Syria ‘Cease-Fire’ Brings U.S. & Russia Closer to War

Russia Ramps Up Military Presence in Syria to Deter U.S. Attack

On October 3, the United States announced that it is suspending talks with Russia over the conflict in Syria, accusing Moscow of not living up to its commitments under the September 9 cease-fire agreement as well as its obligations under international humanitarian law and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.[1]

When the U.S. State Department was asked, if the U.S. had lived up to its obligations, State Department Press Director Elizabeth Trudeau responded: “We believe we did.”[2]

In resolution 2254, the UN Security Council reiterated “its call in resolution 2249 (2015) for Member States to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council.”[3]

In July of this year, the Al-Nusra Front rebranded itself as “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham” and supposedly cut its ties with “al-Qaeda” – with the blessing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – in an ill-fated attempt to rid itself of the terrorist label. Although the recent “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham” promotion campaign in Western media suggests otherwise, the United States and the United Nations still consider it a terrorist group.

Since the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2254 in December 2015, Russia has repeatedly accused the U.S. of protecting al-Nusra and not living up to its commitment to separate U.S.-backed “opposition forces” from Nusra terrorists.[4]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry conceded early on that it “has proven harder to separate them than we thought.”[5]

But the simple truth is that separating them is almost impossible, as SOFREP’s Jack Murphy recently pointed out:

“Distinguishing between the FSA and al-Nusra is impossible, because they are virtually the same organization. As early as 2013, FSA commanders were defecting with their entire units to join al-Nusra. There, they still retain the FSA monicker, but it is merely for show, to give the appearance of secularism so they can maintain access to weaponry provided by the CIA and Saudi intelligence services. The reality is that the FSA is little more than a cover for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra.”[6]

The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) is not the only NATO-GCC-backed group that is little more than a cover for terrorist organizations.

A former CIA officer told SOFREP that the CIA has tracked al-Qaeda operatives from Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas traveling to Syria and joining Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most important opposition groups in Syria and Nusra’s main partner.[7]

If true, the United States would have to explain why it blocked a Russian proposal at the United Nations earlier this year to backlist Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam for links to ISIS and al-Qaeda.[8]

Ahrar al-Sham and its Western supporters have long sought to downplay the group’s organizational ties to al-Qaeda. Given the fact that longtime al-Qaeda operative Abu Khalid al-Suri was one of Ahrar al-Sham’s founding members and senior leaders, this proved to be somewhat difficult.[9] A few weeks before al-Suri’s death in February 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department described him as “al-Qa'ida's representative in Syria.”[10]

At the same time, Western analysts touted Ahrar al-Sham as “an al Qaeda-linked group worth befriending” and warned that “designating Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group would destroy what little chance the United States has of building relationships with the other militias in the Islamic Front.”[11]

Designating Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization would also reflect badly on NATO member Turkey, which has been providing arms and training to the group.[12]

By blocking Russia’s attempt to blacklist Ahrar al-Sham in May of this year, the U.S. and its allies protected one of their most important assets in Syria. Moreover, they enabled Nusra’s main battlefield ally to sabotage any future cease-fire deals and efforts to come to a diplomatic solution, as the group has been doing in the past.[13]

On September 9, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced a breakthrough agreement on Syria. As part of the deal, the United States agreed to join forces with Russia in the fight against Jabhat al-Nusra. Both sides set out a clear timetable for drawing up targets and separating “moderate opposition forces” from Nusra.[14] It’s important to note that previous cease-fire deals failed primarily because separating them proved to be impossible.

On September 11, one day before the September 9 cease-fire agreement was due to come into force, Ahrar al-Sham came to Nusra’s defense and rejected the deal.[15] Shortly thereafter, a senior Ahrar al-Sham official confirmed that the group has been holding talks with Nusra and other factions about a merger “to unify the factions on the battlefield.”[16]

In other words, a U.S.-backed “moderate opposition group” sabotaged the U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement as soon as it was announced and tried to merge with Nusra instead of distancing itself from the designated terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon also joined the various forces seeking to derail the agreement and openly challenged the deal.[17] This didn’t go unnoticed in Moscow.

On September 15, The Washington Post announced that the Pentagon “grudgingly accepts” the Syria deal, noting that “Pentagon officials acknowledged widespread concern that Russia will not live up to its end of the deal, and they fear that the U.S. military will be blamed for problems or the failure of an initiative it does not fully support.”[18]

Two days later, on September 17, the U.S. military and its “anti-ISIL coalition” partners launched a major attack on the well-known Syrian government positions on al-Tharda Mountain near Deir Ezzor Airport. The attack, which U.S. Secretary of State Kerry later described as a “terrible accident,”[19] lasted one hour and reportedly killed more than 100 Syrian soldiers.[20]

The Syrian government and its Russian allies didn’t believe that this could have been a “terrible accident” and interpreted the attack as a message from the war party in Washington.

Last week, a Russian Defense Ministry source told Kommersant that Russia began shipping one of its S-300V4 anti-ballistic missile systems to Tartus a few days after the Deir Ezzor attack. According to the source, the system was not shipped in over the first October weekend as Fox News and other U.S. media outlets have been reporting but over the past two weeks.[21]

After U.S.-backed “moderate opposition forces” and the Pentagon had undermined the September 9 cease-fire agreement from the beginning, the Kremlin realized on September 17 that the Obama administration is not to be trusted and that a military solution to the conflict is more likely than a diplomatic solution.

As a consequence, Russia was preparing for U.S. military action in Syria already two weeks before Washington suspended talks with Moscow and reports about U.S. plans to strike Assad emerged.

One day after the suspension of talks, The Washington Post reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA are pressuring President Obama to approve “kinetic actions” against Syrian government forces. One administration official told The Post that the options under consideration include “bombing Syrian air force runways using cruise missiles and other long-range weapons fired from coalition planes and ships.”[22]

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said during a recent interview with TV channel Dozhd that the S-300 system was sent to Syria “after experts close to the American establishment had started leaking information…that the US could hit Syrian airfields with cruise missiles.”[23] It is not entirely whether Zakharova was referring to the report by The Washington Post or other leaks.

If Kommersant’s Defense Ministry source is telling the truth, the decision to send the anti-ballistic missile system to Syria was taken at least two weeks before The Washington Post disclosed U.S. plans to hit Syrian airfields with cruise missiles.

The deployment of Russia’s S-300V4 system complicates these plans. As The Wall Street Journal noted, the system “could impose significant restrictions on U.S. military action in Syria, since it can target cruise and ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.”[24]

Charles Lister, the go-to expert for regime change advocates, was rather unimpressed and dismissed Russia’s missile systems as “entirely suppressible.” Lister emphasized that “Russia has *nothing* that could concretely prevent US military action in Syria.”[25]

As other analysts have explained, the question is not whether Russia can prevent U.S. military action in Syria but whether Moscow will decide to back down or to retaliate.[26]

Russia’s military build-up in and around Syria and recent comments by Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov indicate that Russia is not going to abandon its Syrian allies without a fight.

Konashenkov strongly warned the United States against striking Syrian government forces and stressed that Russia would target any unidentified aircraft attacking Syrian government targets. He pointed out that Russian troops were now widely deployed across Syria, implying that any such attack would run the risk of killing Russian soldiers. In reference to the U.S.-led attack near Deir Ezzor on September 17, Konashenkov said: “We have taken all the necessary measures to prevent any such ‘mistakes’ with regard to Russian servicemen and military facilities in Syria.”[27]

On September 30, Russian media reported that Russia has reinforced its Hmeymim Air Base in Syria with a group of Su-24 and Su-34 bombers and is preparing to send Su-25 ground attack aircraft to Hmeymim.[28]

Furthermore, three missile corvettes of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet have left their base in Sevastopol in recent days to join Russia’s permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean and assist in military operations in Syria.[29]

Reuters described the military build-up as “Russia's biggest military deployment to Syria” since the partial withdrawal of Russian forces in March.[30]

Moscow always knew that the September 9 cease-fire agreement was doomed to fail. To this day, the United States and its allies haven’t provided any proof that they are able or willing to separate their “moderate opposition forces” from Nusra and other designated terrorist groups. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has long tried to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The September 9 deal may turn out to be Moscow’s last attempt to do so.

As usual, Western governments and media are blaming Russia for the failure of the latest cease-fire deal and the suspension of talks. Russia’s alleged attack on a UN aid convoy on September 19 received widespread attention, whereas the U.S-led attack on Syrian government forces near Deir Ezzor two days earlier was immediately written off as a mistake.

But from Moscow’s point of view, the Deir Ezzor attack proved beyond doubt that all diplomatic efforts are futile and that Russia must begin working towards a military solution in Syria, thereby making a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States ever more likely.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

Notes

[1] U.S. Department of State, “Suspension of Participation in Bilateral Channels With Russia Established to Sustain the Cessation of Hostilities in Syria,” Press Statement, 3 October 2016: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/10/262704.htm.

[2] Elizabeth Trudeau, U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing, 3 October 2016: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/10/262717.htm.

[3] United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, 18 December 2015: http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12171.doc.htm.

[4] Vladimir Isachenkov, “US asks Russia to not hit Nusra Front in Syria, Moscow says,” The Associated Press, 3 June 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/d5682585f9ef460aa0eb8b5d41d8a0ae/us-asks-russia-not-hit-nusra-front-syria-moscow-says.

[5] Peter S. Goodman, “Russian Military Buildup Near Aleppo, Syria, Threatens Truce, Kerry Warns,” The New York Times, 22 April 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/23/world/middleeast/russian-military-buildup-near-aleppo-threatens-truce-kerry-warns.html.

[6] Jack Murphy, “US Special Forces sabotage White House policy gone disastrously wrong with covert ops in Syria, SOFREP, 14 September 2016: https://sofrep.com/63764/us-special-forces-sabotage-white-house-policy-gone-disastrously-wrong-with-covert-ops-in-syria/.

[7] Jack Murphy, “Meet America’s think-tank fellows who support jihad,” SOFREP, 6 October 2016: https://sofrep.com/65217/meet-americas-think-tank-fellows-who-support-jihad/.

[8] Michelle Nichols, “U.S., Britain, France block Russia bid to blacklist Syria rebels,” Reuters, 11 May 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-sanctions-idUSKCN0Y22F8.

[9] Aron Lund, “Who and What Was Abu Khalid al-Suri? Part I,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 24 February 2014: http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/54618.

[10] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Al-Qa’ida Supporters in Qatar and Yemen,” Press Release, 18 December 2013: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl2249.aspx.

[11] Michael Doran, William McCants and Clint Watts, “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham,” Foreign Affairs, 23 January 2014: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2014-01-23/good-and-bad-ahrar-al-sham.

[12] Ibid., Murphy, 14 September 2016.

[13] Sylvia Westall, “Syria armed group Ahrar al-Sham quits Riyadh conference,” Reuters, 10 December 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-ahrar-idUSKBN0TT1YJ20151210.

[14] “AP EXCLUSIVE: Text of Syria cease-fire deal,” The Associated Press, 22 September 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/f5428d60326c4394a1c95efcefad8d77/ap-exclusive-text-syria-cease-fire-deal.

[15] “Syrian rebels Ahrar al-Sham reject truce: group,” Agence France-Presse, 11 September 2016: https://www.yahoo.com/news/syrian-rebels-ahrar-al-sham-reject-truce-group-210734900.html.

[16] Bassem Mroue, “As Syria truce holds. al-Qaida affiliate denounces it,” The Associated Press, 13 September 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/89d9f405957d47e0b408cfcada469e20/syria-cease-fire-holding-only-minor-violations-reported.

[17] Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger, “Details of Syria Pact Widen Rift Between John Kerry and Pentagon,” The New York Times, 13 September 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/14/world/middleeast/syria-john-kerry.html.

[18] Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan, “Pentagon grudgingly accepts Syria deal amid deep mistrust of Russia,” The Washington Post, 15 September 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-grudgingly-accepts-syria-deal-amid-deep-mistrust-of-russia/2016/09/15/e2ac735c-7a98-11e6-beac-57a4a412e93a_story.html.

[19] John Kerry, Remarks at the Council Session on Syria, United Nations Headquarters, 21 September 2016: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/09/262235.htm.

[20] Leith Fadel, “US Coalition knew they were bombing the Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor,” Al-Masdar News, 27 September 2016: https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/us-coalition-knew-bombing-syrian-army-deir-ezzor/.

[21] Sergey Strokan, Maxim Yusin and Ivan Safronov, “События в Сирии приняли противовоздушный оборот,” Kommersant, 4 October 2016: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3107368.

[22] Josh Rogin, “Obama administration considering strikes on Assad, again,” The Washington Post, 4 October 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2016/10/04/obama-administration-considering-strikes-on-assad-again/.

[23] “Russia Placed S-300 Missiles in Syria After Learning of US Plan to Bomb Airbases,” Sputnik, 7 October 2016: https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20161007/1046118409/syria-s-300-deployment.html.

[24] “Putin Tightens His Grip on Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 October 2016: http://www.wsj.com/articles/putin-tightens-his-grip-on-syria-1475611567.

[25] Charles Lister, Tweet 4 October 2016: https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/783408687125671937.

[26] Dave Majumdar, “Why the United States Should Exercise Restraint Before Launching A New War in Syria,” The National Interest, 3 October 2016: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-the-united-states-should-exercise-restraint-before-17919.

[27] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia strongly warns US against striking Syrian army,” The Associated Press, 6 October 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/russia-strongly-warns-us-against-striking-syrian-army/2016/10/06/57d1621e-8bd8-11e6-8cdc-4fbb1973b506_story.html.

[28] Dmitry Solovyov, “Russia beefs up its air force in Syria: paper,” Reuters, 30 September 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-idUSKCN12018U?il=0.

[29] “3rd Russian Black Sea fleet ship leaves for Mediterranean to join anti-ISIS op,” Russia Today, 6 October 2016: https://www.rt.com/news/361827-third-ship-syria-op/.

[30] Jack Stubbs and Maria Tsvetkova, “Exclusive: Russia builds up forces in Syria, Reuters data analysis shows,” Reuters, 7 October 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-exclusive-idUSKCN1271YO.

 

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