with Iran’s backing. In  Afghanistan, Iran has militant options to snarl an already fragile U.S. exit  strategy. So far, the United States has shown a great deal of restraint in  Syria; it does not want to find itself being drawn into another conflict zone in  the Islamic world where Iran can play a potent spoiler role.

It appears that the United States is pursuing the strategy of giving  negotiations another go with the expectation that these talks will extend beyond  the immediate nuclear issue. Iran has frequently complained that it cannot trust  the United States if Washington cannot speak with one voice. For example, while  the U.S. administration has pursued talks in the past, Congress has tightened  economic sanctions and has tried to insert clauses to prevent any rollback of  sanctions. The economic pressure produced by the sanctions has helped the United  States fortify its negotiating position, but the administration has tried to  reserve options by keeping a list of sanctions it could repeal layer by layer  should the talks yield progress.

Seeking Flexibility in Sanctions

Washington could look to Europe for more flexibility for its negotiating  needs. In a recent story overlooked by the mainstream media, the General Court  of the European Union on Jan. 29 revoked sanctions against Bank Mellat, one of  the largest commercial banks in Iran that is primarily involved in financing  Iran’s vital energy sector. Bank Mellat was sanctioned in 2010 based on  allegations that it was a state-owned bank involved in Iran’s nuclear  proliferation activities. But the EU court has now ruled that there was  insufficient evidence to link the bank to the nuclear program. Even so, though  Iran claims that the bank has been fully privatized since 2010, it is difficult  to believe that it does not maintain vital links with the regime. Nonetheless,  rumors are circulating that more EU sanctions de-listings could be in store.

Given the impossibility of sealing every legal loophole, perception plays a  vital role in upholding any sanctions regime. Over the past two years, the  United States — in coordination with an even more aggressive European Union –  has signaled to traders, banks and insurers across the globe that the costs of  doing business with Iran are not worth jeopardizing their ability to operate in  Western markets. Enough businessmen were spooked into curbing, or at least  scaling back, their interaction with Iran and known Iranian front companies that  Iran has experienced a significant cut in revenue. But with large amounts of  money to be made in a market under sanctions, it can be very difficult  politically to maintain this level of economic pressure over an extended period  of time. And the more the sanctions begin to resemble a trade embargo, the more  ammunition Iran has for its propaganda arm in claiming sanctions are harming  Iranian civilians. The prospect of additional sanctions being repealed in court  in the coming months could deflate the West’s economic campaign against Iran and  give more businesses the confidence to break the sanctions — but if the  sanctions were intended to force negotiations in the first place, that may be a  risk the U.S. administration is willing to take.

There is no clear link between the recent U.S. offer of talks and the  sanctions de-listing of Bank Mellat. But if the United States were serious about  using its position of relative strength to pursue a deal with Iran, we would  expect to see some slight easing up on the sanctions pressure. This would likely  begin in Europe, where there would be more flexibility in the sanctions  legislation than there would be in the U.S. Congress. Germany,  Iran’s largest trading partner in Europe, has perhaps not coincidentally  been the strongest proponent for this latest attempt at direct U.S.-Iranian  talks. It is also notable that U.S. President Barack Obama’s picks for his  second-term Cabinet include senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, both of who  have openly advocated dialogue with Iran.

Iran is now the most critical player to watch. Iran is weakening in the  region and is becoming heavily constrained at home, but even so, the clerical  regime is not desperate to reach a deal with Washington. Reaching an  understanding with the United States could mitigate the decline of Alawite  forces in Syria and the Sunni backlash that Iran is likely to face in Iraq, but  it would not necessarily forestall them. And with general elections in Iran  slated for June, the political climate in the country will not be conducive to  the give-and-take needed to move the negotiations forward, at least in the near  term.

The United States would prefer to reduce the number of unknowns in an  increasingly volatile region by reaching an understanding with Iran. The irony  is that with or without that understanding, Iran’s position in the region will  continue to weaken. Even if Washington doesn’t need this negotiation as badly as  Iran does, now is as good a time as any for a second-term president to give this  dialogue another try.

Read more:  U.S.-Iranian Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term | Stratfor

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The Consequences of Intervening in Syria – Stratfor

The  Consequences of Intervening in Syria is republished with permission of  Stratfor.”

Read more:  The Consequences of Intervening in Syria | Stratfor

By Scott Stewart Vice  President of Analysis, Stratfor

The French military’s current campaign to dislodge jihadist  militants from northern Mali and the recent  high-profile attack against a natural gas facility in Algeria are both  directly linked to the foreign intervention in Libya that overthrew the Gadhafi  regime. There is also a strong connection between these events and foreign  powers’ decision not to intervene in Mali when the military  conducted a coup in March 2012. The coup occurred as thousands of heavily  armed Tuareg tribesmen were returning home to northern Mali after serving in  Moammar Gadhafi’s military, and the confluence of these events resulted in an  implosion of the Malian military and a power vacuum in the north. Al Qaeda in  the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadists were able to take advantage of this  situation to seize power in the northern part of the African nation.

As all these events transpire in northern Africa, another type of foreign  intervention is occurring in Syria. Instead of direct foreign military  intervention, like that taken against the Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011, or  the lack of intervention seen in Mali in March 2012, the West — and its Middle  Eastern partners — have pursued a middle-ground  approach in Syria. That is, these powers are providing logistical aid to the  various Syrian rebel factions but are not intervening directly.

Just as there were repercussions for the decisions to conduct a direct  intervention in Libya and not to intervene in Mali, there will be repercussions  for the partial intervention approach in Syria. Those consequences are  becoming more apparent as the crisis drags on.

Intervention in Syria

For more than a year now, countries such as the United States, Turkey, Saudi  Arabia, Qatar and European states have been providing aid to the Syrian rebels.  Much of this aid has been in the form of humanitarian assistance, providing  things such as shelter, food and medical care for refugees. Other aid has helped  provide the rebels with non-lethal military supplies such as radios and  ballistic vests. But a review of the weapons spotted on the battlefield reveals  that the rebels are also receiving an increasing number of lethal supplies.

Visit our Syria  page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

For example, there have been numerous videos released showing Syrian rebels  using weapons such as the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22, the M-60  recoilless rifle and the RBG-6 multiple grenade launcher. The Syrian government  has also released videos of these weapons after seizing them in arms caches.  What is so interesting about these weapons is that they were not in the Syrian  military’s inventory prior to the crisis, and they all likely were purchased  from Croatia. We have also seen many reports and photos of Syrian rebels  carrying Austrian Steyr Aug rifles, and the Swiss government has complained that  Swiss-made hand grenades sold to the United Arab Emirates are making their way  to the Syrian rebels.

With the Syrian rebel groups using predominantly second-hand weapons from the  region, weapons captured from the regime, or an assortment of odd ordnance they  have manufactured themselves, the appearance and spread of these exogenous  weapons in rebel arsenals over the past several months is at first glance  evidence of external arms supply. The appearance of a single Steyr Aug or RBG-6  on the battlefield could be an interesting anomaly, but the variety and  concentration of these weapons seen in Syria are well beyond the point where  they could be considered coincidental.

This means that the current level of external intervention in Syria is  similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist  proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The external  supporters are providing not only training, intelligence and assistance, but  also weapons — exogenous weapons that make the external provision of weapons  obvious to the world. It is also interesting that in Syria, like Afghanistan,  two of the major external supporters are Washington and Riyadh — though in  Syria they are joined by regional powers such as Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the  United Arab Emirates, rather than Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, the Saudis and the Americans allowed their partners in  Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to determine which of the myriad  militant groups in Afghanistan received the bulk of the funds and weapons they  were providing. This resulted in two things. First, the Pakistanis funded and  armed groups that they thought they could best use as surrogates in Afghanistan  after the Soviet withdrawal. Second, they pragmatically tended to funnel cash  and weapons to the groups that were the most successful on the battlefield –  groups such as those led by Gulbuddin  Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin  Haqqani, whose effectiveness on the battlefield was tied directly to their  zealous theology that made waging jihad against the infidels a religious duty  and death during such a struggle the ultimate accomplishment.

A similar process has been taking place for nearly two years in Syria. The  opposition groups that have been the most effective on the battlefield have  tended to be the jihadist-oriented groups such as Jabhat  al-Nusra. Not surprisingly, one reason for their effectiveness was the  skills and tactics they learned fighting the coalition forces in Iraq. Yet  despite this, the Saudis — along with the Qataris and the Emiratis — have been  arming and funding the jihadist groups in large part because of their success on  the battlefield. As my colleague Kamran Bokhari noted in February 2012, the  situation in Syria was providing  an opportunity for jihadists, even without external support. In the  fractured landscape of the Syrian opposition, the unity of purpose and  battlefield effectiveness of the jihadists was in itself enough to ensure that  these groups attracted a large number of new recruits.

But that is not the only factor conducive to the radicalization of Syrian  rebels. First, war — and particularly a brutal, drawn-out war — tends to make  extremists out of the fighters involved in it. Think Stalingrad, the Cold War  struggles in Central America or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans following  the dissolution of Yugoslavia; this degree of struggle and suffering tends to  make even non-ideological people ideological. In Syria, we have seen many  secular Muslims become stringent jihadists. Second, the lack of hope for an  intervention by the West removed any impetus for maintaining a secular  narrative. Many fighters who had pinned their hopes on NATO were greatly  disappointed and angered that their suffering was ignored. It is not unusual for  Syrian fighters to say something akin to, “What has the West done for us? We now  have only God.”

When these ideological factors were combined with the infusion of money and  arms that has been channeled to jihadist groups in Syria over the past year, the  growth of Syrian jihadist groups accelerated dramatically. Not only are they a  factor on the battlefield today, but they also will be a force to be reckoned  with in the future.

The Saudi Gambit

Despite the jihadist blowback the Saudis  experienced after the end of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan  — and the current object lesson of the jihadists Syria sent to fight U.S.  forces in Iraq now leading groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra — the Saudi  government has apparently calculated that its use of jihadist proxies in Syria  is worth the inherent risk.

There are some immediate benefits for Riyadh. First, the Saudis hope to be  able to break the arc of Shiite  influence that reaches from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.  Having lost the Sunni counterweight to Iranian power in the region with the fall  of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the installation of a Shiite-led government  friendly to Iran, the Saudis view the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni  regime in Syria as a dramatic improvement to their national security.

Supporting the jihad in Syria as a weapon against Iranian influence also  gives the Saudis a chance to burnish their Islamic credentials internally in an  effort to help stave off criticism that they are too secular and Westernized. It  allows the Saudi regime the opportunity to show that it is helping Muslims under  assault by the vicious Syrian regime.

Supporting jihadists in Syria also gives the Saudis an opportunity to ship  their own radicals to Syria, where they can fight and possibly die. With a large  number of unemployed, underemployed and radicalized young men, the jihad in  Syria provides a pressure valve similar to the past struggles in Iraq, Chechnya,  Bosnia and Afghanistan. The Saudis are not only trying to winnow down their own  troubled youth; we have received reports from a credible source that the Saudis  are also facilitating the travel of Yemeni men to training camps in Turkey,  where they are trained and equipped before being sent to Syria to fight. The  reports also indicate that the young men are traveling for free and receiving a  stipend for their service. These young radicals from Saudi Arabia and Yemen will  even further strengthen the jihadist groups in Syria by providing them with  fresh troops.

The Saudis are gaining temporary domestic benefits from supporting jihad in  Syria, but the conflict will not last forever, nor will it result in the deaths  of all the young men who go there to fight. This means that someday the men who  survive will come back home, and through the process we refer to as “tactical  Darwinism” the inept fighters will have been weeded out, leaving a core  of competent militants that the Saudis will have to deal with.

But the problems posed by jihadist proxies in Syria will have  effects beyond the House of Saud. The Syrian jihadists will pose a threat to  the stability of Syria in much the same way the Afghan groups did in the civil  war they launched for control of Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah  regime. Indeed, the violence in Afghanistan got worse after Najibullah’s fall in  1992, and the suffering endured by Afghan civilians in particular was  egregious.

Now we are seeing that the jihadist militants in Libya pose a threat not only  to the Libyan regime — there are serious problems in eastern Libya — but also  to foreign interests in the country, as seen in the attack on the British  ambassador and the U.S. diplomatic mission in  Benghazi. Moreover, the events in Mali and Algeria in recent months show  that Libya-based militants and the weapons they possess also pose a regional  threat. Similar long-lasting and wide-ranging repercussions can be expected to  flow from the intervention in Syria.

Read more:  The Consequences of Intervening in Syria | Stratfor

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Al Assad’s Last Stand from Stratfor

Al Assad’s Last Stand is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

By Omar Lamrani

The battle for Damascus is raging with increasing intensity while rebels  continue to make substantial advances in Syria’s north and east. Every new  air base, city or town that falls to the rebels further underlines that Bashar  al Assad’s writ over the country is shrinking. It is no longer possible to  accurately depict al Assad as the ruler of Syria. At this point, he is merely  the head of a  large and powerful armed force, albeit one that still controls a significant  portion of the country.

The nature of the conflict has changed significantly since it began nearly  two years ago. The rebels initially operated with meager resources and  equipment, but bolstered by defections, some outside support and their demographic advantage, they have  managed to gain ground on what was previously a far superior enemy. Even  the regime’s qualitative superiority in equipment is fast eroding as the rebels  start to frequently utilize main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles,  rocket and tube artillery and even man-portable  air-defense systems captured from the regime’s stockpiles.

Weary and stumbling, the regime is attempting to push back rebel forces in  and near Damascus and to maintain a corridor to the Alawite coast while delaying  rebel advances in the rest of the country. Al Assad and his allies will fight  for every inch, fully aware that their power depends on the ability of  the regime forces to hold ground.

The Battle for Damascus

Visit our Syria  page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

It is important to remember that, despite considerable setbacks, al Assad’s  forces still control a sizable portion of Syria and its population centers.  After failing to take Damascus in Operation Damascus Volcano in July, the rebels  are again stepping up their efforts and operations in the Damascus area.  However, unlike in their previous failed operation, this time the rebels are  relying on an intensive guerrilla campaign to exhaust and degrade al  Assad’s substantial forces in Damascus and its countryside.

After the last surge in fighting around Damascus in July and August, the  regime kept large numbers of troops in the area. These forces continued search  and destroy operations near the capital despite the considerable pressure facing  its forces in the rest of the country, including in Aleppo. Once the rebels  began to make gains in the north and east, the regime was forced to dispatch  some of its forces around Damascus to reinforce other fronts. Unfortunately  for the regime, its operations in the capital area had not significantly  degraded local rebel forces. Rebels in the area began intensifying their  operations once more, forcing the regime to recall many of its units to  Damascus.

Aware of the magnitude of the threat, the regime has reportedly shifted its  strategy in the battle for Damascus to isolating the city proper from the  numerous suburbs. The rebels have made considerable headway in the Damascus  suburbs. For example, on Nov. 25 rebels overran the Marj al-Sultan  military air base in eastern Ghouta, east of the capital. Rebel operations in  the outskirts of Damascus have also interrupted the flow of goods to and from  the city, causing the prices of basic staples such as bread to skyrocket.

Rebel Gains in the East and North

Damascus is not the only area where the regime is finding itself under  considerable pressure. The rebels have made some major advances in the last  month in the energy-rich Deir el-Zour governorate to the east. Having  seized a number of towns, airfields and military bases, the rebels have also  taken the majority of the oil fields in the governorate. They captured the  Al-Ward oil field Nov. 4, the Conoco natural gas reserve Nov.  27 and, after al Assad’s forces withdrew from it on Nov. 29, the Omar  oil field north of the town of Mayadeen. Al Assad’s forces now control only five  oil fields, all located west of the city of Deir el-Zour. With the battle for  the city and its associated airfield intensifying, even those remaining fields  are at risk of falling into rebel hands.

The rebel successes in Deir el-Zour have effectively cut the regime’s ground  lines of communication and supply to Iraq. They have also starved the regime of  the vast majority of its oil revenue and affected its ability to fuel its war  machine. At the same time, the rebels are reportedly already seeking to  capitalize on their seizure of the eastern oil fields. According  to reports, the rebels are smuggling oil to Turkey and Iraq and using the  revenue to purchase arms. They are also reportedly using the oil and  natural gas locally for power generators and fuel.

While all of eastern Syria may soon fall into rebel hands, rebels in the  north have continued to isolate al Assad forces in Idlib and Aleppo  governorates, particularly in the capital cities of those two provinces. After  overrunning the 46th regiment near Atarib on Nov. 19 following a  two-month siege, the rebels are now looking to further squeeze remaining regime  forces in Aleppo by taking the Sheikh Suleiman base north of the  46th regiment’s former base.

The Rebels’ Improved Air Defense Capability

Isolated and surrounded, regime  forces in the north are increasingly relying on air support for both defense  and supply. However, this advantage is deteriorating every day and is  increasingly threatened by the rebels’ improved air defense arsenal and  tactics.

The rebels first attempted to acquire air defense weaponry by seizing heavy  machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. They captured a number of air defense  bases, taking 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine guns, 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine guns  and even 23 mm ZU-23-2 autocannons. Over time, the rebels became more proficient  with these weapons, and an increasing number of Syrian air force fixed-wing and  rotary aircraft were shot down. The rebels also formed hunter-killer groups with  air defense equipment mounted on flatbed trucks that provided them mobile  platforms for targeting regime air and infantry units.

As more and more regime bases were taken, the rebels were able to bolster  their air defense equipment through the capture of a number of man-portable  air-defense systems. At the outset of the conflict, the Syrian military  maintained a large inventory of shoulder-fired air-defense missiles, likely  thousands of missiles ranging from early generation SA-7s to very advanced  SA-24s. These missiles were stored in army bases across the country. There are  also unconfirmed reports that Qatar and Saudi Arabia may have transferred some  man-portable air-defense systems to the rebels through Turkey.

The rebels tallied their first confirmed kill with shoulder-fired air-defense  missiles Nov. 27, when they shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force  Mi-8/17 helicopter near Aleppo city. The weapon system used in the  attack was likely an SA-7, SA-16 or SA-24 captured from the 46th regiment.  The surface-to-air missiles are a serious upgrade in the rebels’ air  defense capability.

The Fight Continues

Having isolated al Assad’s  forces in the north and made substantial advances in the east, the  rebels are poised to push farther into the Orontes River Valley to relieve the  beleaguered rebel units in the Rastan, Homs and al-Qusayr areas of Homs  governorate. For months, regime forces have sought to overwhelm the remaining  rebel forces in Homs city, but the rebels have managed to hold out.  The rebels are also set to begin pushing south along the main M5 thoroughfare to  Khan Sheikhoun and the approaches to Hama. However, first they need to overwhelm  the remaining regime forces in Wadi al-Dhaif near Maarrat al-Numan.

Alternatively, the regime is fighting hard to maintain its control over the  Orontes River Valley around Homs in order to keep an open  corridor linking Damascus to the mostly Alawite coast. Not only is  this corridor at risk of eventually being cut off, but the regime is also facing  a substantial push by rebel forces into northeastern Latakia governorate from  Idlib. Rebels have advanced in the vicinity of the Turkman Mountain, have taken  control of Bdama and are now fighting their way down in the direction of Latakia  city.

While events in Damascus and Rif Damascus are increasingly worrisome for the  regime, al Assad’s forces in the rest of Syria are also under considerable  pressure from rebel advances. It is by no means certain that al Assad’s forces  are under imminent threat of collapse because they still hold a great deal of  territory and no major city has yet been completely taken by the rebels. The  retreat and consolidation of al Assad’s forces also allows them to maintain  shorter and less vulnerable lines of supply. However, it is clear that the  regime is very much on the defensive and has been forced to gradually contract  its lines toward a core that now encompasses Damascus, the Orontes River Valley  and the mostly Alawite coast. With the regime’s situation rapidly  deteriorating, even the attempt to stage a gradual withdrawal to the core is  risky.

Read more:  Al Assad’s Last Stand | Stratfor

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The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin is the story of German attempts to raise a Jihad against the Allies in the Middle East during World War I. Reviews have mostly been positive; negative ones on Amazon are mostly from readers who assumed from the first part of the title that was about the construction of the railway. That is part of the story, but a long way from being the whole of it. The second part of the title, The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, more accurately describes the book.

The story is of the strategy of the Central Powers, so concentrates on them, but the Allied response is not neglected. Russian, British, US and French archives have been used as well as Turkish, German, Austrian ones. An Epilogue discusses the impact of German wartime actions on the modern Middle East.

McMeekin manages to combine the telling of an exciting story with archival research. The number of characters can be hard to follow, but they are well drawn. He points out that German and Ottoman relations were often poor, and that their aims sometimes conflicted, especially in the Caucasus in 1918.
The Germans thought that that could use the power of Islam to bring down the British Empire. In fact, many Muslim leaders took German gold but did little in return, and often tried to play off Germany against Britain.

Logistics were a major problem for the Germans, who could not supply enough arms to their potential Muslim allies. The two main Ottoman victories over the British Empire, Gallipoli and Kut-al-Amara, resulted from German discipline and Turkish tenacity, not Islam. There isn’t a great deal on the main military campaigns.

The number of quotes from John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle are a bit strange in a non-fiction work. The author comments on the historiography of the Armenian massacres, but does not take a clear stance; he teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara, so may be constrained in what he can say. These are minor criticisms. The book is now out in paperback as well as hardback, and it is also available as an e-book.

This review is a slightly re-worded version of one that I originally posted on the Great War Forum, an excellent website for anybody interested in World War I. This link is to the thread that includes my review, and this one is to Forum’s home page.

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16 March 2012 · 5:57 pm

Two Western Journalists Killed in Syria

Marie Colvin, an American who reported for the London Sunday Times, and Remi Ochlik, a French photographer, were killed this morning (22 February 2012) when a shell hit a house in the Baba Amr district of Homs, Syria that was being used as a media centre. Two other foreign journalists were wounded; Edith Bouvier of the French newspaper Le Figaro, who is reported to be in a serious condition, and Paul Conroy, a British freelance photographer who was working with Colvin.

Homs has been besieged by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 4 February. More than 40 people were killed yesterday alone, including Rami al-Sayed, who had broadcast a live video stream that was used by world media. Western journalists have mostly had to enter Syria secretly since the uprising against al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011. Colvin’s reports have been used by a number of Western media outlets.

This shows the risks that journalists are prepared to take to report on war zones, and also the difficulty of finding out what is actually happening in a situation such as that in Syria, where there are relatively few independent reporters. The death of journalists will bring the story back to the front pages, but it is hard to see what the West can do. Some will try to draw parallels with Libya, but there is little prospect of China or Russia backing a UN Security Council resolution calling for intervention, and al-Assad appears to have the backing of a higher proportion of his armed forces than was the case for Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

See the BBC website for more:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17124786

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