Southern Syria: UN calls for a ceasefire to prevent a humanitarian disaster in and around Ghouta have gained steam. An emergency session of the UN Security Council will be held later today. Russia has indicated it might be receptive to a ceasefire in the Ghouta area, but will not support a nationwide ceasefire. Sweden and Kuwait have called for a resolution ordering a 30 day ceasefire in order to provide humanitarian aid. Russia’s UN ambassador described the 30 day window for a ceasefire as being unrealistic. Russian airpower has been supporting Syrian government forces in the push to oust rebel forces from Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, though the Syrian air force has been flying the majority of the air strikes launched during the operation. Civilian casualties are soaring, with government forces deliberately targeting hospitals in and around Ghouta with artillery and air attacks. Among the dead are upwards of sixty children and forty-five women.
Northern Syria: The Syrian Kurdish YPG has called for assistance from the Syrian army in repelling the Turkish offensive. Some groups of pro-government troops have arrived in the area, but so far no forces from the army have come to the section of northern Syria that is under Turkish assault. Syrian army forces are not likely to join the fighting either, with Bashar al-Assad reluctant to spark a direct confrontation between his army and Turkish forces. At the moment, northern Syria is a cauldron of tense confusion. Turkey’s involvement there only served to strain matters even more and increase the chances of a wider clash occurring.
It is no secret that relations between the United States and Russia have been tumbling downhill for an extended period of time. Last week’s indictments of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian groups on charges related to attempted meddling in US elections and political process raises the possibility of even chillier relations, and heightened tensions looming in the weeks and months ahead. The indictments are not the only telltale sign of trouble on the horizon.
In Syria, the convoluted situation on the ground and in the skies has created an environment where a direct confrontation between US and Russian forces could come about with very little warning. There have been a high number of close calls in the air over the last six months, leading military officials in the Pentagon to question whether or not deconfliction channels are working as well as advertised. Added to that are the increasing number of reports surfacing in the media that a US airstrike killed a number of Russian military contractors in northern Syria on 7 February. Moscow has downplayed the reports, possibly to prevent questions rising about just why Russian mercenaries were operating in the area of an oil and natural gas field controlled by a US-supported militia. It’s becoming apparent that a US airstrike in support of the militia forces did take place, resulting in perhaps 20-30 Russian citizens having been killed. How or even if Russia will respond is unknown. Given Moscow’s reluctance to shed light on its Syrian operations, a Russian response will probably happen in the shadows and away from the roving eyes of the media, and other observers.
Circumstances being what they are, conditions are turning ripe for an wholly new cold war to blossom in Syria, and in other places where US and Russian interests are at odds. Whether it comes about by design, or happenstance remains to be seen. Moscow and Washington would prefer to keep the current competition in the shadows for as long as possible. Eventually, the maneuvering will be pushed out into the open, and the intentions and objectives of both sides will become clear. That will be the point when things run the risk of turning into a full blown cold war between the United States and Russia, or becoming something even more dangerous.
Things appear to have settled down in Syria following last weekend’s clash between Iran and Israel. An Iranian drone’s violation of Israeli air space set in motion retaliatory air strikes by Israeli warplanes against an Iranian command and control site that was responsible for guiding the Iranian UAV. The Iranian site was situated at the T-4 airbase near Palmyra, Syria. An Israeli F-16 was hit by an SA-5 surface-to-air missile and went down over northern Israel. Not long after the initial raid, Israel’s air force took to the skies again and targeted a large number of Syrian air defense sites, as well as Iranian-manned facilities. The strikes pushed tensions in the area high enough that Russia had to intervene in order to halt further escalation.
What transpired last weekend shouldn’t come as a shock given what has been going on in the vicinity of the Israeli-Syrian border recently. Iran has been maintaining a heavy presence and high level of activity along the border for some time. Israel has bent over backwards to send warnings to Iran, Syria, and Russia through every possible channel that it will not tolerate Iranian activity on its border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that a military option would be pursued if an acceptable diplomatic solution was not found.
When the Iranian UAV violated sovereign Israeli air space, Tel Aviv recognized the act as Iran crossing a red line. Diplomacy had failed, and the time came for Israel to unsheathe its sword.
Right now none of the major players in Syria are ready to risk a full-scale conflict. The Assad government, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, are holding most of the cards. If Tehran provokes Israel now it serve the interests of no one, and could affect the balance of power in Syria as it currently stands. Iran will continue to defy Israeli red lines, though it may choose a different arena, and other methods to continue the conflict. Lebanon comes to mind immediately as the most likely next area, and Hezbollah provides a number of options for future Iranian action against Syria.
The situation has quieted for the moment, however, the pause will not be permanent. More clashes between Iran and Israel can be expected in the coming months.
Tensions in the Middle East are heightened this Saturday after Israel launched air strikes against Syrian air defense sites, and Iranian targets inside of Syria following an earlier incident when an Iranian UAV entered Israeli air space and was shot down. During the Israeli raids one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel. The pilots ejected safely, however, one sustained serious injuries according to reports. The incident marks the first time since the 1980s that an Israeli warplane has been shot down as a result of enemy action. Even more disconcerting is the fact that drone incident, and air strikes mark the first direct clash between Israeli and Iranian forces inside of Syria.
Israeli fighters struck the site where the drone was launched first. Subsequent strikes were made against other Iranian military targets in Syria, as well as Syrian air defense batteries. IDF reports do not indicate whether the F-16 was downed by AAA fire, or a SAM. The fighter carried a two man crew, indicating that was likely a type of F-16 that Israel uses in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, leading to the conclusion that the Israelis were probably targeting SAM batteries. (note: Right before posting I learned the aircraft was in fact struck by an SA-5 SAM)
Today’s shootdown is the third one to take place in the Syrian skies this week. A Russian Su-25 Frogfoot was downed by FSA forces last Saturday, and earlier today it was confirmed that a Turkish helicopter over northern Syria was attacked and destroyed by Kurdish forces sometime in the past 24 hours.
The consequences of the action in Syria and northern Israel remain to be seen. There is a strong possibility that Israel’s response could be heavier air strikes against targets in Syria, possibly as part of a bigger effort to put more pressure on Iran.
Although the Olympic games are supposed to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, it would appear somebody forgot to tell that to Iran and Syria.
While in Argentina over the weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked to reporters that the imposing of oil sanctions and restrictions against Venezuela’s oil sector is now on the table. US oil sanctions are considered the nuclear option and would close off Venezuela’s economy to the single source of dependable income it has left. US and international sanctions already in place against Venezuela have not had the intended effect. If anything, the moves have emboldened Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro to dig in his heels and go for broke. In January, 2018 Maduro announced he will be seeking a new term in office. The presidential election has been scheduled for 30 April of this year and with the majority of opposition candidates and leaders banned from running, Maduro is expected to skate to an easy victory.
If the presidential election proceeds, and the Trump administration imposes an oil embargo in response, the impact on markets, supply, and output will be significant. 2018 has seen an overall tightening in the oil market and a supply disruption now is sure to cause reverberations that weren’t felt when there was a crude superabundance. If Venezuela faces an oil embargo its economy will collapse entirely and that could cause an undesirable chain of destabilization among its neighbors, and other Latin American nations. The prospects of sanctions bringing a scenario like this to life are real. Caribbean nations rely heavily on cheap Venezuelan oil and have resisted Tillerson’s calls for a hemisphere-wide effort to challenge Maduro. US, Mexican, and Canadian oil officials, and diplomats are forming a working group to try and find an alternative to Venezuelan oil for nations in the Western Hemisphere that are reliant on it at the present time.
President Trump favors harsher sanctions against Venezuela, though its uncertain if he’s willing to turn to his nuclear option just yet. As mentioned above, the current sanctions in place have not motivated Nicolas Maduro to begin the reform process. If US efforts to create an anti-Maduro coalition show signs of success between now and the end of April, expect the Trump administration to begin thinking seriously about oil sanctions, or an outright embargo against Venezuela by 1 May.