The fire of the Syrian war is spreading following US tomahawk deployment

 

Published here:  via

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

When President Donald Trump was elected, the world expected him to dedicate his attention to the US economy and avoid unnecessary involvement in wars. In point of fact, since day one (even before he was President) he has been “in bed” with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the American mainstream media who harshly attacked him for it.

After the Tomahawk launch against the Syrian military airport of Sha’ayrat in south-east Homs, those promoting regime change and war involvement against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been asking Trump: What’s next?

Trump came out of his comfort zone to justify why he did not hit the Syrian airport runways saying “they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill and top)”. The reason for such a justification is due to the rapid recovery of the airport where Damascus ordered – only hours after the tomahawk bombing – several attacks against the al-Qaeda stronghold in Idlib, flying from Sha’ayrat the same afternoon and the following day as well, to prove the ineffectiveness of Trump’s Tomahawks.

Talking to decision makers in Syria, it was confirmed that the Tomahawks hit the central command and control, ammunition warehouses, anti-air system, several jets and gasoil depot, without altering the military capability of the Syrian Air Force, for now. Nevertheless, the sources believe this is only one step, possibly many others to follow by the United States, aiming to divide Syria by waving the banner “humanitarian responses”.

Moscow, Damascus and Tehran issued a common statement “swearing they will respond to any further aggression”. Russia suspended its memorandum with the US, endangering any jet flying over Syria without authorisation. Indeed, many countries which are part of the US-led coalition suspended their participation until diplomacy returns and replaces the confrontational language. But Russia is not expected to bring down any US jet and its approach seems, until today, not aggressive towards the US.

Russia is indeed today the key to a long war in Syria where the situation can deteriorate if its intervention remains “shy”. However, it is clear that Moscow is taking its time to think about the next steps, observing the new US administration’s behaviour following the sharp turn of Trump, who had declared that changing the regime in Syria was not his objective and then days later joined the voices to oust Assad from power.

In the meantime, Russia is bombing jihadist and rebel positions and asking for all modern Syrian Air Force jets to be placed at Hmaymeem, its military airport and base on the Syrian coast, equipped with S-300 and S-400 anti-air missiles and under its own protection. Moreover, Russia will increase the Syrian Air force capability and will supply Damascus with the weapons it was hesitant to do before the Tomahawk attack. Russia is aware that the war in Syria is not only about Assad but also about the failure or success of Russia and its reputation as a superpower. Russia is expected to adopt a much more aggressive military approach following news of the US possible supply of advanced weapons to rebels who work together with al-Qaeda in Syria. However, there is a danger of Russia looking weak faced with an aggressive US President and his team who are challenging Moscow in Syria and sending tomahawks over the heads of the Russian forces, forces which are actually physically present on the same military base (Sha’ayrat) that was hit by Trump Tomahawks.

Decision makers in Damascus (which adopts a more optimistic approach) said: “What has happened can only have a positive outcome. The Tomahawks have reinforced the Russian-Iranian relationship where tactical differences regarding the military operations were strongly present. Iran has been asking for Russian Air support to attack al-Qaeda and its allies in Idlib, the city that is very dear to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the US.

Russia, before the Tomahawks, rejected Iran’s request and aimed for a political resolution to the Syrian war rather than a military escalation- for fear of being dragged into the Syrian quagmire. The Afghanistan ghost is still hovering over Russia and Moscow has been avoiding any military escalation against the United States. But today Russia is much more convinced that no political solution will mature in Syria without eliminating or degrading al-Qaeda and its allies in Idlib, in a similar fashion to Aleppo. The longer Idlib remains under al-Qaeda, the higher the possibility of an extended duration of the war and the intervention of foreign forces in Syria, endangering both Syrian and Russian security”.

According to these decision makers in Syria, the US under Trump leadership is “much more dangerous than the leadership of a professional politician. Hillary Clinton wanted to intervene in Syria and Trump is walking on the same path but is much more aggressive towards Iran despite all the speculation regarding his positive contact with President Putin before he became President. Therefore, Syria is experiencing critical moments because its wide geography allows foreign forces to intervene using any pretext. Trump is using the terminology of “safe zones” in the south of Syria (to support Israel and create a buffer zone to the already existing occupied buffer zone in the Golan Heights), and in the northeast creating a Kurdistan Syria to the US’s advantage. Moreover, Turkey is already annexing part of northern Syria, and is not expected to leave anytime soon. All the talk about the unity of Syria is unfounded. The Khan Sheykhoun chemical attack is only an excuse for the partition of the country”.

 

Chemical gas:

Watching children struggling to breath and others dying in Khan Shaykhoun from nerve gas shook the world. From all the symptoms reported on social media, it is possible to confirm that a kind of nerve agent was present. Nevertheless, no scientific confirmation can lead to identification of the specific type of agent in the absence of a credible and impartial investigation on the ground to examine the location of the “attack” and the victims themselves. An examination of the agent would of course lead to its identification and consequently pinpoint the source.

Russia claims that a conventional attack hit a factory site with a chemical stockpile: this would be possible to confirm or deny if a physical investigation on the ground is carried out. However, al-Qaeda is in control of Khan-Shaykhoun and only the Guardian newspaper was allowed by the group to access a location the journalist was guided to , claiming it to be “innocent empty storage”, several days after the attack.

Moreover, the first responders, with bare hands, removed the victims to another location, a military setup in a large cave inside a mountain to flash water on the victims. The “white helmets” said to be on the spot within the first minutes, were obviously careless about the long minutes of the lethal effect of the nerve gas. This is another indication that no pure Sarin gas was used as the US Secretary of State claimed.

On social media, around 20 victims were filmed and exposed as a “proof”, while the number of victims pro al-Qaeda activists have provided is more than 90. Who are the other victims?

Serious doubts persist, whoever claims to hold the truth relating to the chemical attack. The opposition, the Jihadists, the regime supporters, activists, and analysts covering Syria: all have been involved in propaganda, manipulation of pictures and reporting one side of the story. If social media “proof” can trigger 59 Tomahawks, it won’t be surprising to see more similar “proof” in the future triggering the bombing of the Syrian Presidential Palace or a reason for thousands of US Marines to land in Syria.

The mainstream media is indeed influencing the inexperienced President, affecting his decisions (unless the bombing was just a pretext, which is most likely to be the case). Media have declared war on Assad since the first months of the war, reporting rumours and unconfirmed information without being on the ground in Syria (only a few newspapers maintain locals, who therefore are logically influenced by the militants where they live). These are driving for regime change, the partition of the country and the arming of the opposition and jihadists.

Assad was winning on all political and military fronts. He could have attacked a military zone, like Suran, where al-Qaeda fighters occupy the entire city without civilians, instead of a mixed residential and military area like Khan-Shaykoun. But again, no one holds the truth, and logic is not the strongest argument in any war.

Trump suggested his intervention was motivated by the “beautiful babies that were cruelly murdered”. The US President seems particularly drawn to the criminal act against the Syrian babies but not against all babies in the Middle East!

The Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen backed by the United States and the United Kingdom killed 10.000 men women and children and wounded 43,000. 462,000 children under 5 years of age are suffering from acute malnutrition and are at seriously risk dying. 7 million people are at risk of famine and 14 million are unable to benefit from any medical care.

In addition, al-Qaeda and ISIS are exploiting the governance vacuum. The US Commander of central command General Joseph Votel considers Yemen a US “Vital interest”. The UK admits it is aware of 257 allegations of Saudi breaches of International law and the US allowed Lockheed and Martin to sell about $11.2 bn in “multi-mission” warships.

If we look at the history of the US towards “children”, we can quickly remember the 500,000 Iraqi children killed in the 90’s by the embargo and the famous “it is worth it” acknowledgment by the Secretary of State Madeline Albright then. Moreover, over 1 million people were killed by the US in Iraq.

Trump was moved by the “beautiful children”? All children are beautiful in any country and they are indeed the main victims of the atrocity of war. Sacrificing the people of the Third World in order for a liberal democracy to survive is unfortunately part of a widespread and general policy and practice adopted for centuries. Keeping the Middle East busy with wars and containing terrorism within the “walls” of the Middle East is apparently considered the best way for liberal democratic societies to survive. This is called politics.

 

Europe and the US have a plan to divide Syria but not to halt the war

 

The UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson: “We certainly don’t want al-Qaeda to control Syria”.

Key words: Europe, Syria, US, UK, Germany, Norway, Russia.

Published here:  via

Elijah J. Magnier – During the Brussels Foreign Ministers meeting “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, I asked the UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson in private about the intentions of his country towards Assad and al-Qaeda:

Q: You said you can’t imagine Assad in power; do you have an alternative in mind?

BJ: “I think what we need to have is a proper transition. I spoke to my colleagues and we are going to be discussing this issue at the G7 meeting (in Italy scheduled on the 26 of May). We are working on a proposal”.

Q: None of you meeting today actually mentioned the danger of al-Qaeda. There are tens of thousands of fighters on the ground (in Syria) and these are much more dangerous than ISIS (The “Islamic State” group).

BJ: “Yah…Yah… Yah… We certainly agree with that”.

Q:Do you have a plan against al-Qaeda? Why is nobody mentioning AQ?

BJ: “Yah…Yah…Amm…well…sorry! We certainly don’t think…want them to take control…”.

Q:Are you thinking of doing something against al-Qaeda?

BJ: “Amm…Amm” (ending the conversation).

The Norwegian Foreign Minister BørgeBrende, present in Brussels, said that “the liberation of the north-eastern area of Syria, actually controlled by the Kurds and the Arab local tribes (supported by US Marines, Special Forces, tanks and Air Force)” is the top priority. The EU seems to concur with President Donald Trump in beginning the partition of Syria in order to register a “victory” over ISIS.

Nevertheless, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was clear when she pointed out that “Houdna” which involves both the cessation of hostilities and a global political settlement is the priority. Mogherini wasn’t clear about the European process for halting the war and obtaining a ceasefire that Moscow has been trying to achieve for months. With al-Qaeda present on all fronts (under different names, the most recent is Hay’atTahrir al-Sham), how is it possible to reach a global ceasefire or cessation of hostilities?

As its Emir Abu Mohamad al-Julani said himself in a recent interview, this is impossible when this group is excluded from any ceasefire deal. Moreover, there is no obvious strategy for how the European-Arab financial plan to support Syria ($6 billion agreed so far) is going to be distributed. Is it going to be given to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hence recognizing his authority, or it would be financial support for the area in north-eastern Syria under US control?

When EU members state “there is no possible solution in Syria with Assad in power” – as the German Foreign Minister Sigmar and his British counterpart pronounced in Brussels – it indicates that European countries have no intention of collaborating with Russia to end the war because they have no obvious plan of action or any visibility of what can be done against al-Qaeda.

European leaders express no view on the tens of thousands of jihadists stationed in the northern Syrian city of Idlib, around Hama, Damascus and the south of Syria. Moreover, there seems to be no plan to divide the Syrian rebels (most are fighting with al-Qaeda) from al-Qaeda itself. The rebels join jihadists’ ranks for fear of reprisals (annihilation, blackmail) or by their own “free” will. However, they all live in one trench in one city, and all bear the consequences of the al-Qaeda military plans when they mount attacks, as was done in Jobar, Hama and in the last few hours in rural Latakia and Jabal al-Akrad.

The rebels won’t be able to split from al-Qaeda nor fight against the jihadists if there is no specific plan or instructions by their sponsors to do so: we don’t see any halt whatsoever to the financial and weapons flow to the proxies in Syria. This indicates an international and regional will, a desire to see Russia sinking as much as possible into the Syrian quagmire, prolonging the war for as long as possible in the area where Russian, Iranians and their allies are present, and of course where the US forces are not deployed.

This may be the reason for the UK Foreign Minister’s hesitant answer when mentioning al-Qaeda in Syria and their fate. Europe cannot say it is supporting al-Qaeda in the Levant because it is the organization responsible for many attacks on European and American soil (without even mentioning the countries of the Middle East!), and it is held responsible for the US’s “War on Terror” for which the US is investing over $100 billion per year on counter-terrorism and invading Muslim countries.

But Russia is aware of the international community’s unstated intention in Syria. The US and the EU are determined not to allow Moscow to register any political/military victory that will offer the Kremlin a permanent and active place in the international arena. For this reason, Russia is expected to hit hard any attempt to disrupt its ceasefire plan. Any disruption of this kind will result in an increase in the numbers of those killed in the Syrian war and postpone further any political solution.

In Syria, a very complicated war started 6 years ago and is still going on.  Its consequences for the many countries which are directly involved are huge, and create an unpredictable future. This a dangerous situation, and it is in the vital interests of the international community to prevent further complication and unwanted drift by working together. The two superpower countries are on opposite sides in this small and therefore very dangerous territory,Bilal al Sham.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did Assad use chemical weapons on Khan Shaikhoun to score an own goal in the international arena?

 

 

Key words: Syria, Assad, Chemical, Sarin, U.S. , Russia

Elijah J. Magnier – The first news came from Reuters, framed accusingly: “Syrian government chemical attack,” and quoting, as usual, rebel sources. The world stood by instinct against the regime in Damascus following the images of the victims of this attack, an atrocity against civilians which included many children. Khan Shaikhoun, a northern Syrian city in rural Idlib, is a core al-Qaeda (along with other jihadists and rebels) stronghold. Why would the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attack eastern Khan Shaykhoun with chemical weapons?

Correspondents in Beirut, Amsterdam, Ankara, Istanbul, Brussels, Geneva, Holland, Washington and the United Nations wrote the Reuters article . Most of them have never been to Syria in the last few years and their source is “rebels” in al-Qaeda held territory and “information” from other social media accounts. But this is not the only influential media source that writes about Syria and has clearly never been to the country at any time during the last 6 years: the Washington post also does the same. The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs (and a UK diplomat) doesn’t share the media “insightful information”.

Is journalism concerned with looking for the truth, or is it more important to follow a specific “newspaper policy” ? In fact, American media and analysts have been angry – not only with Assad – but above all with their newly elected President Donald Trump, watching every step or political move he makes since he took over in order to be able to to criticise him. Assad is simply a pawn in this US  political media game.

Assad avoided the US war by agreeing to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons programme to launch years later a chemical attack? We should look at who would benefit from the use of Sarin gas against civilians at this particular moment in Syria.

Several weeks ago, the al-Qaeda  (under the name of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) Emir in Syria, Abu Mohamad al-Joulani, supervised the advance of his forces – along with other jihadists and US vetted groups under Al-Qaeda command – on Jobar (the Damascus outskirts) and Hama. Al-Qaeda and its allies managed to occupy considerable territory, surprising the Syrian Army. Following weeks of fighting, Damascus and its allies not only recovered all the lost territory in Jobar, but also advanced further in Al-Gabone, an area never reached for over 4 years. In Hama also, the Syrian Army managed to absorb the shock wave of the first attack and counter-attacked, recovering almost 90% of the lost territory. As in Aleppo, Joulani supervised the offensive to break the siege of the Syrian northern capital, supervising the military operations room and finally losing the battle, leaving behind hundreds of his militants dead on the battlefield.

In the north-eastern rural Aleppo, the Syrian Army is advancing into ISIS (the “Islamic State” group) occupied territory and has reached the Euphrates limit where the US forces draw the “red lines”, marking the beginning of “Kurdistan Syria” or the “Kurdish Federation” or canton in what the US military command promotes as “the right of the people in north Syria to self-determination”. The US forces enjoy the use of two main airports at the moment: one in Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) and one at Tabqa (with 2 runways under restoration at the moment by American engineers). This is the “safe zone” that President Trump spoke about concerning his intentions in Syria, a term which camouflages a new US occupation of land in the Middle East.

At the same time, the Russian and Syrian forces stopped the advance of Turkey toward ISIS territory and prevented Ankara’s forces and their Syrian proxies from attacking the Kurds in Manbij and Afrin-  to the dissatisfaction of President Erdogan.  Damascus can live with the Kurds – who are Syrian citizens and part of Syria – because these have roots in another part of the country, in north-west Afrin and in Aleppo. The Kurds need Damascus’s continuing collaboration. Damascus is determined to make life difficult for the US forces if these remain in the country and build military bases. The Syrian President doesn’t see an existential threat from the Kurdish side and considers al-Qaeda the real danger to eliminate. ISIS is not mentioned because it is fading away: only insurgents will be left in Bilad al-Sham which is not the case for al-Qaeda, well established in Syria.

On the political side, Assad enjoys a privilege position today, experiencing international support he never had in 6 years of war in Syria: the US, France and the UK all announced (prior the Khan Shaykhoun attack) that their objective is no longer to remove Assad from power. This announcement triggered outrage from the Syria opposition and the western media who saw in this message another opportunity to attack Trump. Even the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was “shocked” by the “deliberate attacks on Syrian civilians”. Attacking innocent civilians must have been quite a surprise for the Israeli government.

Finally, there is an ongoing negotiation between Qatar (representing al-Qaeda) and Iran (representing the Syrian government) which relates to the besieged cities of Fua-Kefraya (surrounded by al-Qaeda and its allies) and Zabadani-Madaya (surrounded by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army). The negotiation consists in initiating a demographic exchange where 8,000 civilians (out of approximately a total of 23,000 on each side) would leave on both sides to be relocated. The Fua-Kefraya inhabitants would settle in Quseyr, and the Zabadani-Madaya in the area left by the Alawites in northern Syria. This exchange was due to start on Wednesday-Thursday this week but was postponed for another week due to the “Sarin attack”.

The Fua-Kefraya versus Zabadani-Madaya exchange may not be straightforward. When Aleppo was reconquered by the Syrian government forces, the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians was linked to the evacuation of only 1,250 civilians from the besieged city of Fua. Ahrar al-Sham militants, jihadist rebels, burned the buses but later allowed the exchange to take place. There are serious differences within al-Qaeda where many militants oppose this exchange. Nevertheless, it is in the advantage of Damascus and its allies to see the deal reach a positive outcome.

So all circumstances work against Assad if he uses chemical weapons against Khan Shaykhoun or against any other place in Syria: the consequences would be entirely to his disadvantage on all fronts, military, political, and international.

It is certainly true that the use of chemical weapons in Duma in the last years of the Syrian war facilitated the accusations against Assad this time. The Russian Defence Ministry said that the poisonous gas had leaked from a rebel chemical weapons warehouse in Khan Shaykhoun hit by Syrian Air Force strikes.

So why did the world media rush to condemn Assad (prior any official investigation) and every voice rejecting the idea of a regime change? Is it because the mainstream media and “born again Syria analysts” have become, in their own eyes, an entity per se with the right to “judge, condemn and pretend that decision makers should listen to their recommendations and do what experts believe it is right”? Those “Syria experts” – whose feet have never touched the soil of Syria (some have never even travelled to the Middle East, let alone experienced one of its many wars in these last decades) – gather their so-called “expertise” from following social media and “breaking news” very closely, just as if they were themselves part of a well established news agency or, like this author, journalists on the ground and really on the spot.

 

 

 

 

 

Russia and Iran move towards strategic cooperation in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan

Moscow challenges Washington through its “soft diplomacy”

Published here:  ‪http://alrai.li/j59k9gm   via ‪@AlraiMediaGroup

Key words: Russia, Iran, Moscow, Tehran, Washington, Syria, Israel.

By Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

The Russian bear has awakened from its deep sleep that began more than 25 years ago to defy the United States (so used to ruling the international arena unilaterally) through the Syrian window. President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomes his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani using Moscow’s “soft diplomacy” style in marked contrast to the US attitude of animosity towards Iran.

The new White House resident, Donald Trump, has declared his outspoken hostility to Iran since he came to power with the aim of suspending the nuclear deal, declaring an unprecedentedly enthusiastic and robust partnership with Iran’s enemies in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) and calling for the “uprooting of Iranian terrorism in the region.”

Instead of the one-session, two-hours planned meeting, Putin and Rohani held two sessions for several hours, signing 14 agreements and protocols on investment, commerce, science and technology. Putin and Rohani also agreed on strategic objectives to fight terrorism and establish political cooperation over security in hot dossiers such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan.

Iran has opened its military airports for Russian jets as a stopover to assist targeting jihadi salafi militants and their allies in the Levant. The Syrian crisis is the source of unprecedented cooperation between the two countries, with unlimited military support (starting from jets, aircraft carriers, sophisticated weapons, men, money, oil, planning and Intelligence) and the creation of a joint military command between Iran and Russia. This strategic collaboration of course doesn’t exclude tactical differences in running the Syrian war- a war that was accepted by Iran and pushed forward by Russia. Moscow is aiming to offer an international peace keeping role with a military violent capability when the iron fist in the velvet glove is needed. The US-Israel perception of Iran and Tehran’s declared animosity towards Israel clearly presented no obstacle to Moscow, rather the reverse

In fact, Russia is not looking for a direct confrontation with the US despite the dominant (though largely implicit) antagonism between the two countries. At the same time, Moscow won’t endorse Washington’s policy in the Middle East and must have its own objectives and allies. Interestingly, Russia is not willing to support Iran’s rhetoric to “wipe Israel from the face of the Earth ” and certainly won’t take any part in the Iran-Israel conflict. Regardless, President Putin did not hesitate to warn Israel when its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thought he could send his jets deep inside Syria (Palmyra – T4) and not abide by Moscow’s red lines that, in fact, forbad Tel Aviv from targeting the Syrian Army and its allies while these are fighting Jihadists and their allies.

During Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow, Putin disregarded Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to reject Iran’s presence in Syria (and its allies, i.e. Hezbollah and Iraqi militants) and downplayed the Israeli prime minister’s demand for hostilities aimed at pushing Iran out of Syria. Moreover, Russia allowed Damascus to fire a strategic missile at Israel, an anti-air missile against a jet flying over Syria, and also downed a drone. All this constitutes soft diplomacy mixed with harsh military capabilities, an approach used by Moscow against Tel Aviv, the US and Turkey to make sure no country can spoil Russia’s plans in Syria: ,the aim is to stop the war, cease all hostilities and fight terrorism without sinking into Syria’s quagmire.

But this did not prevent the emergence of tactical differences on the ground in Syria between Iran and Moscow. The goal of Iran is to re-establish full control of the Syrian army over the entire territory, to stick with President Bashar al-Assad, and expel all foreign armies and foreign fighters from Bilad al-Sham after the elimination of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) and “Al Qaeda” (Hay’atTahrir al-Sham).

The Russian approach is more pragmatic: it consists in coexisting with the status quo, accepting the Turkish-US occupation of the northern Syrian territories (for the moment), stopping the war, and bringing all belligerents to the negotiating table with the government of Damascus. This has prompted Moscow to find a parallel line – not a replacement – for the Geneva peace process in Kazaktasan (Astana) to announce to the world its return to the international arena while holding an olive branch with one hand and putting forward its military apparatus with the other.

In modern history, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran has never in twenty years reached this level of strategic cooperation. Starting from a trade to strategic security cooperation, Moscow’s ally (Tehran) is involved today in the Asia-European axis, even if Russia in recent years voted 4 times for sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program in UN resolutions and in favour of resolution 1973, which allowed NATO to enter Libya leaving behind a failed state ruled by chaos and torn apart by terrorism.

Today, Putin does not want Russia to return to the dormant role it adopted decades ago. Russia took the Syrian war and used it as a bridge to move into the Middle East and back into the international arena. The West was headed (with Bilad al-Sham) towards creating another failed state (like Libya) and promoting a country ruled by terrorism.The West allowed, through Turkey, tens of thousands of foreign fighters to cross into Syria and receive the most advanced weapons.

Putin doesn’t seem to be involved in the hostility of US President Donald Trump towards Iran. Russia didn’t detect any outstanding cooperation between Moscow and Washington and no convergence or partnership at any level, not in Syria or anywhere else for today since Trump is in power. Instead of observing a progressive relationship, here is Trump sending hundreds of US forces to Syria with the intention of occupying the north-eastern territory and his military commander declaring themselves the protector of “Syrian Kurds, Arab and Turkmen that should decide their own fate, in Syria”.

Moreover US President Trump, under cover of his “anti-Iran” resentment, is aiming to fill up his treasury department with the Gulf countries’ money. These are happy to pay as long as Trump is not their enemy and as long as he is going to target Iran (no real step were taken against Iran’s interest so far).

Thus, the Iranian-Russian meeting and cooperation represents a clear challenge to Washington, especially that Putin wants to involve Tehran in the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen peace talks for which Putin is working.

So the common themes between the two countries go much further than Syria and the Middle East. It is therefore natural that Washington, Tel Aviv and the Middle Eastern countries feel disturbed and worried by this Russian-Iranian rapprochement, especially since this cooperation is taking an unprecedented and unforeseen strategic direction.

Washington is uprooting part of Syria, demarcating its new “safe haven”

 

Al-Tabqa Dam is where the US blocked Russia and Damascus from advancing towards Raqqah

The battle of Raqqa is maturing as planned under US-EU leadership

Published here: 

Key words: US, U.S., Syria, ISIS, Kurds, Russia, Iran.

Damascus – Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai

The partition of Syria is finally materialising with the United States Special Operation Forces (SOF) landing, in a joint operation with the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), near al Tabqa dam. These forces aimed to control the dam, and in consequence the flow of the Euphrates from Jarablus to the city of Raqqah, and closing the road on the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) from the northwest.

Simultaneously, the US-SDF forces have blocked the advance of the Syrian Army and its allies, supported by the Russian Air Force, stopping these from heading towards the ISIS stronghold in Raqqah and drawing the line of the new “safe zone” that will be occupied by the US forces and will therefore be their future “safe haven”, thus beginning the partition of the north of Syria.

The UK and France are expected to take part of the battle of Raqqah (in the next months) so it becomes a Western victory over ISIS, the group that once occupied territory larger than the UK and is now in continuous retreat on all fronts in Iraq and Syria. Donald Trump is anxiously waiting to declare a global victory over the terrorist group. Trump may be unaware that terrorism cannot be defeated: ISIS is the “unintended consequence of the US invasion of Iraq” and the US invasion of Syria will create a worse blowback than ISIS.

But history repeats itself: America will not finally be able to push away ISIS from Raqqah and deliver the city to the Syrian Army or the authority in Damascus or to Turkey, anxious to take part of the battle of Raqqah (Turkey has been excluded from both Mosul and Raqqah battles).

The US plan would be to deliver the city of Raqqah to local Arab tribes, under Kurdish control. Again, learning from history is an essential element in counter terrorism: the US disregards the fact that occupying cities is the wrong policy and one which leads the US administration to sink into the Middle Eastern quagmire once more. As Wright (2016) rightly acknowledges “America’s own contributions to the dire situation in the Middle East and its involvement since 9/11 has been a long series of failures, responsible for the unfolding catastrophe[i]“.

 

The Raqqah Arab tribes have resentment against the Kurds, unpopular in the area: Kurdistan Iraq is not the same as “Kurdistan Syria” or “Rojava” as the Kurds like to call it. Moreover, there are Syrian Kurds fighting among ISIS and al-Qaeda (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), others loyal to Damascus and other tribes who are against the US since its invasion of Iraq. It is not difficult to have dormant allies working for diverse groups. The US is heading towards a wasp’s nest, preparing for the military battle but not to the governance of the area they wish to occupy.

Various sources in Damascus have different opinions about the US presence. First of all, there is no doubt that all belligerents in Syria, though they will for certain not unite among themselves, will have the same objective: hit the US forces, as in Iraq 2003-2011.

“The US is pushing ISIS towards either the Syrian desert, Palmyra or the Iraqi borders before closing it off from al-Bu Kamal, allowing ISIS to spread and continue existing. The US forces did close al-Tabqa road, forcing the exodus of ISIS toward the Syrian Army and Iraq. The victory of the Syrian Army forces in Northeast Aleppo, recovering thousands of square kilometres in ISIS territory pushed the Americans to accelerate the pace and triggered that landing close to Tabqa dam and control the Tabqa airport. Moreover, this military success coincides with wide military attacks by al-Qaeda and its allies (including US vetted groups) on various fronts starting from Damascus to north Hama and Daraa. These attacks were supported by the ‘Euphrates shield’, Turkey’s proxies, the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (US vetted) and other groups financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, said a decision maker source in Damascus.

The attack failed to meet its objectives: Damascus pushed its forces beyond what was occupied by al-Qaeda and its allies, advancing into territory in al-Ghaboon never recovered before. And in Hama the counter attack is successfully recovering lost land and taking the initiative, a demonstration of the strength and capability of reorganisation of the Syrian Army and its allies after absorbing the first wave of the attack.

 

 

 

 

 

According to sources, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey fear the link between Tehran (long borders with Iraq), Baghdad (borders with Syria), Damascus and Beirut, once defined by the Jordanian Monarch as a “Shia crescent”. This could be one reason among many as to why the US decided to cut the road on Russia and its allies and prevent it from lifting the siege of Deir-ezzour. Had the Syrian Army advanced beyond al-Tabqa dam, ISIS would have gathered strength around Raqqah to fight back, and Russia and its allies would have sent reinforcements to Deir-ezzour, preventing the expansion of US plans in Syria. Damascus agreed to change the constitution and offer a federation in the northeast of Syria but not for Washington to use the Kurds as an excuse for occupying it.

Obviously all forces are happy to hit ISIS because it is the weakest force on the ground. The group has lost all regional support, and is defending the cities it is occupying. ISIS is still capable of military initiatives and sporadic attacks here and there, but these insurgency attacks have no longer any strategic objective.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “the battle of Raqqah would begin in the coming days”, without specifying what would be the next step after ISIS and without stating which force will run the city.

The battle around Raqqah began several months ago but the battle of the city of Raqqah itself has not yet fully matured. Europe has yet to enter it with the US. But the dispute remains: Do Kurdish forces enter the Arab city, clean it, lose many militants in the process, but without ruling it? Do the Arabs tribes of the region accept the Western presence (French/American/British) on their soil and the conviviality with the Kurds?

The answers to these questions are not available today because any reaction against the United States in a large, programmed and continuous manner requires time to prepare, organise and finance. And the US has never landed in Middle Eastern cities – from Beirut to Iraq – without losses. Its administration cannot afford such losses and won’t be happy to see the return of soldiers in black bags for no strategic purpose.

There is, however, another opinion: “let the US come to Syria and eliminate terrorism if that is the intention. When the US forces landed in Iraq in 2003, they triggered what is known today as ISIS. To fight the insurgency, the US successfully created the “Awakening force” made of Sunni tribes to stand against the group. The departure of the US forces allowed the group to expand to Syria and other countries. If the US can stop the slaughtering and the sectarianism, then its presence is important”.

This approach is controversial and lacks factual support: the intention of the US in Syria is still largely undeclared and unknown. Are the US forces going to push ISIS towards the cities controlled by the Syrian Army and towards Iraq so they can watch the struggle from afar? The aim of the US, after all, is not to take the pressure off Russia and Iran. This leads to the conclusion of an intended partition of Syria between Turkey and the US influence zones in the north, and then to watch the ongoing war against al-Qaeda and what is left of ISIS in other parts of the country until a political solution mature.

Al-Qaeda is expected to fail to reconsolidate its grassroots, especially since its military offensive in recent days has failed. The multi-front clash left many killed on the battlefield and will certainly have a negative blowback against the group in the area under its control, mainly the city of Idlib and rural Aleppo and Latakia.

Russia is more determined than ever to avoid sinking in the Syrian mud and to reach the end of hostilities. Would it be a possibility for Russia to live with the US on the same territory (Bilad al-Sham) similar to the situation in Berlin after the World Word II or will Moscow support the insurgency?

Too early today to answer this question, but the Syrian saga is far from over. It is continuously shape shifting and reshuffling its allies.

 

[i] Wright Lawrence, The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

 

 

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.