Update on Syria

 Sergey V. Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, addresses a high-level meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Syria on Sept. 21, 2016 (UN Photo)

Sergey V. Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, addresses a high-level meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Syria on Sept. 21, 2016 (UN Photo)

Reuters reported last week that, in response to the Syrian Arab Army’s momentum (with the assistance of Russian air support) toward retaking eastern Aleppo from the “rebels,” Turkey and Saudi Arabia may consider supplying the “rebels” with MANPADS with which to shoot down aircraft.

One consequence of the latest diplomatic failure may be that Gulf Arab states or Turkey could step up arms supplies to rebel factions, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, something the United States has largely prevented until now.

One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss American policy, said Washington has kept large numbers of such man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, out of Syria by uniting Western and Arab allies behind channeling training and infantry weapons to moderate opposition groups while it pursued talks with Moscow.

But frustration with Washington has intensified, raising the possibility that Gulf allies or Turkey will no longer continue to follow the U.S. lead or will turn a blind eye to wealthy individuals looking to supply MANPADS to opposition groups.

Some commentators are wondering if that sentence “something the United States has largely prevented until now” represents a veiled threat by Washington to tacitly allow such a move, thereby encouraging an escalation.

Military analyst, The Saker, explains that even this move would ultimately have only a nominal effect on the success of operations by the Syrian army and Russian military:

The effect of that will be marginal. Russian fixed-wing aircraft fly at over 5,000m where they are out of reach from MANPADs. They are currently the main provider of firepower support for the Syrians. Russian combat helicopters, while probably not immune to MANPADs, are still very resistant to such attacks due to three factors—survivability, weapons range and tactics: Mi-28s and Ka-52 have missiles with a maximum range of 10km and the way they are typically engaged is in a kind of ‘rotation’ where one helicopters flies to acquire the target, fires, immediately turns back and is replaced by the next one. In this matter they all protect each other while presenting a very difficult target to hit. Russian transport helicopters would, however, be at a much higher risk of being shot down by a US MANPAD. So, yes, if the US floods the Syrian theater with MANPADS, Syrian aircraft and Russian transport helicopters will be put at risk, but that will not be enough to significantly affect Russian or Syrian operations.

Alexander Mercouris has an excellent summary of the latest developments in Syria and how it is basically inevitable that all of Aleppo will soon be under government control again, but this would not represent full victory yet over the jihadist forces.

However, a reckless move by Washington hardliners cannot be completely ruled out as the Russian foreign ministry’s words at a press conference over the weekend are being viewed by a group of retired U.S. intelligence officers as a warning.

Veteran Intelligence Professional for Sanity (VIPS) has sent an urgent memo to President Obama urging him to take control of his subordinates in the Pentagon and State Dept. and actively de-escalate rising tensions with Russia in Syria.

We are hoping that your President’s Daily Brief tomorrow will give appropriate attention to Saturday’s warning by Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova: “If the US launches a direct aggression against Damascus and the Syrian Army, it would cause a terrible, tectonic shift not only in the country, but in the entire region.”

Speaking on Russian TV, she warned of those whose “logic is ‘why do we need diplomacy’ … when there is power … and methods of resolving a problem by power. We already know this logic; there is nothing new about it. It usually ends with one thing – full-scale war.” [Zakharova is likely making reference to the leaked recording of Kerry speaking to Syrian activists reported on by the NYT in which he admits he has actively encouraged the administration behind the scenes to take more military action in Syria – NB]

We are also hoping that this is not the first you have heard of this – no doubt officially approved – statement. If on Sundays you rely on the “mainstream” press, you may well have missed it. In the Washington Post, an abridged report of Zakharova’s remarks (nothing about “full-scare war”) was buried in the last paragraph of an 11-paragraph article titled “Hospital in Aleppo is hit again by bombs.” Sunday’s New York Times totally ignored the Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s statements.

In our view, it would be a huge mistake to allow your national security advisers to follow the example of the Post and Times in minimizing the importance of Zakharova’s remarks.

Events over the past several weeks have led Russian officials to distrust Secretary of State John Kerry. Indeed, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who parses his words carefully, has publicly expressed that distrust. Some Russian officials suspect that Kerry has been playing a double game; others believe that, however much he may strive for progress through diplomacy, he cannot deliver on his commitments because the Pentagon undercuts him every time. We believe that this lack of trust is a challenge that must be overcome and that, at this point, only you can accomplish this.

It should not be attributed to paranoia on the Russians’ part that they suspect the Sept. 17 U.S. and Australian air attacks on Syrian army troops that killed 62 and wounded 100 was no “mistake,” but rather a deliberate attempt to scuttle the partial cease-fire Kerry and Lavrov had agreed on – with your approval and that of President Putin – that took effect just five days earlier.

In public remarks bordering on the insubordinate, senior Pentagon officials showed unusually open skepticism regarding key aspects of the Kerry-Lavrov deal. We can assume that what Lavrov has told his boss in private is close to his uncharacteristically blunt words on Russian NTV on Sept. 26:

“My good friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military machine. Despite the fact that, as always, [they] made assurances that the US Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, supported him in his contacts with Russia (he confirmed that during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin), apparently the military does not really listen to the Commander in Chief.”

Lavrov’s words are not mere rhetoric. He also criticized JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford for telling Congress that he opposed sharing intelligence with Russia, “after the agreements concluded on direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama stipulated that they would share intelligence. … It is difficult to work with such partners. …”

Policy differences between the White House and the Pentagon are rarely as openly expressed as they are now over policy on Syria. We suggest you get hold of a new book to be released this week titled The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by master historian H. W. Brands. It includes testimony, earlier redacted, that sheds light on why President Truman dismissed WWII hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur from command of U.N. forces in Korea in April 1951. One early reviewer notes that “Brands’s narrative makes us wonder about challenges of military versus civilian leadership we still face today.” You may find this new book more relevant at this point in time than the Team of Rivals.

The door to further negotiations remains ajar. In recent days, officials of the Russian foreign and defense ministries, as well as President Putin’s spokesman, have carefully avoided shutting that door, and we find it a good sign that Secretary Kerry has been on the phone with Foreign Minister Lavrov. And the Russians have also emphasized Moscow’s continued willingness to honor previous agreements on Syria.

In the Kremlin’s view, Russia has far more skin in the game than the U.S. does. Thousands of Russian dissident terrorists have found their way to Syria, where they obtain weapons, funding, and practical experience in waging violent insurgency. There is understandable worry on Moscow’s part over the threat they will pose when they come back home. In addition, President Putin can be assumed to be under the same kind of pressure you face from the military to order it to try to clean out the mess in Syria “once and for all,” regardless how dim the prospects for a military solution are for either side in Syria.

We are aware that many in Congress and the “mainstream” media are now calling on you to up the ante and respond – overtly or covertly or both – with more violence in Syria. Shades of the “Washington Playbook,” about which you spoke derisively in interviews with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year. We take some encouragement in your acknowledgment to Goldberg that the “playbook” can be “a trap that can lead to bad decisions” – not to mention doing “stupid stuff.”

Goldberg wrote that you felt the Pentagon had “jammed” you on the troop surge for Afghanistan seven years ago and that the same thing almost happened three years ago on Syria, before President Putin persuaded Syria to surrender its chemical weapons for destruction. It seems that the kind of approach that worked then should be tried now, as well – particularly if you are starting to feel jammed once again.

Incidentally, it would be helpful toward that end if you had one of your staffers tell the “mainstream” media to tone down it puerile, nasty – and for the most part unjustified and certainly unhelpful – personal vilification of President Putin.

Renewing direct dialogue with President Putin might well offer the best chance to ensure an end, finally, to unwanted “jamming.” We believe John Kerry is correct in emphasizing how frightfully complicated the disarray in Syria is amid the various vying interests and factions. At the same time, he has already done much of the necessary spadework and has found Lavrov for the most part, a helpful partner.

Still, in view of lingering Russian – and not only Russian – skepticism regarding the strength of your support for your secretary of state, we believe that discussions at the highest level would be the best way to prevent hotheads on either side from risking the kind of armed confrontation that nobody should want.

Therefore, we strongly recommend that you invite President Putin to meet with you in a mutually convenient place, in order to try to sort things out and prevent still worse for the people of Syria.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Welle is reporting that the Assad government has demanded that the “rebels” lay down their arms and surrender. They have been promised safe passage out of the combat zone if they agree.

In a statement published by the official SANA news agency, the Syrian army promised “a safe exit and access to the necessary assistance” for rebels, guaranteed by the commands of both the Syrian and Russian armies, if rebels left the besieged city of Aleppo.

The departure of the rebels was necessary for civilians “to live a normal life,” the statement added.

There was no comment from the rebel ranks.

….Syrian regime forces advanced against opposition rebels in Aleppo, state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The SANA news agency said forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad had recaptured al-Kindi Hospital and strategic hills on the northern outskirts of Aleppo.

“This advance is significant because it enables the regime to tighten the noose on opposition fighters in the city and distract their combat efforts,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“The Russians have been instrumental in this advance with their intense air raids in support of the regime forces in Aleppo,” he told news agencies, adding that rebels had incurred “heavy” casualties.

According to the Russian TASS News Agency, Russian Foreign Ministesr, Sergey Lavrov, said the following after another round of phone calls with Secretary of State John Kerry:

“The agreements are now in limbo due to ambiguity on how Washington perceives the approaches of a whole number of opposition groups, militants and political opposition to the Assad regime who are rejecting or refusing to accept the Russian-U.S. deal,” Lavrov said.

As a signal of how frustrated the Russian government has become with this “ambiguity” –  and suspicions of bad faith on the part of Washington – Putin has signed a decree suspending an agreement between the U.S. and Russia over plutonium disposal.   RT reports the following:

Russia has suspended a post-Cold War deal with the US on disposal of plutonium from decommissioned nuclear warheads. The decision was explained by “the hostile actions of the US” against Russia and may be reversed, if such actions are stopped.

A decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin cites “the radical change in the environment, a threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the US against Russia, and the inability of the US to deliver on the obligation to dispose of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties, as well as the need to take swift action to defend Russian security” as justification for suspending the deal.

Finally, for those interested, independent journalist Vanessa Beeley has written an extensive 2-part report on her recent trip to Aleppo. It is highly informative and includes photo documentation of the places she visited.   Read it here:

Journey To Aleppo Part I: Exposing The Truth Buried Under NATO Propaganda

and

Journey To Aleppo Part II: The Syria Civil Defense & Aleppo Medical Association Are Real Syrians Helping Real Syrians

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