Vol. XLI No. 29 July 16, 2017

New War Clouds over Syria

Yohannan Chemarapally

WITH the Daesh (Islamic State) in retreat and the Syrian army and allied militias advancing all over Syria to recapture national territory, the Americans and their proxy forces have also started redoubling 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. Mosul has been declared a liberated city in the second week of July by the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al Abadi. The city has been reduced to rubble with thousands killed and tens of thousands more made homeless. The nine month fight for Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, across the border with Syria, was a coordinated one in which the Iraqi forces are being backed by the Americans as well as Shia militias trained by the Iranians and the Hezbollah. The fight in Syria represents a totally different scenario. There, the Americans 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.

American special forces have been deployed inside Syria. The even more dangerous development was the shooting down in the third week of June of a Syrian air force plane and a military drone that were participating in the fight against the terrorist groups.  Earlier in the month of June, the US air force had shot down another Syrian military drone. The shooting down of the plane however is significant as this is the first time since the conflict in Syria began six years ago that a Syrian air force plane was willfully targeted by the American air force.

This is not the first time that the United States had intervened on the side of the armed militants and terrorists. In September last year, the US air force had targeted Syrian forces which were on the verge of inflicting a military defeat on the Daesh near the Deir Ezzor military base. 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. The Daesh is expected to make its last stand in Syria near this city once it is expelled from Raqqa.

The Americans, Israelis and the Jordanians also do not want the Syrian government to regain complete control of its southern borders. With the dream of regime change in Damascus evaporating, these three states want to carve out their areas of influence in small enclaves within Syria. Eastern Syria and the area around Deir Ezzor is mainly desert but it is where the country's hydro carbon reserves exist. 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 has been regularly supplying rebel groups along its border with Syria with food, fuel and medical supplies. Israeli war planes have intervened on behalf of the rebel forces on several occasions. “Israel stood by our side in a heroic way” said Moatassem al-Golani, spokesman for a rebel group which 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 the al Nusra in the last six years of the war.

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 the al Nusra and the Daesh fighters in Syria till late last year. But with the United States 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 YPG, which is an affiliate of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, running a mini state along its borders.

After President Donald Trump took over, some of his senior non military advisers have been pressing for an American led intervention in southern Syria. The American and Jordanian military have conducted war games along the Syrian border last year. The US had launched a massive missile attack on a Syrian air base in April this year, based on fictitious reports that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on its own citizens. According to the investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, President Trump had gone ahead with his decision to target Syria, despite the Pentagon warning him that there was no evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

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 is being blatantly violated by the unilateral acts of American aggression. The Russian military, along with militias like the Hezbollah are in Syria at the express invitation of the Syrian government. With the end game 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 Raqqah province with the active support of the People Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurd militia armed and trained by the US army. Many Kurd fighters who were initially armed and supplied by the Syrian government to fight the Daesh and the 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. The United States is expending most of its military resources to ensure that their local allies reach Raqqa first.

The Russian government has issued a strong warning to Washington after its FA/18 plane downed 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 defense”. Syria has not recognised this so-called “deconflicting zone” proclaimed by the United States. 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 will be targeted by its planes. The Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said that recent American actions “only help the cause of the terrorists”.

Russia has announced the suspension of the hotline with Washington 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 can lead to a “major conflict” in the region.

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 into Daesh positions in Deir Ezzor. The attack in fact 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 attacks in Teheran 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. Teheran 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 has the wherewithal to target them. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safayi, 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 US decides to start any war against Iran, all its military bases in the region will experience insecurity”.

With the United States now virtually giving up on its goal of regime change in Syria, the goal posts 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.