Syrian Warplane Bombing: A Turning Point In The Conflict?

The US sends Assad and Russia a message.

Front Page Magazine, by Joseph Klein, June 20, 2017:

n what may turn out to be a major inflection point in the Syrian conflict, an American fighter jet on Sunday shot down a Syrian warplane, which was said to be dropping bombs near U.S.-supported Kurdish and Arab ground forces fighting ISIS in the vicinity of ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa. It was the first time during the six year Syrian conflict that a U.S. jet had shot down a Syrian jet. In fact, it has been approximately 18 years since the U.S. had shot down a warplane belonging to any country since a Serbian plane was shot down over Kosovo in 1999.

The U.S. Central Command leading the anti-ISIS coalition effort said the Syrian jet was “immediately shot down… in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.” The statement added that the coalition’s mission was to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria and was not to fight the Syrian regime or its allies. However, it added that the coalition would not hesitate to defend itself or its partner forces “from any threat,” and that “[T]he demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated.”

According to a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, the U.S. had first warned the Syrian plane away from the area, but to no avail. An F/A-18 “Super Hornet” thereupon shot down the Syrian plane.

Syria claimed its plane was targeting ISIS militants at the time, a dubious claim in light of the Assad regime’s long record of bombing civilians and all rebel groups indiscriminately in the name of combating “terrorism.”

Syria’s principal ally Russia regarded the U.S. attack on the Syrian warplane as a hostile act. It said that it would treat U.S.-led coalition planes and drones operating west of the Euphrates River where Russia’s air forces operate as “targets.” Russia also said it would suspend indefinitely the use of the communications channel that had been set up between the two countries for the purpose of reducing the potential for direct military confrontation between U.S. and Russian warplanes. Russia had made a similar threat after the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical attack on civilians last April, which turned out to be a hollow threat.

“All kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement. “The US’ repeated combat operations under the guise of ‘combating terrorism’ against the legitimate armed forces of a UN member-country are a flagrant violation of international law and an actual military aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The Pentagon responded with a stern warning to the Russians that the U.S. would not be deterred in its support of coalition operations against ISIS. Department of Defense spokesperson Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway said coalition aircraft would continue conducting “operations throughout Syria, targeting ISIS forces and providing air support for Coalition partner forces on the ground.”

General Jack Keane (Ret.), a Fox News military analyst, believes Russia is bluffing. “That’s rubbish,” Keane said on “Fox & Friends.”They’re not gonna shoot at U.S. airplanes. They’re not gonna take on the United States. They have very limited capability in Syria by comparison to U.S. capability.”

General Keane may be underestimating Russia’s defense capabilities in Syria, which include surface-to-air missiles. In particular, Russia’s S-400 air defense system is highly sophisticated, with a range of more than 200 miles. Nevertheless, the correct response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bullying is to push back in no uncertain terms. The United States cannot allow Russia to declare what amounts to a no-fly zone in Syria that would undermine the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS. The U.S. has not interfered with Russian aircraft operating in Syria. Nor should Russia interfere with ours. Not only would a surrender to Russian threats simply invite more Russian aggression. It would send a signal of weakness to ISIS and al Qaeda. And it would embolden Iran, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime along with Russia, to continue its quest for hegemony in the Middle East region.

In fact, Iran added to the seething Syrian cauldron on Sunday with its own launching of missiles into Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps claimed the missiles were aimed at “the headquarters and meeting place and suicide car assembly line” of “ISIS terrorists.” However, nothing the Iranian regime says can be taken completely at face value. Iran is no doubt also sending a message to the U.S.- led coalition members and Israel that the gains the Syrians and Hezbollah forces have been making with Iran’s support in southern Syria, near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, would be defended with Iranian missiles if necessary. “The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message,” Gen. Ramazan Sharif of the Revolutionary Guard told Iranian state TV in an interview, as quoted by the Associated Press. Moreover, whatever territory Iran helps Syrian forces and Hezbollah militia take away from rebel control, including from ISIS, increases Iranian control over strategic positions bridging Iraq and Syria. This in turn would enhance Iran’s so-called “Shia crescent.”

Whether the U.S. downing of the Syrian plane turns out to be just another bump in the road of the long conflict in Syria or represents a true inflection point, accelerating a potential direct collision between the United States and Russia, remains to be seen. However, the Trump administration needs to be clear-eyed in the strategic objectives it seeks to achieve in Syria to avoid getting drawn into a prolonged ground war. Regime change in Syria must not become the objective for its own sake. The disastrous outcomes in Iraq and Libya prove what can lie over the cliff of regime change.

Defeating ISIS should remain the number one objective. Containing Iran is also a key strategic objective, given its hegemonic ambitions and its state sponsorship of terrorism. We should not be fooled into thinking that Iran’s assistance in fighting ISIS will come without a heavy price that may turn out to be even more dangerous in the long run than ISIS to the U.S. national security interest.

As for Russia, we have little choice at this point but to live with its presence in Syria in support of the Assad regime, lest we risk an all-out military confrontation that could spin out of control. Efforts are already underway behind the scenes to lower tensions from the latest incident. A Russian official has clarified that Russia would only threaten coalition jets that “take action that pose a threat to Russian aircraft.” We can take reasonable steps to demonstrate that striking Russian aircraft is not our intention. However, the U.S. should not permit Russia to interfere in any way with the U.S.-led coalition fight against ISIS, which means not allowing Russia to put into effect its own version of a no-fly zone against coalition aircraft operating in support of coalition forces fighting ISIS anywhere in Syria. Russia should also not be permitted to shield the Syrian regime from a further military response if it once again uses lethal chemical weapons against its own people.

Most importantly, we need to stop being reactive and start thinking strategically. As Daniel Nidess, a guest columnist, wrote recently in Foreign Policy:

“We need to get back to playing chess — to deliberately planning several moves ahead and accepting that achieving some interests may mean temporarily sacrificing others. The alternative is to continue the trend of the last decade and a half of U.S. foreign policy, which has alternated between half-heartedly committing to our stated goals and sleepwalking through shortsighted escalations that lack clear objectives, both of which have left the U.S. worse off strategically.”

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Zawahiri lectures on global jihad, warns of national boundaries

LONG WAR JOURNAL, BY THOMAS JOSCELYN | June 10, 2017

Sometime in the last few years, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri got an editor. Known for his long-winded lectures, Zawahiri has increasingly recorded shorter messages with more focused arguments. The latest of these came yesterday, when As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, released the seventh episode in Zawahiri’s “Brief Messages to a Victorious Nation” series. The message is titled, “One Ummah, One War on Multiple Fronts.”

Zawahiri emphasizes a core part of his organization’s ideology: jihad is an obligation for Muslims around the globe, especially when non-believers infringe of Muslim lands. Of course, many Muslim authorities are deemed illegitimate in this view of the world, as they do not adhere to the same version of Islam espoused by the jihadists.

The message opens with images of: Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood; Izz Ad-Deen Al-Qassam, a Syrian Islamic thinker who preached jihad; Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of the predecessor to al Qaeda and godfather of modern jihadism; al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Suri, an ideologue whose teachings are influential; Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani, a co-founder of the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic party; and Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Zawahiri and As Sahab portray these men as part of the same jihadist tradition, stretching back into the early 20th Century.

“Our Ummah today is up against a global war in which Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Crusaders, Chinese, Hindus, Safavi Rawafidh [meaning the Iranians and allied Shiites] and secular nationalists are partners in crime,” Zawahiri says. “From the coasts of al-Maghreb (Western North Africa) to Eastern Turkistan, you will find a Muslim world confronted by aggression, occupation, repression, bombardment, and international alliances working hand[s] in gloves with client regimes, which are outside the pale of Islam and work for the interests of the leading international criminals.”

Al Qaeda has repeatedly argued that Muslims are confronted by this supposedly grand alliance. It is an enlargement of the alleged “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy that Osama bin Laden first made the cornerstone of his thinking in the 1990s.

Zawahiri is forced to explain how so many parties, which are often at odds with one another, are really part of the same unified effort.

“In terms of peculiarities, one region may differ slightly from another, but there are obvious common denominators, namely fighting Islam in the name of the ‘Fight against Terrorism’ and subservience to an ‘International System,’ cleverly crafted by the victors of World War II for the mutual division and theft of the natural resources of the world – specifically the Muslim world,” Zawahiri says.

The al Qaeda leader argues that the US is still the main enemy. “You will find that the major role in this criminal alliance belongs to the Americans, and then the roles gradually differ as per the power wielded by each partner and its stakes in the system,” he claims.

Zawahiri preaches unity in the face of these overwhelming odds. He quotes an Islamic verse — “And hold on strongly to the rope of Allah and be not divided amongst yourselves” — that al Qaeda routinely peppers throughout its productions.

And he says the “jurists” long ago “ruled that the lands of the Muslims have the status of a single domain.”

Zawahiri continues: “There is a consensus amongst the jurists that if the disbelieving enemy occupies a Muslim land, it becomes obligatory on its residents to defend that land, and if they find themselves unable to do so, this obligation expands in a circular fashion to those nearest to them, and so on until it encompasses Muslims all over the globe.”

Muslims “have always risen up to defend their lands regardless of nationality or race,” he continues. And this was the “prevailing norm until the demise of the Ottoman state, which had defended the lands of Islam for five centuries.”

“After the fall of the Ottomans,” Zawahiri says, “the concept of nation-states with boundaries demarcated by the infidel occupiers started holding sway, and among Muslims arose some proponents of this notion. This is why the callers of the Islamic revival actively fought against this concept.” (Supporters of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State were quick to point out online that Zawahiri wanted to keep the jihad in Iraq separate from the war in Syria, which they say contradicts his stance.)

The al Qaeda emir then lists the men he counts as key revivalists, pointing out that they waged jihad far outside of their native lands.

Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian, organized “battalions for the liberation of Palestine.” Izz ad-Deen al-Qassam, a Syrian, waged “jihad in Palestine.” Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian, awakened “the ummah to defend Afghanistan” and declared “most unequivocally that jihad has been a Fardh Ayn (a compulsory individual obligation) since the fall of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain).”

“Then emerged the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [the Taliban’s state], and we saw Afghans and emigrants alike pledging allegiance to it,” Zawahiri says. “Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Suri – both Arabs – and Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani” pledged “allegiance to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Afghani (may Allah have mercy on each one of them).”

“So may Allah reward these pioneers, who revived the spirit of one united ummah confronting a disbelieving enemy,” Zawahiri says toward the end of his talk.

He then warns that some seek to divide the jihad according to national boundaries, which is unacceptable. It is an argument he has made in other recent productions. While it is a general point that al Qaeda has made often in the past, it is likely something that Zawahiri wants to emphasize, once again, as jihadi ideologues are currently debating the appropriate course in Syria.

“But today, there are some who want to push us back behind the lines of division drawn by disbelieving occupiers…Pakistan for Pakistanis, Syria for Syrians, Palestine for Palestinians…in the interest of whom, may we ask?” Zawahiri concludes: “May Allah help us gather our strength, bring our hearts closer, unite our ranks, and not deprive us of victory because of our sins.”

Zawahiri’s message was released with an English transcript. As Sahab and al Qaeda’s regional branches have increasingly released English-language content over the previous year. It is an indication that their media efforts have been substantially improved after facing multiple disruptions in 2014 and in the years thereafter.

[For context on the debate regarding the jihadist project in Syria, see FDD’s Long War Journal reports: Pro-Al Qaeda ideologue criticizes joint bombings by Russia and Turkey in Syria; Hay’at Tahrir al Sham leader calls for ‘unity’ in Syrian insurgency; and Ayman al Zawahiri warns against ‘nationalist’ agenda in

Screen shots from “One Ummah, One War on Multiple Fronts”:

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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Al Qaeda preaches world conquest of all religions and peoples. @billroggio @thomasjoscelyn @followfdd John Batchelor Show

At remote desert garrison in Syria, a US-Iran confrontation is brewing

The Tanf garrison used by the US coalition to train militias to fight ISIS sits on a highway Iran would like to control for its strategic advantage. Forces are gathering and shots have been fired as fundamental interests clash.

CS Monitor, by Nicholas Blanford

JUNE 6, 2017 US-backed forces announced Tuesday that they had begun the long-awaited assault on the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa, the so-called Islamic State’s main stronghold in the country and its self-declared capital.

But some 170 miles to the south, in a remote corner of Syria’s southeastern desert, another clash is brewing that is pitting the strategic objectives of the United States against those of Iran, and that could soon bring US troops and Iranian-backed forces into direct military confrontation.

Both US and Russian warplanes have been deployed, and some shots have already been fired, including by US-backed coalition forces on Tuesday, the US military said.

The clash is over a military garrison at Tanf, located near a border crossing on a highway that cuts through hundreds of miles of flat desert. It was captured from jihadist forces more than a year ago and is being used by US Special Forces and allies to train Syrian militias to fight ISIS, which controls territory to the northeast.

But if Tanf’s main value to the US so far has been in the war on ISIS, it has also, perhaps unwittingly, become a front-line outpost in the US containment of regional power Iran, whose allies are advancing on the garrison from two directions.

Their interest in the highway is that it links Baghdad and Damascus and serves as a coveted overland route that could provide Iran with access to its strategic Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah.

At a junction on the highway, 50 miles northwest of the garrison in the direction of Damascus, a combined force of Syrian troops, Hezbollah fighters, and Iraqi Shiite militiamen are mobilizing for a southward thrust to seize the Tanf border crossing.

On the Iraqi side of the border, southeast of Tanf, the Hashd ash-Shaabi, an Iran-supported Iraqi Shiite militia sanctioned by Baghdad, is reportedly deploying in readiness to drive ISIS out of Iraqi territory between Tanf and Al-Qaim, another border town 136 miles to the northeast.

And wedged between these two Iranian-backed forces are the US, British, Norwegian, and possibly Jordanian special forces, as well as the Syrian militia groups they have helped to train.

Shots fired

With both sides girding for a fight, the coming days or weeks could see US and allied troops coming into conflict with Iranian-backed forces for the first time in Syria’s six-year civil war.

“I think any assault on Tanf [by Iranian-backed groups] would meet with a vigorous and effective military response,” says Frederic C. Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington and previously a State Department liaison with Syrian opposition forces. “I do not know the rules of engagement in effect for US ground forces, but an Iranian-Hezbollah assault on Tanf would, I think, be quite reckless and not likely to succeed.”

The two sides have already come to blows twice. On May 18, US aircraft attacked a convoy of Shiite militiamen speeding southeast along the highway in breach of a deconfliction zone of some 20 miles around Tanf. Several vehicles were destroyed in the air strike and six militants were killed.

And Tuesday, according to an official statement from the US-led coalition, a pro-regime force again entered the deconfliction zone and was fired upon. Two artillery pieces and an antiaircraft weapon were destroyed, the statement said, and a tank damaged. There was no word on casualties among the 60 fighters reported in the pro-regime force.

Clash is coming

In light of the militia build-up north of Tanf, a spokesman for the Baghdad-based anti-ISIS coalition said last week that “we have increased our presence and footprint” in southern Syria, adding that the mobilization of Iranian-backed militia forces near Tanf was viewed as a “threat.” US aircraft have also dropped leaflets on the militia forces, warning them to stay away from Tanf.

But the Iranian-backed forces and the Syrian army appear determined to seize the Tanf border crossing, even if it risks a confrontation with US forces.

“Our people are gathering in the Tanf area right now, so a clash is definitely coming,” says a Hezbollah unit commander speaking on condition of anonymity in Beirut.

Iran has a strategic interest in gaining control over the crossing as it represents the last remaining link in securing an east-to-west land corridor reaching from Iran to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast via Iraq and Syria. Guarded by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, the transport link would allow Tehran to ferry fighters to Syrian battlefronts and armaments to its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon.

But the US-led coalition against ISIS appears equally determined to defend its presence in this remote spot to maintain its ability to continue its unconventional warfare campaign against ISIS-held territory to the northeast.

At least three Syrian armed groups are operating alongside the Americans and British at Tanf as part of the “train and equip” program to defeat ISIS: the Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra (Revolutionary Commandos Army), the Ahmad Abdo Martyrs Group, and Jaysh Osoud al-Sharqiya (Lions of the East Army).

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Anti-Islamic State coalition begins Raqqah offensive

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) General Command announces the beginning of the battle for Raqqa on June 6, 2017. (SDF photo)

Long War Journal, by Bill Roggio, June 6, 2017:

A coalition of anti-Islamic State groups backed by the United States has officially begun its assault on the jihadist-held city of Raqqah in northern Syria. Raqqah has been controlled by jihadist forces since 2013 and has become the de facto capital of the Islamic State inside Syria.

The US Department of Defense announced the commencement of the operation to liberate Raqqah in a news article on its website.

“The offensive would deliver a decisive blow to the idea of ISIS as a physical caliphate,” according to the DoD.

The push to take Raqqah is led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is largely comprised of the Kurdish YPG (or People’s Defense Units). The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government for terrorist attacks throughout Turkey. The Turkish government has opposed US support for the YPG.

The US military attempts to mitigate Turkish anger over the support of the YPG by emphasizing the “Syrian Arab Coalition’s” role in the offensive. However, there is no official group known as the Syrian Arab Coalition, it is merely the Arab component of the SDF.

The US military noted that it is “providing equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires and battlefield advice” to the SDF for its Raqqah offensive. To emphaisize this point, the US military, in a separate press release that tallied air operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria noted that “24 strikes engaged 18 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 19 boats, 12 fighting positions, eight vehicles, a house bomb and a weapons storage facility; and suppressed an ISIS tactical unit” in and around Raqqah yesterday.

The SDF and the US have shaped the battlefield in northern Syria for months in preparation to advance on Raqqah. But the final push on Raqqah could not be launched until the SDF secured the town of Tabqa and its dam, which are located about 20 miles west. The SDF seized Tabqa on May 11 after six weeks of fighting.

The SDF now controls the terrain north of the Euphrates river from Tabqa all the way to the town of Madan, which is due east of Raqqah. Madan is south of the Euphrates, remains under control of the Islamic State. Raqqah is situated north of the Euphrates, so the SDF does not need to cross the river to take the city.

The fight for Raqqah takes place as Iraqi forces are making their final push to root out the Islamic State in Mosul. The Mosul offensive began six months ago, however, the Islamic State still controls pockets within the city.

While the US military insists that the loss of Raqqah and Mosul will deal a “a decisive blow” to the Islamic State, the group still controls a significant amount of terrain in both Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State still occupies a large area in central and southern Syria, and continues to besiege Syrian military forces in the city of Deir al Zour. The Islamic State controls all of the Euphrates River Valley south of Madan down to the Iraq towns of Rawa and Anah.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

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Trump Defies Turkey, Approves Heavy Weapons for Syrian Kurds

AFP

Breitbart, by John Hayward May 9, 2017:

In a decision bound to infuriate Turkey, a senior Trump administration official said that heavier weapons would be approved for Syrian Kurdish forces as they close in on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.

The anonymous senior official was quoted by the Associated Press as part of its coverage of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ meetings on Syria. NBC News published similar quotes by two unnamed defense officials, who said the Kurds could receive rifles, ammunition, armor, communications gear, and engineering equipment, delivered by ground convoys and air drops. NBC’s sources did not go into detail about what type of heavy weapons might be sent to the Kurds.

Military Times reported over the weekend that elite YPG fighters are already armed with advanced American combat gear, including night-vision goggles, digital camouflage, body armor, and the type of rifles used by American special operations forces. Photos of YPG commandos with American gear began appearing online during the battle to capture the strategic town of Tabqa, west of Raqqa, in late March.

U.S. military officials have only acknowledged supplying the YPG with Russian-made weapons, such as the ubiquitous AK-47 rifle. Officials “offered only ambiguous responses” when asked how the Kurdish fighters acquired American gear. Military Times anticipated Turkey would be “infuriated.”

Dana White, chief spokeswoman for the Defense Department, issued a statement on Tuesday formally acknowledging President Trump’s decision:

Yesterday, the president authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria.

The SDF, partnered with enabling support from U.S. and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.

We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey. We want to reassure the people and government of Turkey that the U.S. is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally.

The U.S. continues to prioritize our support for Arab elements of the SDF. Raqqa and all liberated territory should return to the governance of local Syrian Arabs.

The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult, but will ultimately be yet another defeat for ISIS, and another step toward eliminating the ISIS threat to peace and security in the region and the world.

Turkey’s response will largely depend on whether they acknowledge a significant difference between the Kurdish YPG militia and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Arabs, Assyrians, and other groups led by the Kurds against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Syrian regime.

American analysts have expressed a high degree of confidence in the training, discipline, and fighting ability of the SDF. The U.S. military has such a good relationship with the SDF that some American soldiers participated in an SDF ceremony recently at which some 250 female veterans of the YPG militia were inducted into Syrian Democratic Forces ranks.

The U.S. Central Command reportedly sent Mattis a request last week asking to arm the Kurds. Defense officials and analysts said Mattis and President Trump were likely to approve the plan, which envisioned a mixed Kurdish and Arab force supported by American artillery and airstrikes to push ISIS out of Raqqa. The Obama administration also believed Kurdish troops would be key to recapturing the city, but President Barack Obama was said to be reluctant to approve the plan for Raqqa so close to Trump taking office.

Reuters described Mattis as “upbeat” after meeting with a Turkish official in Copenhagen, Denmark on Tuesday. Mattis said the administration intended to “work with the Turks, alongside one another, to take Raqqa down, and we’re going to sort it out and we’ll figure out how we’re going to do it.”

However, U.S. officials said Mattis was not signaling a new agreement with Turkey about the battle plan for Raqqa, and maintained the Trump administration is skeptical of Turkey’s claims that it can manage the liberation of Raqqa without Kurdish help.

Turkey adamantly insists that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia is allied with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a Kurdish separatist organization that both Turkey and the United States classify as terrorist in nature. On the other hand, the U.S. views the YPG as an invaluable battlefield ally against the Islamic State, and quietly rejects Turkish characterizations of the Syrian Kurdish militia as an offshoot of the PKK.

Turkey has not merely been critical of the YPG – it has attacked Kurdish positions in Syria, prompting military responses from the Kurds. One of Turkey’s professed strategic goals in Syria is preventing the Kurds from annexing all or part of Raqqa. Kurdish leaders have said that if the people of Raqqa wish to join their autonomous “democratic federal” system after the Islamic State is defeated, that would be fine with them.

The U.S. military has been patrolling the Turkey-Syria border to discourage further Turkish attacks on the Kurds. Turkish officials have suggested they might not care if American troops get in the way during their next operation against the YPG.

Mattis also said that he was reviewing the Russian proposal to create “safe zones” for refugees in Syria, a proposal co-sponsored by Turkey and Iran.

“It’s all in process right now,” Mattis said en route to Copenhagen Monday. “Who is going to be ensuring they’re safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them? All these details are to be worked out and we’re engaged.”

Mattis said another important consideration was whether the safe zone proposal would affect the battle against the Islamic State – a distinct possibility, since the safe zones are supposed to be no-fly zones for all military aircraft, including those belonging to the United States and its anti-ISIS coalition partners.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump on May 16. Erdogan has already suggested the American alliance with Syrian Kurds would be the top item on the agenda.

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Russia’s 4 Syrian ceasefire zones – Kremlin spin

Russian Gen. Sergei Rudskoy

DEBKAfile, May 6, 2017:

The widely reported Kremlin plan to set up four safe or “de-escalation” zones, that were supposed to have gone into effect in Syria Friday night, May 5, turns out to be nothing but a propaganda ploy. The spin factor leaps to the eye from the small print of the plan that was released by Gen. Sergey Rudskoy, head of Russian General Staffs Operations Division, Friday night.  He outlined four steps that may never take off

1. Observation points will be set up to monitor the ceasefire (in the four designated de-escalation zones).

So when the putative safe zones were to have started operating Friday night, there were no observation points to monitor them.

2. The boundaries of the zones will be determined in accordance with the observation points.

This means that the zones don’t exist.

3. By June 4, a working team made up of officers of the three guarantors, Russia, Turkey and Iran, will be created to administer the observation points.

Who can tell what will happen in Syrian in a month’s time.

4. Only after the observation groups of the three sponsor-nations’ armies finish mapping the ceasefire zones can it be determined whether the plan is doable or not.

Still no zones.
The Russian propaganda machine worked overtime this weekend to convince the Western media that the ceasefire zones plan had won the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The truth is that US President Donald Trump did not commit himself one way or another when he talked on the phone with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, May 2, although most of their conversation was devoted to Syria, rather than the North Korean crisis. There was no agreement between them on any Syrian issue, except for a decision that American and Russian forces in the war-torn country would stay out of each other’s way.
In sum, Moscow’s ceasefire zones plan, though effectively propagandized, has changed nothing in Syria’s bloody predicament.

With so much still up in the air, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked by phone Friday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after which he gave the following statement: “The secretary looks forward to further meetings with the foreign minister to discuss the respective roles of the United States and Russia in de-escalating the conflict and supporting the talks in Geneva to move the political solution forward.”

Tillerson made no mention of any safe zones which Moscow claims to be setting up with Ankara and Tehran, or of the Russian-sponsored Syrian peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Rebel groups, supposed to be holding a dialogue with Assad regime representatives, walked out of its fourth round last week. And the Trump administration appears unwilling to throw its support behind the Russian-sponsored peace initiative, preferring to stand solidly behind the UN-sponsored Geneva process.

Turkey and Iran, the other two “sponsors” of the Astana framework, and putative “guarantors” of the safe zones, are strangely silent about the roles assigned them by the Kremlin. And no wonder. As rivals in the Syrian arena, their forces are ranged against each other in both Syria and Iraq. It is hard to see them working shoulder to shoulder alongside Russian officers to monitor safety zones which are still pie in the sky.

The situation at the moment is this: In Iraq, Turkish and Iranian troops – essentially pro-Iranian militias under the command of Revolutionary Guards officers – glare at each other across two warfronts, Tel Afar and Sinjar. In Syria, each of their armies is poised to grab Al-Bab in the Aleppo province.

The only real change in Syria’s military situation is a surreptitious one, which may present a fresh, wide-ranging peril: The Lebanese Shiite Hizballah has agreed to place the 8,000 members fighting in Syria for Bashar Assad under direct Iranian command. This is part of a radical reorganization of all the military outfits Iran has deployed in Syria, whereby all the Shiite militias including Hizballah fall henceforth directly under a single centralized Iranian command.
This fundamental shift in the military balance in Syria was initiated by Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Suleiman, commander of Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. He convinced supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that there was no other way to safeguard Iran’s military supremacy in the Syrian war arena, guarantee a land bridge to Lebanon, or mobilize tactically for future confrontations with Israel.
The Syrian ruler also submitted to this step. Therefore, Hizballah and the Shiite militias will henceforth operate under the orders of the Iranian military mission which has its seat at Syrian High Command Headquarters in Damascus.

This “reorganization” opens the door for Hizballah officers to assume Iranian army uniforms and act as “ceasefire monitors” if Russia’s fictitious safe zones ever get off the ground.

US warplanes among those barred from flying over Syria’s ‘safe zones’ in proposal

May 4: Russian lead negotiator on Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the fourth round of Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan (Reuters)

Fox News, May 5, 2017:

U.S. and coalition military planes will not be allowed to fly over designated “safe zones” in Syria under a Russian proposal that has the backing of Iran and Turkey, reports said Friday.

The reports did not indicate how the airspace would be enforced and the overall proposal appeared to be a work in progress.

Russian official Alexander Lavrentyev suggested in peace talks on Friday that all military aircraft — including Russian and Turkish — would also be barred from the designated zones. Under the Russian plan, President Bashar Assad’s air force would halt flights over the safe zones.

Lavrentyev, whose remarks were carried by Russian news agencies, said “the operation of aviation in the de-escalation zones, especially of the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged, either with notification or without. This question is closed.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said he had a “very good” conversation over the phone with President Trump, and that his U.S. counterpart agreed to a proposal to establish Syrian safe zones to protect civilians in the war-torn country.

But the White House only confirmed that the two leaders discussed the safe zones, not that there were any agreements.

Reuters reported that countries such as Iran and Turkey have agreed on Moscow’s proposal for the “de-escalation zones.” The United Nations also welcomed the plan.

The proposal presented to the rebels in Astana delineates four zones in Syria where front lines between the government and rebels would be frozen and fighting halted, according to a statement made by the rebels. The four zones include areas in the provinces of Idlib and Homs, the eastern Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus, and an area in the south of the country.

The zones, according to the document received by rebels, would be monitored by international observers and allow for the voluntary return of refugees.

Late Wednesday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Damascus is “fully backing” the Russian initiative on the four cease-fire areas, according to the state-run SANA news agency.

But Ahmed Ramadan, an opposition representative, told The Associated Press that rebels requested a written answer on a number of questions, including why the cease-fire would only be in effect in the four areas instead of a nationwide truce.

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