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Did Russia really impose a “No-Fly Zone” against the US in Syria?

The Safe Zone Memorandum relies on the good will of the often discordant parties which have agreed to back the deal.

Andrew Korybko

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The introduction of “de-escalation” zones in Syria and specifying remarks by Russia’s chief diplomat to the Astana talks Aleksander Lavrentiev have led to the conclusion that Russia has imposed a “no-fly” zone against the US in Syria, but the reality of the matter is much more nuanced than that. There’s no debating that the game-changing plan actually does call for this measure within the very text of the document itself, but there are questions about its implementation, enforcement, and outcome, all of which lead to a much more complex reality than the simplified one that Russia has flexed its muscles and scared off the US in Syria.
Symbolism vs Substance
For starters, the “de-escalation” zones north of Homs and in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta are small isolated patches of territory which are geographically insignificant from the airpower point of view. It’s very likely that terrorism will indeed be eliminated from these tiny pockets sooner or later, beginning with the successful separation of terrorists from the “moderate opposition” and then following up with joint operations between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the said “rebels”.
This model might also work in parts of southern Syria as well such as the area surrounding Daraa.
As for Idlib and Quneitra, events might not unfold in the same way. The key difference between these latter two “de-escalation” zones and the aforementioned is that they’re geographically contiguous to Syria’s top two enemies, Turkey and “Israel”, respectively. This means that both Ankara and Tel Aviv have a stake in preserving their influence in these regions through the institutionalization of their proxies’ control, most likely envisioned as having the terrorists “switch hats” to become “moderate rebel opposition” members and then subsequently pressing for a “decentralized” political settlement in these areas as per a manipulation of the clauses suggested in the Russian-written “draft constitution” for Syria unveiled in late January.
What this means in practice is that shrewd “diplomacy” and not airpower will be the defining factor in determining the post-Daesh political future of these two much more geostrategically significant regions, and that the implementation of a “no-fly” zone over their territories is essentially a moot point as much of the air action in Syria anyhow is being conducted as part of the “Race for Raqqa”, the results of which will also serve as much more powerful of a catalyst for Syria’s potential “Balkanization” than any other development in the country.
Enforceability Issues 
Referring back to the analysis’ focus on “de-escalation” zones, this brings the discussion around to exploring exactly how Russia plans to enact its decree that no air forces be allowed to conduct strikes in the designated areas. Given the precedents established over the past year and a half of the US conducting bombing operations in Syria despite the Russian military presence in the Arab Republic, it’s dubious to infer that Moscow would all of a sudden expand its military mandate from strictly fighting terrorism to shooting down US jets which violate parts of Syria’s airspace.
Furthermore, contemporary air units and their precision-guided munitions are so technologically developed that warplanes don’t even have to be physically above their area of intended operations in order to carry out strikes there, as they could launch their missiles from miles away without ever technically entering the restricted zones. Along the same note, cruise missiles could also be used as substitutes for conventional air power, thereby still allowing for force projection in the “de-escalation/no-fly” zones without having to rely on warplanes to do so.
This exposes a serious loophole in Russia’s plans, one is amplified by First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs Vladimir Jabarov’s statement  immediately following Trump’s cruise missile strike on the SAA that “Russia has no intentions to use its Aerospace Forces against US missiles if Washington decides to carry out new strikes in Syria as it could lead to a large-scale war.” Therefore, considering that Russia won’t shoot down any incoming cruise missiles and is also highly unlikely to expand its military mandate to the point of targeting US and “coalition” aircraft violating the “de-escalation” zones, the only feasible solution for “enforcing” them rests on the US’ own “goodwill” towards this initiative.
President Trump reportedly had a positive reaction to his Russian counterpart’s proposal when they spoke about it by phone on Tuesday, so it can be cautiously inferred that he won’t seek to violate the “de-escalation” zones in the abovementioned manner, or at least not right away. There’s the threat, however, that the Pentagon could “go rogue” and sabotage this implicit understanding just like they did in Deir ez Zor under his predecessor’s in September of last year, but there’s no surefire way to tell whether that will happen this time again or not.
The “Israel” Factor
Finally, last but not least, the one point which hasn’t been commented on in regards to the “de-escalation” zones and their “no-fly” zone conditional is whether or not these terms will apply to “Israel”. Lavrentiev’s statement on the matter addressed the role of “coalition” aircraft over these regions, yet Tel Aviv isn’t a formal member of that group and publicly operates independently of it.
Given that Russia has never attempted to stop any of “Israel’s” bombing operations in Syria and actually agreed to a military coordination mechanism with Tel Aviv right around the start of Moscow’s anti-terrorist operation in the country, there is almost no likelihood that Russia would stop “Israel” if it decides to violate the “no-fly” restrictions in the Quneitra “de-escalation” zone abutting the occupied Golan Heights.
As with the US, the only factor influencing “Israel’s” adherence to Russia’s terms in these areas is “goodwill” on the part of its leadership. Bearing in mind that President Putin and Netanyahu are close friends with one another, there’s a possibility that Tel Aviv might abide by Moscow’s conditions at least in the beginning, though again just like with Washington, there’s no telling whether this implicit agreement will last.
Concluding Thoughts 
In the grand scope of things, Russia and its Iranian and Turkish Tripartite members’ “de-escalation” zone agreement is commendable in the sense that it intends to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but upon further examination, its “no-fly zone” conditions are flimsy and will probably not be enforced for a number of practical reasons.
Russia won’t suddenly expand its military mandate from anti-terrorism to protecting Syria’s borders (even only part of them as designated in the “de-escalation” zone document), let alone without a serious public debate in the Duma, as this could lead to it shooting down American aircraft and starting a larger war, which Moscow has officially said that it is taking its utmost care to avoid. Similarly, nor would Russia shoot down any cruise missiles targeting the territories within these “no-fly zones”, despite that obviously being a ‘workable loophole’ in getting around the technical anti-aircraft provisions.
“Israel” isn’t a party to this agreement, and it’s also not a member of the US-led “coalition”, so it too might present a “loophole” to this entire framework if the high level of “goodwill” between Tel Aviv and Moscow doesn’t hold, or if “Israel” senses or pretends to detect any Iranian or Hezbollah presence near the Quneitra “de-escalation” zone which prompts it to unilaterally carry out another one of its many illegal strikes on Syrian territory (all of which have hitherto been unopposed by Russia because of their irrelevancy to Moscow’s military mandate).
Additionally, the point needs to be emphasized that even if Russia enacted a “hardline” implementation of its “no-fly zone” decree and made it clear that it will indeed shoot down any warplanes or cruise missiles violating the “de-escalation” zones, this will still do little to alter the dynamics of the War on Syria in the sense that it wouldn’t be applicable whatsoever to the large swath of northeastern Syria where the “Race for Raqqa” endgame and potential “Balkanization” of the Arab Republic are taking place.
Therefore, for all intents and purposes, the “no-fly” restrictions nominally associated with the “de-escalation” zones are essentially unenforceable and can only be upheld by the “goodwill” of all potential violating parties. Considering how Russia is actively engaged in complex and multivectoral diplomacy with each of them, however, there are grounds for cautious optimism that the “no-fly zones” will be respected, at least at the very beginning of their “implementation”.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

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Foreign Banks Are Embracing Russia’s Alternative To SWIFT, Moscow Says

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative.

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Via Zerohedge


On Friday, one day after Russia and China pledged to reduce their reliance on the dollar by increasing the amount of bilateral trade conducted in rubles and yuan (a goal toward which much progress has already been made over the past three years), Russia’s Central Bank provided the latest update on Moscow’s alternative to US-dominated international payments network SWIFT.

Moscow started working on the project back in 2014, when international sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea inspired fears that the country’s largest banks would soon be cut off from SWIFT which, though it’s based in Belgium and claims to be politically neutral, is effectively controlled by the US Treasury.

Today, the Russian alternative, known as the System for Transfer of Financial Messages, has attracted a modest amount of support within the Russian business community, with 416 Russian companies having joined as of September, including the Russian Federal Treasury and large state corporations likeGazprom Neft and Rosneft.

And now, eight months after a senior Russian official advised that “our banks are ready to turn off SWIFT,” it appears the system has reached another milestone in its development: It’s ready to take on international partners in the quest to de-dollarize and end the US’s leverage over the international financial system. A Russian official advised that non-residents will begin joining the system “this year,” according to RT.

“Non-residents will start connecting to us this year. People are already turning to us,”said First Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia Olga Skorobogatova. Earlier, the official said that by using the alternative payment system foreign firms would be able to do business with sanctioned Russian companies.

Turkey, China, India and others are among the countries that might be interested in a SWIFT alternative, as Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out in a speech earlier this month, the US’s willingness to blithely sanction countries from Iran to Venezuela and beyond will eventually rebound on the US economy by undermining the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

To be sure, the Russians aren’t the only ones building a SWIFT alternative to help avoid US sanctions. Russia and China, along with the European Union are launching an interbank payments network known as the Special Purpose Vehicle to help companies pursue “legitimate business with Iran” in defiance of US sanctions.

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative. For one, much of Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas and oil.

And as Russian trade with other US rivals increases, Moscow’s payments network will look increasingly attractive,particularly if buyers of Russian crude have no other alternatives to pay for their goods.

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US leaving INF will put nuclear non-proliferation at risk & may lead to ‘complete chaos’

The US is pulling out of a nuclear missile pact with Russia. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty requires both countries to eliminate their short and medium-range atomic missiles.

The Duran

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Via RT


If the US ditches the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), it could collapse the entire nuclear non-proliferation system, and bring nuclear war even closer, Russian officials warn.

By ending the INF, Washington risks creating a domino effect which could endanger other landmark deals like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and collapse the existing non-proliferation mechanism as we know it, senior lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev said on Sunday.

The current iteration of the START treaty, which limits the deployment of all types of nuclear weapons, is due to expire in 2021. Kosachev, who chairs the Parliament’s Upper House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that such an outcome pits mankind against “complete chaos in terms of nuclear weapons.”

“Now the US Western allies face a choice: either embarking on the same path, possibly leading to new war, or siding with common sense, at least for the sake of their self-preservation instinct.”

His remarks came after US President Donald Trump announced his intentions to “terminate” the INF, citing alleged violations of the deal by Russia.

Moscow has repeatedly denied undermining the treaty, pointing out that Trump has failed to produce any evidence of violations. Moreover, Russian officials insist that the deployment of US-made Mk 41 ground-based universal launching systems in Europe actually violates the agreement since the launchers are capable of firing mid-range cruise missiles.

Leonid Slutsky, who leads the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament’s lower chamber, argued that Trump’s words are akin to placing “a huge mine under the whole disarmament process on the planet.”

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The deal effectively bans the parties from having and developing short- and mid-range missiles of all types. According to the provisions, the US was obliged to destroy Pershing I and II launcher systems and BGM-109G Gryphon ground-launched cruise missiles. Moscow, meanwhile, pledged to remove the SS-20 and several other types of missiles from its nuclear arsenal.

Pershing missiles stationed in the US Army arsenal. © Hulton Archive / Getty Images ©

By scrapping the historic accord, Washington is trying to fulfill its “dream of a unipolar world,” a source within the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

“This decision fits into the US policy of ditching the international agreements which impose equal obligations on it and its partners, and render the ‘exceptionalism’ concept vulnerable.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov denounced Trump’s threats as “blackmail” and said that Washington wants to dismantle the INF because it views the deal as a “problem” on its course for “total domination” in the military sphere.

The issue of nuclear arms treaties is too vital for national and global security to rush into hastily-made “emotional” decisions, the official explained. Russia is expecting to hear more on the US’ plans from Trump’s top security adviser, John Bolton, who is set to hold talks in Moscow tomorrow.

President Trump has been open about unilaterally pulling the US out of various international agreements if he deems them to be damaging to national interests. Earlier this year, Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program. All other signatories to the landmark agreement, including Russia, China, and the EU, decided to stick to the deal, while blasting Trump for leaving.

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Converting Khashoggi into Cash

After two weeks of denying any connection to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh has admitted that he was killed by Saudi operatives but it wasn’t really on purpose.

Jim Jatras

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Authored by James George Jatras via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The hazard of writing about the Saudis’ absurd gyrations as they seek to avoid blame for the murder of the late, not notably great journalist and Muslim Brotherhood activist Jamal Khashoggi is that by the time a sentence is finished, the landscape may have changed again.

As though right on cue, the narrative has just taken another sharp turn.

After two weeks of denying any connection to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh has ‘fessed up (sorta) and admitted that he was killed by Saudi operatives but it wasn’t really on purpose:

Y’see, it was kinda’f an ‘accident.’

Oops…

Y’see the guys were arguing, and … uh … a fistfight broke out.

Yeah, that’s it … a ‘fistfight.’

And before you know it poor Jamal had gone all to pieces.

Y’see?

Must’ve been a helluva fistfight.

The figurative digital ink wasn’t even dry on that whopper before American politicos in both parties were calling it out:

  • “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” tweeted Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince. It’s hard to find this latest ‘explanation‘ as credible.”
  • California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the new Saudi explanation is “not credible.” “If Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him,” Schiff said. “The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan must think he’s already died and gone to his eternal recreation in the amorous embraces of the dark-eyed houris. The acid test for the viability of Riyadh’s newest transparent lie is whether the Turks actually have, as they claim, live recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture, murder, and dismemberment (not necessarily in that order) – and if they do, when Erdogan decides it’s the right time to release them.

Erdogan has got the Saudis over a barrel and he’ll squeeze everything he can out of them.

From the beginning, the Khashoggi story wasn’t really about the fate of one man. The Saudis have been getting away with bloody murder, literally, for years. They’re daily slaughtering the civilian population of Yemen with American and British help, with barely a ho-hum from the sensitive consciences always ready to invoke the so-called “responsibility to protect” Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Xinjiang, Rakhine, and so forth.

Where’s the responsibility not to help a crazed bunch of Wahhabist head-choppers kill people?

But now, just one guy meets a grisly end and suddenly it’s the most important homicide since the Lindbergh baby.

What gives?

Is it because Khashoggi was part of the MSM aristocracy, on account of his relationship with the Washington Post?

Was it because of his other, darker, connections? As related by Moon of Alabama: “Khashoggi was a rather shady guy. A ‘journalist’ who was also an operator for Saudi and U.S. intelligence services. He was an early recruit of the Muslim Brotherhood.” This relationship, writes MoA, touches on the interests of pretty much everyone in the region:

“The Ottoman empire ruled over much of the Arab world. The neo-Ottoman wannabe-Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to regain that historic position for Turkey. His main competition in this are the al-Sauds. They have much more money and are strategically aligned with Israel and the United States, while Turkey under Erdogan is more or less isolated. The religious-political element of the competition is represented on one side by the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘democratic’ Islamists to which Erdogan belongs, and the Wahhabi absolutists on the other side.”

With the noose tightening around Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the risible fistfight cock-and-bull story is likely to be the best they can come up with. US President Donald Trump’s having offered his “rogue killers” opening suggests he’s willing to play along. Nobody will really be fooled, but MbS will hope he can persuade important people to pretend they are fooled.

That will mean spreading around a lot of cash. The new alchemy of converting Khashoggi dead into financial gain for the living is just one part of an obvious scheme to pull off what Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi managed after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing: offer up some underlings as the fall guys and let the top man evade responsibility. (KARMA ALERT: That didn’t do Kaddafi any good in the long run.)

In the Saudi case the Lockerbie dodge will be harder, as there are already pictures of men at the Istanbul Consulate General identified as close associates of MbS. But they’ll give it the old madrasa try anyway since it’s all they’ve got.Firings and arrests have started and one suspect has already died in a suspicious automobile “accident.” Heads will roll!

Saving MbS’s skin and his succession to the throne of his doddering father may depend on how many of the usual recipients of Saudi – let’s be honest – bribery and influence peddling will find sufficient pecuniary reason to go along. Saudi Arabia’s unofficial motto with respect to the US establishment might as well be: “The green poultice heals all wounds.”

Anyway, that’s been their experience up to now, but it also in part reflects the same arrogance that made MbS think he could continue to get away with anything. (It’s not shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, but it’s close.) Whether spreading cash around will continue to have the same salubrious effect it always has had in the past remains to be seen.

To be sure, Trump may succeed in shaking the Saudi date palm for additional billions for arms sales. That won’t necessarily turn around an image problem that may not have a remedy. But still, count on more cash going to high-price lobbying and image-control shops eager to make obscene money working for their obscene client. Some big American names are dropping are dropping Riyadh in a sudden fit of fastidiousness, but you can bet others will be eager to step into their Guccis, both in the US and in the United Kingdom. (It should never be forgotten how closely linked the US and UK establishments are in the Middle East, and to the Saudis in particular.)

It still might not work though. No matter how much expensive PR lipstick the spinmeisters put on this pig, that won’t make it kissable. It’s still a pig.

Others benefitting from hanging Khashoggi’s death around MbS’s neck are:

  • Qatar (after last year’s invasion scare, there’s no doubt a bit of Schadenfreude and (figurative) champagne corks popping in Doha over MbS’s discomfiture. As one source close to the ruling al-Thani family relates, “The Qataris are stunned speechless at Saudi incompetence!” You just can’t get good help these days).

Among the losers one must count Israel and especially Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. MbS, with his contrived image as the reformer, was the Sunni “beard” he needed to get the US to assemble an “Arab NATO” (as though one NATO weren’t bad enough!) and eliminate Iran for him. It remains to be seen how far that agenda has been set back.

Whether or not MbS survives or is removed – perhaps with extreme prejudice – there’s no doubt Saudi Arabia is the big loser. Question are being asked that should have been asked years ago. As Srdja Trifkovic comments in Chronicles magazine:

“The crown prince’s recklessness in ordering the murder of Khashoggi has demonstrated that he is just a standard despot, a Mafia don with oil presiding over an extended cleptocracy of inbred parasites. The KSA will not be reformed because it is structurally not capable of reform. The regime in Riyadh which stops being a playground of great wealth, protected by a large investment in theocratic excess, would not be ‘Saudi’ any longer. Saudia delenda est.”

The first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriyah, went belly up in 1818, with the death of head of the house of al-Saud, Abdullah bin Saud – actually, literally with his head hung on a gate in Constantinople by Erdogan’s Ottoman predecessor, Sultan Mahmud II.

The second Saudi state, Emirate of Nejd, likewise folded in 1891.

It’s long past time this third and current abomination joined its antecedents on the ash heap of history.

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