US spy chiefs predict Syria, Ukraine wars to drag on
The Syria war will get worse in 2016 and the Ukraine war won’t end, US intelligence chiefs have said, in what one of them called a “litany of doom”.
“Unpredictable instability has become the ‘new normal,’ and this trend will continue for the foreseeable future,” James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, told the Senate’s armed services committee in his yearly briefing on Tuesday (9 January).
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He described his threat assessment as a “litany of doom”.
“In Syria, pro-regime forces have the initiative, having made some strategic gains near Aleppo and Latakia in the north, as well as in southern Syria,” he said.
He said the regime, despite being backed by Russian air power, is too weak to “accomplish strategic battlefield objectives”. But he said the other side cannot win either.
“The opposition has less equipment and fire-power, and its groups lack unity. They sometimes have competing battlefield interests and fight among themselves,” he said.
Noting that the war has displaced 11 million people, he added: “The record level of migrants, more than 1 million arriving in Europe, is likely to grow further this year.”
He said Islamic State was “somewhat on the defensive, and its territory and manpower are shrinking” but it was still a bigger threat than al-Qaeda.
He noted that its “foreign fighters”, which number 38,200, including 6,900 from Western countries, were its core threat in terms of overseas attacks.
“There are now more Sunni [Muslim] violent extremist groups, members, and safe havens than at any time in history,” he said.
Russia and Ukraine
Clapper also predicted that Russia would not back down in Ukraine.
“Moscow’s objectives in Ukraine will probably remain unchanged, including maintaining long-term influence over Kiev and frustrating its attempts to integrate into Western institutions,” he told the US senators.
“[Russian president] Putin is the first leader since Stalin to expand Russia’s territory,” he noted.
He said that despite its economic downturn, Russia continued its "aggressive military modernisation programme” and “continues to have the largest, and most capable, foreign nuclear-armed ballistic missile force”.
Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, echoed Clapper.
He said the Syrian regime was “unlikely to be militarily defeated or collapse in the near-term”.
He also said the Russia-backed regime offensive was likely to see moderate “opposition groups cooperating or merging with terrorist groups” for the sake of survival.
Message to West
He said Putin’s intervention in Syria was designed to “showcase” new cruise missiles and heavy bombers.
“These operations are designed to … send a message to the West about the manner in which the Russian military could operate in a major conventional conflict.”
He noted that Putin had “de-emphasised” the military approach to Ukraine.
But he said Russia was still ready to “rapidly redeploy troops to the [Ukraine] border".
He also described the Minsk 2 ceasefire deal, brokered by France and Germany, as an opportunity for Russia to “institutionalise influence within Ukraine without risking more sanctions”.
Russia 'will inspire jihadis'
US secretary of state John Kerry is to meet his Russian counterpart at a security conference in Munich, Germany, later this week.
But State Department spokesman James Kirby said on Tuesday the US did not expect Russia to contribute to the Syria peace process.
“We continue to see them act as if they believe there is a military solution to this conflict,” he said.
He noted that “many European nations are dealing with [a] heavy refugee flow, and we recognise that”.
But he added that prolongation of the Syria war posed a threat for Russia as well.
“They’ll get dragged into a conflict that won’t end … They will inspire the attraction of foreign fighters and jihadis, not just to Syria but even perhaps in their own country,” he said.