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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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4 resignations and counting: May’s government ‘falling apart before our eyes’ over Brexit deal

The beginning of the end for Theresa May’s government.

The Duran

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Via RT


Four high profile resignations have followed on the heels of Theresa May’s announcement that her cabinet has settled on a Brexit deal, with Labour claiming that the Conservative government is at risk of completely dissolving.

Shailesh Vara, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office was the first top official to resign after the prime minister announced that her cabinet had reached a draft EU withdrawal agreement.

An hour after his announcement, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab – the man charged with negotiating and finalizing the deal – said he was stepping down, stating that the Brexit deal in its current form suffers from deep flaws. Esther McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, submitted her letter of resignation shortly afterwards. More resignations have followed.

Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Trickett, predicted that this is the beginning of the end for May’s government.

The government is falling apart before our eyes as for a second time the Brexit secretary has refused to back the prime minister’s Brexit plan. This so-called deal has unraveled before our eyes

Shailesh Vara: UK to be stuck in ‘a half-way house with no time limit’

Kicking off Thursday’s string of resignations, Vara didn’t mince words when describing his reservations about the cabinet-stamped Brexit deal.

Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement leaves the UK in a “halfway house with no time limit on when we will finally become a sovereign nation,” his letter of resignation states. Vara went on to warn that the draft agreement leaves a number of critical issues undecided, predicting that it “will take years to conclude” a trade deal with the bloc.

“We will be locked in a customs arrangement indefinitely, bound by rules determined by the EU over which we have no say,” he added.

Dominic Raab: Deal can’t be ‘reconciled’ with promises made to public

Announcing his resignation on Thursday morning, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: “I cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU.”

Raab claimed that the deal in its current form gives the EU veto power over the UK’s ability to annul the deal.

No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that Raab’s resignation as Brexit secretary is “devastating” for May.

“It sounds like he has been ignored,” he told the BBC.

Raab’s departure will undoubtedly encourage other Brexit supporters to question the deal, political commentators have observed.

Esther McVey: Deal ‘does not honor’ Brexit referendum

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey didn’t hold back when issuing her own letter of resignation. According to McVey, the deal “does not honour” the result of the Brexit referendum, in which a majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union.

Suella Braverman: ‘Unable to sincerely support’ deal

Suella Braverman, a junior minister in Britain’s Brexit ministry, issued her resignation on Thursday, saying that she couldn’t stomach the deal.

“I now find myself unable to sincerely support the deal agreed yesterday by cabinet,” she said in a letter posted on Twitter.

Suella Braverman, MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the EU © Global Look Press / Joel Goodman
Braverman said that the deal is not what the British people voted for, and threatened to tear the country apart.

“It prevents an unequivocal exit from a customs union with the EU,” she said.

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Five Saudis Face Death Penalty Over Khashoggi Killing; Crown Prince Cleared

According to the Saudi prosecutor, five people charged are believed to have been involved in “ordering and executing the crime.”

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Via Zerohedge


Saudi Arabia public prosecutor Sheikh Shaalan al-Shaalan said on Thursday that the kingdom will seek the death penalty for five suspects among the 11 charged in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, confirming suspicions that members of the murder squad purportedly sent to “interrogate” Khashoggi will now themselves face beheadings as the Saudi Royal Family closes ranks around the Crown Prince, per the FT.

As for Mohammed bin Salman who runs the day to day affairs of the world’s top oil exporter and is the de facto head of OPEC, the prosecutor said had “no knowledge” of the mission, effectively absolving him of any domestic suspicion, if not international.

The charges were handed down after the kingdom dismissed five senior intelligence officers and arrested 18 Saudi nationals in connection with Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Saudi insider-turned-dissident journalist disappeared on Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents that would have allowed him to marry his fiance. Khashoggi was a legal resident of Virginia.

According to the Saudi prosecutor, five people charged are believed to have been involved in “ordering and executing the crime,” according to CNN.

The prosecutor said that the former Saudi deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed al-Assiri, ordered a mission to force Khashoggi to go back to Saudi Arabia and formed a team of 15 people.

They were divided into three groups, the Saudi Public Prosecutor said: a negotiation team, an intelligence team and a logistical team.

It was the head of the negotiating team who ordered the killing of Khashoggi, the prosecutor said.

The Saudis stuck by latest (ever changing) narrative that the Washington Post columnist was killed after a mission to abduct him went awry. The deputy chief of intelligence ordered that Khashoggi be brought back to the kingdom, Shaalan said. The team killed him after the talks failed and his body was handed to a “collaborator” in Turkey, he said.

Asked whether Saud al-Qahtanti, an aide to Prince Mohammed, had any role in the case, Shaalan said that a royal adviser had a coordinating role and had provided information. The former adviser was now under investigation, the prosecutor said, declining to reveal the names of any of those facing charges.

Al-Shaalan did reveal that a total of 21 suspects are now being held in connection with the case. Notably, the decision to charge the 5 comes after National Security Advisor John Bolton repudiated reports that a recording of Khashoggi’s murder made by Turkish authorities suggested that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was behind the murder plot.

But as long as OPEC+ is planning to do “whatever it takes” to boost oil prices, the US’s willingness to give the Saudis a pass could always be tested if crude prices again turn sharply higher.

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U.S. May Impose Sanctions Against Turkey Over S-400 “Threat” To F-35

The United States continues to consider the S-400 air defense system a threat to its F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter platform.

The Duran

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Authored by Al Masdar News:


Turkish officials have repeatedly insisted that Ankara’s purchase of the advanced Russian air defense system poses no threat whatsoever to the NATO alliance. Last month, the Turkish defense ministry announced that delivery of S-400s to Turkey would begin in October 2019.

The United States continues to consider the S-400 air defense system a threat to its F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter platform, and may impose sanctions against Ankara, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency has reported, citing a high-ranking source in Washington.

“I can’t say for certain whether sanctions will be imposed on Ankara over the S-400 contract, but the possibility is there. The US administration is not optimistic about this issue,” the source said.

While admitting that Turkey was a sovereign state and therefore had the right to make decisions on whom it buys its weapons from, the source stressed that from the perspective of these weapons’ integration with NATO systems, the S-400 was “problematic.”

The source also characterized the deployment of S-400s in areas where US F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters are set to fly as “a threat,” without elaborating.

Emphasizing that negotiations between Washington and Ankara on the issue were “continuing,” the source said that there were also “positive tendencies” in negotiations between the two countries on the procurement of the Patriot system, Washington’s closest analogue to the S-400 in terms of capabilities.

Designed to stop enemy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles at ranges of up to 400 km and altitudes of up to 30 km, the S-400 is currently the most advanced mobile air defense system in Russia’s arsenal. Russia and India signed a ruble-denominated contract on the delivery of five regiments of S-400s worth $5 billion late last month.

Last week, the Saudi Ambassador to Russia said that talks on the sale of the system to his country were ongoing. In addition to Russia, S-400s are presently operated by Belarus and China, with Beijing expecting another delivery of S-400s by 2020.

Washington has already slapped China with sanctions over its purchase of S-400s and Su-35 combat aircraft in September. India, however, has voiced confidence that it would not be hit with similar restrictions, which the US Treasury has pursued under the 2017 Counter America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

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