Anatomy of a possible “safe zone”

In late July, it was announced that the US would be allowed to use Incirlik airbase in Turkey to conduct airstrikes against ISIS.  This move came immediately after ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing in Suruç, Turkey that killed 33 people.  It has been widely reported that the US/Turkey deal also included a provision for some sort of safe zone, or ISIS-free, zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.

US officials have denied that this zone would be a true safe zone or no-fly zone, but rather that the US and Turkey would collaborate to clear a zone from ISIS control and look to man it with moderate opposition fighters.  According to Foreign Policy, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that the zone will not be an official no-fly zone but will have US air support.  President Erdoğan has stated that the zone could allow for 1.8 million Syrian refugees to be repatriated.

News sources are generally in agreement that the zone would extend west along the Syrian border from Jarablus on the Euphrates.  Some reports state that the zone will extend as far as Marea, while others state that it will extend as far as A’zaz.  The depth of the zone is less certain, but reports indicate that it will be 40-50 km deep. Assuming a depth of approximately 45 km, the zone would look like this if it extends to Marea:

The red line is the Turkey-Syrian border and the orange line is the possible extent of the zone, if it goes to Marea.
The red line is the Turkey-Syrian border and the orange line is the possible extent of the zone, if it goes to Marea.

Here is a larger zone extending to A’zaz:


The red line is the Turkey-Syrian border and the yellow line is the possible extent of the zone, if it goes to A’azaz.

The larger population centers, as well some towns and villages where fighting has recently taken place, are marked with pins.  Those marked in black are under ISIS control and those in green are under rebel control.  Zahraa, in red, is a Twelver Shiite, regime-controlled city, and Aleppo, in white, is under mixed rebel and regime control.  It is worth noting that the eastern portion of the zone is sparsely populated, but Manbij and Al-Bab are larger cities, with populations of ~100,000 and approximately ~60,000, respectively.  The Western part of the zone is more heavily cultivated and densely populated; whether the zone would contain the sizeable towns of A’zaz (population ~30,000) and Tel Rifat (population ~20,000) is an important question.

Below is a map of areas of control created by Dutch student Thomas van Linge and updated on August 18.  I have overlayed a portion of the map onto a Google Earth view of the zone:

An overlay using a map created by Thomas Van Linge.

An overlay using a map created by Thomas Van Linge.
An overlay using a map created by Thomas Van Linge.

If the zone extends to Marea it will encompass almost entirely ISIS-held territory (shown in gray).  Marea itself is under ISIS siege and is controlled by a mix of the FSA, the Islamic Front and Jaysh Al-Mujahideen.  A’zaz is controlled by a mix of the FSA and the Islamic Front and Tel Rifat is controlled by a mix of the FSA, Jaysh Al-Mujahideen, the Islamic Front, Faylaq Al-Sham (also known as the Sham Legion–a group of moderate Islamists who have had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, but are trying to distance themselves from it).

Andrea Taylor and Abigail Kukura have suggested that a coalition of rebels known as the Levant Front (or Jabhat al-Shamiyya) could be at least partially relied upon as a ground force to protect the zone.  The Levant Front is an alliance between the Islamic Front (which includes Ahrar Al-Sham), Jaysh Al-Mujahideen, and three other Islamist rebel groups.  Ahrar Al-Sham is a hardline Islamist group, that supports the creation of a Sunni Islamic theocracy in Syria.  It coordinates tactically with the Nusra Front, but also works with more moderate and secular rebel groups.  Ambassador Robert Ford and Ali El Yassir have argued that the US should open a dialogue with Ahrar Al Sham, because it is one of the most powerful rebel groups.  Given the composition of rebel groups in the western portion of the zone, the US will be forced to cooperate with Ahrar Al Sham, at least indirectly through Turkey.

The zone has been the scene of significant fighting in the past few weeks.  In the following maps, I have once again used Thomas van Linge’s map of areas of control, and marked the sites of recent clashes with red flames.  I excluded clashes in Aleppo proper.  I obtained information about these clashes primarily from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Map overlay by Thomas Van Linge. Clashes are marked with red flames, and cities/towns/villages are marked with pins.
Map overlay by Thomas Van Linge. Clashes are marked with red flames, and cities/towns/villages are marked with pins.

There are four primary hotspots:

  1. The area along the front lines between ISIS and the rebels, especially around Marea.
  2. A cluster of villages and a gas factory near the Turkish border on the front lines between ISIS and the rebels.
  3. Areas on the far edge of the zone where clashes have occurred between rebels and regime positions in the Twelver Shiite cities of Zahraa and Nubl.
  4. Clashes between the regime and the rebels in the northern outskirts of Aleppo.

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Peace picks August 31-September 4

Shobak Castle, Jordan, which was built by the Crusaders. Japan provides a lot of assistance to Jordan through JICA (the Japan International Cooperation Agency). PC: Eddie Grove
Shobak Castle, Jordan, which was built by the Crusaders. Japan provides a lot of assistance to Jordan through JICA (the Japan International Cooperation Agency). PC: Eddie Grove

1. Japan’s Assistance For Fragile States: Potential For US-Japan Cooperation | Thursday, September 3rd | 10:00-11:30 | Stimson | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In the discussion of “Japan’s contribution to peace,” there is often an overwhelming level of attention on the activities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. However, in reality, Japan has a much longer history in supporting fragile states through humanitarian and other non-military assistance efforts. In this discussion, Mr. Tase and Mr. Tsuruga, both of whom have working experience on the ground and at the United Nations, will share their thought on Japan’s role and explore the potential for further cooperation with the United States. Speakers include: Kazuto Tsuruga, Osaka University, and Kazuo Tase, Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting.  Moderator: Yuki Tatsumi, The Stimson Center.

2. The Vienna Iran Deal: Triumph for Diplomacy or Tomorrow’s Disaster? | Thursday, September 3rd | 11:00 – 12:00 | The Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Nothing in the past 35 years has shown that Iran can be a credible and trustworthy member of the international community. Tehran is the world’s largest exporter of state sponsored terrorism. The blood of hundreds of American and British soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is on the hands of the regime’s top military officials. As a result of the Vienna deal between the P5+1 and Iran, the Middle-East could be on the brink of a new nuclear arms race. After winning the Cold War, an arms race in one of the world’s most dangerous regions is not a legacy we should pass on to the next generation. Join Member of Parliament and former British Defence Secretary, Dr. Liam Fox MP for a talk about the consequences of the Vienna deal and what it means for regional and global security.  Host: Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Iraqi bread in the oven in Amman, Jordan. PC: Eddie Grove
Iraqi bread in the oven in Amman, Jordan. PC: Eddie Grove

3. Where is Iraq Heading? | Thursday, September 3rd | 2:00 – 3:30 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Featuring: H.E. Ambassador Lukman Faily, Ambassador of the Republic of Iraq to the United States. With discussion from: Dr. Jon B. Alterman, Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program, CSIS, Ayham Kamel
Director, Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia Group and Aaron Y. Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow, WINEP.


Oxford, UK. PC: Eddie Grove
Oxford, UK. PC: Eddie Grove

4. Rethinking Defense: Readying the US and UK for Future Military Challenges | Thursday, September 3rd | 3:00-4:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As countries are faced with increasingly severe challenges to their security, militaries have been forced to rapidly adapt to new and changing threats, and to determine what role they will play in responding to global uncertainties. Given the United Kingdom’s strategic location in Europe and as one of the United States’ most prominent allies, the UK is poised to play a leading role in developing a new way of thinking for the future of defense. Central to the success of defense modernization efforts will be the UK and US’ ability to recruit and retain the right personnel, and to identify areas in which the UK and US can collaborate on addressing mutual concerns for the transatlantic community. With common interests in mind, UK Minister of State for Armed Forces Penny Mordaunt will provide her perspective on the priorities of the UK military for the short and long term, as well as commenting on the UK’s strategic aims as a partner and ally. Penny Mordaunt is the first woman to assume the post of Minister of State for the Armed Forces at the UK Ministry of Defense. She assumed the role on May 11, 2015, appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron.  Speaker: Penny Mordaunt, MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, United Kingdom. Moderator: Vago Muradian, Editor, Defense News. 

5. Limiting Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons: Results of a Track II Dialogue Friday, September 4th | 9:00-11:00 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The U.S.-Russian relationship may be facing challenges as significant as those confronted during the darkest days of the Cold War.  From Russia’s actions in Crimea to disputes regarding the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and ballistic missile defense, the imposition of sanctions on Russia and a surge in military incidents in Europe, relations between the United States and Russia need a new basis for collaboration.  This is one of the findings from a distinguished group of U.S., Russian and European experts who participated in an 18-month Track II dialogue looking specifically at the challenges of limiting non-strategic nuclear weapons.  Although most agree that the a treaty is not in the cards for the foreseeable future, there are ways that further discussion can help bridge some of the growing divides in security, arms control, and nuclear policies.  Panelists include: Ms. Sharon Squassoni, Director and Senior Fellow, Proliferation Prevention Program, CSIS, Dr. Andrew C. Kuchins, Director and Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, CSIS, Dr. Steven Pifer, Director, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, Brookings, Dr. Guy B. Roberts, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy, NATO and Dr. Jeff MaCausland, Colonel, U.S. Army (ret.).

6. Iran Nuclear Deal: Stability or Threat? with James Fallows | Friday, September 4th | 11:00-12:30 | Located at the National Press Club and sponsored by CGI | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As Congress prepares for a crucial vote on the Iran deal in September, please join the Center on Global Interests for a timely debate on its merits. Our panel of distinguished experts will go beyond partisan lines to present a wide range of views on the national-security stakes involved for the United States, Israel, Iran, and neighboring powers. Following a discussion moderated by James Fallows, who has covered the Iran debate for The Atlantic, the speakers will have a Q&A with the audience. Introductory remarks: Ambassador Richard Burt, CGI Board Member, Managing Director for Europe, Russia and Eurasia, McLarty Associates and U.S. Chair, Global Zero.  Moderator: James Fallows: National Correspondent, The Atlantic. Panelists: Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, Israel, India and Jordan and core member of The Iran Project, Ariane Tabatabai, Visiting Assistant Professor of Security Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and columnist for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mike Singh, Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and Managing Director, WINEP, Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association, Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council, Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources & Geopolitics, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, and Principal, International Market Analysis Ltd., and Larry Cohler-Esses, Assistant Managing Editor, The Forward.

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Israel loses the Jews

While the jury is still out, the best tally I’ve seen lately says that of 28 Jewish members of Congress 11 back the deal, 7 oppose it and 10 are undecided (or at least unannounced). This is roughly consistent with the more credible polls of Jewish popular opinion.

But it is dramatically different from the Israeli government position as well as Israeli popular opinion. Something like 70% of Israelis oppose the deal. So does the major opposition, which backs Netanyahu’s hard-line governing coalition on this issue.

Disagreements between the US and Israel have occurred many times. But I don’t remember any time at which American Jews parted ways with Israel on a major issue so dramatically. Israel is losing the American Jews.

This is a good development. I’m not with those urging unity among Jews in the US on this issue, or between Jews in Israel and in the US. I see no reason why people who are almost 6000 miles closer to Iran than I am and listening daily to its belligerence  against their country would necessarily agree with me. Nor do I see any reason why I should agree with those in the US or Israel who not only oppose the agreement but also think the Jews have a right to all the land west of the Jordan River.

Yes, we should be civil to each other. Certainly the President was that in his meeting with Jewish community organizations Friday. Civil and terrifically disciplined in the logical and uncompromising way he argued for the agreement:

He wisely did not follow Shadi Hamid’s advice to open up the containment option or to talk about support for the agreement from pro-democracy advocates in Iran. The former would have suggested he is prepared to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon and likely caused a serious negative reaction in Congress. In any event, the containment option is a truly lousy one, since it relies on a degree of mutual confidence in an opponent being a rational actor and intercommunication that simply does not exist between Iran and Israel. The later would have painted Iranian pro-democracy advocates with an American brush, which is a really bad idea. Far better would be Shadi’s third notion: stronger pushback against the Iranian-supported regime and Hizbollah in Syria, which would garner strong support in Congress, including among opponents of the nuclear deal, as well as in Israel.

The President has, however, no chance of converting hardline opponents. Neither Republicans nor Israelis will waver. They are determined to go down fighting on this one, as they have on so many other things lately.

There is some hope however that he may have convinced a Congressman or Senator. It isn’t going to be good for any Democrat running next year to suffer a defeat and then have to rely on the President’s veto to prevent the deal from falling through. It would be far better to filibuster in the Senate, thus avoiding a vote there altogether. The Republicans are already preparing for that eventuality.

But either way, it looks as if the Republicans will lose in trying to block the President from doing what he can to lift sanctions. They and Netanyahu will then strike up a chorus in favor of vigorous enforcement of the deal’s provisions. If they do, we should all join in. Failure of Iran to live up to the agreement would be even worse than failure of the President’s efforts to prevent it from being blocked in Congress.

Two birds with one stone

There are still a few weeks before the Congressional votes are completed September 17 on the Iran nuclear deal, but it looks as if President Obama will win enough votes to prevent his veto of disapproval from being overridden. He will have then hit a political grand slam: I am counting as the first three wins gay marriage, Obamacare and Trade Promotion Authority, which opens the possibility of completing negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and continuing negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Let’s leave aside the reopening of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, a win in the Supreme Court on housing discrimination, executive action to limit greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and half a dozen other less visible items.

The latest GDP growth number, a revised 3.7% in the second quarter, is icing on the cake.

Whether you agree or disagree with him, this has been a remarkably successful few months for the lame duck. He is on a roll.

But his approval rating is down.

The biggest reasons are apparently his handling of the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran. The Administration clearly underestimated ISIS, which has proven far more dangerous and resilient than anticipated. It poses a serious threat to US and European interests, for the moment mainly in the Middle East and North Africa. Post-deal Iran, with its pockets full of old sanctions money and new revenue from increasing oil exports, will also pose a serious regional threat to US and European interests. Even a supporter of the deal like me should recognize that.

Syria is where those two issues combine. ISIS has thrived on the ongoing civil war there. Iran has invested enormous resources in supporting Bashar al Assad. The United States has engaged from the air against ISIS but not against Assad’s forces.

This isn’t working. It can’t, because Assad is an important part of the reason that ISIS thrives in Syria. He is pummeling the country’s civilians. Sunnis are perhaps 75% of the population. The pummeling by an Alawite-based regime is radicalizing some small portion of that community, which is all ISIS needs to fill its ranks with young fighters. Iran, which has good reason to fear ISIS, responds with ever more support for the regime, including providing it with Lebanese Hizbollah forces Tehran controls.

This escalation is bad for Syria, bad for the region, and bad for the United States and Europe, where refugees are flooding in unprecedented numbers. President Obama needs to rethink his standoffish attitude toward Syria and his single-minded focus on countering only ISIS there. He has good reason to be concerned about what comes next in Syria if Assad falls suddenly, but there is little prospect the inevitable succession will move Syria in a positive direction from the American perspective if the US does not engage.

There are basically two ways to do so: militarily and politically. The best approach will combine the two. Washington is already talking with Turkey about creating a so-called “safe zone” along Syria’s northern border, extending from the Euphrates west for close to 70 miles. That could provide the Syrian opposition with an opportunity to govern and Syrians an opportunity to seek refuge. Widening US air strikes to respond to regime barrel-bombing of civilians or to respond to Hizbollah attacks on civilian population centers is another option.

The diplomatic effort has to focus on the transition from Bashar al Assad to a successor regime that excludes Islamic extremists like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nustra but includes a wide spectrum of Syrian political perspectives. This is critical: no one should want Syria to fall into the hands of a regime that presents the West, the Gulf, Russia and Iran with even greater problems than Bashar al Assad has done.

It makes sense for the pushback against both Iran and ISIS to come in Syria. Two birds with one stone.

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Straw men

Michael Makovsky, CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), sent me a fund-raising letter today. As a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal, I won’t be responding with money (I’ve sent that on to J-Street, which is lobbying in favor). But I would like to examine Michael’s arguments against the deal. Obama’s deal, he says,

Let’s examine these assertions one by one.

  1. Iran has nuclear capabilities, but so far as anyone knows it has no nuclear weapons capability, unless you regard being able to enrich uranium as conferring it. But that would mean non-nuclear weapons countries like Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Spain also have nuclear weapons capability. There is no international prohibition on enriching uranium. Nor do I know of any way to get a country to unlearn uranium enrichment. JINSA might prefer that Iran not do it, but wishing won’t make it so. Nor will rejecting the agreement.
  2. The international inspections regime Iran has accepted in the nuclear deal is the most intrusive ever imposed on any state. The claim that Iran will inspect its own sites is based on a leaked, draft document whose authenticity the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has denied. No state has ever developed nuclear weapons with materials monitored by the IAEA. It isn’t likely under an unprecedented, full fuel cycle inspection regime like the one Iran has accepted.
  3. Closure of nuclear facilities is not required, but the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed is cut by two-thirds, its stockpile of enriched uranium by even more and its heavy water reactor will be completely redesigned to produce less plutonium.
  4. A lot of things are essential to producing fissionable material, but under the agreement no high-grade fissionable material is allowed. Nor is the uranium and plutonium metallurgy required to make nuclear weapons. That prohibition is permanent.
  5. That’s right: an agreement on the nuclear weapons program does not directly address the missile program, though sanctions against selling missiles or missile technology to Iran will continue for five to eight years. Had we introduced missiles into the negotiation, we would likely have gotten less on nuclear technology. Is that what JINSA would have preferred?

What people don’t say is often as important as what they do. Michael’s letter claims the deal is “a threat to Israel and a threat to America.” But he fails to argue how either Israel or America would be better off without the deal. He offers no alternative at all.

But the consequences of rejecting the deal are clear enough. Either Iran will

a) likewise reject the deal, continue to accumulate centrifuges and highly enriched uranium, and complete a plutonium-producing reactor, as they did for the ten years before the P5+1 opened the negotiation with Tehran, or

b) uphold its end of the bargain in exchange for European, Chinese and Russian lifting of sanctions, thus reducing American leverage and gaining resources for more trouble-making in the region, just as they will with the nuclear deal.

Yes, the US could try to impose “secondary” sanctions on the Europeans, Chinese and Russians who do business with Iran, but that will not be 100% effective and will not improve relations with countries whose cooperation we need on other issues (Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya–just to name a few).

Note that Iran, not the US, will determine which option is taken. That alone should make the advocates of a strong America hesitate about rejection of the deal.

Democratic members of both houses of Congress, who are JINSA’s principal lobbying objective, appear to be rejecting Makovsky’s arguments, including a majority of the Jewish members. The Administration is on track to gain enough votes to uphold the President’s veto of a legislative attempt to block implementation of the deal. The straw men won’t stand.

War is complicated

I’m not often an enthusiast for videos, but this one seems to me to do a good job on the complicated relations of Iran and the US in the Iraq context. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in Syria the US and Iran come out more definitively on different sides (Iran with Bashar al Assad and the US at least nominally against), even though they both seek to defeat the Islamic State.