Israel defends its attacks on its neighbor, for which Damascus and its Hezbollah allies have vowed to retaliate at the time and place of their choice, by claiming self-defense in preventing the transfer of weaponry from Iran to the Lebanese Shi'a militia in the Levant. While the IAF strikes, unopposed by Russia, have been propaganda blows to Damascus military pride, they have not destroyed much lately in the way of actual weaponry or inflicted heavy casualties. However, as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) advances into Idlib province, and the jihadists grow more desperate to stop the onslaught with their manpower drained away in mercenary service to Turkey's offensive on the Afrin Kurds, a more serious threat to Syrian sovereignty looms. The number of chemical attacks using chlorine gas is spreading across the country, with the Turks somewhat bizarrely accusing the YPG this week of using the cheap, easy to manufacture WW1-style chemical weapon against their jihadi allies. The YPG in turn accused the Turks and jihadis of gassing their militiamen with chlorine.
More troublesome for Damascus and its patrons in Moscow and Tehran, a number of chlorine attacks have allegedly killed or hurt scores of civilians amidst a heavy conventional bombing campaign after last week's shoot down and death of a Russian SU25 pilot near Saraqeb in Idlib. The use whether real or most likely staged through the British intelligence funded G-NGO the White Helmets of chlorine gas has the Trump Administration threatening to once again bomb Syrian government forces including the Syrian Air Force as it did in April 2017. Moscow, desiring to avoid confrontation with Washington, Tel Aviv or Ankara, clearly wants to avoid a repeat of the Al-Shayrat strike or having to provide direct air support to Syrian and Iranian units opposing any further Turkish Army advances (under the guise of establishing 'deconfliction' outposts aka Syrian Al-Qaeda friendly checkpoints) toward Idlib. But the deaths of 100 Syrian servicemen, which we hope are an exaggeration from Coalition sources, represents a grave provocation to Damascus, Tehran and Moscow. Particularly when an occupying power has the chutzpah to insist it was done in self-defense while the SAA was simply trying to reclaim oil fields that belong to the Syrian people from the groups Uncle Sam put in charge of those hydrocarbons.
American Air Strike and Efforts to Ratchet Up Pressure on Damascus as Thinly Manned Jihadists Pull Off SAA Frontlines to Engage Kurds for Turkish Pay
On Wednesday afternoon, hours after the Israelis attacked the Damascus outskirts with missiles launched from over Lebanon, U.S. warplanes bombed Syrian Arab Army troops after the SAA allegedly attacked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) units accompanied by American advisers. The U.S. Coalition denied that any American troops had been killed or wounded in the supposed SAA attack that prompted the air strike response. As a reminder, the Russian Analyst wishes to point out that the legitimate government never asked American forces to occupy sovereign Syrian territory, and the U.S. presence, especially now that ISIS has been reduced to isolated units Syrian government and invited Russian forces can handle, has no justification under international law.
The timing of the Israeli and American air strikes within 24 hours of each other suggests coordination, as well as displeasure in both Washington and Tel Aviv over Damascus military successes. The SAA with heavy Russian air support is rapidly reducing pockets of jihadist resistance ahead of an anticipated summer offensive toward Idlib city and the besieged Shia enclaves of Foua and Kefraya. The SAA is also not allowing the Turks to use deconfliction zones negotiated with the Russians as pretexts to occupy more Syrian territory in blocking positions ahead of major operations to take back Idlib province.
Turkey Under U.S. Proxy Pressure and the Limits of Ankara's Afrin Offensive
The SAA is also permitting large convoys of Kurdish fighters, including many abandoning their posts with the U.S.-supported SDF, to pass through government held territory en route to Afrin where they will fight the Turkish Army and its allied jihadis. Wounded Kurdish YPG members are also reportedly being treated at Syrian government hospitals alongside injured members of the SAA, and arms flow freely from Damascus-held areas into Afrin which is being squeezed by the Turkish advance on three sides. This is strong evidence that both Moscow and Damascus still hope to woo the Kurds back into a confederation with the capitol, by providing far more tangible support against the Turks (despite Moscow's unwilligness to directly confront its 'frenemy') than Washington. In other words, the American effort to simultaneously appease its Incirlik Air Base possessing NATO ally and keep the Kurds on side against Damascus appear to be failing.
For this reason, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is headed to Turkey next week for talks with his counterpart Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The Turkish FM has insisted Washington must pull its troops out of Manbij and abandon any arms flow to the YPG Kurds, whom Ankara considers synonymous with the PKK terrorists who carry out attacks inside Turkey. The YPG-PKK link, which is hard to deny when so many Syrian Kurdish leaders used PKK flags with the portrait of the former PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, have hardened Turkish public opinion against the Americans. Many Turks including in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) are calling for the expulsion of US forces from Incirlik Air Base or leaving NATO.
Nonetheless, despite broad if not deep support for Ankara's offensive among the Turkish people, the Turks continue to advance slowly, and in an effort to minimize casualties, rely upon their jihadi proxies. This reliance in turn means that Turkey has to at least keep up the appearance of trying to limit SAA advances against the home villages of its Syrian cannon fodder at the Afrin front back in Idlib province. Many of the 'Free Syrian Army' fighters rebranded as the 'Syrian National Army' are thrown in with Al-Qaeda lite groups like Nour al-Din al-Zenki (which received TOW missiles from the Saudis and CIA until the group embarrassed Langley by beheading a Palestinian boy on video) and the formerly Qatari proxy Ahrar al Sham, which had its fans in Washington, despite overtly allying with Al-Qaeda.
The fact that the Americans have been supporting Kurdish fighters now leaving their SDF positions to go fight in Afrin, and the Russians have pushed Damascus to bring the Kurds back into the fold rather than abandon them to their fate at Turkish hands, has led some to speculate that Washington and Moscow are secretly in cahoots against Ankara. To be fair, there is an element of truth behind such speculation: Turkey and Russia have fought over fourteen wars historically, while Ankara is increasingly overt in its Islamist and anti-Washington rhetoric. But rhetoric and history do not together constitute solid proof of present action. With Turks blocked from joining the EU for being too populous and too Muslim of a country, China's One Belt One road beckons to the businessmen of Istanbul.
As experienced Mideast correspondent Elijah J. Magnier, who has covered the Syria war from the beginning writes below, Turkey's objective isn't to seize Afrin city. Ethnically cleansing the Kurdish inhabitants, even with the help of bloody minded and Kurd-hating Arab jihadists aka Sen. McCain's 'anti-Assad moderate rebels', would likely claim too many Turkish soldiers lives and provoke too much of an outcry against Turkey. While Ankara is growing less concerned with Washington's sensitivities by the day, the question of boycotts or EU trade restrictions still looms over the country's industrial and agriculture exports in extreme scenarios.
So according to Magnier, and UAE paid moderate Syria rebel promoter Hassan Hassan, the Turks military objectives are limited to bloodying the Kurds and pressuring Washington to abandon its Syraq spanning, Israeli backed Kurdistan project. The Turks also aim to establish a security zone to theoretically limit YPG arms transfers to PKK insurgents inside Turkey, but so long as the Kurds remain on negotiable terms with open highways to Damascus held territory and Ankara remains Assad's adversary, that won't work. As YPG resistance continues and the Kurds make effective use of the hilly terrain around Afrin to bleed the invaders and their jihadi proxies, the Turks seem far from achieving their goal. Damascus, Washington and Moscow all understand the longer the battle for Afrin drags on, the more likely Ankara will agree to a solution that leaves Damascus nominally in charge of Afrin.
Such a solution would suit Moscow especially if the Kurds politely ask the Americans to leave or draw down their presence in return for the Syrian Arab Army (and indirectly, Russia and Iran's) protection from another Turkish assault. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's mission impossible which he has chosen to accept, is to split the baby between the Kurds and Turks, while keeping Assad's troops or at least flag out of Afrin. But it's not going to work, because Damascus and Ankara are near, while Washington and Tel Aviv are far away.
'Russian Contractors' Alleged to Be Complicit in Attack on U.S. Backed SDF and Blaming Moscow for Chlorine Gas Attacks and Civilian Losses -- Deep State Propaganda and/or Prelude to Escalation?
An element of the story promoted by CNN regarding the alleged 'unprovoked attack' by Assad government forces against SDF and embedded American advisers on February 7, was the presence of 'Russian mercenaries'. It's notable that the original statement released by the Pentagon and Coalition contains no reference to any Russians being nearby when the clashes took place in Deir Ez Zor province, where the U.S. demanded Damascus accept the Euphrates River as a de facto 'descalation' line of demarcation (again, with no basis under international law for establishing an occupation zone in the country).
Starr has been CNN's Pentagon correspondent since 2001, and the Clinton News Network has also been caught pushing fake stories dating back to the infamous 'SCUD Stud' footage of alleged incoming Iraqi missiles falling on Saudi Arabia filmed with potted palm trees on the roof of its Atlanta headquarters. It would not surprise us in the least if the 'Pentagon sources' cited by Starr simply made the presence of Russian 'mercenaries' up. Certainly, the implication is that Moscow, after many Russian parliamentarians blamed the Americans for the MANPAD shoot down of a Russian Air Force SU25 and the death of its pilot, is sneakily trying to target American troops in revenge, using the quasi-deniable cutouts of private contractors among Syrian forces. However there is no visual evidence of any Russian presence prior to the confrontation, and Syrian government forces have not shown footage or pictures of their own vehicles damaged or destroyed by a Coalition air strike.
Considering the timing of these provocations coming just days after a visit by all three Russian intelligence chiefs to Washington infuriated some Congressional Democrats and their deep state allies, and it smells to us like a set up incident, if not yet a Gulf of Tonkin in the Syrian desert. Without further evidence or actual actions following the posturing of SecState Tillerson, SecDef Mattis or UN Amb. Nikki Haley in this Administration, it's difficult to see if there is any coordinated plan unfolding, or just more deep state provocations intended to elevate Cold War 2 tensions. The next few weeks following Tillerson's talks with the Turks as we approach the Russian presidential elections in March may prove decisive in terms of whether the Americans will keep escalating to stay relevant in Syria, or back away from confronting both Turkey and Russia.