Syria

Shifting goalposts

Print edition : July 21, 2017

Fighters of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on their way to Raqqa on June 6. Photo: RODI SAID/REUTERS

At the Jordan-Saudi Arabia border, south of Amman, U.S. soldiers participate in a military exercise on May 17. Photo: Muhammad Hamed/REUTERS

With the dream of regime change in Damascus evaporating, the U.S. and its allies have begun to work on new goals, such as carving out areas of influence within Syria and using these as military bases to target Iran.

With the Daesh, or Islamic State, in retreat and the Syrian Army and allied militias advancing all over Syria, the Americans and their proxy forces have begun to redouble their efforts to foil Syrian reunification. The Syrian Army, supported by the Russian Air Force, is advancing towards Raqqa, the “capital” of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The fight in Syria represents a total contrast from the fight for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city across the border. Mosul should be completely liberated by July 2017. Only a few pockets in the old city are still under the control of the Daesh. Whereas the fight for Mosul is a coordinated one in which the Iraqi forces are backed by the Americans as well as Shia militias trained by the Iranians and Hizbollah, in Syria American special forces are backing the Syrian Kurds and other militias for hire in the race to capture Raqqa and carve out a statelet along the border with Turkey.

In a dangerous development, the U.S military shot down a Syrian Air Force plane and a military drone that were participating in the fight against terrorist groups in the third week of June. Earlier in June, the U.S. Air Force had shot down another Syrian military drone. This is the first time since the conflict in Syria began six years ago that a Syrian Air Force plane had been wilfully targeted by the U.S.

This is not the first time that the U.S. has intervened on the side of the armed militants and terrorists. In September last year, the U.S. Air Force targeted Syrian forces which were on the verge of inflicting a military defeat on the Daesh near the Deir Ezzor military base. As many as 10,000 Syrian soldiers have been holding out against the Daesh in Deir Ezzor city for the last four years, against overwhelming odds. A part of the city is under the control of the Daesh, which is expected to make its last stand in Syria near this city once it is expelled from Raqqa.

The Americans, the Israelis and the Jordanians do not want the Syrian government to regain complete control of the country’s southern borders. With the dream of regime change in Damascus evaporating, these three states want to carve out their own areas of influence in small enclaves within Syria. Eastern Syria and the area around Deir Ezzor is mainly desert but also the site of the country’s hydrocarbon reserves. Control of the area by the Americans and their allies will cut off an important land route connecting the capitals of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Israel had been regularly supplying rebel groups along its border with Syria with food, fuel and medicines. Israeli war planes have intervened on behalf of the rebel forces on several occasions. “Israel stood by our side in a heroic way,” said Moatasem al-Golani, spokesman for a rebel group that calls itself the Knights of the Golan. “We wouldn’t have survived without Israel’s assistance.” Israeli planes and missiles have never bothered to target the Daesh or al Nusra in the last six years of the war.

Tacit help from Turkey

Syrian troops and their allies have been consolidating their hold over the area around Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, undermining American plans to sever the strategic road link. The Syrian government is getting tacit help from the Turkish government and its ally, Qatar. These two countries were among the main backers of the rebel groups, including al Nusra and Daesh fighters in Syria until late last year. But with the U.S. showing its keenness for the establishment of a Kurdish enclave in Syria along the border with Turkey, there has been a dramatic change in the attitude of the Turks. Ankara is dead set against the People Protection Units (YPG), an affiliate of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey that runs a mini-state along its borders.

The PKK has been declared a terrorist organisation by the Turkish state. The U.S. and many European governments have also deemed the PKK a terrorist organisation. But outside Turkey, the PKK is working hand in glove with Washington. This has angered the Turks, who, along with the Qataris, have started indirectly cooperating with the Syrian government in the fight against the YPG and other American-backed rebel groups along the border with Syria. The two governments are also not happy with the U.S.’ game plan of escalating military tensions with Iran, with whom they have extensive trade and economic links. The facts on the ground in Syria are changing by the day. At one point of the war, Turkey and Qatar were among the biggest backers of the terrorist groups in Syria. Now they have been replaced by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Ever since Donald Trump took over as U.S. President, some of his senior non-military advisers have been pressing for an American-led intervention in southern Syria. The American and Jordanian military conducted war games along the Syrian border last year. The U.S. launched a massive missile attack on a Syrian airbase in April this year, on the basis of fictitious reports that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on its own citizens. According to the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, President Trump went ahead with his decision to target Syria despite the Pentagon warning him that there was no evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. In May, the U.S. Air Force targeted a Syrian Army convoy proceeding towards an area in southern Syria where American and British special forces were training rebel forces. According to most observers of the Syrian scene, only a large-scale American military intervention will be able to stop the Syrian Army from liberating most of the country.

It is important to emphasise that the American military has already unilaterally encroached into Syrian territory. The Syrian government has strongly protested to the international community that its sovereignty has been blatantly violated by unilateral acts of American aggression. The Russian military, along with militias like Hizbollah, are in Syria at the express invitation of the Syrian government. With the endgame becoming clearer, the Americans have decided to impose themselves militarily in an open way in the Syrian conflict. There are credible reports that the Americans are in the process of setting up a military base in Tabqah town in Raqqa province with the active support of the YPG, which is armed and trained by the U.S. Army. Many Kurd fighters, who were initially armed and supplied by the Syrian government to fight the Daesh and the al Nusra Front, have defected to the American-sponsored “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF). The YPG is part of the SDF. The Syrian Army and the SDF are in a race to capture Raqqa.

Russian warning

The Russian government issued a strong warning to the U.S. after its FA/18 plane shot down a Syrian Su-22 warplane. The Americans claimed that the Syrian plane was flying inside a so-called “deconflicting zone” and that the plane was brought down in “self-defence”, but Syria has not recognised this so-called “deconflicting zone” proclaimed by the U.S. The London-based Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, which is no friend of the Syrian government, said that the Syrian plane was targeted by the Americans to protect Daesh fighters operating in the area. After the incident, Moscow announced that American planes flying south of the Euphrates river would be targeted by its planes. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said that recent American actions would “only help the cause of the terrorists”.

Russia has announced the suspension of the hotline with the U.S. that helps prevent accidental confrontations over Syrian skies between the air forces of the two countries. Senior Russian lawmakers have warned that the shooting down of the Syrian Air Force jet could lead to a “major conflict” in the region. The Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Committee on Defence and Security in the Upper House of the Duma, Frants Klintsevich, said that the shooting down of the Syrian Air Force plane “was a provocation aimed against Russia”. Under international law, the Syrian government has the right to operate inside its own airspace and the U.S. has no right to station its troops inside Syria.

Speaking to the media at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that the American presence in southern Syria was “absolutely illegal”. He said that there was neither a request from the Syrian government nor a U.N. Security Council Resolution that legitimised it. “Any presence, especially military presence, on the territory of a sovereign state is only possible when there is a corresponding resolution from the U.N. Security Council or a request or a consent from the legitimate authority,” Bogdanov emphasised.

The Iranians are also flexing their muscles on behalf of the government of Syria. In the third week of June, Iran fired medium-range missiles at Daesh positions in Deir Ezzor. In fact, the attack happened on the same day of the downing of the Syrian jet. Iranian military officials have said that the missile attacks, which were in retaliation for the twin Daesh terror attack in Tehran in early June, killed more than 65 militants, most of them of foreign origin. Iran has said that the June terror attacks were planned by the Daesh from Deir Ezzor. Tehran had coordinated with Damascus and Moscow before launching the missile attack. The Iranian missile attack was also intended to be a message to its enemies in the region that it had the wherewithal to target them. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, military adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had issued a warning to the West a few days prior to the missile attack against the Daesh targets in Syria saying that “if the U.S. decides to start any war against Iran, all its military bases in the region will experience insecurity”.

With the U.S. now virtually giving up on its goal of regime change in Syria, the goalposts are being shifted. Under the Trump administration, the focus of America and its regional allies will shift more towards Iran. But in order to isolate Iran, the West and its allies will have to further weaken Syria and its allies in the region by setting up new military bases and propping up sectarian militias and parties.

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