As the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allied forces, supported by Russian air power, continue to advance step by step to the complete liberation of the country, the US-led coalition is thrashing about wildly in its attempts to obstruct and sabotage their efforts, not stopping even at directly attacking Syrian military forces.
On 18 June, in a flagrant act of piracy, a US plane shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter jet that was engaged in operations against Daesh (aka Isis or Islamic State) in the Raqqa area. This is the first time that a US plane has dared to bring down a Syrian plane flying over its own territory, and Moscow’s response was swift and precise.
The Russian defence ministry announced: “In regions where the Russian air force is carrying out operations in the skies above Syria, any flying objects – including airplanes and drones of the international coalition – discovered west of the Euphrates river will be treated as aerial targets for tracking by land and air defence systems.” (Escalating threat of US-Russian confrontation in Syria by Bill Van Auken, Defend Democracy Press, 21 June 2017)
At the same time Russia announced the indefinite suspension of the 2015 memorandum on the prevention of incidents, the diplomatic equivalent of slipping the safety catch off a very big gun.
This prompt Russian announcement of a no-fly zone for all US warplanes and drones west of the Euphrates appears to have given the Trump administration pause, judging by the Pentagon’s hasty announcement (on 19 June, just one day after the crime) that, “As a result of recent clashes with Syrian pro-regime and Russian forces, we took precautions to change the disposition of the aircraft in Syria in order to continue fighting Islamic State, while maintaining safety of our pilots – considering the known threats on the battlefield.” (Pentagon changes disposition of US-led coalition aircraft in Syria by Ivan Castro, Al-Masdar News, 19 June 2017)
Australia went one better, announcing that it was pulling out of all further air missions in Syria.
The downing of the SU-22 was just the latest in a catalogue of provocations staged by the US, including three separate air strikes on 18 May, 6 June and 8 June in the vicinity of the al-Tanf border crossing into Iraq. All these and similar acts of aggression are clearly aimed at impeding the Syrian Arab Army in its task of completing the liberation of Syria from the reign of jihadi terror engineered by imperialism, and keeping alive the ‘regime change’ dreams that the west still nurses.
Al-Tanf is one of three main border crossings between Syria and Iraq, and is regarded as of sufficient strategic importance to warrant the establishment there of a US-run training camp for the ‘right kind’ of jihadis: ie, jihadis who are ready to comply with the Pentagon’s expectation that any ‘liberation’ that’s going to happen is one that is clearly stamped ‘Made in America’.
The primary focus of the 150 US special forces troops hunkered down in al-Tanf is to train young men, not to wipe out Daesh, but to effect the regime change in Damascus that has for so long eluded the west. The US recently relocated its Himars (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) systems from Jordan to al-Tanf, and it is safe to assume that this is more to do with sabotaging SAA operations than furthering the fight against Daesh.
The multiple air strikes against Syrian forces in the al-Tanf area failed to prevent them from advancing to the Iraqi border and coordinating the offensive against Daesh with Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). Syrian forces were able to outflank the obstructing forces and are now able to coordinate their efforts with their comrades across the border.
These PMU fighters, commonly referred to in the bourgeois media as ‘shia militias’, include Iraqi fighters with a history of resistance against the imperialist occupation of their country (this being the salient point, rather than any particular denominational background). And after the recent liberation by PMU of the villages of Mount Sinjar, the Yazidi homeland that was devastated by Daesh in 2014, it is reported that Yazidis flocked to join PMU, testifying to the group’s broad-based, non-sectarian appeal.
Israel too is becoming ever more agitated at the progress being made by the Syrian army towards restoring the country’s sovereignty and unity. Zionism has all this time been rubbing its hands with glee at seeing the strength and independence of its Arab neighbour sapped by a US-backed proxy war. Now that the tide has turned and Syria is advancing towards its own national liberation, Israel is understandably being driven to frenzy.
So, for example, Sputnik reports that on 25 June, whilst the SAA was busy repelling a massive attack in the Golan Heights from the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, the zionist air force attacked army positions, destroying an ammunition truck and killing two Syrian soldiers. (Syrian general reveals possible Israeli plan in Syria, Sputnik, 27 June 2017)
Another report, by al-Masdar News, speaks of there having been four terrorist offensives in as many days in the Golan. But although “with help from the Israeli air force, the jihadist rebels of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham were able to make some advances during the first two days of their assault … they would later concede all of the territory they captured to the Syrian Arab Army.
“According to a military source from the Golani regiment, the Syrian Arab Army and national defence forces (NDF) have killed more than 50 jihadist fighters and wounded 150+ others during the intense fighting in the Golan Heights.” (Jihadist rebels suffer 50+ casualties during failed Golan Heights offensive by Leith Fadel, Al-Masdar News, 28 June 2017)
Reports suggest that some of those jihadis suffering injuries in the Golan and Quneitra province were whisked off to Israeli hospitals, patched up and bundled back over the border to continue their reign of terror. It seems that when it comes to terrorists, zionism reveals a ‘humanitarian’ concern for the welfare of Arabs signally lacking in any other of its dealings.
However, even with the best efforts of zionism’s combined medical expertise and air power, the terrorists are no match for Syria. Syrian military expert Major General Yahia Suleiman drew an interesting historical parallel to the situation with the Golan that will not gladden zionist hearts, suggesting that Israel plans to “establish a buffer zone in the Golan Heights, similar to the one they tried to establish in southern Lebanon. But this plan will not work out, just like they failed to do that in Lebanon.” (Sputnik, op cit)
Memories of being kicked out of Lebanon still rankle in Tel Aviv.
Daesh losing the north
Meanwhile, in the north, the Syrian army’s struggle to oust Daesh from the desert area around Deir Ezzor and Raqqa continues. Whilst the US-led coalition concentrates on using the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with whom they are presently opportunistically allied, to press on with their version of a blockade around Raqqa city – a ‘blockade’ which appears to be leaking Daesh jihadis intent on relocating to provinces where their brothers-in-arms are getting hammered – the SAA is beavering away with its strategic operations along the Aleppo-Raqqa axis.
According to al-Masdar’s Leith Fadel: “For the Islamic State, losing Raqqa city doesn’t mean the end of their so-called ‘caliphate’ in northern Syria; however, the loss of the Ithriya-Salamiyah highway does. Over the last three years, the Islamic State have used this highway to transport provisions to their forces in east Aleppo and west Al-Raqqa; without it, they are left with no supply route to the Maskanah and Khanasser plains or the western bank of the Euphrates river.
“More importantly, should they lose both the Ithriya-Salamiyah highway and Raqqa city, this will mark the end of the Islamic State’s reign in northern Syria.” (Isil faces extinction in northern Syria by Leith Fadel, Al-Masdar News, 27 June 2017)
In Deir Ezzor too, a little further south on the Euphrates, the writing is on the wall for Daesh. It took a major war crime by the US-led coalition in September last year, when US warplanes spent over an hour ‘accidentally’ bombing and strafing Syrian army positions in Deir Ezzor, to allow Daesh forces to overwhelm those positions and seize the high ground. Now, with the Syrian army advancing in the area, Iran has offered some timely air cover of its own.
In a stinging response to the terrorist attacks inflicted on Iranian capital Tehran on 7 June, which left 18 dead and over 50 wounded, Iran launched a missile attack on Daesh positions in Deir Ezzor from a distance of 370 miles, traversing Iraqi airspace with Baghdad’s blessing.
A spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard stressed: “The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message. Obviously and clearly, some reactionary countries of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, had announced that they are trying to bring insecurity into Iran.” (Escalating threat of US-Russian confrontation in Syria by Bill Van Auken, Defend Democracy Press, 21 June 2017)
Syria’s advance towards its own liberation is also cutting the ground from under its baffled regional enemies, as the corrupt feudal sheikhdoms on the Persian Gulf descend into mutual backstabbing. On 5 June Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke off ties with Qatar and imposed a land, sea and air blockade on the tiny sheikhdom. The charge against Qatar of ‘supporting terrorism’, which was used to justify the move, was laughable coming from Saudi Arabia, the top-ranking fundraiser for the sundry cut-throat jihadi gangs that have infested Syria for the last six years.
Whilst the accusations being thrown around are all about who funded which jihadi gang when, what really rankles is the fact that all of the GCC’s (Gulf Cooperation Council) collective efforts to subvert the progressive and secular Arab state of Syria have ended in failure.
All the attempts to destabilise Syria have only served now to increase the instability already festering in these backward countries governed by feudal relics who owe their precarious survival solely to a combination of imperialist patronage, brutal repression and medieval obscurantism, and who are sitting on a social powder keg – as is currently making itself visible in the succession shenanigans in the House of Saud.
Qatar’s worst crime in Saudi eyes has been its failure to row in with the demonisation of Iran, with whom it has some common interests – not least, a shared and very productive natural gas field.
Whilst the list of 13 peremptory demands with which Riyadh has insisted that Doha must comply of course includes the cessation of terror funding (an extreme example of the pot calling the kettle black), the list also demands that Doha cut ties with Iran, shut down the Qatari media organisation Al Jazeera and halt the development of a Turkish military base on Qatari soil – all of which demands are flagrant breaches of Qatar’s sovereignty, with which Doha is understandably reluctant to comply.
A month into the blockade, Riyadh began to issue threats of third-party sanctions, which would raise its level by also punishing any other country that dared to do business with Qatar.
Whilst Qatar is a tiny statelet, it would be wrong to assume that it will be a pushover for its much larger Saudi neighbour. Apart from its enormous natural gas wealth, Qatar is also home to the gigantic Al-Udeid air base, hosting over 10,000 US and coalition personnel and acting as headquarters for the US Central Command whose chief, General Vogel, recently described Qatar as “a key and critical partner in the region” that is “well-positioned to play an influential role in facilitating a political resolution to the [Syrian] conflict.” (Where does the Saudi-Qatar death match leave Trump’s troops? by Christopher Dickey, Daily Beast, 5 June 2017)
And then there is the enormous pile of capital Doha is sitting on, much of it channelled into investment abroad. In March it was announced that Qatar is to invest £5bn in British infrastructure over the next five years, in addition to the £40bn already invested in Britain. It remains to be seen with what favour the British government would view any Saudi interference in such investment largesse.
The blockade, far from strengthening Riyadh’s clout as regional leader, seems likely to have the reverse effect. Bogged down in a brutal war against the Yemeni people, which it is failing to win and which is encountering growing resistance, Riyadh perhaps believed that flexing its muscles against tiny Qatar would be a cheap way to restore its battered prestige. If so, this hope has not been borne out by events.
Two days after the blockade was announced the Turkish parliament ratified a bill to allow the deployment of troops to Qatar, and Turkey has been among countries offering food to Qatar to counter the effects of the blockade. Iran, whilst calling for dialogue to resolve the crisis, in the days following the announcement promptly sent five 90-ton planeloads of fruit and vegetables to the beleaguered country.
Russia too has offered assistance, whilst warning against foreign interference in the dispute. Even the Trump administration, which appeared to give the green light to Riyadh to embark on this witch hunt against Doha in the first place, was happy enough on 14 June to sign off on a $12bn contract to sell Qatar dozens of F-15 fighter jets.
Amongst the many unintended consequences of Riyadh’s ill-fated campaign could be a strengthening of the axis of resistance against imperialism. Riyadh, allergic to anything smelling of the Muslim Brotherhood, has long been applying pressure on Qatar to clamp down on the presence of Hamas on its soil. Now it seems that the bullying is having some success, with key members of the leadership slipping quietly out of the country, whilst Doha continues its public support of the organisation and resists Saudi pressure on it to denounce it as terrorist.
As to the likely destination of the departing leadership, Hussam al-Dajani of Al-Ummah University told Al-Monitor: “Qatar will never give Hamas up. It is a country with foreign policy vision and will never abandon the movement. Hamas’s presence in any Arab country increases its position and role. But if Qatar is subject to external pressure, Iran will be the first to receive Hamas with arms wide open …” (Hamas could be next victim of Qatari-Gulf brawl by Adnan Abu Amer, Al-Monitor, 8 June 2017)
Another suggested destination is Lebanon, where Hamas could, as it were, come under the protective wing of Hezbollah, a rapprochement that might start to restore the damage caused by Hamas’s serious sectarian error over Syria, so helping to mend a weak link in the axis of resistance.
If we are to believe the anonymous diplomatic source cited by Al-Monitor: “Since the beginning of 2017, Hamas and Hezbollah held three meetings in Beirut – in January, March and June – under the chairmanship of Abu Marzouk and some members of the movement’s political bureau with Nasrallah and the Hezbollah leadership.
“Hamas and Hezbollah discussed supporting a political solution in Syria and talked about how the Gulf crisis contributed to bringing the two parties together since anti-Qatar parties consider Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorists. The two parties are also concerned about Israel waging war against them, in the event of which they expressed their intention to unite their military fronts and not give Israel the chance to target either of them.”
To this, Al-Monitor adds: “It is no secret that Hamas, despite having different positions regarding the Syrian crisis, needs Hezbollah when it comes to funding, training, securing supply lines for weapons and providing residence for Hamas cadres in Lebanon.” (Regional developments accelerate Hamas-Hezbollah reconciliation by Adnan Abu Amer, Al-Masdar News, 2 July 2017)
The political climate in Beirut might prove more conducive to a recovery from sectarian disorders than that prevailing in the Gulf. It will not greatly cheer Riyadh, Washington or Tel Aviv to learn that one indirect consequence of the Qatar blockade may turn out to be the restoration of a united Arab struggle against the zionist occupation of Palestine.
The ceasefire agreement hammered out by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart President Donald Trump along with Jordan whilst in Hamburg for the G20 conference, signed on 7 July and coming into effect on 10 July, initially applies to the governorates of Dara’a, Quneitra and As-Sweida on the south-western tip of Syria, with the expectation that other areas of conflict will be brought into the process going forward.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov noted that the 7 June memorandum “assumes the development of additional details that would secure how this zone would work in practice”, adding: “We agreed to use a monitoring centre established by Russia, the US and Jordan in Amman to coordinate all the details of functioning of these de-escalation zones.”
Looking ahead, he noted that final agreements on de-escalation zones in the areas near Homs and East Ghouta may also be reached very soon, and negotiations on Idlib region are still taking place. (Russia to continue cooperation with US on de-escalation zones in Syria – Lavrov, RT, 10 July 2017)
For its part, Tehran’s foreign ministry held that the ceasefire agreement “can be fruitful if it is expanded to all of Syria and includes all the areas that we discussed in the Astana talks for de-escalating the tension.” (US, Russia-brokered ceasefire will be ‘fruitful’ if expanded to whole of Syria – Iran, RT, 10 July 2017)
In some measure the 7 July memorandum simply gives formal recognition to the policy of negotiating local ceasefires that has long since been implemented on the ground by Damascus and Moscow in a framework established at the Astana peace talks. In fact, a week before the Hamburg meeting, Damascus had already announced a unilateral truce in Dara’a, Quneitra and Sweida, the three governorates identified in the memorandum.
Now is the chance for the ‘moderate armed opposition’ there to demonstrate its ‘moderation’ in practice, by ceasing to attack the government and turning its guns on the terrorists.
Needless to say, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel all have their own dreams of gliding seamlessly from ‘de-escalation zones’ to zones of influence, buffer zones or outright annexation of parts of the Syrian homeland, and Damascus and Moscow are wise to be cautious.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura specifically drew attention to this elephant in the room when he declared that the de-escalation zones should be an interim measure “not undermining Syrian territorial integrity and unity”, adding that the practical arrangements concerning the de-escalation on the ground should by no means turn into preparation for the creation of de-facto areas of influence or partition of the country. (Russia to continue cooperation with US on de-escalation zones in Syria – Lavrov, RT, 10 July 2017)
Of course, what primarily stands in the way of such an outcome is not pious wishes expressed at the United Nations but the fact that, after six years of war, Syria is now negotiating from a position of strength, both militarily and diplomatically. Damascus is now in a position where it can pick the time and place of its battles, working to a strategy that is fully national in scope.
Asked by RT why the three south-western governorates in particular were chosen for the ceasefire, the former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, had this to say: “The conditions were ripe; there has been an effective standstill in the area since March when the area was first mentioned as a zone for de-confliction or de-escalation in the Astana talks. There is essentially a military standstill.
“The Syrian government could retake the towns at the area, particularly Dara’a, but they don’t want to raze Dara’a to the ground in the way that the Iraqi government forces, with America behind them, have just razed much of Mosul, and it would be altogether too costly.
“At the same time, the rebel forces in the area don’t represent a strategic threat to the Syrian government. The Syrian government has bigger fish to fry in other parts of Syria. This is the real significance of this agreement: it will free up battalions, Syrian government forces, to go fight against Isis in Deir Ezzor in the northeast – a much more important town – and other areas in the central spine of the country in Homs province.” (Red line for Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, RT, 10 July 2017)
In the wake of the Hamburg memorandum, reports are now suggesting that the Trump administration is calling time on the (not very) covert CIA terrorist-training programme aimed at toppling the legitimate government of Syria. (Donald Trump ends covert CIA aid to Syrian rebels by Josie Ensor and Luna Safwan, Telegraph, 20 July 2017)
Whilst this would still leave in place the Pentagon-directed support for the Kurdish-led operation around Raqqa, such a dramatic reversal of a policy put in place by Obama in 2013 would drive another nail into the coffin of imperialist pretensions in the Middle East.
Step by step, Syria is advancing toward complete liberation.
Victory to the Syrian president, government, army and people!