Monthly Archives: March 2017

Al-Qaeda will not leave the Levant and Russia has no choice but military escalation

 

The war in Syria surrounds the Geneva peace talk meeting with its circle of fire

Published here:  via

Key words: al-Qaeda, al-Qaida, Syria, Russia, Turkey, US, U.S., Geneva, Astana.

Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

Al-Qaeda and Syrian jihadists and rebel organisations attack on multiple fronts around Damascus, Homs and Daraa. These attacks are sending a clear message to the United Nations that the meetings in Astana-Kazakhstan and Geneva are doomed to failure because the political solution is not yet mature for several reasons. The position of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US are not headed towards a global solution in the Levant but to divide Syria.

In the last few days, thousands of militants led by al-Qaeda (under the name of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) and others belonging to Faylaq al-Rahman, Jaysh al-Nasr (US vetted group), Ajnad al-Sham, Free Syrian Army in Idlib (US vetted group), Ahrar al-Sham, Hiz-al-Islami al Turkistani and Ajnad al-Kawkaz attacked the Syrian Capital and both northern and southern areas in Syria in what is described as organised (tactical rather than strategic) aggression to reshuffle the peace process and halt it. The super powers (Russia and the US) and Turkey are facing conflictive objectives and hard alliances that inevitably mean an escalation of the military situation. Moreover, al-Qaeda is ready to walk with any country willing to escalate as long as it serves its strategic objectives enabling it to survive in the Levant and expand later to Iraq and neighbouring countries.

Following the failure of Astana-3 meeting (Turkey sent a low – level delegation and armed rebels under Turkish and Saudi Arabia influence did not attend), the fighting in Syria outbreak. Moreover, the Turkish leadership harshly criticised “Russian illegal annexation of Crimea” to coincide with the Russian forces prevention of Turkey and its Syrian allies from advancing beyond the Syrian city of Bab. Russia also stopped Turkey from breaking into the Kurdish area of Manbij with the excuse of fighting the “Islamic State” (ISIS) and, along with the Syrian Army, closed all possible roads leading to Raqqah, ISIS’s Syrian stronghold.

Russia plans to stop the war, impose peaceful solutions, and bring most belligerents to the negotiation table: the situation on the ground, however, may not go as planned. Nevertheless, Moscow will not stand idly by and watch the advance of al-Qaeda, along with other jihadist and US vetted Syrian opposition forces, into areas considered relatively safe. Moscow will not allow its objectives in Syria (establishing peace talks and ending the war to enjoy its military base and window on the Mediterranean) to fail. Russia can’t afford to sink into the Syrian quagmire: that would definitely affect its position as a superpower. Russia is therefore expected to invest its fiercest firepower to stop the jihadists’ advance, recover lost positions occupied in the last days, and give the upper hand to the Syrian Army and its allies on the ground.

On the other hand, the United States may also be responsible for “feeding” indirectly a continuous supply of weapons to jihadists of al-Qaeda and their allies in Syria by turning a blind eye to the supply flowing in the country via Turkey and Gulf countries. The US and countries of the region do not accept the Russian and Iranian upper hand in Syria, which coincides with al-Qaeda’s objectives in the Levant, very happy to escalate the rhythm of the war.

Moreover, the US is giving enough reasons for jihadists not only to stay in Syria but also to plan for Iraq following Washington’s announced decision to stay in Iraq “for a while”. This would fall into line with al-Qaeda’s objectives to expand to Mesopotamia, and would encourage jihadists to expand beyond Syria.

In fact, al-Qaeda has nothing to lose and everything to gain: the group is excluded from any peace deal and is on the “terror lists” by both the US and Russia. It expects to be hunted down sooner or later. Moreover, al-Qaeda is aiming to force all rebel and jihadists group to unit under one single umbrella to prevent exclusion, to recruit more candidates and to protect itself from being attacked by both the Syrian rebels and superpower countries. Under the slogan of “toppling” the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, al-Qaeda is trying to protect its strategic objective even if this slogan is no longer the international community’s option.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Al-Qaeda is issuing English communiqués to address a wider audience, pretending its objectives are domestic whereas its aim goes way beyond Syria. It is leading a multi-front battle, offering suicide bombers, tanks and men to show its readiness to offer “sacrifices to the revolution”, embarrassing any group willing to join Russia or the UN in any sort of peace talks. It is also isolating Ahrar al-Sham, trying to pull the carpet from under its feet due to its rejection of a merger. Al-Qaeda is also aiming to diminish the numbers in Ahrar al-Sham, the largest jihadists-rebel movement in Syria.

Bilad al-Sham and Mesopotamia are the strategic objective of al-Qaeda due to the historical value, the place where the long awaited Imam Mahdi is expected to rise carrying “the flag of Islam, the one of justice against the crusaders (Russia and the US in this case united on one soil) and where blood will flow like river”, according to the myth.

Bear in mind that the US is building military bases in the north of Syria and that Russia is planning to stay for another 50 years at least. Both countries are offering the perfect project, enabling al-Qaeda to develop its propaganda and narrative campaign to recruit and prepare itself for a very long fight in Syria, the country which is expected to be “the cemetery of the invaders and the place where justice will prevail”, says the Islamic myth.

The same “Islamic State” (ISIS) group believe in the myth: ISIS removed the borders between Syria and Iraq, giving an incentive for foreign fighters to reach the land of “the true Islamic Caliphate”, in this case Syria and Iraq. The same head of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawaheri asked all fighters to join Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), not only to overthrow the regime but to reach the final objective, jihad al-Tamkeen where al-Qaeda consolidates its base, build its Islamic Emirate and hits the western presence and interests in the Middle East.

At the beginning of the war, Al-Qaeda did in fact succeed in finding a supportive society in Syria, a country devastated by six years of war so far, taking advantage of the weakness of the regime and the existing “savagery” unstable state. Bilad al-Sham is al-Qaeda main objective since its existence drove it to the geographical location; the historic place and the presence of Sunni tribes allow the proliferation of jihadists. Despite the US targeting of many al-Qaeda leaders, the US administration is more interested in reaching a relatively quick victory over ISIS in Syria (Raqqah) and in creating “safe zones” to divide the north of Syria. Moreover, the US is not expected to be in harmony with Russia’s objective in the country, hence the targeted killing of leaders of al-Qaeda without crippling the organisation.

During the last few years, the US counter-terrorism military responses killed, using drones and air strikes, the Egyptians Abul’Kheir al-Masri (Osama Bin Laden brother in-law and the vice leader of Ayman al-Zawaheri), Rifa’ei Taha, the Syrian Abu al-Hammam al-Shami, the Saudi Abdel Mohsen Abdallah Ibrahim (Sanafi al-Nasr), Abu Firas al-Suri, Khattab al-Kahtani, Abu Omar al-Turkistani, Abdallah al-Jalil al-Muslemi, Mohamad Habib Bin Saadoun al-Tunisi, Abu Hani al-Masri, Abu al-Abbas al-Darir and much more AQ leaders all killed in Syria. All were present in Bilad al-Sham, mainly Idlib and Aleppo, and many of these were operating under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham that pretends to have has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. So what where these doing in the country?

There is no doubt there was a security breach within al-Qaeda in Syria due to Signals Intelligence and Human Intelligence, allowing the US military to kill these leaders. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda is a decentralised non hierarchical networked organisation, therefore it is resistant to decapitation: the killing of its leaders have little effect on the functioning of the group as a whole and won’t alter its strategy nor its long term project in general and in Bilad al-Sham in particular.

It is also clear that al-Qaeda postponed its plans to attack American targets in the United States because the war in Syria became a priority for gathering strength and building its power. The Jihadi organisation was close to its objectives before the interference of Russia and Damascus allies in the war.

Even if Osama Bin Laden prioritised attacks against the US to postpone the “local domestic enemy”, nevertheless, the circumstances have changed due to the importance of Syria and Iraq, now that the occasion is presenting itself in both countries.

Moreover, what Abu Bakr Naji promoted under “the management of savagery” (asking jihadists to infiltrate societies and work for a non secure state) Osama Bin Laden was against.  Bin Laden’ theory when, in his letter found in Abbottabad and released by the US, he asked the “base” in Yemen to avoid creating unstable societies where people would be busy surviving rather than ready to join jihad”. Moreover, Bin Laden asked his franchisees to “refrain from declaring their belonging to al-Qaeda to avoid paying the consequences” (by the US) of the 9/11 attacks.

This is why Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda in Syria, is pretending to be a Syrian organisation (with thousands of foreign fighters as stated by its same Emir Abu Mohamad al-Joulani), holding core leaders of al-Qaeda, but in total denial to benefit from the chaos, aiming in fact to recruit and gather more strength. The conflictive interests of the US and Russia will allow the survival of al-Qaeda unless the people of Syria themselves choose the peace process and lift the protection they have been offering to the Jihadi organisation. No organisation can survive with the loss of popular support.

 

 

The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war

 

 

The two superpowers have agreed to finish off ISIS in Syria

Al-Qaeda in Syria has lost the support of the people and the countries of the region

Hezbollah fears an Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia war but the facts speak otherwise

Published here:  v

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

 

The US and Russia have agreed to put an end to the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) as a priority in Syria, unifying the goal without necessarily agreeing on uniting efforts and coordinating the ground attack. Nevertheless, this beginning will lead the way towards the end of the war in Syria and pave the way to removing essential obstacles (that means all jihadists) on the peace process road.

 

The US in Syria and the difficult choices:

The United States has pushed hundreds of its special forces and elite troops into the north – east of Syria to maintain a military presence in the country and help the Syrian Kurds and Arab tribes fight ISIS[i]. The US forces are training, planning and supplying their proxies with weapons, offering air support and intelligence monitoring through SIGINTL (signal Intelligence) to observe and neutralise ISIS leaders and formulate attack plans for the city of Raqqa.

It is inevitable that there should be some redistribution of roles between the US and Russia over the attack to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. This is also manifested in the advance of the Syrian army towards ISIS-held territory[ii] in north-eastern Aleppo in order to stop the Turkish army and its allies from advancing beyond al-Bab city[iii] and to close the circle tighter around Raqqa by crossing the Euphrates River from the west bank. The Syrian army is aiming to liberate Deir Hafer and Maskana to complete its full control of northern-eastern rural Aleppo and cleanse it of any ISIS presence.

Top military generals, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff; and their Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar met last week[iv] in Antalya and defined the limits the Turkish forces and their proxies can reach in Syria. It was clear that Ankara shall not be part of any attack against Raqqa and that its forces and proxies will stop at the limits defined by Al-Bab gates. Both the US and Russia want to avoid any Turkish-Kurdish clash in Syria, particularly as the danger from Jihadists, ISIS and al-Qaida is far from being over, and that Kurdish forces still have a role to play in attacking ISIS around Raqqa.

Aspects of President Trump’s policy towards Syria are materialising, whilst there is a clear hesitation by the US administration regarding many other plans related to Bilad al-Sham during and after the war’s end. Trump wants to avoid any military confrontation with Russia and acknowledge its presence and its role in Syria, useful also for combating terrorism. Moscow wants to end the war and look after its strategic interests by being present on the ground in the Middle East for many years to come, thanks to the Syrian window. It is also aiming to eliminate over 9,000 Russian nationals[v] and various other nationalities fighting within the ranks of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. It is in the interests of all the countries concerned to eliminate terrorists before they spread and leave Syria for other destinations and wage the jihad in some other place. This particular issue is driving the Russian-US coordination in countering terrorism, even if the US is still unclear about its own plans after the end of the war.

To-date, the intention of the US troops stationed in the north of Syria and its strategic objectives is still unclear. The presence of four US military bases and an airport under construction may be an indication that these forces are not willing to pull out any time soon. Leaving Syria won’t be without a price and staying means the creation of a Kurdish Syrian enclave similar to Kurdistan in Iraq. This also means the Turkish forces will follow the US and keep over five thousand square kilometres annexed to Turkey.

It is also clear that though Trump is injecting more US troops on the ground, he is fighting, up to now, with Kurdish and Arab tribe’s proxies. He may be aiming to register a “recognised victory” by defeating ISIS (the group is retreating on all fronts in Iraq and Syria, deprived of any support and with more limited finances) without diving into the Syrian quagmire. Such a victory may turn into failure if Trump decides to keep US troops there indefinitely once the Syrian war is over.

The question remains: which forces will storm the city of Raqqa?

Twenty thousand Arab and Kurdish militants may be able to reach the gates of Raqqa and participate in surrounding it. The Arab tribes in the area will reject the control by Kurds of an Arab city. Moreover, there is no reason for the Kurds to risk their lives and lose hundreds or thousands of militants (hundreds of Kurds lost their lives to liberate Manbij city) to deliver the city of Raqqa back to the Arab tribes once it is liberated from ISIS.

Therefore, Trump will be facing a real dilemma, and will be forced to collaborate with Russia and its allies on this front against ISIS. Air strike coordination between Russia and the US is not excluded for the Kurds to reach one side of Raqqa and for the Syrian Army to storm the other side of the city, similar to the tactics used at Mosul (Iraqi Kurds were responsible for reaching the northern front of Mosul, contributing to surrounding ISIS). In this case, Trump won’t be the only one to collect the victory, he will be forced to share it with Russia and work alongside the Syrian forces- unless of course he decides to put in his own US troops (several thousands) and accept the inevitable human losses! All difficult choices, but the collaboration of US, Russian and Syrian army forces in Syria is absolutely unavoidable.

 

The role of Russia:

Moscow in the Syrian war is acting like the maestro of an orchestra, aiming to control the pace of the battles and the distribution of power on the geopolitical map of the Levant.

Russia has decided that Syria has become a part of its political and military strategies, preventing the fall of a coherent governing system that protects the state and prevents the reproduction of the Libyan “failed state” scenario. To this end, and to maintain its influence in the Middle East through the Syrian window, Russia has worked on multiple fronts to ensure that it is not dragged into the Syrian quagmire, that the long war in Syria ends, and that the safety and long term security of its military bases on the borders of NATO Middle East – represented by Turkey – be confirmed.

Moscow showed its fangs to the Obama administration when they insisted on protecting al-Qaeda and other jihadists. The Russians used all kinds of modern weapons (appropriate to the Syrian war) to hit all of the United States allies and “protected” groups in Syria when these were working closely with al-Qaeda, and were benefitting from modern weapons, intelligence, finance and logistic supply from the countries of the region (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey). Moscow offered full air support to the Syrian army and its allies, and represented the spearhead of main attacks against the alliance of jihadists and the Syrian rebel groups. This led the forces of Damascus to a robust victory in the cities of Aleppo, Palmyra, rural Lattakia, and Damascus and other parts of Syria.

Russia has committed itself to strike any alliance of al-Qaeda and the armed opposition (even if these were not included in any peace talks) if these have the intention of violating the Astana-Kazakhstan ceasefire and preparing for a future offensive against the Syrian army. Moscow is asking Damascus and its allies to fight ISIS now rather than al-Qaeda, mainly established around Aleppo and in the northern city of Idlib, unless these insist on harassing the Syrian army positions.

The Kremlin rejected any Turkish proposition to advance into Kurdish territory because this is already liberated from ISIS. And it stopped Turkey dead at the city of al-Bab, preventing its forces from moving any further. Russia does not trust Turkey’s intentions in Syria despite the recent visit of President Erdogan to Moscow (where warmth has returned to the relationship-for the sake of both countries’ economies). President Putin was clear with Erdogan about his strategic alliance with Iran, despite his orchestrating terrorism whilst hoping to earn Trump’s blessing.

Ankara may try to turn its attention towards Russia rather than the US in the forthcoming Astana 3 talks, hoping, probably in vain, to persuade Putin to choose to support Turkish forces against the Kurds in Syria. The military map has been already drawn, where Turkey has no place in the forthcoming war against ISIS- nor will she be allowed to venture into the area already liberated by the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Turkish influence is still needed against al-Qaeda due to the presence of several of its proxy groups in Idlib and around it, and due to the easy border crossings and benefits Turkey allows al-Qaeda to enjoy.

Moscow is expected to play an important role in the future of Syrian policy, imposing a political dialogue and negotiations between rebels and Damascus in Astana and Geneva. Russia is carefully avoiding the Afghanistan experience, unwilling to be drawn into a long war in Syria. This is one of the main reasons why Putin wants the end of the war as soon as possible. Already, the slogan of “Assad should leave by military or political means[vi]” is history: even the US is no longer asking for the departure of the Syrian President saying his fate will be decided “by the on-going political negotiations”.

On the other hand, Russia has not interfered in the conflict between Israel and Iran (and its Lebanese Hezbollah ally). Israel was prevented from targeting any military force fighting alongside the Syrians, but, at the same time, Tel Aviv jets were given a free hand to bomb Iranian warehouses dedicated to Hezbollah in Lebanon or to the “Syrian resistance” in the Golan, a force which is preparing in the shadows for the post-Syrian war. Russia doesn’t want to be part of this struggle and she has allowed both sides to sort out the rules of engagement on their own. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu failed to convince President Putin and won’t have a free hand to bomb Hezbollah and Iran[vii] in Syria as long as these are part of a coalition led by Russia to end ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. The war is not over yet and al-Qaeda has large forces in the north of Syria and others in the south. ISIS is still capable of causing damage, its fighters number several thousand in Syria and Iraq.

 

Al-Qaeda from “Nusra” to “Fateh al-Sham” to “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”:

Al-Qaeda has lost its “father” and “mother” in Syria and its region when absolute support for changing the regime in Syria was dropped.

The “father” was incarnated in several countries of the region (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who are now reducing their role in Syria because the opposition failed to achieve the target of overthrowing Assad, and because Russia and the US are imposing new rules, closing the road to any arms supply or finance to terrorist groups in Syria. The regular passage through Turkey is closing down slowly but surely: ISIS and al-Qaeda will be shortly unable to benefit from the supply line available for over five years.

“People to the movement are just like water to

the fish: Any movement that misses public sympathy will

continuously lose thrust until the movement vanishes or hides[viii]” (Osama Bin Laden).

Where the Obama administration failed to split rebels from al-Qaeda, its leader Abu Mohamad al-Joulani succeeded: he attacked the same rebel groups who offered protection to al-Qaeda for years when these accepted to participate in the Astana cease-fire talks. Not only that, al-Qaeda attacked the biggest rebel jihadi group “Ahrar al-Sham” who turned down the offer to go to Astana, accepting Turkey’s anger, just to stand by AQ. This is when al-Qaeda lost its “mother” in Syria- where the Syrian people are giving up, turning against it and rejecting its actions. Joulani offered two choices to most groups: either you join us or we fight you to the death.

 

“You know that many of jihadist groups that insisted on starting by working on the internal enemy got their courses foiled and did not achieve their goals, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the attempt of the Islamic Jihad in Egypt, the condition of the brothers in Libya and Algeria[ix]” (Osama Bin Laden).

 

In the light of the Russian-American determination to fight terrorism in Syria, al-Qaeda has few options:

– Fight to the death a battle without any strategic outcome

– Merge with rebel groups, like Ahrar al-Sham, a most unlikely step following the recent events where al-Qaeda attacked rebels and Ahrar to gather strength and weapons

– Ask all foreign fighters to leave Syria and go to another Jihadi land, Yemen or Somalia. Joulani has said that Foreign Fighters represent at least a third of his forces.

Therefore, eliminating ISIS first as a top priority may allow enough time for al-Qaeda to prepare for its biggest battle or decide on an alternative plan. Once Idlib faces the choice of surrendering or fighting, the thinking will be over and a clear cut decision will impose itself.

 

Saudi Arabia and Qatar role in Syria:

The Middle Eastern countries understand today that Russia is planning to stay in Syria and will use all its powers to defend its interests. It is also clear that the US won’t be able to alter Russia’s decisive intention. Therefore all regional players are slowly pulling out, mainly following the recovery of the city of Aleppo by Damascus forces.

The UN envoy to Syria, Stafan De Mistura has clearly stated that the all parties should give up on the illusion of a possible military victory, engage in a global ceasefire, discuss the constitution (by the same Syrians), reconstruct the country and put an end to terrorism. There is to be no further talk about the fate of the Syrian President: a clear indication that the international community is prepared to give up on any group willing to continue fighting and that Syria is heading toward the end of the war.

This stand is sending a strong message to Saudi Arabia and Qatar that no more military supplies to rebels or jihadists will be tolerated, which means the end of the Middle Eastern countries’ negative role. Saudi Arabia and Qatar never had a clear strategy in Syria except supplying weapons and finance for a regime change without necessarily planning for a new government or forwarding any kind of vision for the new ruler of Syria. A “failed state” was on the agenda of Saudi Arabia and Qatar even if that was leading to control by jihadists, al-Qaeda and ISIS, who would turn their guns, once they were strong enough, against these same Middle Eastern countries.

 

Iran:

Speculation went viral in the media, claiming that Russia would ask Iran and Hezbollah to leave Syria as part of the peace process deal. This was wishful thinking since Moscow never raised the question with Iran and its allies. What makes this speculation unrealistic is the fact that only the Syrian government or President would ask his allies to leave the country. Moreover, al-Qaeda and ISIS still maintain tens of thousands of militants on the ground and the Syrian army alone, with the support of Russian Air Force, may not be able to cleanse the country of these. AQ and ISIS are equipped with a strong ideology, a driving force not present in the doctrine of the professional soldier: therefore, there is a need for similar ideologies so as to be able to fight back with the same determination.

Iran came to Syria in 1982 to respond to those who became known later as the Lebanese Hezbollah. Also, it is Assad who asked for the support of Hezbollah in 2013 when the situation became critical. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah form what is known as the “axis of resistance” where Syria fulfilled its deal by supplying advanced weapons to Hezbollah in 2006 (and continues to do so to this date) to face Israel. Therefore, Syria won’t be in need of tens of thousands of allies once the war is over. The allies of Syria are expected to leave as fast as they landed in the country when Assad decides it shall be so, regardless of what Moscow or Washington wish.

Today, it is obvious that the Iranian strategy prevailed over that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria and managed to sustain a friendly government in Syria. Iran is also playing a positive role in the rapprochement between Baghdad and Damascus, resulting in military collaboration and the air bombing of ISIS targets by the Iraqi Air Force in Syria.

Moreover, there is an on-going discussion between Damascus and Tehran for the construction of an Iranian naval base in the oil terminal port of Banias, 55 km from Latakia. If realised (it may take few years before it becomes operational) it will boost the crippled Syrian economy. Throughout the years of war, Iran has been supplying Syria with oil, mainly when the jihadists of ISIS and Al-Qaeda controlled the northern eastern oil fields.

 

Hezbollah:

Hezbollah militants are present over the entire Syrian geography, supporting the Syrian army in its war against rebels and jihadists. Hezbollah believes Israel and the US, financed by Saudi Arabia, maybe preparing for another round of violence against the Lebanese group in Lebanon. Nevertheless, all facts indicate the opposite:

  • if Trump is aiming for a spectacular victory, ISIS is much weaker than Hezbollah, easier to win over.
  • US priorities in Syria are to degrade and contain ISIS and maybe al-Qaeda. To achieve this goal, Hezbollah forces are still needed. Moreover, the result of a war against Hezbollah, unlike ISIS, is not guaranteed. The tens of thousands of rockets and missiles held by Hezbollah can create real damage in Israel.
  • If Israel declares war against Hezbollah, Syria will take part as a direct player, dragging Russia with it. The destiny of the Syrian regime is linked to its victory in Syria. It won’t hesitate to stand by those who fought with its army for years. Russia wouldn’t want to see its plans in Syria collapsing when so close to achieving its goal.
  • The internal Israeli front is not ready to face a destructive war with Hezbollah, in control of between 150,000 to 200,000 rockets and missiles, according to Israeli officials.
  • The warfare experience gathered by Hezbollah in Syria made the group a challenging adversary when facing Israeli infantry. Hezbollah engaged in a different battle style against its fiercest enemies in Syria (ISIS and al-Qaeda) and showed itself to be fearless of death, unlike the Israeli army.

As long as the war in Syria was fuelled and active, Israel was feeling safe. Now that the beginning of the end is taking off, Israel is rightly worried. It took Hezbollah very few days to occupy the 600 sqkm city of al-Quseyr in 2013. How long it would it take to occupy the 2,380 sqkm of Galilee in a war situation? The war in Syria was highly beneficial to Hezbollah, despite the 1,600 men killed in the battlefield.

Syria looks both close to and far from the end of the war. There are still both military (against ISIS and al-Qaeda) and political battles (constitution, cease-fire, reconstruction) to be fought. Nevertheless, despite the US and Turkish occupation of Syrian territory which Damascus will have to face one day, there are clear signs that the war in Syria is on track towards its ending.

 

 

Endnotes:

[i] Dearden Lizzie, US marines sent to Syria to help assault on ISIS; Raqqa stronghold, The Independent, March 2017.  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/us-marine-corps-syria-raqqa-isis-stronghold-assault-attack-donald-trump-islamic-state-a7620236.html

[ii] Tomson Chris, Syrian Army reaches Lake Assad for the first time since 2012 amid humiliating ISIS defeat, Al-Masdar News, March 2017. https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-army-reaches-lake-assad-first-time-since-2012-amid-humiliating-isis-defeat/

[iii] Bassam Laila & Pamuk Humeyra, Syrian army dash to al-Bab risks Turkey clash, Reuters, Feb 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-albab-idUSKBN15G5DA

[iv] Oliphant Roland, Top Russian, Turkish, and US generals meet amid standoff in northern Syria, The Telegraph, March 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/07/top-russian-turkish-us-generals-meet-amid-standoff-northern/

[v] Putin: ‘Thousands’ from former Soviet bloc fighting with IS, BBC News, October 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34552318

[vi] Syria crisis: bashar al-Assad must go or face ‘military option’, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister says, ABC, September 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-30/assad-must-go-or-face-military-option-saudi-arabia-says/6815218

[vii] Keinon Herb, Netanyahu to urge Russia to say ‘Nyet’ to Iranian ops near Israel border, The Jerusalem Post, March 2017. http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Netanyahu-to-urge-Russia-to-say-nyet-to-Iranian-ops-near-Israel-border-483257

[viii] Osama Bin Laden letter to Abu Basir, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Leading Intelligence Integration, Bin Laden’s Book Shelf, letters seized from the compound used to hide Osama Bin laden in Abbottabad raid, released on January 2017, p.2. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ubl2017/english/Letter%20to%20Abu%20Basir.pdf

[ix] Ibid, p.5.

 

Putin is expected to lead the anti-Trump front in Syria or to engage in bargaining with the US.

 

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– The explicit Turkish-Iranian bickering is unprecedented

– Turkey has lost Mosul but managed to occupy a part of Syria

– The Erdogan coup against his allies of yesterday is not new on his part

– Partition is now expected to hit: separated Northern and Southern Syria will be the result

– Damascus will support the Kurds and Arabs against Turkey if necessary: any push toward Manbij or Raqqah will be totally opposed.

 

Published here: 

By Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

 

Russia is prepared to face down Donald Trump’s policy in Syria as revealed by the reaction of the US President himself in sending US ground troops and establishing more than one safe zone in Bilad al-Sham.  The safe zones may be not restricted to northern Syria but might reach the south as well. This indicates that the war in Syria is reaching its final phase where the various countries involved are committing their own men on the ground rather than hiding behind proxies, financing them to fight on their behalf for their respective interests. All the signs indicate the inevitable outcome the partition of Syria for many years to come, leading to a struggle and wars “without end” in the Middle East.

Top decision makers in the Syrian capital say “Russia realises today the gravity of the situation in Syria and that any political solution has not yet matured. Yesterday’s allies are turning against their previous agreements, changing significantly the course of events. This follows the explicit announcement by President Trump of his intentions towards Syria and the Turkish announcement whose support safe zones and send troops to Raqqah (thus dividing the north of Syria)”.

“Russia is looking at Syria more realistically today than ever before. The Kremlin, in the past year, allowed Iran to mediate the return of warmth to the Moscow-Ankara relationship following the downing of the Russian Sukhoi SU-24 on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to hide under the skirts of NATO. As expected, NATO High Command rejected any intervention against Russia, in order to avoid a clash in Syria with another superpower. Once again Iran intervened and convinced Russia of the necessity to bring the Turkish President to the negotiation table in Astana (Kazakhstan) as a partner, due to Ankara’s influence over both the rebels and the jihadists, convinced this would end the war in Syria”.

Both Moscow and Tehran – despite Damascus’s apparently sceptical approach – agreed it was time to close their eyes on Ankara’s years of support for “Islamic State” (allowing foreign fighters to join the terrorist group, and weapons, ammunition and necessities being tolerated to flow into Syria and Iraq in exchange for stolen oil and art treasures and regime change) and for Al-Qaeda – who permitted militants to benefit from medical, logistic and weapons support and to use the Turkish borders to attack the Syrian Army in any military campaigns, mainly the Kessab (rural Latakia) and Idlib attacks) – even though both organisations were considered to be terrorist groups by both Turkey and the US”.

According to the source, Iran didn’t take sufficiently into account the personality of the Turkish President and his “unstable friendships” with leaders in the Middle Eastern region. Indeed, both Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad were very close friends prior to 2011. Ankara was carrying the Palestinian cause, (confronting Israel in the Marmara crisis) and was acting as intermediary between Tel Aviv and Damascus for the return of the occupied Golan Heights.

It is clear that Russia is upset with Turkey’s new alignment with President Trump, which promotes the partition of Syria (with safe zones and a push towards Raqqah). It is for this reason that Moscow planned to cover the advance of the Syrian Army and to close the road on the Turkish forces and their proxies at the limit of al-Bab, ready to bomb Ankara’s soldiers and tanks if necessary. A new map is drawn now where Damascus will temporarily accept Turkish soldiers on its soil until the end of this war.

Damascus’ priority is to fight ISIS, al-Qaida and to disturb the Turkish-US plans in Syria. The Syrian Army will definitely support the Kurds and the Arabs in the northern area of Syria to make sure Ankara sinks into the Syrian quagmire and remains engaged in the long war. Any push of Ankara soldiers toward Manbij or Raqqah will not be tolerated neither by Moscow nor by Damascus.

Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to Naval Special Warfare personnel during an all-hands call at Naval Special Warfare Center. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell/Released)

Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to Naval Special Warfare personnel during an all-hands call at Naval Special Warfare Center. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell/Released)

There is real concern among the different decision makers operating in Syria about the forthcoming phase that is aiming to divide the country. When Trump speaks of “safe zones” it is another way of indicating that the US wants to establish a permanent base in Syria (US already have military bases at Al-Rmaylan (south east Syria), Tal Baidar, Mabrouki, Ain Eissa, Tel Abiyad and al-Hasaka with thousands of advisors). The visits of US officials, congressman and military commanders confirm there is more going on than meets the eye in the northern Kurdish Syrian area.

A second “safe zone” could indeed be the triangle Jarablus- al Ra’I- Azaz- alBab, occupied by Turkey. This Turkish triangle was possible only when Turkey expressed its fear of the “terrorist attacks” which jeopardised its national security. It was also a convenient plan as seen by both Moscow and Damascus for disrupting the Obama US administration plan to form a new Kurdish “state”, similar to Kurdistan Iraq, from al-Malikiya to Afrin. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s new aggressive position towards Iran and Damascus is therefore reshuffling the cards: once again Turkey is considered hostile. In the eyes of Damascus Tehran and Moscow, Erdogan is no longer a trustworthy ally, he chooses to join the US policy in Syria, wanting to have his share and not be cut out.

The third ‘safe zone” is the south of Syria, along the Jordanian- Israeli borders. The area is under the control of ISIS (Khaled bin al-waleed) and al-Qaeda along with other rebels and jihadists. The US could participate with Gulf money  in a military campaign in that area under the banner of fighting terrorism. It fits perfectly well with the “buffer zone”  Israel was intending to establish few years ago. In fact, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would “never return the Golan Heights to Syria”.  In establishing a new “buffer (or safe) zone”, Damascus will have to negotiate the return of this newly occupied land rather than the Golan. This plan would prevent the Lebanese Hezbollah from operating in the Golan area, particularly as its Secretary General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah considers that his war against Israel starts from Naqoura (the Lebanese southern borders with Israel) and extends to the Golan Heights.

“It cannot be excluded that Trump and Netanyahu want to bring Jordan into the Syrian swamp to keep Israel in the shadows. The US President is unaware that creating a buffer zone offers the perfect reason-d’être to Iran, Hezbollah and the newly formed “Syrian resistance” for carrying out attacks on Israel, and on whoever occupies the new southern area if that is the plan. A “Syrian resistance” mirroring Hezbollah was created a few years ago, equipped in the same Hezbollah fashion and trained to face Israel once the war settles down”, said the source.

For such a plan to be effective it is necessary to get rid of President Assad, not through the ballot where he can easily win, but by any other possible means. Moreover, it is also necessary to hit the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran, militarily for the first and economically the latter, in order to paralyse any attempt to disrupt such a plan. Already Trump started off by accusing Iran of “sponsoring terrorism”, followed by Turkey who also accused Iran of being responsible for terrorism in the Middle East and for attempting to establish “Shia states in Iraq and Syria”. The preparation of a bigger plan seems to be on its way. The exchange of accusations and hostile statements between Turkey and Iran has reached an unprecedented level of escalation.

It is obvious that Erdogan is pulling out of his deal with Russia and Tehran. In Astana 1, Turkey sent a high level delegation to the peace talks. In Astana 2, the Turkish delegation was late, the meeting was postponed for a day and the level of authoritative representation was downgraded. The Turkish President failed to achieve any benefit or control in Iraq, and therefore he is playing the Syrian card, where his ambition and plans to annex further territory are clearer today than ever before. This could be either a blessing or a curse for Turkey in the long term, unless Moscow were to agree on an apparent status quo, including the partition of Syria, and engage itself in market-place bargaining with President Trump, accepting the US, Turkish and Jordanian presence in one territory that used to be called Bilad al-Sham.

“The US abandoned its friends, including Erdogan during the coup d’état in 2016 when Iran and Moscow fully supported him. Friends of America, i.e. the Tunisian President Zein al-Abideen bin Ali, the Egyptian Hosni Mubarak and the Libyan Moammar Gheddafi,  were all dropped because “the US establishes business relationships not friendship”. When the time comes, this newly formed alliance (US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) will fall to the advantage of the Axis of the Resistance”, the source believes.

It is very difficult to predict Erdogan’s future policy, just as it is impossible to predict what will happen to Syria in the next year. Different armies have gone down into the battlefield with their own soldiers (US, Turkey and Iran). It is apparently no longer a mystery what the US will do because its plan has been clearly announced and implemented. But it is crucial to know how Russia will react: is it going to buy and sell, or take a stand against everybody, facing everyone in Syria?