The so-called “fall of Aleppo” is the liberation of thousands of residents of east Aleppo from the grip of al-Qaeda and its imperial allies.
You won’t hear the word "liberation" from Western mainstream media, which want us to regard this as an atrocity. But reporters on the ground, such as Vanessa Beeley (see link below), tell us that in Syria the events of recent days in Aleppo have been cause for rejoicing.
It’s a confusing situation, to be sure. We’ve been led to believe that the war in Syria is the result of tyrannical rule, murderous Arab rivalries and the desire of the Syrian people to be “free” of their government.
Yet before the war, Syria was a relatively open and tolerant society. Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long had a reputation for autocratic rule and harshness—especially in his response to Salafist terrorism—the record of his government is in many ways preferable to Jordan’s, Saudi Arabia’s or Israel’s in regard to torture, the suppression of civil rights and use of lethal force as collective punishment. Although Assad is of the Alawite branch of the Islamic faith, 80 percent of the personnel in his pre-war government/army practiced the Sunni version of Islam, including many persons of high rank.
To help readers who have absorbed six years of media disinformation about Syria—and as a tribute to the courageous people of Syria—I offer this overview of the war.
Even for readers not interested in Syria, this history is worth reading as it reveals how the empire operates to work its will in the world.
The war in Syria is not over. Intense fighting is expected in coming weeks in Idlib Province, just to the southwest of Aleppo, where the rebels remain in control and government forces are expected to eventually prevail.
Also heavily contested are the eastern portion of Syria (where the Islamic State remains in control), the northern regions bordering Turkey (where Turkey’s army and Kurdish militias are in control) and the southern region bordering Israel (where al-Qaeda in cooperation with Israel are in control). The reintegration of these areas into Syria remains in much doubt; they may remain indefinitely in the hands of non-Syrian forces.
To date, over 400,000 people have died in the Syrian war: 300,000 combatants evenly split between pro-government and anti-government forces; and 100,000 non-combatant civilians, including children.
Pray for the peace of Syria; call for the end of all interference by foreign governments in Syrian affairs.
This thumbnail history consists of 85 numbered paragraphs. I initially posted 66 paragraphs on December 19 so that people could use it while Aleppo remained in the news. On December 22, I added five paragraphs to 2015, moved two from 2015 to 2016, and added thirteen new ones for 2016. On December 31, I posted the 85th paragraph.
Sources: here and here and here and here and here.
1. President George W. Bush, in consultation with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, adopted a new strategy for undermining Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. This new strategy entailed “bolstering” and empowering the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist groups (including al-Qaeda) through clandestine operations planned and funded by Saudi Arabia. What all of these Salafist groups had in common was their support for the violent imposition of sectarian rule in Syria under Sharia law.
Sources: here and here and here.
2. A Pentagon-funded Rand Corporation report endorsed the Bush plan. It recommended the US maintain control of Persian Gulf oil and gas deposits by using “covert action, information operations and unconventional warfare” to enforce a “divide and rule” strategy. Specifically, the report suggested “the United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch a proxy campaign” and that “U.S. leaders could also choose to capitalize on the sustained Shia-Sunni conflict trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world.”
3. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that “to protect the interests of our Russian ally,” he would not approve construction of a Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline through eastern Syria. Instead, said Assad, he would approve a proposal from Iran to run a pipeline through Iraq, across Syria and into Lebanon. Both pipelines had been proposed to connect the world’s largest known gas deposits—jointly owned by Qatar and Iran—with the European market, which historically has been dependent on Russian gas sources.
4. In response to these developments, President Obama unleashed long-planned capacity to bring down the Assad government, including an extensive propaganda campaign aimed at the Syrian people. This included a satellite television channel based in London and beamed into Syria, media operations in the Middle East and direct funding of opposition groups inside Syria.
5. According to former French foreign minister Roland Dumas, in 2009 British authorities were already planning covertly for a regime change operation in Syria. “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business," Dumas told French television. "I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria."
6. A US State Department cable about terrorism stated that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Sources: here and here and here and here and here.
7. President Obama appointed Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria. From 2004-06, Ford had served as a political advisor to US Ambassador John Negroponte in Iraq where the two men implemented a strategy of using “death squads” to spur Sunni-Shia acrimony and curtail Iraqi resistance to the US occupation. Soon after Ford’s appointment, he began to act as a destabilizing force within Syria by meeting with dissident groups and encouraging their activities.
8. On March 15, a large street demonstration protesting police brutality in the arrest of teenage graffiti artists occurred in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. The protest included armed individuals—some on rooftops—who fired weapons at the police. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed in the initial street demonstration.
9. Many subsequent street demonstrations also included armed participants who used the pretext of a “peaceful protest” to mask violent attacks on Syrian security personnel. By the end of April, dozens of police and members of the Syrian army had been killed by street “protesters” and in military-style ambushes.
10. Also in April and May, an Al-Jazeera journalist (Ali Hashem), working along the Lebanon-Syria border, observed many armed men and large amounts of military-style weapons entering Syria from Lebanon. Though Hashem’s documentation included video footage, Qatar-funded Al-Jazeera refused to broadcast Hashem’s report; it did not fit the story line of peaceful civilians seeking redress from a harsh and oppressive government. Hashem subsequently resigned in protest. In retrospect, this incident became the pattern for mainstream media coverage throughout the following years of war.
11. As civil unrest continued throughout April and May, spokespersons for the Muslim Brotherhood repeatedly declared that the purpose of the street protests was the overthrow of the Assad government and its replacement with a sectarian, Islamic state.
12. By late spring, open war against the government was underway in parts of Syria. For example, on June 5 a coordinated rebel attack on a Syrian army unit in Idlib Province killed 149 Syrian soldiers.
13. On August 18, 2011, US President Obama called for Syrian President Assad to step down.
14. That same month, al-Qaeda’s central command authorized the start-up of a Syrian unit to attack and defeat the Syrian government.
15. Throughout the fall, armed rebel attacks on Syrian army installations became a daily occurrence.
16. In November, only a few weeks after the Gaddafi government of Libya had been overthrown by Salafists supported by a NATO-imposed no-fly zone, representatives of the Syrian rebels traveled to Libya to meet with Libya’s new rulers about arms shipments. A second meeting of the parties hosted by Turkish officials in Istanbul confirmed the details of the plan to support Syrian rebels with Libyan fighters, money, training and weapons. Late in the month, 600 Libyan fighters entered Syria to join the rebels.
17. Notes of a December meeting of US military officers—published by WikiLeaks—stated that it was clear “without saying that SOF (special operations force) teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground” in Syria conducting reconnaissance and training missions.
18. A late 2011 poll in Syria conducted by an international polling firm and paid for by the government of Qatar found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted President Assad to continue in office, notwithstanding the civil strife and fighting.
Sources: here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
19. As the year started, the Syrian government reported that during the first ten months of the crisis, 2,500 army and police personnel had been killed. Nevertheless, the Syrian government claimed to be bringing the situation under control.
20. But outside pressure on Syria was only beginning to intensify. The US and European governments imposed broad sanctions against Syrian financial institutions and against individuals in government or commerce who refused to defect to the rebel cause. International conferences of “Friends of Syria” created an aura of legitimacy for the forces working inside Syria to overthrow the government. These carefully staged events were heavily publicized by Western news outlets, which completely ignored huge street demonstrations in Syria supportive of the government and opposed to foreign interference.
21. In February, Jabhat al-Nusra, the branch of al-Qaeda newly established in Syria, began making its presence felt by carrying out suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.
22. Also early in the year, President Obama signed an “intelligence finding” authorizing the CIA to provide direct support to forces seeking to overthrow the Syrian government. Authorized “support” included the procurement of arms for the Syrian rebels and a “nerve center” at the US air base in Incirlik, Turkey, sixty miles north of the Syrian border to provide communications linkages and surveillance intelligence to the rebels.
23. Throughout the year, Western media highlighted atrocities involving the wanton murder of Syrian civilians. Reports of these atrocities, such as the May massacre of 108 women and children in Houla, routinely pointed to the Syrian army or related militias as responsible. Later reports, based on more complete investigations and pointing to rebel fighters as responsible, rarely received a mention in Western media. This early pattern of false accusations receiving extensive media coverage, but subsequent corrections receiving little-to-no mention, continues through to the present.
24. In the spring of 2012, United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan led an initiative to bring an end to the fighting. The US government publicly supported the Annan initiative, yet at the same time continued to coordinate the multi-nation, multi-billion-dollar war against Syria. By late June, the Annan-led effort collapsed, unable to overcome US insistence that President Assad must immediately resign.
25. Meanwhile, large number of foreign fighters began arriving in Syria from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and various countries of Europe. These fighters received training in camps located in Jordan or Turkey, weapons and regular paychecks from funds provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and overall coordination and intelligence support from NATO members, including the US. Fighting under the banners of several different Salafist groups, the flow of foreign fighters into Syria was sufficient to add around 30,000 troops to rebel forces at any point in time.
26. An August 2012 Pentagon intelligence report on Syria confirmed that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Iraq are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” The intelligence report predicted the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in the eastern part of the country. Most importantly, the report stated “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition [western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey] want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
27. Also in August, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government would cross “a red line" triggering an American military response. “We’re monitoring that situation very carefully,” said Obama; “We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
28. In late summer, al-Qaeda in Syria (al-Nusra), together with other rebel groups, took control of the eastern portion of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, where it remained in control for more than the next four years (until December, 2016).
29. A September attack by on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya resulted in the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Stevens was coordinating an extensive operation to ship arms from Libyan government warehouses to Syrian rebels via Turkey. Up to 35 CIA agents were working on the project in a nearby annex in Benghazi at the time of the attacks.
30. A CIA-coordinated airlift of arms from eastern European (especially Croatia) for rebel fighters accelerated late in the year. At least 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes participated in the arms transfers. An October New York Times article reported that the Obama Administration was aware of the fact that most of the weaponry was ending up in the hands of "hard-line jihadists," not so-called moderates. While President Obama continued to insist the US would not provide “lethal aid” to the rebels, this CIA-coordinated supply of lethal arms (paid for by Gulf partners) enabled the Salafist rebels achieve major gains in territory in battles with the Syrian army.
31. Thus, what appeared to start as a civil conflict in 2011 was transformed during 2012 into a sophisticated invasion of Syria supported by the resources of many of the richest and most powerful nation-states in the world. During the summer of 2012, around 6,000 people per month were killed in the fighting.
Sources: here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
32. During the spring, yet another Salafist rebel group—an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq—crossed into Syria to join the attacks against the Syrian government. Branding itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the new group was composed mainly of Iraqi fighters, but its rapid success in seizing control of small towns and territory in eastern Syria soon enabled it to attract Syrian recruits as well.
33. The development and growth of ISIL in Syria was a Saudi project led by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and former Saudi ambassador to the United States (1983-2005). Prince Bandar was a long-time friend of both presidents Bush, so close that he acquired the nickname “Bandar Bush.”
34. During March, two separate chemical attacks occurred in Aleppo. The US immediately blamed the Syrian government. In response, US Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for the imposition of a US-enforced “no-fly zone.” The UN commenced an investigation, which confirmed that a nerve agent (sarin) had been used in the two Aleppo attacks and uncovered evidence that the attack had been carried out by rebel forces, not the government. However, the investigation remained open without final conclusions.
35. On August 21, a chemical attack on civilians in rebel-held Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus) caused the death of 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. On August 30, the White House announced that “the US Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out” the chemical attack using “a nerve agent in the attack” (likely sarin). It declared that a scenario in which rebel groups carried out the attack to be “highly unlikely.”
36. Also on August 30, British Prime Minister David Cameron brought to the House of Commons a plan to commence military action against Syria in response to the sarin attack. The House of Commons narrowly rejected Cameron’s proposal (272-285).
37. On August 31, President Obama said he would seek the support of Congress for military action against Syria. On September 10, President Obama attempted to mobilize popular support via a nationally televised speech. “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,” he said. “After careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”
38. Congressional support was uncertain. Senator Rand Paul mocked the President’s plan to “provide an air force for al-Qaeda.” A CNN poll showed 70 percent of the public opposed the President’s plan.
39. Mid-September, Russian President Putin offered an alternative to US military intervention: Syrian President Assad would destroy Syria’s chemical weapons inventory. Recognizing the lack of support for military intervention, President Obama accepted the plan and abandoned his plan to commence a military attack on Syria. Subsequently, Syria’s chemical weapons inventory was destroyed under international supervision.
40. In late September, eleven of the largest rebels groups repudiated their links to the so-called Free Syrian Army and formed an alliance under the leadership of al-Nusra. The new coalition declared its goal to overthrow the Syrian government and create “an Islamic state in Syria.” The alliance highlighted the weak and marginal character of the so-called “moderate rebels” who remained outside the Salafist alliance. Nevertheless, in fall the Obama Administration announced the CIA would expand efforts in Jordan to raise up and train an army of “moderate rebels” able to contribute to the overthrow of Assad and serve as a non-sectarian anchor for a new government to replace President Assad’s administration.
41. In December, President Obama approved the sale of 15,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia for use by Salfists in Syria. These technically advanced weapons, costing nearly $1 billion, were distribued by the Saudis according to US preferences. Initially, the direct recipients were Salafist groups not aligned with al Nusra, the Syrian unit of al Qaeda. However, as al Nusra had emerged as the strongest and most successful fighting force among the array of Salafist militias, the "less extreme" groups receiving TOW missiles from the Saudis often had no practical choice but to share their elite weapons with al Nusra.
42. Late in the year, technical analysis of the artillery shells used in the August sarin attacks confirmed they could not have been fired from government-held territory, as alleged in the initial reports. Although responsibility for the attacks remains disputed yet today, evidence accumulated over the past three years strongly suggests that Syrian rebels supported by Turkish intelligence committed the atrocity.
Sources: here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
43. On January 13, ISIL seized complete control of the largest city in eastern Syria, al-Raqqa. ISIL proceeded to execute Alawites and supporters of President Assad and destroy Shia mosques and Christian churches. Christians, who constituted 10 percent of the population, fled the city.
44. In an interview with New Yorker magazine published in January, President Obama was asked about ISIL and international terrorism. “The analogy we use around here sometimes. . . is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
45. Yet within a few months of the President’s casual dismissal of ISIL, it gained control of vast expanses of Syria and Iraq. Using suicide bombers—often in vehicles loaded with explosives—it captured Iraqi cities of Tikrit, Sinjar and Mosul and Iraq’s largest oil refinery. With each victory, ISIL seized state-of-the-art military equipment the US had provided the Iraqi army. On June 29, ISIL declared a new worldwide caliphate under the leadership of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, named Syrian city al-Raqqa as its capitol, renamed itself the “Islamic State” and demanded allegiance from all other Salafist groups.
46. Also in June, Syria held a general election, the first in decades in which more than a member of the Assad family was on the ballot for President. With voting occurring only in government-held areas, around 77 percent of the electorate turned out. Bashar al-Assad won 88 percent of the vote.
47. A public opinion poll conducted in Syria by an international research firm working with the US and British governments found that 47 percent of Syrians believed President Assad was having a positive influence on Syria. This compared to 35 percent who said the same thing for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Nusra and 21 percent who said the same thing about the Islamic State. According to the poll, Assad had majority support in seven of fourteen Syrian provinces. In one of the provinces (Aleppo), approval of Assad’s leadership was similar to that of one or more of the rebel groups. In six of the provinces, approval of Assad was significantly less than approval of other groups.
48. Flamboyant and brutal executions of those who would not accept its authority followed each of the Islamic State's military successes. It routinely slaughtered captured opponents, especially government soldiers, but also Sunni Salafists who fought under the flags of other groups. At al-Raqqa (Syria), it crucified a group of captives. Twelve Sunni imams were executed in Mosul for refusing to swear loyalty to the Islamic State. Several Western hostages were beheaded; a captured Jordanian pilot was burned alive in a cage. Christians were victimized too, although most fled safely to Kurdish-held territory in Iraq and government-held territory in Syria. Abundant media attention to these acts of brutality added to the group’s notoriety and fueled its recruitment efforts. Indeed, some atrocities seemed packaged for Western viewers.
49. In early July, US Secretary of Defense Secretary Hagel described the Islamic State as "a force that is sophisticated. It's dynamic, it's strong, it's organized, it's well-financed, it's competent. And it is a threat to our allies all over the Middle East. It's a threat to Europe. It's a threat to every stabilized country on Earth, and it's a threat to us." That same month President Obama sent U.S. troops back to Iraq.
50. By August, US planes were bombing Islamic State assets; by September, the U.S. had assembled a 40-nation coalition to resist the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. President Obama claimed authority for the bombing in legislation passed by Congress on September 14, 2001—the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). It gave the President authority to act anywhere in the world against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. When critics pointed out that the Islamic State did not exist in 2001, President Obama further claimed authority to bomb the Islamic State based on the 2002 amendment of the AUMF, which authorized military action anywhere in the world “against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”
51. Note that neither AUMF provided any justification for the use of US military force against the government of Syria. Moreover, no such authorization has ever been given by Congress, the United Nations or the state of Syria. Thus, any and all military action by the US to effect regime change in Syria is a violation of international law.
52. In September, Congress approved a $500 million Obama initiative to train and equip “moderate” forces to oppose the Assad government. Critics pointed out that the US had been following this failed strategy for nearly three years already and it had failed to produce a secular alternative to Salafist forces. Others acknowledged the accuracy of this critique, but went on to observe that the training and equipping so-called “moderates” was an effective pretense by which the US could support Salafist forces such as al Nusra and the Islamic State, since nearly all rebels trained by the US and nearly all military equipment provided to those “moderates” ended up under Salafist control in the end.
53. On October 2, US Vice President Biden responded to critics of US policy in Syria by blaming US allies in the region. “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. . . . They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis . . . We could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.”
54. A November report by German television reported that “every day, trucks laden with food, clothing, and other supplies cross the border from Turkey to Syria. It is unclear who is picking up the goods. The haulers believe most of the cargo is going to the ‘Islamic State’ militia. Oil, weapons, and soldiers are also being smuggled over the border.” Turkey also is a US ally and is a member of NATO.
Sources: here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
55. As the war in Syria entered is 5th year, prominent US voices expressed impatience with the slow progress in defeating Syrian government forces and removing Syrian President Assad from power. Some of these voices suggested the US should regard the Islamic State as a potential ally. Former CIA Director David Petraeus said on March 2015 that “the Islamic State isn’t our biggest problem” in the Mideast, Iran is. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman made the same point, asking if it wasn’t time for the US to directly arm the Islamic State in order to off-set the emerging influence of Iran. Meanwhile, Iraqi and Iranian media regularly reported that the US already was providing direct support to the Islamic State with covert air drops.
56. In February, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2199 forbidding any trade with the Islamic State, al-Nusra or other entities associated with al-Qaida as specified in prior UN resolutions. Nevertheless, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia continued to work openly with al-Nusra to organize and arm the so-called Army of Conquest in the winter and spring of 2015. The Army of Conquest conducted military campaigns in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, overwhelming the Syrian army in both places. By April, "less extreme" Salafist groups with US TOW missiles openly joined these al-Nusra led campaigns.
57. Throughout the year, al-Nusra remained the dominant rebel group across western Syria, including the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights bordering Israel to the south. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that over the previous two years, Israel had opened its border to 1,500 injured al Nusra fighters so they could receive medical care in Israel and then return to battle the Syrian government. Israel also was reported to be providing al Nusra fighters in the Golan with material aid. Israeli defense officials confirmed that Shia forces—especially Hezbollah—were regarded as a much greater threat to Israel’s security than Salafist Sunni forces, which do not have a history of attacking Israeli targets.
58. During May, the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. Soon after, the US Senate Armed Services Committee hastily convened to discuss these latest Islamic State successes. Witnesses praised its military prowess, predicted a deluge of new Muslim recruits rushing to join its ranks, and described the Islamic State as having the capacity to strike Europe and the United States. It all sounded terribly serious until the conversation turned to the military forces engaged on the ground in fighting the Islamic State: the Syrian Army and Iraqi militias composed of Shia soldiers and backed by Iranian advisors. Then the concern about the Islamic State receded into the background as a more important concern emerged: the defeat of the Syrian army and the severing of Iranian-Iraqi cooperation. Absent entirely from the conversation among Senators was the most obvious step the US could take if it were serious about defeating the Islamic State: cutting off its supply lines from Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States.
59. Also in May, US Special Forces conducted a night-time raid on a residence in Deir Ezzor, an Islamic State-held city in eastern Syria, killing the Islamic State’s finance director (Abu Sayyaf ). Financial records seized in the raid documented Islamic State sales of Syrian oil in Turkey of $1 - $4 million per day. Though illegal under UN Security Council Resolution 2199, such sales are the primary source of Islamic State revenue, fueling its expansion despite efforts to “contain” its spread. The seized documents were expected to bring pressure on Turkey and its practice of permitting Islamic State agents to pass freely across the Turkey-Syria border. The raid was the first known instance of US forces engaging in combat in Syria, a place where the US military has no authority to operate and where President Obama has said he wants “no US boots on the ground.”
60. In August the Pentagon reported that it had conducted 6,000 bombing runs against the Islamic State over the course of the 12-month period since President Obama had ordered aerial attacks in August, 2014. Yet many planes involved in bombing runs—75 percent during the first four months of 2015—returned to their bases without firing their weapons, allegedly because of a lack of targets. Meanwhile, the Islamic State continued to expand its territory in Syria, notwithstanding US control of the skies.
61. As the summer ended, Syrian government forces continued to suffer severe loses in men and material and to lose ground to Salafist forces. Damascus itself appeared to be increasingly vulnerable to invasion.
62. On September 3, media around the world front-paged the image of the lifeless body of one 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach. Aylan, his 5-year-old brother, and the boys’ mother drowned while attempting a small boat crossing of the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Much of the Western world reacted with anguish and outrage over the children’s death, two of the 2,500 refugees who had drowned over the summer attempting to reach Europe. Numerous media reports laid the blame for “the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War 2” (366,402 arrivals during 2015 alone) at the feet of Syrian President Assad for his defense of his country. Remarkably, the displacement of the Syrian people started four years earlier, but had received relatively little attention in the world media. Now that changed, triggering a rush of urgent calls for governments to “do something” to stop the horror.
63. On September 30, Russia entered the war at the invitation of the Syrian government. Days later, Iranian troops entered the war on Syria’s behalf, as did Hezbollah militia from Lebanon. Because Russia, Iran and Hezbollah were responding to the invitation of the recognized government of Syria, their actions were legal under international law.
64. President Obama promptly criticized Russia’s intervention, saying it would not prevent the defeat of the Syrian government, but would prolong the fighting and lead to more destruction, more refugees and greater loss of life. Obama predicted Syria would become a deadly “quagmire” for Russia, much as Afghanistan became for the Soviet Union during the ‘80s. And he suggested that most of the Russian bombing was likely to be directed at “moderate rebel” forces.
65. Mid-October, Syrian government sources reported that warplanes of the US-led alliance had violated Syrian airspace and attacked the biggest electric power plant that feeds Aleppo city. The attack reportedly resulted in cutting off power from most neighborhoods in Aleppo city and causing the municipal water system to fail. The loss of this critical infrastructure was expected to prompt more Syrians to flee their country and seek refugee status in other places.
66. Working from Syrian military facilities and from Russia’s long-established air and naval military base along the Mediterranean coast, Russian air forces commenced vigorous bombing of Salafist arms depots and forces, whether fighting under the flag of the Islamic State, al-Nusra or some other group. Russia also invited the US and other Western powers to join coordinated bombing campaigns against the Islamic State. The US agreed to exchange scheduling and flight path information with Russia so as to avoid mishaps, but declined to exchange information related to surveillance or targeting.
67. On October 31, Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 was blown out of the skies over Egypt by a bomb, killing all 224 passengers and crew aboard. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it retaliation for Russia’s entry into the war on Syria’s behalf. Two weeks later, suicide bombers and gunman in Paris killed 130 people and injured 368 more in coordinated attacks. The Islamic State again claimed responsibility, calling the attacks retaliation for French bombing of Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
68. At a November 15 G-20 meeting in Turkey, Russia’s President Putin disclosed the names of 40 countries from which the Islamic State was receiving economic assistance. Putin also distributed satellite photos showing long columns of oil tankers carrying oil from Islamic State-controlled facilities and into Turkey for sale. The photos implicitly raised the question: if the US is serious about defeating the Islamic State, why does the US not stop the movement of Islamic State oil to world oil markets? On November 16, the US commenced bombing of Islamic State oil tanker convoys in eastern Syria.
69. On December 18, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2254, a plan calling for a ceasefire in Syria and the commencement of a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the UN to plan and hold national elections, adopt a new constitution and establish an inclusive, non-sectarian government of Syria. The resolution also called for talks to begin in January between the Syrian government and opposition parties and for the ceasefire to begin as soon as the parties to the talks had taken initial steps towards a political transition.
Sources: here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
70. In early February, the Syrian army--strengthened by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters and by Russian intelligence and air support—severed supply lines from Turkey to Salafist rebels occupying the eastern portion of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. With this turn of events came a growing sense of crisis. Turkey’s armed forces and tanks massed on the Syrian border and its artillery began shelling targets inside Syria. Saudi Arabia announced a "final" decision to send ground troops into Syria to join the war. Western media headlined unsubstantiated reports of Russian jets destroying hospitals in Aleppo; Russian officials provided documentation that Aleppo hospitals were indeed being attacked from the air, but by US fighter jets. A car bomb in Turkey’s capitol, Ankara, killed 28 people. Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians massed on the northern border of Syria, seeking to escape the fighting north of Aleppo. In Greece, amid growing controversy in Europe over the burgeoning inflows, 70,000 refugees in overflowing encampments were blocked from moving north by transit restrictions and fences.
71. All eyes turned to US President Obama. Would he “green-light” Turkey and Saudi Arabia—both close US allies—to expand the war in Syria? If so, would that lead to a US-Russia confrontation and perhaps nuclear war?
72. Amid the escalating tension, US and Russian negotiators met in Geneva and struggled to outline a ceasefire to implement UN Resolution 2254 by stopping the fighting between Syrian army forces and "moderate" rebels, but continue the suppression of Salafist groups identified as “terrorists” by the UN. The so-called “moderate” rebels refused to participate in the Geneva talks. US negotiators repeatedly attempted to protect al-Nusra forces by including them in the proposed ceasefire. Finally, on February 27, a ceasefire was achieved. It included a US commitment to separate “moderate” rebels from Salafists so “moderates” would be protected from continued Russian air attacks and Syrian ground assaults.
73. During the nearly 5-week ceasefire, the “moderate” rebels replenished their stores of weapons and material, drawing on sources from within the US-led alliance. The “moderates” did not separate from al-Nusra and other Salafist groups, as the US had promised. On April 2, the ceasefire ended when “moderate” rebels joined an al-Nusra unit in attacking a Syrian government position near Aleppo. The distinction between “moderates” and Salafists was rapidly eroding; many called it a fiction.
74. On March 26, after three days of intense fighting with the Islamic State, the Syrian army captured Palmyra, the eastern desert city known for its antiquities. Syrian troops unearthed there the graves of many civilians slaughtered by the Islamic State. The Obama Administration was unable to find any good news in the liberation of Palmyra. NPR reported March 28 that the liberated city and its beleaguered inhabitants “fell into government hands.”
75. In May, the Guardian reported that “Contractors hired by the [British]Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters. Materials are circulated in the Arabic broadcast media and posted online with no indication of British government involvement.” Many such reports are subsequently aired on mainline media outlets as if they reflect independent journalism. In response to critics who described the government-funded media operations as “propaganda outlets,” Defence Ministry officials said such operations are a necessary element of “strategic communications” in a media-driven age.
76. In a related development that occurred throughout the year, first-responder units in Syria—known as the White Helmets—came under increased scrutiny for their role in shaping how the Western public understands the war. These emergency-response units are largely funded by Western sources (including governments) and function only in rebel-held areas. Often these units include media operations (primarily video crews) that provide newscast-ready video clips of battlefield scenes and casualties. Western media rarely have their own reporters on the scene in Syria; instead they rely heavily on reports and video provided by other sources, including the White Helmets. Reports from the White Helmets are by definition anti-Syrian government; on occasion, their reports have proved to be complete fabrications.
77. Through the summer, the Syrian army maintained its encirclement of east Aleppo while Russian fighter jets bombed al-Nusra positions and supply depots from above. While holding its ground in east Aleppo, al-Nusra and its allies continued efforts to re-open supply lines and attack neighborhoods in west Aleppo. In mid-August, al-Nusra opened a gap to the southwest, but intense Russian bombing enabled the Syrian army to close the gap again two weeks later. By late summer, the likelihood that the Syrian army would prevail in east Aleppo looked increasingly promising. Syrian forces supported by Russian air support also made significant gains in other parts of the country.
78. On July 15, a faction of Turkey’s armed forces attempted to depose Turkey’s President Erdogan. After briefly appearing to succeed, the coup attempt was crushed. At least 300 people were killed in the attempt; thousands were arrested and jailed in the aftermath. President Erdogan accused Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish resident of Pennsylvania, of helping to plan the coup attempt, but the US refused to make Gulen available to Turkish authorities. In the months after the coup attempt, Turkey began to edge away from its close alliance with the US and Europe and toward warmer relations with Russia.
79. During early September, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov negotiated another agreement—a multi-stage, week-by-week “cessation of hostilities” plan. The first stage began September 12. Like the earlier ceasefire, it required “moderate” rebels to separate themselves from terrorist groups such as al-Nusra. The Syrian army complied with the cessation; the “moderate” rebels continued to attack Syrian government positions and remained embedded in al-Nusra-held areas alongside al-Nusra fighters. Meanwhile, Pentagon officials criticized the cessation of hostilities agreement and notwithstanding President Obama’s explicit support for the plan, expressed doubt about complying with the second stage, which required US-Russia cooperation in targeting and attacking al-Nusra and the Islamic State.
80. On September 17, US-led coalition fighter planes based in Iraq attacked Syrian army forces defending the Deir Ezzor airport in eastern Syria from a siege by the Islamic State. Nearly 100 government troops were killed and many more were wounded. Within ten minutes of the US-led air attack, Islamic State fighters attacked and routed Syrian government positions. As a result, planes using the airport to resupply the beseiged city of Deir Ezzor (civilian population of 150,000) are now vulnerable to Islamic State weapons fire. US officials have claimed the attack on Syrian forces was a mistake, but that claim is highly suspect. Many are convinced that Pentagon officials ordered the attack as part of a plan to sabotage the cessation of hostilities agreement and ensure the Islamic State maintained control in eastern Syria.
81. On September 19, the Syrian government announced it would not extend the ceasefire beyond the initial week because “moderate” rebels had not complied with their side of the agreement. Also on September 19, a convoy of trucks reportedly carrying humanitarian assistance was destroyed in al-Nusra-controlled territory. Western media widely reported that the convoy had been destroyed by an air attack and blamed Syria and Russia. Russian officials denied the accusation, noting that while the destroyed convoy showed ample evidence of fire, there was little evidence of an air attack. Though the details remain murky, there is a substantial possibility the entire incident was contrived to rally Western opinion against Syria and its Russian ally.
82. Through late fall, Syrian forces supported by Iranian militias and Hezbollah fought their way into east Aleppo neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Repeated Syrian offers of a ceasefire to enable noncombatants to leave the city were rejected by al-Nusra. Mid-December, as the defeat of al-Nusra became inevitable, it finally released noncombatants and allowed them to leave the area. Al-Nusra combatants then laid down their weapons and accepted transportation with their families to the neighboring province of Idlib, just to the southwest of Aleppo, where al-Nusra remains in control. The battle of Aleppo was over.
83. During early December, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D, Hawaii) introduced proposed legislation —the "Stop Arming Terrorists Act”—in the US House. “The US government has been violating [the] law for years by quietly supporting allies, partners, individuals and groups who are working directly with al-Qaida, ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other terrorist groups by providing them with money, weapons and intelligence support in their fight to overthrow the Syrian government,” said Gabbard in an NPR interview. “What is happening in Syria today, we are providing— the United States is providing—this direct and indirect support to terrorist groups in order to overthrow the Syrian government.”
84. On December 21, Russia, Iran and Turkey commenced discussions about the next steps in the war in Syria and how to implement a political transition to a new government. None of the Western powers or Gulf States was invited to the discussions.
85. The Eastern Catholic (Maronite) Church celebrated mass in Saint Elias Cathedral on Christmas day. The damaged Cathedral—named after Elijah the prophet and built in 1873—is located in the Christian quarter of east Aleppo, one of the areas liberated by the Syrian government during the third week of December from the grip of al-Nusra. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the complete evacuation of east Aleppo involved about 88,000 people, including 54,000 people transported to other parts of the city and 35,000 (13,000 Salafist fighters and their families) transported to Idlib province, which largely remains under the control of al-Nusra. By the end of December, parts of east Aleppo had been cleared of explosive booby-traps and an estimated $100 million in weapons and ammunition, thus enabling noncombatant residents to return to their homes.
Sources: here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.