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Huge advances by Syrian army transform Syrian war

Whirlwind advances of Syrian army send ISIS reeling and position Syrian army to recover all of central and eastern Syria from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border.

Alexander Mercouris

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Though the Western media is barely reporting the fact, the last few weeks have witnessed a total transformation of the Syrian war.

Until the liberation of eastern Aleppo in December the Syrian war was being fought mainly in western Syria along a narrow stretch of Syria’s Mediterranean coast in a grinding war of attrition between the Syrian army and various Turkish backed Jihadi groups all of which were led ultimately by Al-Qaeda.

The intense pressure of this war obliged the Syrian army to withdraw from most of eastern Syria in order to protect the main centres of Syria’s population and power in the cities along the coast.  The resulting vacuum in eastern Syria was filled initially by various Jihadi groups, but ultimately by ISIS, which in 2015 gained essentially undisputed control of this area, save for the isolated city of Deir Ezzor.

Al-Qaeda’s defeat in December in Aleppo, and the rout of its offensive from Idlib province into Hama province in April, has left the Syrian government in control of all of Syria’s big cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs – whilst Latakia Province and its capital have always been firmly controlled by the government.  Though Al-Qaeda still has a presence in some areas in the countryside near Damascus, and is still firmly in control of Idlib Province, these areas are now covered by the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey in December, supplemented by further agreements reached by Russia, Iran and Turkey in May, which set up the so-called ‘de-confliction areas’ in these territories.

This combination of Al-Qaeda defeats and peace agreements means that the war of attrition in western Syria is at an end, and that the Syrian army there for the moment at least has won.

In saying this it is important to say that fighting between the Syrian army and Al-Qaeda in western Syria has not come entirely to a stop.  Bitter fighting still continues between the Syrian army and Al-Qaeda in southern Syria, especially in the bitterly contested town of Dara’a, where the original uprising against the Syrian government started in 2011.   Al-Qaeda still from time to time launches several raids on western Aleppo. People everywhere in Syria, including in the safest regions which are most securely under the government’s control, have to face the daily threat of terrorist attacks.

Nonetheless the agreements reached between the Turks and the Russians in December, and between the Turks, the Russians and the Iranians in May, have generally held.

This has allowed the Syrian army, sections of which have been extensively re-trained and re-equipped by the Russians, to take the battle to ISIS in the east in a serious way, for the first time since the organisation took over central and eastern Syria in 2014 and 2015.  Western commentators once claimed that the Syrian army and the Russians were leaving ISIS alone.  This was never true, but following the Syrian army’s recent advances into central and eastern Syria this claim has become completely unsustainable.

The first fruit of the stabilisation of in the west was the second liberation of Palmyra from ISIS in March 2017.  However since then events have quickened at an accelerating rate, with a whirlwind advance by the Syrian army eastward from Aleppo to Rusafa in the north, and an equally dramatic advance in the south, bringing the Syrian army for the first time in years to the Iraqi border.

The speed of these advances has no previous precedent in the Syrian war.  In 2014-2015 ISIS did accomplish equally rapid advances over comparable distances.  However with the Syrian army having withdrawn from eastern Syria these advances were largely unopposed.  By contrast the Syrian army’s advances over recent weeks have been sustained even in the face of  fanatical resistance from ISIS.

This is not the result of some general collapse of ISIS in eastern and central Syria.  Whilst the Syrian army has advanced at a blistering rate, US backed Kurdish forces in the north have been making extremely slow progress in their war against ISIS, which is supposed to end with the capture of Raqqa.

Compare for example the continued failure of the Kurdish militia to take Raqqa despite having launched their US planned and US backed offensive to capture Raqqa as long ago as November 2016 (“Operation Wrath of Euphrates”) with the latest rapid advances in Raqqa Province of the Syrian army

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA), spearheaded by the elite Tiger Forces, has seized more than 1,400 square kilometers of territory from ISIS in the province of Raqqah. In addition to this, several key oil and gas extraction and refinery sites have been liberated. Lastly, the Syrian Army also expanded their zone of control over the Ethriyah-Raqqah road including two key junctions in the Tabaqah area; this move opens the door to further advances into central Syria from the north by pro-government forces.

The suddenness and rapidity of the entire offensive has come as an absolute surprise for all observers of the Syrian War. In particular, the offensive has not only served to further accelerate the already fast decline of ISIS being witnessed in 2017, but now serves to block any further operations the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) might have had planned to expand into central Syria via Tabaqah and seize key oil and gas infrastructures which litter central areas of the country.

These whirlwind advances reflect an underlying reality of the Syrian war, which is almost never discussed.

The two most powerful military forces in Syria for most of the war (until the coming of the Russians) have been the Syrian army and Al-Qaeda.  ISIS and the Kurdish militia are no match for either, and the only reason ISIS managed to expand so rapidly in 2014 and 2015 was because the Syrian army and Al-Qaeda were too busy fighting each other to confront it.

Now that the Syrian army does not have to fight Al-Qaeda in its heartlands in western Syria – at least for the moment – it is having little difficulty defeating ISIS wherever it encounters it.

These Syrian army advances are transforming the political map of Syria.  Whereas only a few months ago most Syrian territory had fallen out of the control of the Syrian government, that is rapidly becoming no longer the case.

With two powerful columns of Syrian troops now converging on the eastern city of Deir Ezzor – one from Rusafa in the north, the other from Palmyra in the centre – there is now a real prospect that all of central Syria stretching all the way from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border will soon once more be under the control of the Syrian government.

Should that happen the Syrian government’s opponents, far from being credible challengers for power in Syria, will be confined to enclaves in various parts of Syria: a US controlled enclave around the isolated garrison of al-Tanf in the south, a Turkish controlled ‘safe zone’ in the north west, Idlib province in the west, and a large Kurdish area adjoining Turkey in the north east.

With the Syrian government in control of most of Syria’s territory and population, it will be increasingly difficult to deny its legitimacy, and should this situation arise then it will soon start to have a serious bearing on the course of the negotiations in Astana and Geneva.

The situation in Syria is still not stable.  The two Syrian military columns converging on Deir Ezzor have powerful enemies on their flanks: the US in the south and potentially the Kurds in the north.  Intervention by either of these would however risk confrontation with Russia, whose Special Forces and advisers are accompanying the columns, and whose air force is providing them with air support.  Frankly I don’t think that will happen.

A far greater risk is that the unstable peace in western Syria will break down, and that Al-Qaeda will be reactivated, and will try to take advantage of the Syrian army’s advance eastward to capture territory in the west.

That would however require the support of Turkey, which has been badly burnt by its involvement in the Syrian war, and which is becoming increasingly concerned by US support for the Kurds in the north.

On balance, though any policy which depends on Turkish President Erdogan abiding by the agreements he has signed is fraught with risk, I think self interest in the end will win out, and that the precarious peace in western Syria will hold.

If so then the war in Syria may indeed be moving towards its end.

President Assad has said repeatedly, even in what were for him his darkest hours, that his intention was to bring all of Syrian territory back under the Syrian government’s control.

Once that attracted disbelief and incredulity in the West.  Suddenly it does not look so unlikely..

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Russian Il-20 downed by Syrian missile. Russia blames Israel. Israel blames Syria (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 110.

Alex Christoforou

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The unthinkable has happened in Syria.

The world now teeters on the brink of all out war in Syria as a Russian Il-20 was downed by Syrian missile after Israeli F-16s used it as cover during attack, according to statements made by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

President Vladimir Putin, answering a reporter’s question during a press conference with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, said the downing of the Russian Il-20 plane looks like “a chain of tragic circumstances.” 

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss the tripwire triggered that has the potential to tip the fragile balance in Syria towards conflict between Russia, Iran and Israel.

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The Russian military says an Israeli raid on Syria triggered a chain of events that led to its Il-20 plane being shot down by a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile. Moscow reserves the right to respond accordingly.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said…

“Israel did not warn the command of the Russian troops in Syria about the planned operation. We received a notification via a hotline less than a minute before the strike, which did not allow the Russian aircraft to be directed to a safe zone.”

The statement by the Russian Defense Ministry said that four Israeli F-16 fighter jets attacked targets in Syria’s Latakia after approaching from the Mediterranean.

The Israeli warplanes approached at a low altitude and “created a dangerous situation for other aircraft and vessels in the region.”

The statement further said that 15 Russian military service members have died as a result…

“The Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces. As a consequence, the Il-20, which has radar cross-section much larger than the F-16, was shot down by an S-200 system missile.”

According to reports from RT, the Russian military said that the French Navy’s frigate ‘Auvergne,’ as well as a Russian Il-20 plane were in the area during the Israeli operation.

Map of the incident on September 17 in Syria provided by the Russian defense ministry.

The Russian ministry said the Israelis must have known that the Russian plane was present in the area, but this did not stop them from executing “the provocation.” Israel also failed to warn Russia about the planned operation in advance. The warning came just a minute before the attack started, which “did not leave time to move the Russian plane to a safe area,”the statement said.

The statement gives a larger death toll than earlier reports by the Russian military, which said there were 14 crew members on board the missing Il-20. It said a search and rescue operation for the shot-down plane is underway.

A later update said debris from the downed plane was found some 27km off the Latakia coast. The search party collected some body parts, personal possessions of the crew, and fragments of the plane.

Meanwhile Israel has come out to blame the Syrian government for the downing of the military plane, according to an IDF statement.

Israel said that it “expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members” of the Russian plane. However, it stated that the government of Bashar Assad “whose military shot down the Russian plane,” is “fully responsible” for the incident.

Israel further blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the incident.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) explained that its jets were targeting a Syrian facility “from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Israel claimed that the weapons were “meant to attack Israel.”

Via RT

The IDF assumed that the Syrian anti-air batteries “fired indiscriminately” and didn’t “bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air.” The Israelis said that when the Syrian military launched the missiles which hit the Russian plane, its own jets were already within Israeli airspace. “During the strike against the target in Latakia, the Russian plane that was then hit was not within the area of the operation.”

According to the Israeli military, both IDF and Russia have “a deconfliction system,” which was agreed upon by the leadership of both states, and “has proven itself many times over recent years.” The system was in use when the incident happened, the IDF stated. The IDF promised to share “all the relevant information” with Russia “to review the incident and to confirm the facts in this inquiry.”

The military presented a four-point initial inquiry into events in Latakia. It insisted that “extensive and inaccurate” Syrian anti-aircraft fire caused the Russian jet “to be hit and downed.”

The Russian Il-20 aircraft, with 15 crew on board, went off radar during an attack by four Israeli jets on Syria’s Latakia province late Monday. Later on Tuesday the Russian Defense Ministry said that an Israeli raid on Syria triggered a chain of events that led to its plane being shot down by a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile.

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Trump Orders Immediate Release Of All Text Messages, Carter Page FISA Application From Russia Investigation

Trump has ordered the DOJ to release all text messages related to the Russia investigation with no redactions.

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Via Zerohedge

President Trump has ordered the Department of Justice to release all text messages related to the Russia investigation with no redactions, of former FBI Director James Comey, his deputy Andrew McCabe, now-fired special agent Peter Strzok, former FBI attorney Lisa Page and twice-demoted DOJ official Bruce Ohr.

Also released will be specific pages from the FBI’s FISA surveillance warrant application on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, as well as interviews with Ohr.

The statement reads in full:

“At the request of a number of committees of Congress, and for reasons of transparency, the President has directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice (including the FBI) to provide for the immediate declassification of the following materials: (1) pages 10-12 and 17-34 of the June 2017 application to the FISA court in the matter of Carter W. Page; (2) all FBI reports of interviews with Bruce G. Ohr prepared in connection with the Russia investigation; and (3) all FBI reports of interviews prepared in connection with all Carter Page FISA applications.

In addition, President Donald J. Trump has directed the Department of Justice (including the FBI) to publicly release all text messages relating to the Russia investigation, without redaction, of James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr

***

As we reported last Monday, Trump had been expected to release the documents any time – with specific attention to the Page documents and the “investigative activities of Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr” – who was demoted twice for lying about his extensive relationship  with Christopher Steele – the former MI6 spy who assembled the sham “Steele Dossier” used by the FBI in a FISA surveillance application to spy on Page.

Republicans on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees believe the declassification will permanently taint the Trump-Russia investigation by showing the investigation was illegitimate to begin with. Trump has been hammering the same theme for months.

  • They allege that Bruce Ohr played an improper intermediary role between the Justice Department, British spy Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS — the opposition research firm that produced the Trump-Russia dossier, funded by Democrats. (Ohr’s wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS on Russia-related matters during the presidential election — a fact that Ohr did not disclose on federal forms.)
  • And they further allege that the Obama administration improperly spied on Carter Page — all to take down Trump. –Axios

Ohr, meanwhile, met with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska in 2015 to discuss helping the FBI with organized crime investigations, according to The Hill‘s John Solomon. The meeting with the Putin ally was facilitated by Steele.

Last month Trump called Ohr a disgrace, while also tweeting: “Will Bruce Ohr, whose family received big money for helping to create the phony, dirty and discredited Dossier, ever be fired from the Jeff Sessions  “Justice” Department? A total joke!”

Trump’s threat came one day after two tweets about Ohr, noting a connection to former FBI agent Peter Strzok, as well as a text sent by Ohr after former FBI Director James Comey was fired in which Ohr says “afraid they will be exposed.”

According to emails turned over to Congressional investigators in August, Christopher Steele was much closer to Bruce Ohr and his wife Nellie than previously disclosed.

Steele and the Ohrs would have breakfast together on July 30, 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington D.C., days after Steele turned in installments of his infamous “dossier” on July 19 and 26. The breakfast also occurred one day before the FBI formally launched operation “Crossfire Hurricane,” the agency’s counterintelligence operation into the Trump campaign.

“Great to see you and Nellie this morning Bruce,” Steele wrote shortly following their breakfast meeting. “Let’s keep in touch on the substantive issues/s (sic). Glenn is happy to speak to you on this if it would help.”

“After two years of investigations and accusations from both sides of the aisle about what documents indicate, it is past time for documents to be declassified and let the American people decide for themselves if DoJ and FBI acted properly,” Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows told Axios earlier Sunday.

In early August, journalist Paul Sperry tweeted that Trump may use his presidential authority to declassify “20 redacted pages of a June, 2017 FISA renewal, “and possibly” 63 pages of emails and notes between “Ohr & Steele,” and FD-302 summaries of 12 interviews.”

President Trump threatened to declassify documents two weeks ago – one day after the New York Times allegedly published an anonymous Op-Ed claiming to be from a White House official claiming to be part of an unelected “resistance” cabal within the Trump administration.

“The Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do,” Trump tweeted earlier this month, adding: “The Economy is booming like never before, Jobs are at Historic Highs, soon TWO Supreme Court Justices & maybe Declassification to find Additional Corruption. Wow!”

Trump’s threat comes as calls by frustrated GOP legislators to release the documents have hit a fevered pitch. Spearheading the effort are Republican Reps. Meadows, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz and Lee Zeldin – who have repeatedly asked Trump to declassify more of the heavily redacted FISA surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in late 2016.

In June, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee asked President Trump to declassify key sections of Carter Page’s FISA warrant application, according to a letter obtained by Fox News.

Carter Page, the DOJ/FBI’s person of interest, weighed in on the matter in late August, tweeting: “The Corrupt DOJ, co-conspirators in the DNC and their high-priced consultants correctly believed they had American democracy and the FISA Court over a barrel in 2016.”

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De-Dollarization Tops Agenda at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum

The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) was held in Vladivostok on Sept.11-13. Founded in 2015, the event has become a platform for planning and launching projects to strengthen business ties in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Via Strategic Culture

This year, the EEF brought together delegations from over 60 countries to discuss the topic “The Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities”. A total of 100 business events involving over 6,000 participants were held during the three days.

1,357 media personnel worked to cover the forum. Last year, the number of participants was 5,000 with 1,000 media persons involved in reporting and broadcasting. The EEF-18 gathered 340 foreign and 383 Russian CEOs. Nearly 80 start-ups from across South-East Asia joined the meeting.

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This year, a total of 175 agreements worth of 2.9 trillion rubles (some $4.3 billion) were signed. For comparison, the sum was 2.5 trillion rubles (roughly $3.7 billion) in 2017.

They included the development of the Baimsky ore deposits in Chukotka, the construction of a terminal for Novatek LNG at Bechevinskaya Bay in Kamchatka and the investment of Asian countries in Russia’s agricultural projects in the Far East.

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Mail.Ru Group, Megafon and Chinese Alibaba inked an agreement on establishing AliExpress trade joint venture. Rosneft and Chinese CNPC signed an oil exploration agreement.

The Chinese delegation was the largest (1,096 people), followed by the Japanese (570 members). The list of guests included the president of Mongolia and prime ministers of Japan and South Korea.

It was also the first time Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the event to meet his Russian counterpart. The issue of de-dollarization topped the agenda. Russia and China reaffirmed their interest in expanding the use of national currencies in bilateral deals.

During the forum, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of RDIF, said the fund intends to use only national currencies in its transactions with China starting from 2019. It will cooperate with the China Development Bank.

This “yuanification” is making visible progress with Shanghai crude futures increasing their share of oil markets up to 14 percent or even more. China has signed agreements with Canada and Qatar on national currencies exchange.

READ MORE: Eastern Economic Forum opens new chapter in US-Russia dialogue

De-dollarization is a trend that is picking up momentum across the world. A growing number of countries are interested in replacing the dollar. Russia is leading the race to protect itself from fluctuations, storms and US-waged trade wars and sanctions.

Moscow backs non-dollar trade with Ankara amid the ongoing lira crisis. Turkey is switching from the dollar to settlements in national currencies, including its trade with China and other countries. Ditching the US dollar is the issue topping the BRICS agenda. In April, Iran transferred all international payments to the euro.

The voices calling for de-dollarization are getting louder among America’s closest European allies. In August, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for the creation of a new payments system independent of the US.

According to him, Europe should not allow the United States to act “over our heads and at our expense.” The official wants to strengthen European autonomy by establishing independent payment channels, creating a European Monetary Fund and building up an independent SWIFT system.

Presenting his annual program, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Sept. 12 for the European Union to promote the euro as a global currency to challenge the dollar.

According to him, “We must do more to allow our single currency to play its full role on the international scene.” Mr. Juncker believes “it is absurd that Europe pays for 80 percent of its energy import bill – worth 300 billion euros a year – in US dollars when only roughly 2 percent of our energy imports come from the United States.” He wants the raft of proposals made in his state of the union address to start being implemented before the European Parliament elections in May.

70% of all world trade transactions account for the dollar, while 20% are  settled in the euro, and the rest falls on the yuan and other Asian currencies. The dollar value is high to make the prices of consumer goods in the US artificially low. The demand for dollars allows refinancing the huge debt at low interest rates. The US policy of trade wars and sanctions has triggered the global process of de-dollarization.

Using punitive measures as a foreign policy tool is like shooting oneself in the foot. It prompts a backlash to undermine the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency – the basis of the US economic might. The aggressive policy undermines the US world standing to make it weaker, not stronger.

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