Hezbollah is Learning Russian

Hezbollah’s entrance into the Syrian conflict to help support the floundering regime of Bashar al-Assad has cost it dearly. An estimated 1,300 of its fighters have been killed, a large portion for an organization that has fielded only 6,000 to 8,000 combatants in Syria. Social services, key to Hezbollah’s populist program in Lebanon and crucial to many within its Shia constituency, have been reduced to pay for the conflict.  The military strain has even forced the group to recruit teenagers for domestic security roles and offensive operations in Syria.

While the group has had to adjust to many pressures from the Syrian conflict it has also benefited, both due to the combat experience and the entrance of a new and powerful ally. Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria this past September on behalf of the Assad regime has brought with it a number of tactical and strategic benefits that have and will continue to bolster Hezbollah in Syria, at home and in any future confrontation with Israel. For more read my piece in Carnegie Endowment’s Sada journal.

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Death from Above: Russia, the Syrian Regime and Civilian Targets

The successful implementation of a cessation of hostilities in Syria looks doubtful. The Assad regime with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah has mounted an increasingly deadly campaign to crush rebels in the north of the country. It comes at a time when all sides should be enacting confidence building measures. Meant to cut off the opposition from the Turkish border and surround the country’s largest city, Aleppo, the regime’s assault is taking a heavy toll on the civilian population. Making matters worse, on Monday Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies targeted hospitals and schools using aircraft and by some reports, cruise missiles. It resulted in at least 46 dead and dozens injured.

Turkey, France and the UN say these attacks violate international law, while Russia has categorically denied it carried out the attacks on three hospitals and one school. In a bizarre and nonsensical statement by the Russian Defence Ministry, Moscow even attacked Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for not providing information about the locations of the hospitals in Maarat al-Numan and Azaz which were targeted by the bombardment. The Syrian ambassador blamed the US for the strikes, a laughable assessment.

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The pattern is clear. According to Physicians for Human Rights, as early as 2011 government forces attacked hospitals in Damascus, Homs and Hama, impeded medical transport and detained and tortured doctors who treated wounded civilians. The organization has mapped these war crimes and documented a total of 336 attacks on health care facilities, 285 of which were carried out by the Syrian regime, another 12 by Russian forces. Furthermore, Amnesty International has documented the murder of 569 health care professionals between April 2011 and October 2014, a number that is likely to be much larger.

As shown by these figures, these deliberate attacks on healthcare facilities are not new. The fact that Russia is participating in what has, since the beginning of the conflict, been a policy of attacking medical facilities and those who work in them, should not come as a surprise. David Nott, a physician who has worked in Syria told BBC World Service that, “If you take out a healthcare worker, you take out healthcare for about 10,000-20,000 people and they won’t feel secure in the area and will feel that they need to leave.” Dr. Nott is right, the targeting of healthcare services by the Syrian regime is meant to ensure that civilians in rebel held areas fear living there and leave. Though, it is also part of a systemic effort by the regime, which has been on display since the beginning of the conflict, to ensure that rebels do not build up governance capacities within the territory they hold. This includes targeting bread lines and water infrastructure with barrel bombs, airstrikes and artillery.

For more, see my interview with CTV National News.

Paris Attacks Radio Interview

On Saturday, November 14 I was asked by 580 CFRA News Talk Radio in Ottawa to comment on the attacks in Paris. Many of the details of the attack, including the identities of the perpetrators, were unknown at the time. While the Islamic State had claimed responsibility, it was unclear as to whether the group played a direct or indirect role in the worst attack in France since WWII and possibly the most deadly attack in a Western city after 9/11.

We now know that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national who had fought with ISIS in Syria, masterminded the November 13 attacks that saw nine militants claim the lives of 170 and injure another 368 people. Abaaoud, who grew up in the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, an area known for terrorist activity, had escaped Belgian authorities in January 2014 after a raid in the city of Verviers resulted in the death of two suspected terrorists. According to an interview with Abaaoud in Dabiq, the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, he and the two deceased had returned to Belgium “to terrorize the crusaders waging war against the Muslims.” While it is not known whether Abaaoud had made it back to the Islamic State in Syria after the raid, as he had claimed in Dabiq, when the Belgian appeared again it was to carry out a sadistic attack on innocent civilians in Paris.

The events of November 13 have changed political calculations, reignited debates and, sadly, resulted in increased public displaces of bigotry. In Canada, the United States and elsewhere in the Western world, politicians have addressed public worries about Syrian refugees after authorities in France found a fake Syrian passport on the body of one of the assailants. Some of these politicians have taken calculated steps to ease these fears, others have played to the worst fringe, spewing hate and misconception. For the later and their constituencies, it should be important to remember that out of the 750,000 refugees that have been resettled in America since 9/11 not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges. Refugee policy is not the only issue up for debate, those over Islam have vehemently reemerged, with some arguing that the religion is the problem, while others have aptly pointed out that the situation is much more complex.

In the internationally realm Western leaders have been pressed to more thoroughly defend their anti-Islamic State strategy and play a bigger role in the fight. France and Russia have increased cooperation over the skies in Syria, a knee jerk reaction by the government of Francois Hollande. Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada has had to defend his government’s promise to end participation in the bombing mission, though the majority of Canadians want it continued or even expanded. Britain, whose government had previous voted against bombing the Syrian regime, has already launched its first airstrike in Syria, hours after UK lawmakers voted in favor . While much of the media has focused on the air, a debate over what should be done on the ground is of utmost importance.

I briefly addressed these and other issues in my interview with CFRA below.