- The Hezbollah message to Israel
- Fua and Kfarya agreement, an unknown fate again
- Battlefield development
Key words: Syria, Russia, U.S., Israel, saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, Kurds, Turkey.
By Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai
The southern Syrian opposition forces moved south from the city of Suweida along the Syrian-Jordanian border towards the ancient city of Palmyra in central east Syria. These forces took control of around forty villages, including al-Tanaf, one of the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. They have managed to occupy part of the Syrian desert (called al-Badiya al-Souriya) and aim to reach alBu Kamal, an important border city under the control of the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) between the al-Qaem and Raqqah-Deirezzour axes.
The United States has provided the necessary weapons for these rebel forces – the intensity of the usage of the anti-tank and anti-personnel TOWs laser guided missile is the best indicator. If these forces reach alBu Kamal (about 700 km from Suwayda), they would stop any possible intervention of Iraqi forces in Syria, under the pretext of hunting down ISIS to prevent their return to Iraq. In fact, this plan is not innocently aiming to disrupt the ISIS connection between Syria and Iraq, but to put an end to the “Shiite crescent”.
This “Shiite crescent” that the Sunni Gulf countries fear – not feared by the United States because it doesn’t represent any threat to the US security – is connecting Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. The idea of the “Shiite Crescent” was first raised by the Jordanian King Abdallah al-Hashemi in 2007, the days when the Americans occupied the country, removed Saddam Hussein and gave the power in Mesopotamia to the majority Iraqi Shia, cutting off the “Sunni Crescent” that was besieging the Islamic Republic of Iran and dominating the Middle East. If interrupted at albu Kamal, it would certainly please Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two main countries highly concerned about Shia unity in the Middle East.
This southern forces’ progress coincides with the surge of the “Syrian Democratic forces” (SDF)(led by the Syrian Kurds and some Arab tribes in north-east Syria) towards the borders of the city of Tabqa and north of the city of Raqqa, where these forces are now about 9 km from the Syrian capital (undeclared) of ISIS. This religious extremist group is losing significant ground in Iraq and in Syria under the multiple hits of its multiple enemies. Thus, the dream of ISIS “State” begins to fade (without necessarily its total annihilation) ISIS is the phenomenon that harshly struck both the Middle East and the West, principally in the last three years.
With the advance of US-backed forces in the Northeast and southeast of Syria, the partition of the Levant is at an advanced stage and its features are becoming more apparent. Russia, Iran, and Damascus have no power, for the time being, to strike the partition project in the immediate future because there are other priorities around Damascus, Daraa and Idlib. At the same time, it is practically certain that these territories, if cut off from the central government in Damascus, will not be declared new states in the future.
As for Russia, it has already survived sharing territory with the United States (Berlin after World War II) without clashing. Moscow is unwilling to engage a war with Washington for the unity of the Levant, as long as there is a stable central government in Damascus, its military installations in Syria are not at risk, its own interests in the Syrian coast are reserved, and its naval presence in the warm Mediterranean water is preserved: contracts between Moscow and Damascus have been already signed for the duration of 49 years allowing the Russian forces to enlarge its naval base in Tartous. This indicates that in the years to come Syria will see different foreign forces on its soil. Turkey is occupying – like the United States – part of the Syrian north (from Jarablus to Tal-Abiyad). At the same time, the forces of Ankara are trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds from installing a federation or a canton on the Turkish borders. All the above indicates that the conflict in the Levant will not end quickly due to the conflicting interests of many countries far and near in Bilad al-Sham.
Moreover, the Israeli interest will be taken into consideration during the process of the partition of Syria. Israel, whose forces are constantly interfering with the Syrian war, recently bombed the weapons stores of the Syrian army and its allies and is continuously reminding the world of its intention to keep the occupied Golan heights. Furthermore it is establishing a good relationship with some Syrian rebels and jihadists to create a buffer zone to the already existing occupied territory. The Trump intention to create “buffer zones” to justify the occupation of Syrian territories does not fall on deaf ears in Israel and the Gulf countries, eager to see the fall of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah at the gates of Damascus.
The visit of US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis to the Middle East last week raised questions about what Washington could be preparing for the Middle East. Trump is following in the footsteps of Barack Obama, with regard to the Syrian file, but went even beyond his predecessor by overtly declaring his hostility towards Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hezbollah responded to this visit in its own way during the media tour of the southern border, when one of his officers explained to the journalists how much the Lebanese group is informed and closely watching the Israeli defence system on the borders. Hezbollah is aiming – without mentioning it clearly – to tell Israel that:
- Its fears that the group breaks into the land adjacent to the Lebanese border are real,
- The next war will be taking place outside Lebanese territory if possible,
- It is ready for war if it is imposed
- Its significant involvement in Syria will not affect its readiness to confront Israel.
These indirect, reciprocal messages (Israeli bombing of warehouses in Syria and Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Israeli borders) create a climate of war in the Middle East inflaming further the atmosphere as the heat of the summer approaches this unstable microcosm of the world.
Battlefield progress and Fua and Kfarya besieged cities:
On the Syrian battlefield, clashes continue on more than one front:
In the South, Daraa represents a stumbling block to the US post project of the “southern buffer zone” where the Syrian Army and its allies have injected more forces to prevent its fall and to recover more territory inside the strategic city.
In the centre of Syria, al-Qaeda (under the name of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham – HTS) and its allies lost all that they had gained in the previous battles and the campaigns they had led in Jobar. The Syrian army recovered Jobar, attacked al-Qabun, and expanded its control to include areas it has not entered for four years.
In the North, the city and rural Hama, the Syrian army enlarged the security perimeter around the airport, reached a distance not far from the administrative border of the city of Idlib after the recovery of Hulfiyah (al-Qaeda stronghold), securing the Christian city nearby of Mhardeh and with the intention to push forces towards Morek and Khan-Sheikun.
On the one hand, in Kfariya and Fua, the exchanges ended after the exit of all militants and civilians from the two besieged cities of Zabadani and Madaya, willing to leave for Idlib (over 13000 militants and civilians remained in Madaya and agreed to settle their situation with the Syrian state). On the other hand, 8000 civilians and wounded left the two besieged cities of Fua and Kfarya for Aleppo. 149 were killed and over 200 wounded by the suicide attack that hit the civilian convoy of Fua and Kfarya while waiting to cross into the al-Qaeda controlled area.
Moreover, 24 Qatari and 2 Saudi hostages in Iraq by Hezbollah-Iraq were freed as part of the “four Syrian cities deal”. The Syrian government released 700 prisoners from its jails, also as part of the negotiation carried out by Qatar, Iran and Turkey on behalf of all parties and belligerents.
To date, more than 8,000 civilians and more than 3,500 militants remain inside the two cities of Fua and Kfarya: the deal consists in evacuating these after 60 days. The fate of these people is uncertain and their position is weaker than before. The presence of Zabadani (totally evacuated) militants under siege prevented al-Qaeda and its allies from attacking Fua and Kfarya. So what are their bargaining tools?
“There is a possibility of exchanging the militants in Bludan, Sahem and Babila- as well as other tools made available to protect Fua and Kfarya from extermination. The alternative – said a decision maker on the ground in Syria – would be to force the road from southern Aleppo in the direction of northern Idlib to reach Fua and Kfarya and liberate the trapped inhabitants. Moreover, Russia has ensured that it will spare no effort to bomb and hit any attempt to attack civilians in these besieged cities if in imminent danger. However, it is clear that in 60 days many things can happen, and priority changes are not excluded”.
Damascus has released only 120 (out of the 700) significant detainees. Many are still in jail and thousands of people are, and expect to be in the coming months, trapped in several areas of Syria. The map of the “new Middle East” is beginning to surface, announcing a long instability. It is as if this part of the world were lying in some kind of marshes where the two superpowers are engaged in a game of stealth, each demanding its share to satisfy its own needs and those of its allies. Because Syria is always full of surprises, it is not excluded to see more Russian troops injected and leading attacks, mainly against the forgotten and most dangerous group: al-Qaeda.