Category Archives: Syria

Showdown in Idlib: the Media War

RT is conducting a sustained campaign to pre-empt a chemical attack supposedly being organised by Western-backed forces in Idlib Province by elements within the rebel fighting force, Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS).

However, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF), reported a convoy of vehicles carrying barrels containing chemical materials being transferred by the Syrian régime from Damascus to the countryside of Hama. A statement issued today by its spokesman, Naji al-Mustafa specified that 10 barrels left the “155th Brigade” barracks near Damascus last night, unloaded in warehouses in the town of Kitlun, and then transferred to another unknown place. NLF is the Turkish-backed umbrella group that merged  Ahrar al-Sham, the Syrian Hawks and the Free Syrian Army amongst others.

This statement comes after persistent Russian warnings of impending chemical attacks in the province of Idlib by rebel factions together with elements from the “Civil Defense” (White Helmet) units. The head of the Russian-Syrian Reconciliation Center, Alexei Siganakov, claimed that members of the White Helmets had transported a large load of toxic substances to a store in the town of Sarqab, under the control of Ahrar al-Sham. Earlier the White Helmets had also been identified by the Russians as associated with planned chemical attacks on Kafrzita and Jisr al-Shughur.

Al-Mustapha maintained that Russian announcements were fabrications that boded ill for local populations. Russia was thus fronting the Assad régime’s preparations for a chemical attack against civilians, as it had already done in previously documented events in Idlib Province and eastern Ghouta, with a sustained media campaign through RT news to soften up international opinion ahead of any atrocities. In an interview with Einab Baladi (The Grapes of my Country news site) yesterday, the director of the Civil Defense units, Raed al-Saleh, echoed al-Mustapha’s warnings about these Russian tactics, and rued the fact that they were not in a position to counter the media dominance of RT’s campaign.  

However, looking more closely at events, it looks like Russia rather than the Assad régime is the prime mover in the Idlib showdown. In of themselves, the latter’s threats against an area increasingly controlled by Turkey are empty without -that is -Russian agreement with Turkey on the diplomatic front. The Russian media campaign is also warning US/UK/French operatives working with and in HTS, of its planned eradication, as part of the same deconfliction protocol that the US/UK/France used during the last rocket attack. HTS has consistently opposed integration into the NFL, and poses a threat to nearby Russian bases because of itslinks with US, British and French intelligence. 

In fact, Russia is currently negotiating with the Turks about the best way to go about ending what Lavrov is now calling an “abscess“. The Turks have made their point that, in the case of Idlib Province, there cannot be the same kind of dumb scorched earth approach used so far in Syria. Their talks with Iran are reinforcing the point. But Russia is putting pressure on Turkey about HTS, and certain limited areas have been cleared by the Turks for an advance by Assad régime forces, one of which is al-Shughour bridge (Jisr al-Sughur), to allow the securing of the approach to the Khmeimim airbase on behalf of the Russians. In today’s world of sanctions, however, both Russian and Iranian geoeconomics depend crucially on Turkey, and weight will continue to be given to Turkish strategic concerns. The final picture will not emerge until the Russia-Turkey-Iran summit in Tehran on Sept 7th.

*N.B.: update in post: Sadr wins the recount: nothing changes but the mood sours (update)

 

The Syrian War: Showdown in Idlib

While a semblance of peace reigns over Idlib’s marketplace, Syrian government forces are striking the Turkmen Mountains in northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, with Assad himself threatening a major offensive to retake Idlib Province, at least rhetorically. Not long ago on July 31, the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, had made it clear on the sidelines of the Astana 10 conference that ‘Any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.’ However, Sergey Lavrov, in a visit to Turkey yesterday said, despite warnings by the Turkish government that an uncontrolled offensive would be catastrophic, that ‘Syria has a right to defend itself against militant groups’.

Despite the apparent disagreement, things are not what they seem. Turkey, with Russian and Iranian consent, has set up “observation posts” around Idlib’s conurbation of some 3 million people, most of whom are displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, now threatened once again by Assad’s army. Apart from the observation posts dividing Afrin from Idlib to the north, a front has been established facing Syrian government forces from El-Eis south of Aleppo to Kafr Sijnah and Qalaat al Madiq to the south of Idlib (north of Hama), and back up on the western side up to Jisr al-Shoughour. Furthermore, these positions have been heavily fortified with massive prefabricated concrete (being delivered below), and it doesn’t look as if  the Turks intend to move anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Turkish security officials have been negotiating for some months now to integrate the various fighting groups spread across Idlib Province into an organized defence force under their control. But Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS or the Institution for the Liberation of the Levant), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) when it was still a declared al-Qaeda affiliate, has, typically, been refusing to cooperate.

Furthermore, elements from within HTS have been making and sending armed drones to cause damage at the Russian airbase at Khmeimim, which has made the subject of HTS’ dissolution a matter of heated debate between Russia and Turkey. While Turkey has recently been having more success at reducing the numbers of HTS’ followers, hardcore elements have broken away to form a new group called Tanzim Horass el-Din which, in virtue of its name (Organisation for the Protectors of the Religion) seems to be declaring an inflexible conservative stance. The al-Jazeera video below summarises these and other related events.

So while Russia is expressing its impatience with the situation in Idlib in its support for the threatened advance by Assad’s forces, the Turks continue to insist that the campaign be stopped. Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın told reporters at a press conference today: ‘We are calling for the immediate termination of the operation into Idlib. Referring to Turkey’s role in the Astana  process, he said: ‘ As a guarantor country, we are working to avoid the mistakes carried out by the [Assad] régime in other parts of Syria, like Deraa and Homs, in Idlib.’ This is a diplomatic way for the Turks to say that they are not moving, and that the Russians have to give them more time to get the situation in Idlib under control. It is understood, however, that Russia’s change of tone conveyed in Lavrov’s statement yesterday is a necessary threat in the interests of speeding things up with recalcitrant fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, it is the next round of the Astana process in Tehran that will be decisive in all these respects (including Assad’s advance) since, undoubtedly, the Iranians will be bringing into the mix the question of trade with Turkey, in trying to overcome the difficult new sanctions environment .

Despite the liberal whitewashing of Assad: the evidence is overwhelming that the unreconstructed Arab tyrant is true to type

As the Russians spin Assad’s way out of blame for the chemical atrocities he is responsible for, his régime continues to dodge the real questions the chemical weapons watchdog (OPCW) want answered. Assad’s denials over chemical attacks, are no different to his denials over the systematic torture and destruction of the Syrian people in his prisons.

Liberal arguments just as those after Ghouta and Khan Sheikhun (to the effect that Assad ‘had no reason to commit such an atrocity’ because he was winning the war), fail to understand the mentality of Arab tyrants, who scheme to use plausible deniability of daylight murder as a policy intended for the promulgation of the fear their rule depends on. The RT media machine, usually a valuable counterweight to such as the BBC and CNN, is nevertheless a boon to the Syrian despot in that particular respect.

Putin Trump Summit (2)

What does the Putin-Trump summit come down to? Trump’s pro-Israeli policy is essential to the domestic survival in US politics of a politician with a multitude of enemies, not least within the ranks of his own security bureaucracy. At a time when Israel and Iran are facing off in South-West Syria, his anti-Iranian rhetoric is a vital part of this (singularly narrow) survival strategy. What Trump has to trade with Putin are the new type of sanctions on Russia oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska in particular, concocted by US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin.

Trump is meeting Putin to ask him to push Iran out of Syria, in exchange for which he will relax sanctions against Deripaska. As an aside, despite the fact that Trump will want to make this trade anyway, it looks like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in their stunning stupidity, seem to want to give Trump generous (and unnecessary) inducements to make this anti-Iranian policy happen.

Putin’s desperation to rescue Deripaska, on the other hand, is absolutely clear. Despite the latter’s catastrophic mismanagement of the Russian aluminium industry so far, Putin seems willing to endanger the ecology of Lake Baikal (above), the largest freshwater lake on the planet, to save Rusal (the aluminium company). Nationalization is not an option due to the dependence of the Russian state, and Putin’s personal power, on the web that the oligarchs have created between the homeland and their offshore colony, woven as it is into the economies of the colonial powers – US, UK, and France.

So far Russia has succeeded in imposing its will on South-Eastern Syria on behalf of Assad, but severing Iran’s establishment of its strategic base in South-West Syria, territorially contiguous with Southern Lebanon and the territory of (Nasrallah’s) Hezbollah, is quite another matter. Russia’s leverage on Iran does not quite go that far.

However, could Russia solve this by getting Trump to give Turkey a waiver on trading with Iran? On the one hand, a reduction in the presence of Iranian military hardware in South Syria wouldn’t be that problematic for an Iranian régime that has already “demographically reconfigured” Damascus and its suburbs with new loyal (paramilitary) populations ready to do Iranian bidding at any time in the future, should the need for a military build-up arise. On the other hand, ensuring a continuing trade with Turkey is vital for Iran. Although this is in Turkish interests as well, nevertheless, at a time when Turkish bankers are paying a heavy price in US courts for breaking previous US sanctions on Iran, Iran cannot absolutely guarantee this lifeline without Russian pressure on Trump.

Neither would Russia mind consolidating control over Assad, whose régime they helped Iran rescue from annihilation, by fielding a greater Russian military police presence in the Damascus area, and ensuring no further chemical attacks that Russia would then have to spend time and effort spinning as fake news/red flags in the media. In fact, Russia would consolidate its role by acting as a policeman to keep Israel and Iran “apart” in Syria, and give Israel the guarantees it needs. If Russia removes Iran from the Syrian theatre entirely, it would undermine its own status and power in that respect.

Looking generally at the Syrian situation, it then becomes clear that the trumpeted resurgence of Assad and the idea of a unified Syria under his rule is a total mirage. For a start, Trump is concerned only with South-West Syria and Israel. He won’t withdraw US troops from North-East Syria. Despite his statements to that effect, he doesn’t have the power to convince the Pentagon and the CIA to make any move in that regard.

The US security state clearly failed to dislodge Erdoğan in the July 2016 attempted coup, and it watches with dismay as the Turkish military establishment built links with Russia by buying the S-400 air defense systems. So, it will continue to want a permanent point of pressure on Turkey in Syrian Kurdistan to guarantee that its interests in general, and the facilities open to it on Turkish soil (at İncirlik [airbase near Adana] and Kürecik [X-band early warning radar near Malatya]) in particular, are maintained. The Turks are obdurate, and US forces have already previously experienced periods of expulsion (as after the Cyprus invasion), despite Turkish membership of NATO.

The deal with Turkey that Russia will, therefore, broker after this summit, would also consolidate the Turkish position in Idlib, which the Turks are adamant to defend against any incursion by Assad anyway, to prevent a further displacement of refugees towards its borders. Syria, despite the rhetoric, will remain divided. On the house of cards that have been stacked up in the benighted country by foreign powers, today’s geopolitics depend.

Russia continues to spin Assad’s way out of any blame for chemical attacks

Further evidence of Russia’s continued cover-up of Assad’s atrocities emerges as France’s broadcasting regulator warns the French arm of Russia Today (RT) over a news report that dubbed over the voices of Syrian civilians with words they had not said. It noted that the testimony of a Syrian witness had been dubbed with a voice saying “words that bore no resemblance with what he had said”.

The CSA added that another witness had been dubbed with a voiceover saying that local residents had been ordered by militant group Jaysh al-Islam to simulate the effects of a chemical attack, “but the testimony did not mention any particular group”. France’s Audiovisual Council (CSA) accused the state-backed broadcaster with “failures of honesty, rigour of information and diversity of viewpoints”.

The news report, aired on 13 April, “contested the reality of chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian region of Eastern Ghouta.” The CSA further said the report demonstrated “an imbalance in analysis” of the situation in Syria and that “on a subject this sensitive, the different points of view should have been expressed”.

As client of the régime, Russia is compelled to cover up Assad’s atrocities

I have consistently maintained that Assad is an unreconstructed tyrant in the traditional Arab mould whose mentality Westerners, especially those well-intentioned souls on the left supporting him, are completely unable to fathom.

Assad’s theatricals, staged with the help of the Russians and involving the apparent disposition of a stock of chemical weapons in 2013, were intentionally planned as cover for subsequent gassing campaigns which could then be blamed on rebel forces.

As Gilles Dorronsoro writes in Lobelog: “Why does the régime resort to gassing? The question matters because it conditions the response due the Syrian régime in the longer term. One argument frequently heard for holding the régime blameless is the lack of a military rationale for attacking with gas, because the insurgent pocket was destined to fall in any case.

In fact, the attacks with gas above all send a political message to Syria’s own society and to Westerners. If the latter look the other way, they discredit themselves: recall how the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene changed the dynamics of the war and helped pull a régime on the verge of collapse back from the brink. If they act, they polarize the situation, solidify the regime’s alliance with Russia and Iran, and, come the next chemical attack, will only confront their own impotence.

Hence, the bombings ordered by Donald Trump in 2017 after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack obviously did nothing to deter the régime. In addition, Bashar al-Assad sends a message to his population. You are alone, there is no limit to what we can do: gas attacks on civilians, rape on a massive scale, torture (with hundreds of thousands of victims, and tens of thousands of them killed), systematic bombing of hospitals, and the list goes on.”

Gilles Dorronsoro has just published an in-depth sociological survey of the Syrian Civil War with Adam Baczko and Arthur Quesnay, with Cambridge University Press.

We also find Robert Mackey writing for The Intercept on recent events at Douma that it was very odd that the Russians were propagandising at the Hague, using 11-year old Hassan Diab, before the OPCW had finished the investigation, which had been inexplicably delayed by the Russians, ostensibly while preparing the ground for the new set of theatricals.

“When Hassan told Russian state television last week that he had been given sweets in return for taking part in the filming of the video in the hospital, and his father said that the boy had been doused in water for no reason, since there was no sign of any chemical attack, Russia’s United Nations ambassador announced plans to screen the interview for the Security Council.

However, Russia has failed to acknowledge concerns that the boy and his father might not have felt free to accurately describe what happened, given that the interview was filmed at a Syrian army facility used by Russian military advisers. Former colleagues of the Douma hospital workers told The Guardian that Syrian officials had subjected the medics to “extreme intimidation,” threatening to harm their families if they made any mention of chemical weapons.

When they arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday, Hassan and the medical workers were first taken to the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for a presentation of Russia’s case that the attack was a hoax.

During the presentation, text on a screen behind Russia’s ambassador to the OPCW, Alexsander Shulgin, described the footage shot in Douma’s hospital on April 7 as “Fake Video” produced by the volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets.

Since the video was in fact shot by another group, the activists who run the Douma.Revolution Facebook page — and the images used by Russia include their logo — it is unclear why Russian officials insist on attributing the footage to the White Helmets. One possible explanation is a pre-existing campaign to demonize that group, which receives funding from Western governments and has documented the aftermath of Russian air strikes on rebel-held areas.

Russia had ignored a request from the OPCW to allow its inspectors in Syria to interview the witnesses first, and wait until after the investigators had filed their report to present its theory of the case. When the Russian briefing went ahead, it was denounced as “a crude propaganda exercise” by 17 nations that boycotted it, including the United States, Britain and France. Those three countries are convinced the Syrian government did use chemical weapons, and carried out retaliatory airstrikes two weeks ago, before the OPCW inspectors had even begun their work.

The Syrian entourage was then presented to the media at a bizarre press conference in which the opposition activist’s video of each of them in the hospital on the night of the attack was projected onto a big screen behind them as they delivered prepared remarks to reporters.

Many reporters in the room expressed disquiet at the spectacle of the young boy, who addressed them for all of 40 seconds, speaking in defense of the government that has been shelling his hometown for half his life.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the event, though, was how deeply beside the point it seemed. Witness after witness swore that there had been no sign of chemical exposure and no deaths among the patients they treated in the hospital, and Hassan’s father insisted that no one in his family had been sickened by gas, but there was no testimony at all related to what took place that same night in a nearby residential building — where activists had filmed piles of dead bodies, some with foam on their lips, and a large yellow canister identical to those used in previous chlorine gas attacks.

The exclusive focus on what took place in the hospital that night, in nearly two hours of testimony, was particularly bizarre because two different witnesses told reporters in Douma last week, on a government-led press tour, that their families had been killed by gas in that residential building.

One witness, Nasser Amer Hanen, told Stefan Borg of TV4 Sweden that he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother and brothers to gas. When the same man spoke to Seth Doane of CBS News inside his ruined home in the building, he led the reporter to an upper floor, where the large yellow gas canister was still resting.

Another witness in Douma, Kahled Mahmoud Nuseir, told Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press that his wife and two daughters had been killed by gas in a basement shelter that still had a peculiar smell 10 days later. Speaking to AP outside Douma’s hospital, Nuseir blamed the gas attack not on the Syrian government but on the Islamist rebels who held the town until April 8. He also faulted the White Helmets for failing to save his family. Although it contradicts the Russian claim that no gas was used anywhere in Douma, and the images from the hospital were fabricated by the White Helmets at the direction of British intelligence**, video of Nuseir’s AP interview was obtained and posted online by Press TV, an English-language channel owned by Syria’s ally Iran.”

However, given that scepticism about the Douma justification for the launch of missiles by the US-UK-French trio would reach Tucker Carlson and would become a major talking point of his on FOX NEWS, of all TV stationsRussian information warfare seems to be succeeding in spades in undermining the credibility of Western intelligence services. If the Iraq War hadn’t done the job of burying that forever, the inexplicable lies of the UK government over the Skripal case should have hammered a final nail into this particular coffin. The Russians are driving their advantage home. They are possibly better liars than the Americans and the British.

** N.B. The White Helmets are an operation funded by the UK and US governments, and directed by their intelligence services, although acknowledging this does not absolve Assad of his crimes nor Russia of the crime of covering up his crimes.

Syria: Not a Civil War but a War on Civilians

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: The regime’s crimes are colossal, sustained, and deliberate; they are an expression of policy. The opposition is disorganised, anarchic and diffuse. Its crimes are impulsive, contained and chaotic: They reflect only on the group or individual committing the crime. Russian vetoes to protect specific regime violations have created a general climate of impunity where criminality thrives. This has to be reversed.

Yet the language of “both sides” and “no good guys” has created an artificial levelling where a largely peaceful uprising is placed on the same moral plane as the murderous regime that forced it to militarise.

To be sure, the regime’s ruthless campaign against the civil uprising has left a vacuum filled by many unsavoury groups. But the people who remain unvanquished in the face of a genocidal regime aided by two major powers is unlikely to be cowed by Al-Qaeda.

Indeed, since 2016, Syrian towns like Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Saraqeb, and Kafranbal have seen regular protests against both the regime and Al-Qaeda. Some towns have successfully expelled the jihadis and protests against Al-Qaeda are happening in Sarmada even as I write.

What we see in Syria is not a “civil war”, but a war on civilians. The label “civil war” suggests a kind of parity in a contest that is anything but equal. In Syria the battle has often been waged between high-altitude bombers and hospitals; between barrel bombs and playgrounds.

“To confuse [perpetrators] with their victims”, said the great Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, “is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.”

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Who is who in Syria and the problem faced by Turkey

Barçın Yinanç writes: A few days before the Turkish Armed Forces entered Afrin’s city center, video footage was all over the Turkish press showing how the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) was stopping civilians trying to leave the city. This was shown as evidence that the PYD, which is considered the Syrian arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), would use civilians as human shields in the anticipated urban warfare.

In the end, the PYD retreated from the center of Afrin and the urban warfare expected to take place with the Turkish army did not occur.

But this video footage remained as proof showing the city’s civilian Kurdish population’s wish to leave and in fact, those who found a way, left.

That brings us to the Turkish government’s first challenge. The Turkish government has been telling all regional and international actors in Syria that demographic engineering through ethnic cleansing should be avoided. Yet, while talking about “cleansing the PKK from the Turkish-Syrian border,” the Turkish government risks contradicting this position if civilian Kurds fleeing armed conflict do not return in fear of reprisal from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), or simply in fear of the presence of the Turkish army.

According to diplomatic sources, the representatives of the Kurdish population in Afrin have told the Turkish government that after having suffered for decades under the oppression of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and after having been subjected to similar oppressive rule by the PYD in the course of these last couple of years, they do not want to come under the oppressive rule of “Sunni Arabs” this time.

Therefore, the challenge for Turkey will be to make sure to separate between the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/PKK and the Syrian civilian Kurds, in addition to securing the return and guarantee of the rights of the latter.

Who is who among the Sunni groups

The second challenge is one posed by the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran trio. Supported by Russia and Iran, regime forces have been making advances against rebel fighters. The same pattern is applied each time, which we have witnessed in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta and which we are now seeing in Douma. There is extensive bombing, including on critical infrastructure like hospitals, use of chemical attacks to further intimidate locals and then an offer to exit for those who want to leave.

Turkey undertook a cross border military incursion against the PKK in Syria, thanks to the green light from the Russians, but that came at the expense of regime attacks against the opponents, which started to flee towards regions under the control of Turkey, like Idlib and Cerablus. Ankara’s protests and numerous telephone calls between Russia and Turkey at the highest level did not stop the Russians’ strategy to push regime opponents toward Turkish controlled areas.

This brings us to the second challenge for Turkey, on identifying who is who among those fleeing towards Turkish controlled areas. You have a civilian woman whose husband is affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham, a brother who was a former member of the al-Nusra Front, an uncle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a brother-in-law with the FSA.

Then there is the challenge of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF). From Tunisians to Germans, from Moroccans to French, all are asking their Turkish counterparts what will happen with the FTF. Where will they go? Certainly back to their country of origin? And obviously they will pass through Turkey. Already, several diplomatic missions in Turkey are busy dealing with the FTF and their families; the ones who knock on their door but also who do not knock.

Those who do not want to return, like the Chechen and the Uyghurs, what will happen to them when their room to maneuver becomes limited in Syria? Will they find it easier to penetrate Turkey and become deadly lone wolves? Thanks to the military campaign, the PKK may now have limited capacity to use Syria as a launching pad. Will it be the same for the radical jihadists?

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This is not a staged performance. But it shouldn’t be an excuse to pander to the interests of the Western military-industrial complex

I agree with the Democracy Now! discussion between Glenn Greenwald and Amy Goodman that Assad is responsible for the Douma attack. Whilst many on the hard left/pro-Russia will cry false flag!, I have always thought that Assad was a ruthless liar and cheat, and I had written a lot about his dark history and that of his father on this site. It was pretty clear that Khan Sheikun was an Assad atrocity.

Was the destruction of the Assad chemical weapons stockpile with Russia’s intermediation, a ploy by Assad to start a new chemical weapons campaign under the cover that all such events could then be claimed to be CIA/MI6 false flags? Assad and his henchmen are capable of anything, and I believe that, indeed, this is the case.

Was that Russia’s intention also? I don’t think so – but by legalising its navy and airforce bases in Syria on the basis of an agreement with the so-called “legitimate” government of Syria, Russia has become hostage to Assad’s viciousness, and it is forced to use its vast media outlets to defend Assad at all cost. Assad knows this and believes he is inviolable.

On the other hand, in the Skripal case, the UK government seems to equally be hostage to its military-industrial complex (deep state) and thus behaves as shockingly as the Russians. The Russians are justified that this event is a blatant provocation by the UK, probably originally on instructions from the US (the deep state as opposed to the embattled Trump), who followed up the Skripal case immediately with swingeing  pre-prepared sanctions, and unprecedented massive expulsions of diplomats.

The latest round of US sanctions are harsh and are a reminder of the UK’s sanctions against Japan in the late 1930s, except that they are unlikely to hurt modern day Russia as they did Japan back then (whatever the UK Daily Mail’s jubilant editorials say), given that the country is not indebted by the standards of many modern states and that its trade with China is unaffected.

 

Clarity emerges as to the shape of the Syria to come: ethnic cleansing and emerging “sectors”

A worthless resolution was passed at the UNSC, emptied of content by the Russians, thus allowing the Iranians to continue ethnically cleansing Ghouta. On the tail of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian installations in and around Damascus, and after the Turkish army ensconced itself around the rebel capital of Idlib, Iran seeks to continue the same policy to the east of Damascus, which it has already succeeded in implementing to the west, in Darayya, namely that of ethnic cleansing. On the pretext of dealing with terrorists, it is emptying these areas of Sunni Syrians, ready for the settlement of Shi’a militias and their families.

Meanwhile Israel warns Iran that it will not allow a military build-up by its forces in southern Syria. However, Iran is not relying on military installations to expand its influence, but on populating strategic areas with communities that are faithful to its ideology. This is a policy ongoing in Syria, which worked favourably in the past in its long-term plan to bring Iraq under its control. Its military installations may be be blown up from time to time by Israel, but local populations faithful to the Iranian régime will continue rebuilding them, and ensuring that the crescent of Iranian control all the way to Southern Lebanon is established as a permanent and ineradicable feature of Middle-Eastern demography through Baghdad, Karbala, and Damascus.

The success of this Iranian strategy is evident in a reduced reliance by Iran on forces from  Lebanese Hezbollah in southern Syria, allowing Hassan Nasrallah to promise his Lebanese political partners that he will no longer have a role to play in Syria.

Meanwhile, all the noise about the Assad régime sending forces to Afrin to aid the Kurds against Turkey has also to be understood as part of the Iranian grand plan on two levels:

(1) The so-called Pro-Syria forces were actually Iranian militias. It has been clear for some time that Assad is an Iranian pawn. He is not even a Russian pawn – Russia is forced to back Iranian policy in Syria with their air power because it is Iran that has the forces on the ground in the form of militias that constitute the vast majority of the Syria government military machine. It also funds the Syrian government (such as it remains as a shadow of its former self), which has few resources remaining to it.

(2) Iran wants if possible to keep control of Aleppo. The Turkish encirclement of Afrin and Idlib which is ongoing in the slow methodical root and branch manner of the Turks, poses a problem as to where Turkish control ends and Iranian control begins. The confrontations now around Tall Rifa’at to the north-west of Aleppo, between the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Iranian militias, mean that the “border” between the new areas of influence is being decided. Iran sending militias to Afrin is not intended as a move to defend Afrin, but a tactical move to send units behind FSA lines in order to effect a better outcome for the Iranian side.

Furthermore, the alliance in Idlib province between Turkey and Tahrir as-Sham means the entire border between Afrin/Idlib and Aleppo provinces is being disputed.

In early 2017 it became clear, that the US, which had a confused, non-existent Syria policy under Obama, was turning inward under Trump. The Astana process between Turkey, Iran and Russia had begun and was clearly going to dominate the agenda in Syria for the foreseeable future. Now, a new situation has developed. This is primarily due to the unwillingness of the US to leave Syria, which is having two effects. On one hand its alliance with the Marxist-Kurdish group YPG/PYD/PKK spooked the Turks into a new military campaign in the Afrin region, and on the other its continued inexplicable presence after the defeat of DAESH/ISIS (despite the continuing rhetoric) is being interpreted by the Iranians as a ploy to break their long-term strategy.

With the US clearly posing a danger to the Assad régime (read Iranian interests) to the northwest, and Israel threatening Iran to the southeast, Iran has essentially broken away from the Astana process to carve out its area of influence in Syria as quickly as possible. This means that the Astana process is to all intents and purposes dead, as was patently clear at the Sochi conference, when the opposition objected to the hideous triumphalism of the Assad régime, and the Russian preparedness to humour the crass behaviour of Assad’s hangers on as the conference progressed.

Syria de facto is breaking into three sectors: With the US having decided some time ago to occupy Eastern Syria with the YPG/PYD/PKK militias as gophers, we have 3 “sectors” being carved out: the US, Iranian and Turkish spheres of influence. While Iran empties its zones of Sunni Syrians in order to repopulate with adherents to its ideology and interests, the Syrians all inevitably flee to the (now very crowded) Turkish zones, putting pressure on Turkey to complete its control of Idlib and Afrin, especially since Turkish voters are keen to see as many of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees within Turkey itself, resettled in their own country, as soon as possible. Note that the Astana process gave Egypt responsibility for the observation posts around Damascus. Egypt, however, is essentially a non-country at the moment, incapable of looking after its own affairs, let alone those of Syria. Perhaps that is why the ever calculating Russian diplomats gave it this sensitive task to understake.

With Astana goes the meaningfulness of all talk about the integrity of Syria, although rhetoric will always and inevitably continue to have a momentum of its own. A political process is impossible with a régime in Damascus that is a front for Iran. Russia may be claiming legitimacy for its military bases in Syria in virtue of the fact that it is the Damascus régime which has the accredited ambassador to the UN. But that is all it consists of. Iranian control of the régime can hardly be legitimised.

It is America we have to thank for causing the total destruction of Syria, the once most beautiful Arab country. Iran, Russia and Turkey may now have stepped in, but all this is due, in the first place, to US imperial rampages, its subsequent contradictory policies, and its craven political subservience to Israel. Furthermore, the problem continues as the Financial Times today calls US policy in Syria today inconsistent, and liable to lead to new dangerous outcomes, fearing especially that ‘… a miscalculation on the ground could now lead to direct fighting between NATO members’, in a reference to the US backing of the illegitimate YPG/PYD/PKK occupation of Manbij.