Author Archives: Elijah J Magnier

About Elijah J Magnier

Senior Political Risk Analyst with over 32 years' experience covering the Middle East and acquiring in-depth experience, robust contacts and political knowledge in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Syria. Specialised in terrorism and counter-terrorism, intelligence, political assessments, strategic planning and thorough insight in political networks in the region. Covered on the ground the Israeli invasion to Lebanon (1st war 1982), the Iraq-Iran war, the Lebanese civil war, the Gulf war (1991), the war in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1996), the US invasion to Iraq (2003 to date), the second war in Lebanon (2006), the war in Libya and Syria (2011 to date). Lived for many years in Lebanon, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria.

Has Russia asked Hezbollah to leave Syria?

 

Published here:  via

Damascus, by Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

There has been a lot of media coverage claiming that Russia has requested the Lebanese Hezbollah to leave Syrian territory, speculation initiated following Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s announcement of the withdrawal of his men from the Lebanese border, with the exception of the outskirts of the city of Arsal. Nasrallah asked the Lebanese army to fill the vacuum from the Lebanese side (Hezbollah won’t pull out of the Syrian side) and that prompted some media and analysts to conclude that Moscow no longer wants Hezbollah to remain in the Levant. Is this theory close to reality?

The border area between Lebanon and Syria, controlled by Hezbollah and the Syrian army, is under the gaze of Israel because it represents Hezbollah’s new base:, it hosts Hezbollah “Al Ridwan” elite forces, and its strategic missile silos are dug into the mountains and fortified in the caves all along the 130 kilometre border area. The area was a heavy burden on the Hezbollah military apparatus, forcing it to create new roads, fortify dozens of sites and find adequate shelter for its strategic missiles – the M 600 and the new version of its Iran-made “Al-Fateh” missiles – inside the mountains. Moreover, Hezbollah has operated in the area for the last 3 years throughout the summer and the winter, even on peaks of up to 2,500 meters, a significant drain on its already significant monthly budget.

More than 500 al-Qaeda and rebel fighters were deployed in this same area, apart from the presence of ISIS (The “Islamic State” group). These forced Hezbollah to deploy at least 5,000 fighters just to that area. Additionally, Hezbollah used drones, set up dozens of ambushes and positioned IEDs to hunt down its enemies and tighten the control over a significantly difficult geographical area.

After many years of war, Hezbollah managed to control a large part of the region: this means al-Qaeda, ISIS and the rebels would have been left without any military gain had these decided to stay in the area.

When most Syrian areas along the borders with Lebanon -in the Qalamoun and Zabadani mainly- agreed a settlement with the Syrian leadership in Damascus; and (following the agreement of the parties in the war in Syria on the rebel side) agreed – under the auspices of Russia, Turkey and Iran – to “stop fighting and leave the area (only those willing to leave to Idlib, while many Syrians preferred to stay in their cities) it was no longer possible for rebels and jihadists to keep up the fight.

This coincides with the request of Moscow for the Hezbollah leadership to increase the number of “Ridwan” forces and to push these men towards the Syrian semi-desert steppe: that was possible for Hezbollah, following the end of the military operation in the border area.

Hezbollah’s military activity on the eastern chain was difficult and painful. Huge budgets were invested to allow men to operate and fight in the area. Today, however, the threat has almost ended. Most of the Hezbollah forces have moved to other areas inside Syria.

The “Ridwan” Hezbollah forces, along with hundreds of Russian special forces and the Syrian army and its proxies, are now fighting to recover the oil fields (exploited by Russia in Syria) and to stop the American-British-Jordanian project to create a “buffer zone” starting from the Suweida and Daraa governed territories and extending towards the Iraqi border, Deir al-Zour from Palmyra to Sukhna.

It is clear that the US – which supports the progress of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) made up of Kurds and of Arab tribes under the Kurdish leadership in the northeast of Syria – is not yet ready to guide its proxies towards the city of Deir Al-Zour, besieged as it is by ISIS. ISIS is indeed crumbling in Iraq and Syria but not yet that weak in Deir Al-Zour province, and especially not in the Syrian Badia (steppe).

Russia, Damascus and their allies are headed towards Deir Al-Zour, regardless of the US and their proxies rebels forces’ plan to control the Syrian steppe and the city of Deir Al-Zour (which host large numbers of Syrian Army officers and soldiers, along with Hezbollah Special Forces). Moreover, Damascus has sent a clear signal to Amman, a threat that it would consider the Jordanian forces as enemies if these set foot on Syrian soil in support of the US and its Syrian proxies. This clear and direct menace stopped the American-British-Jordanian progress and has put these forces in an awkward position with the Damascus authorities.

The Hezbollah “Ridwan” Special Forces were therefore pushed into the battles of Deir Al-Zour, al-Sukhna, al-Raqqah, and Daraa in order to recover the area around these cities and locations, but above all, to spoil the US plans to occupy the North- east of Syria.

As for Russia, its forces and Generals are closely watching the Syrian battles, especially those waged by the Lebanese Hezbollah. Russian officers draw military lessons and know-how from the performance of the “Ridwan” special forces and the quality and effectiveness of the weapons and the tactics used, specially after Hezbollah’s accumulated experience in the long war with Israel and its multi-level wars in Syria where they faced forces pursuing a variety of well-developed methods and ideologies.

Russia has never had a similar battle in its history, so there is a widespread interest expressed by a heavy presence of experts on all fronts. This is not only to seek air support and to participate in the fighting, but – indeed – also to watch the fights.

Hezbollah has succeeded in changing the equation in Syria in conjunction with the Russian and Syrian air forces and has carried out several major battles., the most important of which were the battles of Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and those on the Syrian-Lebanese borders (Al-Qalamoun and Zabadani), al-Quseyr, the various Lattakia axes, around Damascus at Qaboun, Barza, WadiBarada and Madaya.

Because the end of military operations on the Syrian-Lebanese border is nigh, Hezbollah has managed to direct more than 20,000 troops to other internal but strategic fronts. The fronts around Damascus and Zabadani also allowed more than 10,000 Syrian troops to be moved to “hotter” areas.

Sources connected with decision makers in Syria confirmed that Hezbollah is building up greater forces in Syria to reach an unprecedented level, supported by huge logistic supply lines to accompany the fighting force. Significant military plans are being prepared for after the forthcoming month of Ramadan to end the presence of al-Qaeda and ISIS militants around Arsal city. These militants will be offered the chance to leave and join Idlib or fight to the end on the Syrian-Lebanese border, an area excluded from the Astana-Kazakhstan negotiations.

If Hezbollah withdraws from the Lebanese border, it will not leave the Syrian side of the borders where it has established static positions, military training cities, and sites for its weapons involved in any forthcoming war with Israel. Syria has become directly involved in this particular Hezbollah-Israel conflict. Hezbollah has also introduced the concept of “the Syrian resistance” in the ideology,: this has become a reality that Israel will find difficult to ignore in the near future when the war in Syria ends.

The “Shiite Crescent,” which extends from Tehran – Baghdad -Damascus and continues to Beirut, is not related to a certain geographical line crossing through this or that capital, as some sources imagine. It is in fact a “project” that materialised with the US invasion to Iraq in 2003 and following the ISIS occupation of Mosul in 2014. These events strengthened this virtual link without weakening it at all. This indicates that only ending the Middle East conflicts will make long-term stability possible in the area. The presence of the US occupation forces in North and northeast Syria will only create more conflict, reminding everyone of the Iraqi insurgency memory regarding Mesopotamia. The United States is clearly unwilling or unable to learn from history.

The US-Russia race in Syria: towards a military confrontation?

 

Military operations on the Iraqi-Syrian borders will close all roads to ISIS

Published here:  via

Key words: USA, US, Russia, Moscow, Washington, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq.

By Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

Moscow and Damascus prepare their respective forces – and those of their allies – to initiate aggressive multi-objective battles directed towards the Syrian-Iraqi borders (and towards Deir-ezzour). These take place at the same time as the Iraqi forces initiate a battle not far from the Syrian borders, in the Iraqi western desert, as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has announced.

The new Iraqi battles – supported by the US and coalition forces – aim to secure the border triangle up to the Jordanian borders or Ratba, including the Iraqi-Syrian borders once the cities of Ana and Rawa are liberated. Other battles, without coalition support, are expected to be carried out by the Iraqi forces of “Hashd al-Sha’bi” (Popular Mobilisation Units- PMU), heading towards al-Ba’aj, and closing all routes between Iraq and Syria.

The various battles on both sides of the borders have another objective: to protect the backs of the US forces and their Syrian proxies present at al-Tanaf crossing (on the Syrian side). This also helps to meet the advance of the US Special Operation Forces and the Kurds of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) advancing towards al-Qaem and already only dozens of kilometres from their objective.

These advances will put the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) between two fires on both sides of the Syrian and the Iraqi borders: militants will have no other alternative but to fight or die, to surrender or escape into the Anbar and Syrian deserts. Other may seek refuge with al-Qaeda group (under the name of Hay’atTahrir al-Sham) – also facing serious extermination once ISIS is wiped out from the territories it has controlled since 2014.

On the other hand, Moscow, Damascus and Tehran, including all their respective allies, have started multi-front battles in the east south, middle and north of Syria to counter the US plans. A large number of allies’ forces were pushed into the front line to prepare for the forthcoming battle against the US and their proxies on the various fronts:

-The Deir-ezzour front: Both Washington and Moscow announced their will to reach the besieged city of Deir-ezzour (each for its own purpose and with its own allied forces), to break ISIS lines surrounding the city. Nevertheless, the US’s chances are slim because the Syrian Army and its allies have defended the north-eastern city for years, preventing it from falling into the hands of ISIS or any other force advancing towards the city. Therefore it is most likely that Moscow will imposes the momentum in the area, otherwise it may not be possible to avoid a military confrontation between the two superpowers. Neither Washington nor Moscow seem ready to be dragged into a larger war over the control of one Syrian city.

-Towards al-Tanaf crossing: There are already US Special Operation Forces and their Syrian proxies present on the Syrian-Iraqi crossing point. Al-Tanaf is situated in a large open desert, used only as a border point between the two countries. Moscow is also determined to reach it and recover it, with the support of its allied ground forces, putting Washington again in an awkward situation. The US has to coordinate with Russia or it will be forced to pull out from al-Tanaf, even if its Syrian proxies decide to hold and defend their position. Al-Tanaf represents another issue from the logistics point of view: the forces who control it need regular logistics and supply lines, weapons and vital survival support. This will be a challenge for any force willing to occupy it.

 

-Al Badiya al-Surya (The Syrian steppe): On this front, the US-Jordanian proxies are advancing from the provinces of Daraa and Suweida southeast Syria in the Syrian semi-desert steppe. The Syrian Army started its air bombing on these forces to prevent them from advancing towards al-Tanaf or to close with the Syrian Army troops in Palmyra (Tadmur). Once more, the US and Russia (along with Damascus and Tehran) are confronting each other on Syrian soil: too many dangerously conflicting areas and interests.

Thus, under the title “defeating ISIS”, the multiple battles and the confrontation of forces present themselves fundamentally as a confrontation between the two superpowers. There are Special Operation Forces of both Russia and the US in Syria where both support their proxies, guide their military operations, call for air support, coordinate with their respective operation rooms and- ultimately-  end up facing each other.

The forthcoming battles will be taking place outside the “de-conflict zones” agreed by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran in Astana-Kazakhstan (with US representatives acting as observers). The Syrian steppes, Deir-ezzour, al-Tanaf, al-Qaem and Raqqah were all excluded from the deal. Moscow is giving its priority to the “borders battle” – responding also to the will of the allies that form the “axis of the resistance” –following the visit of the Iraqi PMU Leader, Faleh al-Fay’yad, who informed Damascus and Beirut (Hezbollah) about the Prime Minister Abadi’s plans “suggested” by the Americans.

This is why – according to sources within the Prime Minister’s office – Baghdad started the Tanaf – Qaem – Ba’aj battle, following pressure exerted by the US military command stationed in Iraq. Such a request rings bells among the leadership in Syria, confirming that Washington is preparing for the phase after the war to spread its control into various territories in Syria, including border areas, under the pretext of “defeating ISIS”. This Salafi-Jihadi group is in its final chapter and everybody in Mesopotamia and Bilad al-Sham is racing to take over its territories. ISIS, the once glorious that broke the Sykes-Picot borders and occupied vast territories in 2014 is crumbling on all fronts!

Thus, these military operations with multiple objectives will aim to draw a line between the two superpowers in Syria, hinting in effect that the war is going to end, although al-Qaeda (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) can still play a destructive role. This group has been excluded from any deal, even if the city it is mainly occupying has been included in the de-conflict areas (as requested by Turkey and agreed by Damascus, Russia and Tehran). However, al-Qaeda itself rejected the Astana deal and considered any rebel group signing the deal worthy of being killed on the spot.

It is not the first time that both Russia and the US are racing for the control of a single territory (cf. Berlin at the end of the second World War). This race today emphasises that Syria will no doubt face partition. Nevertheless, the presence of occupation forces on its land doesn’t mean these will be spared: Tehran, Damascus and Hezbollah all vow to attack these forces. Would Russia allow this to happen to the US forces or it would just sit back and watch its opponent get hit in Bilad al-Sham?

The “axis of resistance” has other projects and objectives too, starting from dealing with the Israeli forces on the occupied Golan heights to the US forces in the northeast and east of Syria, not forgetting the danger both ISIS and al-Qaeda still represent, even if they are defeated in Syria. Stability in the Middle East is still far from being achieved.

US and Russia compete in Syria on “reducing escalation” and “safe zones”

The “Shiite Crescent” will not break at Al-Tanaf and al-Bu Kamal border crossing

Published here:  via

Damascus By Elijah J. Magnier: 

There is no doubt that the main players (Russia and America) are competing in Syria to secure their interests and the interests of their allies in a country that was once, before 2011, called the Levant; the unity of that country is now uncertain. The partition of Syria between the two superpowers (and Turkey) seems somehow unambiguous and the sorting of the population – according to allegiance, not according to religion – casts a threatening shadow. The war in Syria is not primarily a religious sectarian war but a war for power and control.

The Syrian Sunnis represent more than 70 per cent of Syria’s population. Many support the government, live under its protection, within its controlled area, along with other religions and atheists. The majority of these fight within the Syrian Army ranks and are killed defending the unity of the country. Other Syrians abandoned the army and their country, while others decided to fight against Damascus and live in rebel and jihadist-controlled areas. These rebel and Jihadists controlled-areas host only Sunni and will not tolerate other religions, yet, with the exception of the south of Syria (Suweida’) and other smaller pockets, they had been tolerated up till today.

There are millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians who will remain as such for many years to come. Whoever is fighting in Syria alongside with both belligerents cannot change the demographic structure of the population and the Sunnis will remain a majority, with around 13 million out of 18.5 million Syrians.

Even yesterday’s allies, such as the Syrian pro-Saudi Arabia rebels, “the Army of Islam”, Jihadists of “Faylaq al-rahman” and al-Qaeda (Hay’atTahrir al-Sham) are now fighting each other for the control of al-Ghouta, around Damascus. The continuous infighting among Sunni rebels for the control of the north of Syria and rural Damascus hasn’t stopped throughout these last years, whereas no infighting has been registered in the area under Damascus’s control since the beginning of the war.

Russia and the US are careless about Syrian infighting, they don’t take it seriously (enough): Washington is aiming for multi-faceted “buffer zones”, while Moscow wants “de-conflict areas” that allow a possible rapid and possibly permanent stability in Syria to ensure the safety of its troops, especially now that it has ensured a window to the Middle East and direct long term access to warm waters (the Mediterranean,) that also flank Turkey – a NATO country! The de-conflict areas deal discussed in Astana- Kazakhstan (several meetings were previously held in Tehran in this regard) helps Russia to initiate a new phase, following the cease-fire last year, to try and really establish it and keep the initiative under its control.

 

The United States “buffer zones”:

The Syrian steppe or al-Badia al-Surya, is where US forces, backed by Syrian forces’ proxies from the “Maghaweer al-Thawra” are trying to take control of various scattered areas and villages in the semi-desert south-east part of Syria. These have reached the Syrian-Iraqi border crossing of al-Tanaf and are heading towards al-Bu Qamal. While Russia clearly expressed its determination to stop the US proxies from controlling, not only al-Tanaf crossing, but also the main city of Deer-ezzour, creating a real clash of interest between Moscow and Washington in Syria.

Special Forces from Washington and London trained these Syrian groups with the help of Jordan and launched these from the borders of Daraa and Suwayda (on the Jordanian-Syrian border) with the aim of cutting the road for the “Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units” (PMU) coming from Iraq. The west – and Saudi Arabia – fears the PMU intention to push forces into the Syrian territory in support of the besieged city of Deir-ezzour and to defeat the “Islamic State,” (ISIS) besieging the city for years. But according to decision makers in Baghdad, the decision has been made: no PMU forces are to cross Syrian borders. The PMU is made of almost 60% Shia and around 40% Sunni, Turkman and other Iraqi minorities, reflecting the exact composition of the Iraqi demography (and Parliament). Those who joined the PMU are now under the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s direct command. Abadi has no intention of following ISIS beyond the Iraqi borders unless the group uses Syria as a platform to attack Iraq. Only if and when ISIS is defeated in Iraq, and with the consensus of Damascus, can Baghdad forces hit ISIS beyond its national borders. The 19 brigades of the PMU cannot behave as an independent body since they have been incorporated within the Iraqi security forces structure. Those groups who fight along with the PMU and are volunteers, but belong to Iraqi political groups, are not part of the PMU body and could move to Syria, depending on Damascus’s needs.

Sources in Baghdad said, “Iraqi security forces can pursue ISIS on land or air only if and when the Prime Minister gives orders to do so. If ISIS attacks Iraq from Syrian territory, Baghdad will seek Damascus’s approval to hit ISIS. This happened before and can happen in the future”.

Thus, the “Shiite Crescent” feared by Washington, Israel and Saudi Arabia can be cut geographically but in fact neither morally nor effectively, because the cooperation between Baghdad – Damascus – Tehran and Beirut exists and will not be stopped by US-UK-Jordanian-Syrian proxies forces on the borders of al-Tanaf and al-Bu Kamal. However, the presence of forces hostile to Damascus on the Iraqi-Syrian border satisfies Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the deployment of thousands of Syrian pro-US forces in the Syrian steppe – no matter how many they are and how well armed they can be – does not constitute the weight of a military effect: this semi-desert region extends to tens of thousands of square kilometres and was used by ISIS for years, even and during the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, at the time when it was called al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. We may therefore conclude that no force can keep tight control of the Syrian Desert, linked as it is with the desert of Anbar in Iraq, and the Jordanian and the Saudi deserts as well. Moreover, Russia has still a lot to say about this specific area, excluded from the de-escalation zones. Therefore, the Russian and Syrian Air Force have free hands to bomb the area and prevent US proxies from occupying it.

 

Al-Hasaka and Raqqah Governorates:

Al-Hasaka and Raqqah provinces cover more than 41,000 square kilometres. The US is trying to find a homogenous formula to protect its future long-standing presence in the former Levant (Syria). Therefore, the United States is sending more of its Special Forces to Syria – with the title “military advisers” – and injecting military equipment to arm, train and support the Arab tribal forces and the Kurds. These operate under the label “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) and have the aim to recover Raqqah province from ISIS and expel the group from the city and its rural area.

However, Washington and its allied Syrian forces are trying to push ISIS inland, south of Raqqah, and more specifically towards Homs province where the Syrian army forces and its allies operate. This US tactic is expected to succeed and to bring a victory to President Donald Trump during his first year in power: Mosul and Raqqah are expected to fall before the end of Trump’s first year in office. Thus, the US president will celebrate his “victory” over ISIS in the two main cities it has occupied for years, without necessarily eliminating that organisation in either Syria and Iraq.

Washington will thus be diverting international attention from its occupation of new territory in Bilad al-Sham with the excuse of “protecting the Kurds, the Arab tribes, and defeating ISIS”. The US is planning to have static military bases in Syria and share its presence in the Levant with Russia, and, in small part, with Turkey which plays a prominent role with the Syrian opposition and Al Qaeda in the north of Syria.

Washington achieves one of its most important objectives (shared by its allies) by finding an area of ​​influence in the heart of the “axis of resistance” (Iran – Hezbollah – Syria) and in the centre of the “Shiite Crescent” (Tehran – Baghdad – Damascus – Beirut). It has created a footprint for its ally Israel inside the Syrian territory (not only on the Syrian border or in the occupied Golan Heights).

However, the battle with the axis is not yet over, it is only the beginning: the US liberated Tehran from Saddam Hussein in 2003 and now it is defeating ISIS, the Shia’s cruellest enemy. Once the war in Syria is over, this axis will have time to reorganise, reassess the situation and deal with the US forces in Syria.

At the moment, the race towards Deir-ezzour – between the US (and its proxies) and Russia (along with the Syrian Army and its allies) – may change Washington’s plans on the Syrian-Iraqi borders. The US aims to cut the borders and control Deir-ezzour, while Russia wants to spoil the US objectives by pushing ground troops from Palmyra towards the same besieged city of Deir-ezzour.

Although Moscow and Washington agreed to regain the suspended de-conflict agreement above Syria lack of trust prevails between the two superpowers. “There is almost no trust between us and Russia, but the US administration will deal with each issue separately starting from Syria. We do not know where this cooperation will lead us.” This was stated by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who made the remarks to staff at the State Department in Washington on May 3 in a wide-ranging presentation about the department’s future under President Donald Trump.

 

 

Russia:

Moscow, in cooperation with Ankara, Tehran and Damascus, reached an agreement in the Kazakh capital of Astana by establishing “de-conflict areas” which include the entire city of Idlib and parts of Aleppo (south-western and north-west), the rural Lattakia, rural Homs and Daraa-Quneitra (south of Syria). This agreement – even if not strictly implemented or not long-lasting in its early stages – has laid the foundation for an important starting point, for all countries involved in the Syrian conflict.

Damascus agreed, and Russia and all the countries that have signed the agreement have engaged to the cessation of hostilities as long as the belligerent parties respect the deal. But above all, Moscow (Iran and Turkey), by imposing a “no-Fly-Zone” against the US over parts of Syria, is saying to Washington: I am in control over (most parts of) Syria.

It is normal that the hostilities do not stop for the day, the week or the first month, especially as Al-Qa’ida (under the name of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), excluded by this agreement, controls a large part of al-Ghouta (around Damascus) and an important part of rural Homs and Idlib (northern Syria), and areas in the south of Syria. It is natural that al-Qaeda continues to try to achieve its objectives and to continue the war, because peace does not give it fertile ground to continue. It is also not possible to believe that the US will allow Russia and its allies to move in towards the province of Deir-ezzour without a reaction. Nor will it be easy for Turkey to separate the moderate opposition from the jihadists (with more infighting between rebels and jihadists expected). Moreover, the absence of a clear political solution offers few chances for an immediate “cessation of escalation”.

The participants agreed to freeze the Syrian and Russian air forces from bombing those areas (giving everyone a real break) until a comprehensive solution to the war is reached, as long as there are no serious violations of the deal. The de-escalation deal is offering the Syrian Army and its allies a perfect situation to attack both al-Qaeda and ISIS in all areas outside the agreement zones, as well as the US and Turkish proxies outside these designated areas.

It is natural that all parties are tired of this war, which each team considers to have been imposed on it, and will continue fighting as long as the goals are not fulfilled or the backers cease the finance. But a kind of partition between loyalists and opposition has been achieved. The pro-government areas are almost devoid of any opposition. The opposition and jihadists – controlled areas are devoid of any demographic or sectarian diversity, and are dominated by Sunni with multiple loyalties (pro-Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, US). The green buses – the most recent concern the cities along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, al-Wa’ar neighbourhood of Homs, Barca and more similar on-going evacuation around Damascus – have transported all those who wish to disengage from the Syrian government, causing a significant and permanent demographic change that will not recover even if the war ends in the near future.

The Russian “de-conflict areas” face the US “buffer zones” in a situation where the two nuclear superpowers do not trust each other and have opposite plans. But it is likely that Washington and Moscow will agree to divide their areas of influence without their forces colliding with each other, as they did successfully for decades in Berlin after World War II. The military operation is taking place today in several “contested areas”. Damascus, Tehran and Russia are in a race to regain as much territory as possible before any global “cessation of hostilities”.

It is unfortunately to be expected that the Levant will not return to how it was before. Indeed, conflicts are expected to persist on its soil even if the war were to cease tomorrow.

 

Israel believes the “Islamic State” is an easier neighbour than Hezbollah on its border: is this pragmatic approach justified?

 

 

Key words: Syria, Iran, Russia, Israel, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-Qaeda

Published here:  via

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon says the “Islamic State” (ISIS) had fired at Israel once, but immediately apologised for the shooting.

It seems many Israelis have learned to live with ISIS as a new neighbour: “Extremists are fighting other Syrian factions while Israel is focused on the danger from Iran.”

There is no doubt that Iran is present – with its allies including the Lebanese Hezbollah – firmly on the entire Syrian territory, and bestows great importance to the southern border with Israel. Its ideological and political objectives are oriented towards supporting the Palestinian cause and most groups or organisations that want to “liberate their land or fight against the oppressor”. This section, in Iran, falls under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard- Al Quds brigade(the Jerusalem Brigade) headed by General Qassem Soleimani. Under Soleimani’s jurisdiction falls the management and full support (finance, military and intelligence) of organisations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and including Palestine.

The south of Syria attracts special attention towards its geopolitical peculiarity where Israel is eying an addition “buffer zone” to the already occupied Golan heights, supported by the new US administration. The Syrian south is an extension of southern Lebanon: from Naqoura to Marbaka, Kafarkala, Ghajar, Kafrshuba, until reaching the Shebaa Farms where the Syrian territory begins. The Israeli occupied territories give legitimacy to Syria (and specially now after the war years) and to its allies – at the request of the central government in Damascus – to prepare for elite forces that mirror the elite and well trained and experienced Radwan forces in Hezbollah (Ridwan forces regained the control of Homs, around Damascus, Aleppo and operate in most hot areas in Syria). Moreover, Iran has formed 7 brigades and other forces under different religious names. These ended more than eighteen months of intense training and participation in multiple wars in Syria, acquiring distinctive military experience. They have practicedwarfare throughout the years, dealt with artillery cover and preliminary jet bombing, attacked irregular forces but enjoying advanced fighting knowledge and capability. They have also engaged in many locations and battles against the well-experienced militants of “Al-Qaeda” (Hay’at Fatah al-Sham).

Field commanders who participated in many battles against the jihadists speak highly of Al-Qaeda’s determination and excellent training on most fronts and particularly in al-Eiss and during “the battle to lift the siege of the city of Aleppo”.

These commanders say that al-Qaeda is a stubborn, intelligent and expert opponent. Its militants do not easily retreat from their positions unless all means of victory and resistance are closed. On the other hand, ISIS relies only on vehicle born improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), suicide attacks and snipers. They are no match for al-Qaeda, say field commanders who fought against both groups in Syria.

Al-Qaeda in Syria uses remote-controlled drones, booby-trapped vehicles, suicide attacks, pre-bombardment and proper systematic military advancements according to thoughtful tactical plans. They are considered the most dangerous fighters on Syrian soil because of their experience mixed with their lack of fear of death, holding a strong ideology, advanced manoeuvring techniques, including the ability to occupy a position regardless of the losses.

Iran looked after the “Hezbollah Syria group” and other more organisations aiming at fighting the enemies of the Syrian government, including Israel. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is convinced that the occupied Golan will not be returned through peace negotiations but, like Lebanon, by the use of guerrilla attacks. Syria may be in a better position to fight against Israel than a Lebanon divided between those who have declared animosity towards Israel and those who do not want Hezbollah to continue its armed struggle and want to reconcile with Israel to join the other countries of the region that are beginning to show their “privileged” relationship with Tel Aviv.

If Assad is destined to remain in power or even be replaced by another President, the hostility towards Israel may not shift, regardless of the few direct contacts that take place between some opponents of the regime, (with insignificant representation on the ground,) and Israeli officials.

Yes, this is of particular concern to Israel, especially since the arms depots targeted by Israeli jets and missiles at Damascus airport are mostly not destined for the Lebanese Hezbollah but for other local organisations. Hezbollah already suffers from a “deluge” of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles of short, medium, and long range, anti-ship missiles, armed drones, anti-air defence systems and laser guided missiles. Hezbollah is even developing weapons domestically according to the type of the battle to possibly engage against Israel in the future.

And yes, this worries Israel because these “non-state” organisations are supported, trained and supplied by a state. These benefit from the training and experience sharing with Iran and Iranian proxies who fought for over 30 years against Israel and gathered enough knowledge on the enemy style of operation. Of course, the struggle of “brains” between Hezbollah and Israel never stops.

And yes, this worries Israel because these organisations have more experience than ISIS even if the Salafi extremist organisation came from the womb of “Al Qaeda”. Of course, the same Al-Qaeda – before the war in Syria – never had drones, laser guided missiles, oran army of thousands of militants gathered in one single place when it was engaged in guerrilla warfare. But today, in Syria, al-Qaeda is much more experienced, (yet not at the level of Hezbollah).

What Israel is unaware of is the fact that al-Qaeda has changed its policy in Syria to become more flexible – under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Julani – and is working on slow empowerment (Tamqeen) and accepts even sending its militants to Israeli hospitals. This move does not mean that Israel has become an ally of al-Qaeda or a friend of ISIS. These organisations operate by priority, like most jihadists ideological organisations. For example, the priority of ISIS is the “near enemy”, occupying the largest territory possible and kilingl the Shia before heading towards Israel. Ayman al-Zawaheri himself warned the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to avoid killing shia in Iraq and to concentrate on attacking the US forces, saying: “Do you know anyone in the history of Islam who managed to exterminate all the Shia”? Zawaheri forgot that there is no opinion to be given for those who do not obey.

Al Qaeda has a military and a political project, is trying to control more territory, and trying to live with other religions or beliefs (for the time being), creating alliances according its needs.

The dispute over the Syrian south has reached a severe stage among the holders of a strong ideology. Israel is taking a tactical advantage from the Sunni-Shiite conflict and therefore the Hezbollah’s struggle against al-Qaeda. But Tel Aviv’s turn is only postponed and its forthcoming troubles are yet to begin.

Conflicts have reached their peak in the Syrian south, where solutions remain elusive. Today, Donald Trump has given the authority in Syria and Iraq to the generals in the Pentagon to decide how many troops they need for their plans in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Thus, America – like Israel – is governed by the military, not by the governments who apparently lead their states. All military options are therefore on the table, making the situation in the Middle East more dangerous than ever. Syria remains a hotbed of conflict even after six years of non-stop war.

 

Trump asking Saudi Arabia ‘We want more money to defend you’ is a Protection racket

 

And why America did not and will not attack the Islamic Republic of Iran…

Key words: USA, U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

US President Donald Trump complained that “Saudi Arabia was not treating the US fairly and that Washington was losing a tremendous amount of money defending the Monarchy”.

President Trump has forgotten that Saudi Arabia is not in a state of war with its neighbours and that no country in the Middle East is threatening it: Trump is effectively asking for a “protection racket” from the oil-rich Monarchy to appease this American president who promised his citizens he “will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created”,- apparently at the expense of the Saudis.

Trump is pretending to ignore the fact that Saudi Arabia is already investing more than $750 billion in the United States. Moreover, during last March’s visit to Washington, Saudi deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised President Trump to invest another $56 billion and this is the issue of Trump’s frustration: the US President was expecting a Saudi investment of $200 billion, hence his disappointment, as if the Saudis should have no limits faced with the US demands.

In fact, the Arabs generously contributed to the Gulf war with over $620 Billion, paid mainly for the seven months presence of US troops, Britain, France and only $8 Billion to Syria and Egypt on Saudi soil. Saudi Arabia bought an overinflated quantity of US weapons and spare parts, enough for decades. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been financially involved in funding much of what the United States has requested to implement its foreign policy, starting from the Afghan war to the on-going Syrian war.

Indeed, Washington benefited from the religious resentment between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Islamic world, to create a scarecrow called the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US took advantage of the early years of the Iranian revolution when Tehran has participated in overseas attacks.

Washington has used the existing hostility towards Iran among the gulf countries to envision the “Islamic Republic” as an enemy trying to occupy the Middle East. The aim was to keep the Arab “golden goose” (monies) flowing into the pockets of the United States of America to feed its economy.

The biggest shock to the Arab countries came when former US President Barack Obama declared that Iran no longer posed a nuclear threat to its neighbours, withdrew the nuclear dossier from circulation, and thus made Iran a state that the United States and Europe could legitimately deal with.

This is what has angered US businessmen and, in consequences, the new President of the United States, Donald Trump: the end of the Iranian nuclear file and the proof of the absence of Iranian nuclear bombs means the closure of a large source of livelihood for Washington. It was no longer possible to use the nuclear dossier as blackmail leverage against the countries of the Middle East. This is not what Trump wanted, he who considers the Arabs have only money- and he wants it.

Upon his arrival at the White House, Trump publicly pretended to be an enemy of Iran. But he took no action against Tehran – except sanctions against Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers preventing these from accessing “their” bank accounts in the US banks that they had never owned. Trump uses the anti-Iran rhetoric enough to keep the memory of the Gulf countries alive and their pockets generously available for his hands to dig in.

If Trump goes against Iran from rhetoric to action, he will lose the card of using Iran as an “enemy state” that would benefit by attracting more Arab-Islamic money into America’s pockets. Trump has started with selling weapons and ammunitions to the Saudi so their military machine continues bombing the poorest Muslim country, Yemen, disregarding the human aspect he claims to care most about: but it would seem his human side is developed only in Syria.

Trump’s main concern is his passion for Twitter, to attack mainstream media and grumbling about his new job as President of the United States, which “prevented him from driving,” he told Reuters, revealing that he thought “his work as president would be easier.”

Trump said he would not engage any battle in Syria that would lead to World War Three. Upon reaching the White House, he send 59 Tomahawk missiles against the Shay’rat military airport just days after he said the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not his objective. After his bombing of the Syrian airfields, Trump said, “Assad should go”, but changed his mind days later and accepted the fact that the Syrian people have the freedom to decide their fate.

Today, there is a widespread conviction that Trump himself does not know what Trump will decide the next day. He keeps changing his mind and, as a consequence, Saudi Arabia moves from one day as best ally to an unfair Monarchy not paying the money he has expected ($200bn instead of $56 bn).

This is the president of the United States, with whom the world will apparently live with for the next four years, theoretically confirming the Middle Eastern sayings: ‘what can happen next might be greater (Al-ati a’zam)’, and ” you will be governed by those who reflect who you are “ (Qama Takounou Youwalla Alaykoum).

Israel challenges Russia and Turkey hits the two superpowers and allies in Syria

 

 

Published here:  v

Key words: Israel, Syria, Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, USA, Kurds.

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

Israel has bombed Damascus destroying fuel oil and weapons stockpiles at the capital’s airport. Iranian flights transport weapons and ammunitions on a regular basis to Damascus airport as part of its “struggle against terror”, but also to arm the seven brigades operating under its command over the entire Syrian territory, from the north to the south of the country. Moreover, Iran is also responsible for arming and training other Syrian groups related to the struggle against Israel, mirroring the Lebanese Hezbollah group. In fact, the 6 years of the Syrian war were fertile enough to enable many Syrians to join Iran and Hezbollah and to adopt their cause, especially as Israel occupies Syrian territory: the Golan heights.

But most important is the timing of the Israeli hit, that comes only a few hours after the announcement by Moscow that its forces controlled the entire Syrian air space, hinting that no jet would be allowed without previous coordination and consensus from the Russians- who are in self-declared fashion, the ones holding the magic wand to make a good or bad weather in Bilad al-Sham.

This Israeli challenge strikes at the Russian image in the Middle East, presenting Moscow – a superpower no doubt – as either soft, or in harmony with Israeli action in Syria. In both cases, for the Middle Easterners, Russia becomes a weaker partner, not up to their image of a superpower. If Russia doesn’t react against Tel Aviv’s continuous violation of Syrian airspace and hit different targets in the capital, south and other parts of the country, the conspiracy theory will prevail. Moscow has to react to this or any other Israeli attack against Syria.

Most importantly, Tel Aviv managed through its multiple calculations and control of arms to hit Damascus immediately following the visit of the Moldova born Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a conference on International Security in Moscow. Israel relied on the well-known passive Russian stance towards the Iranian-Israeli-Hezbollah struggle. However, this gave a kind of permission to Tel Aviv to hit targets in Damascus that naturally “represent a danger to Israel’s national security”.

This Israeli attack ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carried several messages and tests the pulse of Russia’s reaction, challenging – from an apparently innocent position –the chess and Judo player Vladimir Putin and to boot scoring a point against the Kremlin. Moreover, Tel Aviv had its revenge on Lavrov who had said, hours before the Israeli attack on Damascus, that “Hezbollah is not a terrorist organisation”. Lavrov, during a press conference with the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir considered the presence of the Lebanese group and Iran as being as legitimate as that of the Russian Army.

But Russia is not the only superpower whose pride and image in Syria were hit (without disregarding its determined military role on the ground and its unconditional stand with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations). The United States position was also shaken, when Washington said it is watching with deep concern the Turkish attack against the Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey is a NATO member and the American ally, while the YPG militants fight alongside the US Special Operation Forces against the “Islamic State” (ISIS) group in Tabqa and Raqqah. The US position increased Syrian chaos and confusion: Washington looked weak and incapable of protecting an essential ally in the fight against ISIS. The Syrian Kurds are risking their lives offering tremendous sacrifices in a hostile and disharmonious region (the Kurds and the Arab tribes in the Raqqah province are not in excellent terms with one another) with a very slim gain.

Turkey wanted to deliver a message to both superpowers (Russia and the US) that its role cannot be neglected or ignored in Syria. Russia surrounded the Turkish Army and its Syrian proxies in the northern city of Al-Bab and the US around Manbij to prevent Turkey from advancing further in Syrian territory under the pretext of fighting ISIS. Ankara’s new Sultan managed to hit three birds (US, Russia and the YPG) with one stone without triggering any reaction, mainly because of the two superpowers’ fear of more involvement in the Syrian quagmire.

Syria has become the stage for contradictory alliances,a kind of stadium where all players close the doors behind them with everybody on the field, all in one small space, playing and fighting: no one can come off or take distance or be a spectator. The struggle of so many countries on Syrian territory has damaged the reputation of many of these players. The Kurds will think carefully before declaring animosity towards Damascus because the US “doesn’t have friends”, only business partners serving its interests. While Moscow wants to establish itself in the Middle East with boots and military presence on the ground, and-indeed-wants to have friends, it is learning the complexity of the Middle East the hard way : it is indeed trying to play the game but receiving hits below the belt, apparently unaware that, in this part of the World, there are no rules that stand for ever.

America is trying to block the path of the “Shiite crescent” from Syria and is preparing the ground for a “new Middle East”.

 

  • The Hezbollah message to Israel
  • Fua and Kfarya agreement, an unknown fate again
  • Battlefield development

Key words: Syria, Russia, U.S., Israel, saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, Kurds, Turkey.

Published here:   v

By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

The southern Syrian opposition forces moved south from the city of Suweida along the Syrian-Jordanian border towards the ancient city of Palmyra in central east Syria. These forces took control of around forty villages, including al-Tanaf, one of the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. They have managed to occupy part of the Syrian desert (called al-Badiya al-Souriya) and aim to reach alBu Kamal, an important border city under the control of the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) between the al-Qaem and Raqqah-Deirezzour axes.

The United States has provided the necessary weapons for these rebel forces – the intensity of the usage of the anti-tank and anti-personnel TOWs laser guided missile is the best indicator. If these forces reach alBu Kamal (about 700 km from Suwayda), they would stop any possible intervention of Iraqi forces in Syria, under the pretext of hunting down ISIS to prevent their return to Iraq. In fact, this plan is not innocently aiming to disrupt the ISIS connection between Syria and Iraq, but to put an end to the “Shiite crescent”.

This “Shiite crescent” that the Sunni Gulf countries fear – not feared by the United States because it doesn’t represent any threat to the US security – is connecting Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. The idea of the “Shiite Crescent” was first raised by the Jordanian King Abdallah al-Hashemi in 2007, the days when the Americans occupied the country, removed Saddam Hussein and gave the power in Mesopotamia to the majority Iraqi Shia, cutting off the “Sunni Crescent” that was besieging the Islamic Republic of Iran and dominating the Middle East.  If interrupted at albu Kamal, it would certainly please Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two main countries highly concerned about Shia unity in the Middle East.

This southern forces’ progress coincides with the surge of the “Syrian Democratic forces” (SDF)(led by the Syrian Kurds and some Arab tribes in north-east Syria) towards the borders of the city of Tabqa and north of the city of Raqqa, where these forces are now about 9 km from the Syrian capital (undeclared) of ISIS. This religious extremist group is losing significant ground in Iraq and in Syria under the multiple hits of its multiple enemies. Thus, the dream of ISIS “State” begins to fade (without necessarily its total annihilation) ISIS is the phenomenon that harshly struck both the Middle East and the West, principally in the last three years.

With the advance of US-backed forces in the Northeast and southeast of Syria, the partition of the Levant is at an advanced stage and its features are becoming more apparent. Russia, Iran, and Damascus have no power, for the time being, to strike the partition project in the immediate future because there are other priorities around Damascus, Daraa and Idlib. At the same time, it is practically certain that these territories, if cut off from the central government in Damascus, will not be declared new states in the future.

As for Russia, it has already survived sharing territory with the United States (Berlin after World War II) without clashing. Moscow is unwilling to engage a war with Washington for the unity of the Levant, as long as there is a stable central government in Damascus, its military installations in Syria are not at risk, its own interests in the Syrian coast are reserved, and its naval presence in the warm Mediterranean water is preserved: contracts between Moscow and Damascus have been already signed for the duration of 49 years allowing the Russian forces to enlarge its naval base in Tartous. This indicates that in the years to come Syria will see different foreign forces on its soil. Turkey is occupying – like the United States – part of the Syrian north (from Jarablus to Tal-Abiyad). At the same time, the forces of Ankara are trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds from installing a federation or a canton on the Turkish borders. All the above indicates that the conflict in the Levant will not end quickly due to the conflicting interests of many countries far and near in Bilad al-Sham.

Moreover, the Israeli interest will be taken into consideration during the process of the partition of Syria. Israel, whose forces are constantly interfering with the Syrian war, recently bombed   the weapons stores of the Syrian army and its allies and is continuously reminding the world of its intention to keep the occupied Golan heights. Furthermore it is establishing a good relationship with some Syrian rebels and jihadists to create a buffer zone to the already existing occupied territory. The Trump intention to create “buffer zones” to justify the occupation of Syrian territories does not fall on deaf ears in Israel and the Gulf countries, eager to see the fall of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah at the gates of Damascus.

The visit of US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis to the Middle East last week raised questions about what Washington could be preparing for the Middle East. Trump is following in the footsteps of Barack Obama, with regard to the Syrian file, but went even beyond his predecessor by overtly declaring his hostility towards Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah responded to this visit in its own way during the media tour of the southern border, when one of his officers explained to the journalists how much the Lebanese group is informed and closely watching the Israeli defence system on the borders. Hezbollah is aiming – without mentioning it clearly – to tell Israel that:

  • Its fears that the group breaks into the land adjacent to the Lebanese border are real,
  • The next war will be taking place outside Lebanese territory if possible,
  • It is ready for war if it is imposed
  • Its significant involvement in Syria will not affect its readiness to confront Israel.

These indirect, reciprocal messages (Israeli bombing of warehouses in Syria and Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Israeli borders) create a climate of war in the Middle East inflaming further the atmosphere as the heat of the summer approaches this unstable microcosm of the world.

Battlefield progress and Fua and Kfarya besieged cities:

On the Syrian battlefield, clashes continue on more than one front:

In the South, Daraa represents a stumbling block to the US post project of the “southern buffer zone” where the Syrian Army and its allies have injected more forces to prevent its fall and to recover more territory inside the strategic city.

In the centre of Syria, al-Qaeda (under the name of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham – HTS) and its allies lost all that they had gained in the previous battles and the campaigns they had led in Jobar. The Syrian army recovered Jobar, attacked al-Qabun, and expanded its control to include areas it has not entered for four years.

In the North, the city and rural Hama, the Syrian army enlarged the security perimeter around the airport, reached a distance not far from the administrative border of the city of Idlib after the recovery of Hulfiyah (al-Qaeda stronghold), securing the Christian city nearby of Mhardeh and with the intention to push forces towards Morek and Khan-Sheikun.

On the one hand, in Kfariya and Fua, the exchanges ended after the exit of all militants and civilians from the two besieged cities of  Zabadani and Madaya, willing to leave for Idlib (over 13000 militants and civilians remained in Madaya and agreed to settle their situation with the Syrian state). On the other hand, 8000 civilians and wounded left the two besieged cities of Fua and Kfarya for Aleppo. 149 were killed and over 200 wounded by the suicide attack that hit the civilian convoy of Fua and Kfarya while waiting to cross into the al-Qaeda controlled area.

Moreover, 24 Qatari and 2 Saudi hostages in Iraq by Hezbollah-Iraq were freed as part of the “four Syrian cities deal”.  The Syrian government released 700 prisoners from its jails, also as part of the negotiation carried out by Qatar, Iran and Turkey on behalf of all parties and belligerents.

To date, more than 8,000 civilians and more than 3,500 militants remain inside the two cities of Fua and Kfarya: the deal consists in evacuating these after 60 days. The fate of these people is uncertain and their position is weaker than before. The presence of Zabadani (totally evacuated) militants under siege prevented al-Qaeda and its allies from attacking Fua and Kfarya. So what are their bargaining tools?

“There is a possibility of exchanging the militants in Bludan, Sahem and Babila- as well as other tools made available to protect Fua and Kfarya from extermination. The alternative – said a decision maker on the ground in Syria – would be to force the road from southern Aleppo in the direction of northern Idlib to reach Fua and Kfarya and liberate the trapped inhabitants. Moreover, Russia has ensured that it will spare no effort to bomb and hit any attempt to attack civilians in these besieged cities if in imminent danger. However, it is clear that in 60 days many things can happen, and priority changes are not excluded”.

Damascus has released only 120 (out of the 700) significant detainees. Many are still in jail and thousands of people are, and expect to be in the coming months, trapped in several areas of Syria. The map of the “new Middle East” is beginning to surface, announcing a long instability. It is as if this part of the world were lying in some kind of marshes where the two superpowers are engaged in a game of stealth, each demanding its share to satisfy its own needs and those of its allies. Because Syria is always full of surprises, it is not excluded to see more Russian troops injected and leading attacks, mainly against the forgotten and most dangerous group: al-Qaeda.