A recent article by Mike Whitney in Counterpunch sounds a dire warning of what may await us in Syria, just as optimism is growing that the seven-year war against the NATO/Gulfies state-sponsored jihadists is winding down. Whitney says:
So there you have it. As the standoff begins to take shape in east Syria, the two rival superpowers are preparing themselves for the worst. Clearly, we have reached the most dangerous moment in the six year-long war.
As the world watches with bated breath the standoff in North Korea, the coming together of the two superpowers and their allies almost seems inevitable. At the very least, the Syrian Arab Army, SAA and the Kurdish dominated so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF (hereafter referred to as their accurate name the Hezen Suriya Demokratik, HSD) will clash and already have to a limited extent. US and Russian forces are embedded with the opposing sides, so it is difficult to see how they won’t get drawn in to any future clashes.
Russia had already warned the US to halt HSD mortar and rocket fire on the SAA in a move which appeared to be designed to head off a head to head clash.
Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov announced that Russian commanders told US commanders at a meeting at the Al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar that attacks put at risk Russian military advisers embedded with Syrian government troops.
“Fire from positions in regions [controlled by the SDF] will be suppressed by all means necessary,” he stressed.
Konashenkov’s warning, like so many before it from Russian and Syrian military and political leaders was in vain. Within a few days, as the SAA finally achieved the coveted goals of liberating nearly all of Deir Ezzor city and crossed to the east side of the Euphrates—a strategically vital goal— ISIS mortar fire killed Russian Lieutenant General Valery Asapov. A Syrian security forces source told Sputnik:
“The results of a preliminary investigation into the death of general Asapov in Deir Ezzor evidences a leak of information on his location to the side that carried out the attack,” the source said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was blunter in his assessment, saying, “The death of the Russian commander is that price, the payment in blood for the duplicity of US policy in Syria.”
With more than 87 percent of Syria’s territory freed from jihadists’ control, the US and its allies, among which we have to count ISIS and Al-Qaeda, along with the HSD are understandable becoming desperate. Desperation often drives escalation and provocation and the killing of General Asapov is just the latest in a series of events which show the US knows no bounds in its craven actions, for which it is receiving widespread criticism and condemnation.
Clashes and Provocations
Recent events and accusations have included:
- The US accusing Russia of bombing the HSD
- Russia and Syria accusing the HSD of mortar and rocket fire on the SAA
- The HSD being accused of raising the water level of the Euphrates as the SAA was trying to cross it
- The HSD threatened they wouldn’t allow the SAA to cross the river
- The spectacular failure of the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham ‘Nusra Front’ led forces assault on Syrian positions in North Hama, where they also tried to capture or kill 29 Russian military policemen deployed to monitor the de-escalation zone
- Israeli bombing of Hama from Lebanese airspace and the bombing of Damascus International Airport. Criminal Israeli actions are all too common but are included here as part of the cycle of escalation
The rapid advance of the SAA and its allies against ISIS in southern Raqqa and Homs, bringing it within striking distance of the long awaited liberation of Deir Ez-Zor caught the US and the HSD by surprise, prompting them to announce their own operation to liberate Deir Ezzor approaching from the north. Inevitably, the two forces were bound to meet and on 17 September, in perhaps a preemptive psychological strike, the US accused Russian jets of attacking HSD positions near Deir Ezzor. The Pentagon released a statement claiming “Several SDF fighters were wounded and received medical care as a result of the strike.”
The accusation came right at a historic moment in the war on Syria, as The ISIS Hunters, an elite unit of the SAA, announced that for the first time in years, pro-Syrian government forces had reached the northern side of the Euphrates River at Deir Ezzor. It also came as months of hard work culminated in the participant countries at the Astana talks reaching an agreement on a de-escalation zone in Idlib province. Furthermore, it came on the heels of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, repeating the mantra that the US wouldn’t be satisfied until President Assad is gone. “We’re not going to be satisfied until we see a strong and stable Syria. And that is not with Assad in place,” Haley said, possibly an expression of the frustration of the US at being excluded from the Astana process and a portent of the airstrike accusations and subsequent US provocations.
It was quite Ironic that this accusation came just as Deir Ezzor is being liberated, with the SAA poised to cross to the eastern side of the Euphrates River to continue the fight against ISIS and on the anniversary of the infamous US bombing of the Syrian Army which allowed ISIS to make big gains in Deir Ezzor and threatened the city with being conquered by ISIS.
Russia called out the US claim as either showing it was lying or that its Kurdish proxies were embedded with ISIS. The Russian Defense Ministry released a statement saying it provided details to the US of the military operation in Deir Ezzor through deconfliction communication channels. Further, it stated its aerospace forces “makes pinpoint strikes only on reconnaissance targets confirmed by several channels in ISIS-controlled areas.” Hinting at cooperation between the US/HSD and ISIS the statement concluded with:
Over the past few days, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, Russian control and reconnaissance facilities have not identified a single combat of Islamic State terrorists with armed representatives of any ‘third force.’ Therefore, only representatives of the international coalition can answer the question as to how ‘opposition members’ or ‘military advisers of the international coalition’ managed to get to the ISIS-held areas in the eastern part of Deir Ezzor without striking a blow”.
Upping the ante, as the SAA prepared to cross the Euphrates, Abu Khawla, the leader of the HSD led forces approaching Deir Ezzor told AP that the militia would not let Syrian government forces and their allies cross the Euphrates River to gain control of its eastern side. Undeterred, SAA forces crossed to the east bank of the Euphrates using Russian pontoon bridges, despite coming under fire as they did so. Hampering progress against ISIS further, the HSD coalition was accused of discharging water upstream of the Euphrates, most notably the Tabqa Dam, to raise the water levels in Deir Ezzor, making crossing the river more difficult for SAA forces.
The next act of deceit and aggression against the SAA and its allies was a massive offensive carried out by Hayat Tahrir Al-sham (Al Qaeda) led jihadists moving from their stronghold in Idlib to attack government forces in North Hama. The jihadists made quick gains and surrounded 29 Russian military policemen with the intention of killing or capturing them. Russian Spetsnaz forces had to be sent in to rescue the surrounded unit, which they achieved without loss of life. The propaganda coup would have been enormous for Hayat Tahrir Al-sham, the opportunity to drag dead Russian soldiers along the street reminiscent of US soldiers in Somalia in 1993, too good to pass up.
The counterattack was swift, decisive and deadly, the SAA and allies recapturing nearly all positions lost as a result of the offensive launched by Al-Qaeda. Airstrikes and artillery strikes reportedly killed 850 fighters and destroyed 11 tanks, 4 infantry fighting vehicles, 46 pick-up trucks, 5 mortars, and 38 ammunition depots.
The repelled attack was followed by a statement from the Russian military accusing the US of being behind the Al-Qaeda attack in order to slow down the SAA offensive against ISIS in Deir Ezzor. The statement, which clearly showed Russian anger that the US would plot to kill its military personnel said:
….. According to available data, the offensive was initiated by American intelligence services to stop a successful advance of government troops east of Deir Ezzor“.
Undeterred by the spectacular failure of the Al-Qaeda attack, the US and the HSD launched the next provocation; direct mortar and rocket fire at SAA positions in Deir Ezzor. The heaviest attacks the SAA had endured twice came from areas under the control of the HSD led forces on the eastern side of the Euphrates River. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov declared that, “Fire from positions in regions [controlled by the SDF] will be suppressed by all means necessary.”
The objectives of the attack in North Hama and the tactics used by the US/HSD coalition in Deir Ezzor appeared to be designed to:
- Slow down SAA progress east of the Euphrates towards Deir Ezzor oilfields
- Capture and kill Russian military police in a propaganda coup
- Jeopardize the Astana de-escalation zone in Idlib and North Hama. The Idlib zone agreement had only just been concluded.
- Enable the HSD led coalition to advance on Deir Ezzor oilfields from the north, heading off the SAA to beat them to the oilfields crucial for the rebuilding of Syria post-war. The HSD coalition has already captured some oilfields in north Deir Ezzor.
Russia Riled by the Rogue US State
The Saker highlighted the unusually strong language by Russia to directly accuse the US. It shows the anger of Moscow. They had to pull off a precise operation using elite Spetsnaz forces to save the day in North Hama. Imagine what would have happened if they captured the Russian military police. The jihadists would have dragged them through the streets Somalia style of 1993 when US soldiers suffered this fate. Imagine the rage that would inspire in Russian society. Vladimir Putin said indirectly to the NATO and Gulf State sponsors of terrorism in Syria do you know what you have done at the UN in September 2015, just days before sending Russian forces in at the request of Bashar Al-Assad. Now Russian forces are directly subjected to the US organized and supported terrorism, an unacceptable attack which can’t be tolerated. Cue the statements made by Rudskoi and Konashenkov. If Moscow is prepared to make an accusation like this in an official statement, one can imagine how strongly worded it may have been in the meeting with US commanders at Al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar.
The same can be said for Hezbollah and Iranian forces on the ground assisting the SAA. Its allies are experiencing first-hand the wickedness and brutality of jihadist proxies the SAA has been bravely fighting for more than six years.
Russia told the US it would not accept air strikes west of the Euphrates after the US coalition shot down a Syrian jet over Raqqa targeting ISIS forces. The General Command of the Syrian Army condemned the attack as yet further proof that the US supports terrorism in Syria. The message was clearly sent to the US coalition that any future attacks made its aircraft a target. You can now add ground attacks coming from the east of the Euphrates on Syrian and its allies positions as it vies for control of Deir Ezzor province against the US and the HSD. Will the US take these threats seriously? It is so arrogant and hungry for war gained wealth that it may very well ignore the warnings and continue attacks. This can only lead to Russian casualties on top of many Syrian casualties at some point, which surely forces a defensive response of firing in return, inevitably killing HSD and likely some US forces too. Iranian and Hezbollah units would just love to have US Special Forces within reach after the provocations and aggression waged by the US against both for many years. It goes without saying that Deir Ezzor is a powder keg waiting to go off.
What does deconfliction mean in Deir Ezzor as the competing forces converge? How can either side warn of attacks on each other’s allies, when both have forces embedded? It shows the very limited usefulness of the deconfliction agreement which has not curtailed US and Kurdish ambitions, and can actually be said to have assisted their aggressive expansion of territory, acquired and accepted by the Syrian coalition, as to do otherwise risks inadvertently hitting each other’s forces.
The US Sees Nirvana in Deir Ezzor Oilfields
Why does the US want Deir Ezzor’s oilfields? First and foremost, we must remember that two years ago the regime change plan of the US was looking increasingly likely, the threat of the ISIS flag flying in Damascus looming large. The reversal in Deir Ezzor is emblematic of the wider Syrian war, with government forces steadily moving toward victory. While some land is still under the control of ISIS and the HSD however, Plan B —Balkanization of Syria is still very much alive. One major difference is that the Sunni Caliphate in Eastern Syria now becomes the quasi-Marxist Kurdish promised land, as ISIS is removed from their role as guardians of oil-rich land.
The competition is on to seize the oilfields which litter the landscape east of the Euphrates River. ISIS previously made millions of dollars a day in illicit oil sales, financing their military capability and expansion across Syria. Much of this trade was done with Turkey, until Russian bombers wiped out the transport routes in late 2015. Taking over the oilfields provides the Kurds and their US handlers a reliable revenue stream for the emerging Kurdish mini-state.
Alarmed by the rapid advance of the SAA towards Deir Ezzor and its vital oilfields, the US asked the HSD to mount an operation heading south to seize the oilfields. The race is now on, the SAA crossing from the western side of the Euphrates, the HSD heading south on the eastern side of the river. ISIS is the third force complicating the battle and is not expected to give up the oilfields without a fight, or at least not to the SAA. The US, veterans in dealing with and assisting terrorists since training jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, is showing its hand in colluding with ISIS, lending more weight to the accumulated evidence that it has been using ISIS as a strategic asset since it entered Syria in 2013. The HSD are separatist Kurds working against the interests of reunifying Syria, acting as US proxies and again the recent evidence also implicates them in colluding with ISIS. These facts put the SAA at a disadvantage, as it needs to fight through ISIS to reach the oilfields, rather than strike deals with it like the US is so apt at doing.
There are a multitude of other reasons for the US desire to control Deir Ezzor, all of which strengthen the weakening position of the US and its staunch ally Israel in the Middle East, to the detriment first and foremost of Syria, but also to its allies in Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. US control of Deir Ezzor oilfields and the highway to Iraq will thwart Syria financing the reconstruction of the country, projects which will be contracted to its partners in the fight against terrorism, with the US excluded. Control of the highway also blocks the Arab superhighway from Tehran to Damascus. It would seriously jeopardize any post-war plans to resurrect the Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline deal signed in 2011, much to the anger of Gulf States seeking an alternative pipeline from Qatar, the rejection of which is one of the reasons why war was unleashed on Syria. It entrenches and allows for the expansion of the 10 US military bases illegally constructed in Syria, firming its foothold in the country. Gaining control of the area with direct access to the US bases enables ongoing training and arming of Kurds, supplying them with the arms, finances, and equipment to resist moves by Syria to liberate any land held by the HSD who are increasingly showing themselves to be traitors. Bouthaina Shaaban, the political and media adviser to President Assad, recently compared the HSD to ISIS, calling them an illegitimate force and that the apparently easy capture of ISIS-held land by the HSD in northeast Syria suggested they may be colluding with the takfiri group to take control of Syrian oilfields. The comments also suggest a harder line being taken to the HSD, something which would no doubt please Turkish President Erdogan who is desperate to repress any Kurdish territorial ambitions in Syria.
Another major concern from the imperial perspective of the US and its allies is that after liberating Deir Ezzor, the SAA will be able to join Iraqi forces in regaining control of the Syria/Iraq border. A combined force of Syrian, Hezbollah, Iranian, Russian aerospace forces, Iraqi army and militias such as the PMU should then be able to make relatively short work of cleaning ISIS out of the border region. This will not suit the plans of the US, which wants ISIS to be an obstacle to final Syrian victory and an asset in its own nefarious plans to carve up the Syrian state. Syrian, Hezbollah and Iraqi forces have already met up at the border preparing for an offensive against the ISIS-held border town of Al-Bukamal, having earlier thwarted the US plans to stop them reaching the border using their proxy forces at Al-Tanf.
Finally, controlling Syrian land and its rich oil and gas fields strengthen the ever-weakening US hand when it comes to post-war negotiations on Syria’s future. As its proxies have been routed, its propaganda bears no political fruit and the Syrian people demonstrate their resolve in overcoming NATO/Gulf state-sponsored terrorists, the US has become isolated and humiliated. Nothing illustrates this more than being excluded from the Astana negotiations. Like the bully who knows nothing but violence, the US has escalated military action, including criminal attacks on Syrian military and civilians, sent in more Special Forces and equipment, and increased heavy weapons supplies to the Kurds in order to forcibly take land it will use as a bargaining chip in future negotiations. Donald Trump has become putty in the warmongering hands of the neocons and liberal interventionists who are determined that their plans to maintain US hegemony in the Middle East shall not be defeated.
On 28 September, SANA News reported on two letters sent by the Syrian government to the United Nations:
“The Foreign and Expatriates Ministry addressed on Thursday new letters to the chiefs of the UN and the international Security Council over the constantly repeated attacks of the US-led coalition against Syrian territory and civilians…..In its two letters , the Ministry renewed also its demand that the Security Council take immediate action to stop the “barbarous crimes” and “gross violations” of the international humanitarian law and the international human rights law repeatedly committed by the coalition.
Syria’s position on the violation of international law by the very presence of the US and its allies on Syrian soil has been crystal clear since the start of the dirty war more than six years ago. In July, US General Raymond Thomas said that international law could prevent US long-term presence in Syria, where its intervention has been declared illegal by the government. Here is one General who gets it. (Sort of). The Trump regime, in particular, its warmongering generals, needs to get the message; pack your things, get out and stay out. You are not wanted in Syria.
— Paul Mansfield