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Here’s why the US failed to save the Jihadis in East Ghouta

The US military is not prepared to take on Russia’s military in Syria

As the fighting in East Ghouta in Syria began to get underway in earnest last month, talk inevitably increased about a possible US military strike against the Syrian military in order to save the Jihadis under siege in East Ghouta.

Demands – or what amounted to demands – for military action to break the siege of East Ghouta began to appear in the Western media, of which this article in The Guardian is a good example.  Here is some of the things it said

……in the light of two significant military developments in recent weeks, western leaders should reconsider their reluctance to strike the forces responsible for so many atrocities. First, on 7 February, Russian private military contractors attacked a base in eastern Syria where US troops were based. The US forces appear to have killed a large number of attackers. The Russians were undoubtedly fighting in Syria with Kremlin approval, as a way of maintaining the fiction that Russia has no ground forces in Syria. Even so, Russia chose to cover up its casualties, rather than fight back.

Second, after Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter on 10 February, Israel claimed to have destroyed almost half of Syria’s air defence system in retaliatory strikes. The Russians did nothing to prevent the Israeli attack. Israel’s success suggests that western military leaders were exaggerating the strength of Syria’s air defences to justify not striking regime targets earlier.

Taken together, these two defeats for the Syrian regime and the Russians suggest that a well-planned campaign (not the kind of one-off missile strike that Donald Trump launched in April 2017) could degrade Assad’s military capabilities, providing an incentive for him to look for a peaceful way out. A similar strategy, involving Nato strikes on Serbian forces, helped to bring Slobodan Milošević to the negotiating table and end the Bosnian conflict in 1995. A military campaign would need to be coupled with a strong message to Russia to stay out of the way and a plan for moving towards peace.

Or take this article in The Atlantic, which said amongst other things the following

As the slaughter continues in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta—a besieged area on the outskirts of Damascus that is home to some 400,000 people—the obvious question becomes even more urgent: How can this abomination be stopped? There are no risk-free silver bullets or magic potions. There is no diplomatic fairy dust or holy water. But one thing is inescapable: Unless the United States is seriously considering military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime—a regime up to its eyes in war crimes and crimes against humanity—any discussion of “what to do” is empty

Reports duly appeared of US destroyers armed with cruise missiles approaching the Syrian coast, leading to warnings from the Russian military against US military action in East Ghouta.

This is from a Newsweek article dated 13th March 2018

Top Russian officials have threatened to retaliate with force if President Donald Trump orders an attack that could endanger the lives of its soldiers stationed there in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s campaign against rebels and jihadis near Damascus.

Army General Valery Gerasimov warned on Tuesday that the U.S. was preparing to launch raids against Moscow’s ally, the Syrian government, as it attempted to clear the pockets of insurgents—some of which were once backed by the West—in the suburbs of the capital city of Damascus. Gerasimov, who acted as chief of Russia’s general staff and deputy defense minister, claimed that the U.S. would strike under the false pretense of a chemical weapon attack—a tactic that Russia has denied the Syrian military utilizes—and vowed to fight back.

“In the event of a threat to our military servicemen’s lives, Russia’s armed forces will take retaliatory measures to target both the missiles and their delivery vehicles,” Gerasimov said, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency…….

…….the Russian Foreign Ministry also pledged a forceful response to any U.S. attack that threatened Russian troops who were stationed throughout Syrian military front lines near Damascus. Accusing a “belligerent” Haley of promoting “criminal actions” in Syria, the ministry said, “In this case, required retaliatory measures will be taken,” Tass reported.

“If a new strike of this kind takes place, the consequences will be very serious,” Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a separate statement also carried by Tass.

“Mrs. Haley should understand that it is one thing to irresponsibly exploit the microphone in the U.N. Security Council and it is another thing when both the Russian and American militaries have communication channels and it is clearly

As it happens, on 5th March 2018 an article appeared in the Washington Post reporting a discussion which supposedly took place in the White House in which a possible attack on the Syrian military besieging East Ghouta was supposedly discussed.

According to this article US President Donald Trump’s then National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, was in favour of an attack, but US Defense Secretary General James Mattis was adamantly opposed and US President Trump in the end decided against it

The Trump administration has considered new military action against the Syrian government in response to reports of ongoing chemical weapons use, officials said, raising the prospect of a second U.S. strike on President Bashar al-Assad in less than a year.

President Trump requested options for punishing the Assad government after reported chlorine gas attacks — at least seven this year — and possibly other chemicals affecting civilians in opposition-controlled areas.

In a Feb. 25 incident, residents and medical staffers in a rebel-held Damascus suburb, Eastern Ghouta, described symptoms associated with chlorine exposure. One child died, medical staffers reported.

The president discussed potential actions early last week at a White House meeting that included Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, officials said.

One official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to address internal deliberations, said that the president did not endorse any military action and that officials decided to continue monitoring the situation….

One senior administration official said that Mattis was “adamantly” against acting militarily in response to the recent chlorine attacks and that McMaster “was for it.”

However this same Washington Post article casts doubt on whether this discussion ever actually took place

Dana White, chief Pentagon spokeswoman, denied that Mattis took part in discussions about military action in Syria and said the “conversation did not happen.”

With the fighting in East Ghouta almost to an end it is now clear that a US military strike against the Syrian military besieging East Ghouta will not happen.

Given that this is so, it is worth asking why?  The answer to that is provided by what has happened previously since Russia first intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015.

Back in October 2016, at the height of the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’, a serious discussion did take place within the US National Security Council debating whether or not the US should intervene militarily to break the Syrian army’s siege of the Jihadi controlled enclave of eastern Aleppo, and reviewing the military options for intervention which were then available to the US.

News of this discussion provoked a stern warning from the Russian military that any such intervention by the US military in the fighting in Aleppo would provoke a strong Russian response, with the Russians warning that their very capable air defence system in Syria was fully prepared to shoot down US aircraft if called on to do so.

Two days later the US backed down, publicly confirming that no US military action against the Syrian military was being planned or would take place.

Subsequently in April 2017, after the US cruise missile strike on Syria’s Al-Sharyat air base following the alleged chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, the Russians retaliated by switching off the deconfliction hotline between the US and Russian militaries in Syria, which the two militaries use in order to inform each other of their respective activities.

As an article in The New York Times dated 8th April 2017 admitted, the result was an immediate drastic reduction in US air operations in Syria, with the US air force unwilling to risk confrontation with the powerful Russian air defence system there

The American-led task force that is battling the Islamic State has sharply reduced airstrikes against the militants in Syria as commanders assess whether Syrian government forces or their Russian allies plan to respond to the United States’ cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield this past week, American officials said.

The precautionary move, revealed in statistics made public by the command on Saturday, was taken as Russian officials have threatened to suspend the communication line the American and Russian militaries use to notify each other about air operations in Syria.

After protracted negotiations the US was able to persuade the Russians to switch the deconfliction hotline back on.

However, shortly after in June 2017 the US shot down a Syrian SU-22 in eastern Syria, causing the Russians not only to switch the deconfliction hotline off again, but to warn the US that US aircraft flying over Syria west of the Euphrates would be tracked and ‘painted’ by Russian air defence radars

Any aircraft, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected in the operation areas west of the Euphrates River by the Russian air forces will be followed by Russian ground-based air defense and air defense aircraft as air targets.

The US response – under the cover of bluster about the US being prepared to defend itself – was to halt US air operations west of the Euphrates

As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrews given known threats in the battle space.

It is this game of cat-and-mouse which the Russians regularly play with the US military in Syria which accounts for the US failure to intervene in the fighting in East Ghouta.

Quite simply, as the events of October 2016, April 2017 and June 2017 show, the US military is not prepared to take on the Russian military in Syria and risk a full scale armed confrontation with Russia there.

I discussed all this in my article in which I discussed the Russian response to the US’s shooting down in June 2017 of the SU-22 fighter bomber in eastern Syria

The fact that the Russians have installed a powerful air defence system in Syria incorporating advanced S-400 and S-300VM Antey 2500 missiles means that the US is unable to confront the Russians directly unless it is prepared to risk possibly very serious casualties.

That is an option neither the US military nor the civilian officials of the Obama and Trump administrations are prepared to face.  This is because they know the extraordinary dangers such a clash with the armed forces of a nuclear superpower would risk.  They also know US public opinion is strongly opposed to the US becoming drawn into such a clash.

This is what explains the US’s failure to intervene in the fighting in East Ghouta.

On three prior occasions – in October 2016, in April 2017 and in June 2017 – the US has appeared to come close to an armed clash with the Russian military in Syria.

Following Russian warnings and counter-moves it has on each occasion backed off.

The same thing has now happened in relation to the fighting in East Ghouta.

Talk of US intervention has again resulted in Russian warnings, which have again caused the US to back off.

I say this though I am actually deeply skeptical that a US attack on the Syrian military besieging East Ghouta was ever seriously considered.

General H.R. McMaster – President Trump’s eternally belligerent former National Security Adviser – may have called for it, just as he has called for attacks on North Korea and Iran.

However at this very late stage in the Syrian war, with the Jihadis routed everywhere in Syria and in headlong retreat, a US attack to break the siege of East Ghouta would not only have been supremely risky; it would make no possible sense.

Realistically, what did not happen in October 2016 during the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ – when the future of Syria was still in play – was not going to happen in March 2018 in East Ghouta when the struggle for Syria had already been decided.

That is why I never took the possibility of US military action in East Ghouta seriously, as I all but said in my article discussing the Battle of East dated 26th February 2018

…….if there are striking similarities between the uproar over the fighting in Aleppo in 2016 and the fighting in east Ghouta today, there is also one very important difference.

This is that this time the uproar lacks conviction.

Following the Syrian army’s victory in Aleppo in 2016, and following the establishment of permanent Russian bases in Syria, there is now no longer any possibility of President Assad being ousted by force.

That means that regime change in Syria is no longer practicable, which begs the question of why the war is being continued at all.

Putting that aside, since the US and the rest of the regime change coalition know that a “rebel” ‘victory’ in Syria is no longer possible, their protests against the Syrian army’s ongoing offensive against the Jihadis in east Ghouta inevitably lack conviction and have none of the force that they did in 2016.

I would add that for all of the above reasons I personally doubt that the meeting in the White House reported by the Washington Post during which an attack on the Syrian military besieging East Ghouta was supposedly discussed ever took place.  As the Washington Post reports (see above) Pentagon spokesman Dana White denies that it happened.

What is the source of much confusion is the persistent claim – made for example in the article in Guardian which I quoted above – that the Russian warnings against US military action are no more than bluff.

Those who make this claim have lately taken to citing the supposed Russian failure to respond to the following incidents

(1) the cruise missile strike on Al-Sharyat air base in April 2017;

(2) the Israeli attack on the Syrian air defence system in February 2018 following the shooting down By Syria of an Israeli F-16 fighter; and

(3) the US air strike in eastern Syria in February 2018 in which a number of Russian mercenaries were killed.

The first of these alleged examples of Russian inaction in response to attacks on Syria is in fact obviously wrong.  The Russians did respond strongly to the US cruise missile strike on Al-Sharyat air base.  They switched off the deconfliction hotline, causing a drastic cut in US air operations over Syria (see above).

As to the other two examples, they are based on the fallacy that the Russians have committed themselves to responding to every attack on the Syrian military by the US and its allies however minor such an attack might be, and that their failure to defend Syria from every such attack is therefore in some way ‘proof’ of their inability or of unwillingness to defend Syria when it is attacked.

For a classic statement of this view see these comments in the article in the Guardian article which I have cited

First, on 7 February, Russian private military contractors attacked a base in eastern Syria where US troops were based. The US forces appear to have killed a large number of attackers. The Russians were undoubtedly fighting in Syria with Kremlin approval, as a way of maintaining the fiction that Russia has no ground forces in Syria. Even so, Russia chose to cover up its casualties, rather than fight back.

Second, after Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter on 10 February, Israel claimed to have destroyed almost half of Syria’s air defence system in retaliatory strikes. The Russians did nothing to prevent the Israeli attack……

Taken together, these two defeats for the Syrian regime and the Russians suggest that a well-planned campaign (not the kind of one-off missile strike that Donald Trump launched in April 2017) could degrade Assad’s military capabilities, providing an incentive for him to look for a peaceful way out. A similar strategy, involving Nato strikes on Serbian forces, helped to bring Slobodan Milošević to the negotiating table and end the Bosnian conflict in 1995. A military campaign would need to be coupled with a strong message to Russia to stay out of the way and a plan for moving towards peace.

This view is based on a completely false reading of the two incidents it describes (incidents (2) and (3) listed by me above).

Turning first to the US air strike which killed the Russian mercenaries, a detailed investigation by the German magazine Der Spiegel of this incident has established that the ‘scores’ or ‘hundreds’ of Russian mercenaries who were supposedly killed by this US air strike are  just as we reported previously – a figment of the imagination.

A team of DER SPIEGEL journalists spent two weeks interviewing both witnesses to, and participants in, the battle. The team also spoke to a staff member at the only hospital in Deir ez-Zor as well as an employee of the local military airport in an attempt to get a clear picture of exactly what took place during the three-day battle.

The accounts largely corroborate each other and the image of events that emerges is one that contradicts what has been reported in the Russian and international media.

At 5 a.m. on Feb. 7, around 250 fighters south of Deir ez-Zor attempted to cross from the west bank of the Euphrates to the east using a military pontoon bridge…..Witnesses say that no Russian mercenaries took part in the attempted crossing…….

……..right around the same time late that night, another group of Syrian tribal militia members and Shiite fighters came from the village of Tabiya to the south and also attacked the SDF base. And the Americans struck back with their entire destructive arsenal. They deployed rocket-equipped drones, combat helicopters, heavy AC 130 aircraft, nicknamed “gun boats,” to fire on targets on the ground, rockets and ground artillery.

They struck in the night, followed by an attack the next morning on a group with a tribal militia in Tabiya that had only come to retrieve the bodies. And on Feb. 9, they once again attacked a unit of the same fighters who had popped up on the eastern side of the river…….

Among those stationed in Tabiya was a small contingent of Russian mercenaries. But the two militia sources said they did not participate in the fighting. Still, they said, 10 to 20 of them did in fact lose their lives. They said a total of more than 200 of the attackers died, including around 80 Syrian soldiers with the 4th Division, around 100 Iraqis and Afghans and around 70 tribal fighters, mostly with the al-Baqir militia.

It all happened at night, and the situation became extremely complicated when the fighters from Tabiya entered the fray. A staffer at the only major hospital in Deir ez-Zor would later say that around a dozen Russian bodies were delivered. An employee at the airport, meanwhile, later witnessed the delivery of the bodies in two Toyota pickup trucks to a waiting Russian transport aircraft that then flew to Qamishli, an airport near the Syrian border in the north.

In the days that followed, the identities of the Russians killed would be revealed — first of six and ultimately nine. Eight had been verified by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian investigative platform, and another was released by the radio station Echo Moscow. All were employees of the private mercenary company Evro Polis, which is often referred to by the nom du guerre of its head: “Wagner.”

(bold italics added)

In other words, far from ‘scores’ or ‘hundreds’ of Russian mercenaries participating in an attack by Syrian tribal fighters on a US position east of Euphrates and being killed by a US air strike,  the Russian mercenaries got caught up in a US retaliatory strike after Syrian tribal fighters on their own initiative advanced on a base held by Syrian militia allied to the US.

Far from ‘scores’ or ‘hundreds’ of Russian mercenaries being killed in the US retaliatory strike, the total number of Russian mercenaries who were killed was nine.

The incident does however seem to have provoked the Russians into complaining about what happened to the US, leading to steps being taken by the US and Russian militaries to ensure that nothing like that would ever happen again.

That no doubt explains why – as was recently confirmed by US Defense Secretary Mattis speaking on 27th March 2018 – the US recently acted to head off a possible further clash between the US military and Syrian tribal and Russian mercenary forces in the same area in eastern Syria

US forces in Syria narrowly averted another clash with Russian mercenaries like one last month that left more than 100 opposing fighters dead, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday.

Mattis told reporters that “Russian elements” moved across a deconfliction line into an area on the eastern side of the Euphrates river where the sides had previously agreed they could operate, he said.

But he said they came “too close” to positions of US soldiers in the area.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, contacted his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, about the incursion.

“And those elements fell back so we have also drawn off slightly to maintain the deconfliction between the elements there,” he said.

“So it seems that this time, it was resolved through the deconfliction communication line,” he added.

Mattis did not give a precise date for the incident, but on Thursday [22nd March 2018 – AM] the Pentagon issued a brief statement noting that Dunford and Gerasimov had held talks on Syria and other matters of mutual interest.

As for the Israeli strike in February 2018 – undertaken shortly after Syria’s air defence forces shot down an Israeli F-16 – it is true that in the days after the strike Israel made the usual inflated claims that it had destroyed 50% of Syria’s air defences and 900 Syrian anti aircraft missile launchers.

It says much about the current dismal state of international news reporting that this ridiculous claim has been taken seriously.

It is in fact well known that Middle East states – including of course Israel – routinely exaggerate the casualties they inflict on their opponents in order to make their ‘victories’ appear more impressive than they are.

In this case the true extent of the Israeli strike is actually known because before the propaganda machine got working the Israelis themselves provided what looks to be an accurate report of it

In retaliation for the downed jet, Israeli forces attacked 12 targets in Syria, including three aerial defense batteries and four targets described as Iranian, the IDF said.  An IDF statement described the four Iranian targets as “part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”

In typical Middle East fashion an attack on three Syrian anti aircraft missile batteries became inflated into the destruction of 900 Syrian missile launchers (!) and the destruction of 50% of the Syrian air defence system (!!).

It is difficult to know what is more fantastic: the Israeli claims or the fact that so many people chose to believe them and report them as true.

As I have repeatedly pointed out, the Russians will not let themselves get drawn into unnecessary confrontations with the Western powers over minor attacks on Syrian military units which have no bearing on the course of the war.  The Israeli strike in February 2018 in retaliation for the Syrian shooting down of an Israeli F-16 fighter was exactly such a minor attack.

To be clear, the Israeli strike – part of a decades long conflict between Israel and Syria in which Russia is not a party – neither interfered with Syrian military operations against the Jihadis nor did it threaten the existence of the Syrian government.  The Russians accordingly were not concerned by it.

By contrast the Russians most certainly are concerned about the fighting in East Ghouta.

Not only is the Battle of East Ghouta a key battle which the Syrian military must win if the Jihadi threat to Syria is to be eliminated, but the Russian military is itself heavily involved in the battle, with the Russian Aerospace Forces actively involved in the fighting, and the Russian military brokering withdrawal agreements with the Jihadis which are paving the way for the Syrian army’s eventual victory in the battle.

Given that this is so, the US and its allies can be under no illusions that a US military intervention in the fighting in East Ghouta will be anything other than fiercely resisted by the Russians.

That guarantees that no such intervention will take place, which is why of course it has not happened.

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