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Michael Jansen: The chief spoiler
June 01, 2018
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At least 26 Syrian army soldiers and nine Russian contractors were killed in a battle last week with Daesh fighters near the town of Mayadeen in the south east near the Iraqi border. This engagement coincided with the mopping up operation conducted by the army in Damascus’ southern suburbs of Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad following the withdrawal of Daesh elements who had held the area since 2012.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army is in the process of releasing conscripts who have served since the conflict began in 2011. De-mobilisation actually began in April, a source whose nephew had returned home told The Gulf Today. The release of these seven-year conscripts was meant to show the populace Damascus is winning the war — which it has been over the past two years.

Unfortunately, however, the Trump administration and the Pentagon are gearing up for intervention and confrontation in Syria, risking clashes with Russian regular army troops and private contractors and militiamen deployed by Iran. In February, US warplanes bombed a Syrian army column reinforced by a number of Russian contractors as it advanced on a US-formed and backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) post near Syria’s largest oilfields east of the Euphrates River. At least 100 troops, including a number of Russians, were killed. Details of this incident were laid out in articles published in the Western press last week.

The most important conclusion about this US intervention against Syrian forces seeking to recapture occupied Syrian territory is that the Trump administration and the US military intend to hold onto a large area of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces conquered by the Kurdish-dominated SDF although these areas are inhabited by Arabs who resent being ruled by Kurds protected by the US.

Last week, Washington warned the Syrian government not to attack “rebels” based in Deraa and elsewhere in southern Syria in an area covered by a ceasefire (“de-confliction”) agreement signed by the US, Russia, and Jordan. These so-called “rebels” include Daesh and al-Qaeda (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) fighters as well as fundamentalists operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella. This means the US is now extending its protection to Daesh and al-Qaeda. Fighters in this de-confliction zone have been given arms, money and medical treatment by Israel for several years. Therefore, the US motivation is clear: protect Israel’s friends.

The ultimate US objective, set by the previous administration, is to prevent the Syrian government from extending its writ to the whole of Syria. And, the US is prepared to provide protection to Daesh and al-Qaeda, both branded “terrorist” organisations, in order to achieve this end.

The US warning came as Damascus consolidated its control over all suburbs and towns surrounding the capital and squeezed Daesh out of pockets of territory north of Homs. In a pointed article, regional expert Juan Cole argued in his Informed Comment blog that despite its vow to withdraw US troops (around 2,000) from Syria, the Trump administration is increasing its intervention in Syria. “Mission creep” is the story rather than withdrawal. Cole observes, “It is often argued that US military presence in Syria is illegal in international law, and that it is not even constitutional.” In fact it is in breach of both: international law which is often ignored by the US and the US Constitution which is meant to be sacrosanct.

Cole says, “Obama’s lawyers maintained that the US has a right to go into Syria in self-defence, to defeat (Daesh), which was plotting attacks in the US.” This was and is stretching a congressional authorisation for the use of military force, states Cole, which gave the president permission to hunt down those responsible for the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington: al-Qaeda operatives. This measure is now being used to authorise US military intervention designed to protect al-Qaeda off-shoots Daesh and Tahrir al’Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra).

The Obama administration initially recruited, trained and armed Syrian fighters with the aim of ousting the government. When this effort failed after the expenditure of billions of dollars, the administration turned to the leftist Kurdish Protection Units to battle Daesh in northeastern Syria. Incorporated into the SDF, they drove Daesh from Raqqa and spread out across the province of the same name and into Deir al-Zor as government forces lifted the siege of Deir al-Zor city in September of last year.

The US aim of “regime change” has not altered although the Syrian government now holds more territory than it did last year and is providing electricity, water, and services to the 85 per cent of Syrians who live in the 65 per cent of the country under Damascus control.

The Trump administration is also making deals with Turkey which is illegally occupying Syrian territory in the north of the country and is creating a safe haven for Daesh, al-Qaeda and other extremist fighters in the northwestern province of Idlib. Turkey seeks to transform them into a “New Syrian Army” which it will use to seize Syrian territory. This is a mirage. The so-called “New Syrian Army” thugs Turkey has deployed in areas it has occupied loot homes and businesses and abuse the populace. These surrogates plus Turkey’s attempts to impose its rule on these areas have turned local Syrians against Ankara and all its works.

The US is using Kurds, Turks and al-Qaeda to undermine the Syrian government and weaken its allies, Russia and Iran. Despite Donald Trump’s vow to reduce US involvement in the affairs of other countries and put “America First,” he is doing quite the opposite in this region. He is determined to counter the re-emergence of Russia as a main actor on the stage of the Middle East/West Asia and to force Iran to end its intervention — even if invited — in Syria and Iraq. US involvement in the Syrian conflict has been condemned by Damascus.

Neither Moscow and Tehran are likely to comply with Trump’s wishes or allow him to achieve his ambitions. Both Russia and Iran have legitimate interests in the region: it is Russia’s backyard and Iran is an integral part of the region while the US is 11,500 kilometres away. Although the US has to come to terms with these hard facts, it refuses to do so. Therefore, it remains the chief spoiler in Syria, Iraq, and, of course, Palestine. But that is another long, sorry story.
 
___________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

 

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