Saturday 8 September, 2018 Update: US Considering Its Military Options If Syria Uses Chemical Weapons

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The looming Syrian offensive into Idlib presents a challenge to the United States. If Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, as he has done twice so far during the tenure of President Donald Trump, how should the US react? The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in April, 2017, and the Douma attack one year later both brought about US military action. The 2017 US response was a unilateral Tomahawk missile strike against Shayrat airbase. One year later in April, 2018, the US, Great Britain, and France carried out a series of air and missile strikes against targets in Syria in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. If Assad’s forces chose to employ chemical weapons in Idlib will it provoke another US military action? If so, what shape will it take? More importantly, will it run the risk of provoking a Russian response?

The Pentagon and White House are already weighing these questions, and the Pentagon is starting to examine what military options the US will have available if Assad uses chemical weapons in Idlib. Given the Syrian leader’s track record it’s only prudent for the US to begin planning now. If chemical weapons are used again, the White House will want to move swiftly and decisively.

Unfortunately, Assad may not be able to be dissuaded. Idlib province is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. When it is pacified, it will leave the rebels with just a few isolated pockets of territory. An end to the seven-year old conflict will finally be in sight with Assad’s control of Syria all but guaranteed. International concern that the coming offensive could trigger a humanitarian disaster have done nothing to deter the Syrian government, or its Russian and Iranian backers.

With that in mind,  any US threats of military action should Syria use chemical weapons are unlikely to dissuade Assad once hostilities begin in Idlib.

 

Thursday 6 September, 2018 Update: Idlib Offensive on the Horizon

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The fate of Idlib could very well be determined Friday when the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet in Tehran to discuss the upcoming offensive against the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. Bashr al Assad’s forces are massed around the borders of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and preparations for offensive operations are underway. Air strikes against rebel positions have already begun, leading to speculation that the Syrian offensive could be just days away from jumping off.

The UN, various non-government organizations, and relief groups have warned that a full scale Syrian offensive could lead to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Unfortunately, the human consequences are unlikely to make Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad reconsider intended course of action. They might be influencing Turkey’s position, however.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will come into the summit meeting with serious reservations. Turkey has been a supporter of  the non-Islamic State Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad and has called for an end to the bombing now underway in Idlib. Another concern for Erdogan is the border Turkey shares with Idlib. A Syrian offensive has the potential to create an influx of refugees from Idlib into Turkey, adding to the more than 3 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey now.

Moscow, on the other hand, shares none of Turkey’s reservations. Russia is largely in agreement with the idea of the Syrian army moving into the province. Roughly 60% of Idlib is controlled by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and ISIS. Russia remains committed to destroying these groups. In fact,  Russian warplanes have begun flying missions against Islamist targets in Idlib once again. When Syrian troops do begin operations in Idlib, they will do so with unfettered Russian support.

Tuesday 24 July, 2018 Update: Syrian Fighter-Bomber Shot Down Over Israeli Territory

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Israel has shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber after the aircraft entered Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. The Fencer was engaged successfully by a pair of Israeli Patriot missiles. One of the pilots, Syrian Air Force Colonel Omran Mari, was killed. The fate of the other pilot is unknown at the moment. The incident occurred in the midst of increased military activity on the Syrian side of the border. The Syrian government has been fighting both ISIS-affiliated groups, and other rebel forces in southern Syria for some time now. For now, it seems likely that the Fencer strayed into Israeli airspace as the result of a navigation error. This incident is not anticipated to bring a major confrontation between Israel and Syria. It will, however, likely raise tensions in the region even higher.

The shootdown highlights both Israel’s staunch commitment to defending its airspace and frontiers. Yesterday, Israeli David’s Sling missiles knocked down tactical ballistic missiles fired by Syrian or Russian forces as part of the fighting going on in Syria. One of the SS-21 tactical ballistic missiles came down just one kilometer from the Israeli border.

The shootdown also serves as a reminder of how volatile the skies over and around Syria are. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, multiple incidents have played out in the skies. A simple navigation  error led a Russian Su-24 into Turkish airspace in 2015 where it was promptly dispatched by an F-16. The close proximity between Russian, and Coalition aircraft in the skies over northern Syria led to the set up of elaborate deconfliction system between US and Russian defense officials.

Tuesday 10 April 2018 Update: Syrian Happenings

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Attention is focused on Washington DC today as the world waits to see how the United States chooses to respond to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria on 7 April. This morning it was announced that President Trump will not be attending the Summit of the Americas in Peru, or traveling to Bogota, Columbia afterwards as planned. Instead, the president will remain in Washington to  “oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world” according to the White House. This recent development has increased speculation that US military action could be coming soon. Reports that Trump has been in consultation with London and Paris suggest a broader Western military response is possible as well.

In fact, the possibility of British involvement at the very least is growing. A short time ago I spoke to an associate of mine who lives a short distance away from RAF Akrotri, the British airbase on Cyprus. He verified that the level of activity there has increased over the past few hours and shows no sign of dropping off. Right now I am trying to obtain more information from him. If I do, I will pass it along.

On the military front, numerous reports surfaced yesterday that the destroyer USS Donald Cook was moving into waters near Syria, and Russian aircraft were conducting low level flights nearby. The Pentagon denied the reports and they were never confirmed by any major independent media outlets. If Cook is in the vicinity of Syria it makes sense for Russian aircraft to harass any potential TLAM shooters, and keep a close eye on them as the situation unfolds. It should also be noted that given the range of the TLAM, Cook does not have to be anywhere close to the Syrian coastline. She could launch cruise missiles from practically anywhere in the Mediterranean. However, given political considerations and such, it does make sense to volley TLAMs as close to Syria as the situation allows.

 

It is mid-afternoon here in the eastern United States and there is much happening with regards to Syria from Washington to Europe, and the Med. I’ll try and post another update early in the evening and offer some thoughts about if or when military action against the Syrian government might begin.

 

 

 

On Syria Part I

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If the Middle East were a forest, Syria would be a propane tank burning beside it. Despite the efforts of firemen, the blaze continues. It’s only a matter of time before the tank explodes and sets the trees afire. The Syrian Conflict has been raging for seven years and shows no signs of receding. The war has transformed from a civil war to an amalgamation of loosely connected blood feuds, civil, tribal, and proxy wars that have the potential to spark a major regional conflict or worse. To make matters more complex, the Syrian Conflict is now on the verge of escalating to a point where two allies are threatening war on each other.

Syrian Government forces, with the invaluable support of Russian, and Iranian forces, are rolling up rebel forces, and expanding the amount of territory it controls. ISIS is reeling as US, and British forces are moving in for the kill. Iranian actions have brought about Israeli air strikes and the threat of further Israeli involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, in the north Turkish forces continue their offensive against Kurdish militias, and forces, some of which are supported by the US and other Western governments. France is now taking a stand against Turkish operations against the Kurds. Relations between Ankara and Paris are deteriorating amid reports the French are considering sending additional troops to Syria to aid the Kurds if Turkish forces extend their offensive east of Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated Turkey would regard such a move as an invasion. Turkey and France, both members of NATO, are sounding more like opponents instead of allies these days. The repercussions of a military clash between the two countries would be felt around the world.

The latest layer added to the conflict is President Trump hinting that the US will be scaling down or ending entirely its military presence in Syria. With ISIS close to defeat on the battlefield, the primary mission for US forces is ending and Trump sees no reason to keep them in country. A final decision has not been made, however, and some senior US officials have warned that a US pullout now could strengthen Russia and Iran’s influence across the entire region.

Later this week I’ll continue this subject by discussing the ongoing geopolitical chess match in the Middle East between the US on one side and Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the other.