By Mike Whitney
Ominous developments in East Syria have drawn the United States and Russia into closer proximity increasing the likelihood of a violent confrontation. The Trump administration has embarked on a dangerous plan to defeat the terrorist militia, ISIS, in Raqqa. But recent comments by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggest that Washington’s long-term strategy may conflict with Moscow’s goal of restoring Syria’s sovereign borders. Something’s got to give. Either Russia ceases its clearing operations in east Syria or Washington agrees to withdraw its US-backed forces when the battle is over. If neither side gives ground, there’s going to be a collision between the two nuclear-armed adversaries.
On Wednesday, the US airlifted hundreds of mainly-Kurdish fighters to an area behind ISIS lines where they were dropped near the town of al-Tabqa. The troops– who are part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF– were accompanied by an undisclosed number of US Marines serving as advisors. Ostensibly, the deployment was intended to encircle ISIS positions and retake the area around the strategic Tabqa Dam. But the operation had the added effect of blocking the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from advancing along the main road towards Raqqa, the so called Capital of ISIS. While the blocking move might have been coincidental, there’s a strong possibility that Washington is in the opening phase of a broader strategy to splinter the war-torn country and prevent the reemergence of a united secular Syria.
According to Almasdar News:
“The Coalition supported the offensive with air movement and logistical support, precision airstrikes, Apache helicopters in close air support, Marine artillery, and special operations advice and assistance to SDF leadership,” the US-led coalition said in a statement.” (AMN News)
In a matter of weeks, Washington’s approach to the war in Syria has changed dramatically. While the US has reportedly ended its support for the Sunni militias that have torn the country apart and killed over 400,000 people, the US has increased its aid to the SDF that is making impressive territorial gains across the eastern corridor. The ultimate goal for the SDF fighters is an autonomous Kurdish homeland carved out of West Iraq and East Syria, while US objectives focus primarily on the breakup of the Syrian state, the removal of the elected government, the control over critical pipelines routes, and the redrawing of national borders to better serve the interests of the US and Israel.
The idea of breaking up Syria is not new. The plan first appeared in an article by Oded Yinon in 1982 titled “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties”. Yinon believed that– for Israel to survive– it must become an imperial regional power that “must effect the division of the whole area into small states by the dissolution of all existing Arab states.” (Israel Shahak)
The most recent adaptation of Yinon’s plan was articulated by Brookings Institute analyst Michael O’ Hanlon in a piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “A Trump Strategy to End Syria’s Nightmare”. In the article, O’ Hanlon states bluntly:
“To achieve peace, Syria will need self-governance within a number of autonomous zones. One option is a confederal system by which the whole country is divided into such zones. A less desirable but minimally acceptable alternative could be several autonomous zones within an otherwise still-centralized state—similar to how Iraqi Kurdistan has functioned for a quarter-century….
Security in the Sunni Arab and Kurdish autonomous zones would be provided by local police and perhaps paramilitary forces raised, trained and equipped with the direct support of the international community. …(“A Trump Strategy to End Syria’s Nightmare”, Wall Street Journal)
In an earlier piece, O’ Hanlon referred to his scheme as “Deconstructing Syria” a plan that “would produce autonomous zones that would never again have to face the prospect of rule by either Assad or ISIL.”
Many of the details in O’ Hanlon’s piece are identical to those in Trump’s plan which was announced by Secretary of State Tillerson just last week. The Brookings strategy appears to be the script from which the administration is operating.
In his presentation, Tillerson announced that US troops would not leave Iraq after the siege of Mosul was concluded which has led many to speculate that the same policy will be used in Syria. Here’s an excerpt from an article at the WSWS that explains this point:
“US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared Washington’s intention to keep troops deployed more or less indefinitely in the territories now occupied by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in remarks delivered at the beginning of a two-day meeting of the US-organized anti-ISIS coalition in Washington.
“The military power of the coalition will remain where this fraudulent caliphate has existed in order to set the conditions for a full recovery from the tyranny of ISIS,” he told an audience that included Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He gave no indication of when, if ever, US troops could be withdrawn from a war zone extending across Iraq and Syria, where there has been fighting of greater or lesser intensity throughout the 14 years since the US first invaded Iraq.” (Tillerson pledges long-term US military role in Iraq and Syria, World Socialist web Site)
US Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis reinforced Tillerson’s comments adding that the US plans a indefinite occupation of Iraq (and, possibly, Syria) stating that it was in America’s “national interest.”
“I believe it’s in our national interest that we keep Iraqi security forces in a position to keep our mutual enemies on their back foot,” he said, as quoted by the Military Times. The US “needs to remain decisively engaged in Iraq and in the region.”
In response to Mattis’s comments, Syrian President Bashar al Assad said:
“Any military operation in Syria without the approval of the Syrian government is illegal, and any troops on the Syrian soil, is an invasion, whether to liberate Raqqa or any other place. …The (US-led) coalition has never been serious about fighting ISIS or the terrorists.”
Clearly, Washington is using the fight against ISIS as a pretext for capturing and holding territory in a critical, energy-rich area of the world. The plan to seize parts of East Syria for military bases and pipeline corridors fits neatly within this same basic strategy. But it also throws a wrench in Moscow’s plan to restore the country’s borders and put an end to the six year-long conflict.
And what does Tillerson mean when he talks about “interim zones of stability” a moniker that the Trump administration carefully crafted to avoid the more portentous-sounding “safe zones”. (Readers will recall that Hillary Clinton was the biggest proponent of safe zones in Syria, even though they would require a huge commitment of US troops as well as the costly imposition of a no-fly zone.)
Tillerson’s comments suggest that the Trump administration is deepening its involvement in Syria despite the risks of a catastrophic clash with Moscow. Ever since General Michael Flynn was forced to step down from his position as National Security Advisor, (Flynn wanted to “normalize” relations with Russia), Trump has filled his foreign policy team with Russophobic hawks who see Moscow as “hostile revisionist power” that “annex(es) territory, intimidates our allies, develops nuclear weapons, and uses proxies under the cover of modernized conventional militaries.” Those are the words of the man who replaced Flynn as NSA, Lt. General HR McMaster. While the media applauded the McMaster appointment as an “outstanding choice”, his critics think it signals a departure from Trump’s campaign promise:
“We will pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past…We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments…. Our goal is stability not chaos, because we want to rebuild our country [the United States] …In our dealings with other countries, we will seek shared interests wherever possible and pursue a new era of peace, understanding, and good will.”
There won’t be any peace under Mattis or McMaster, that’s for sure. Both men are anti-Moscow hardliners who think Russia is an emerging rival that must be confronted and defeated. Even more worrisome is the fact that uber-hawk John McCain recently stated that he talks with both men “almost daily” (even though he has avoided talking to Trump since he was elected in November.)
According to German Marshall Fund’s Derek Chollet, a former Obama Pentagon official. “(McCain) is trying to run U.S. defense policy through Mattis and effectively ignore Trump.” (Kimberly Dozier, Daily Beast contributing editor) Chollet’s comments square with our belief that Trump has relinquished his control over foreign policy to placate his critics.
Washington’s Syria policy is now in the hands of a small group of right-wing extremists who think Russia is the biggest threat the nation has faced since WW2. That’s why there’s been a sharp uptick in the number of troops deployed to the region. This is from The Nation:
“On March 9, The New York Times reported that the United States is sending 400 troops to Syria…A week later, March 15, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon has drawn up plans to send a 1,000 more troops within the coming weeks. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the coming … operation against the Islamic State, the administration has decided to send “an additional 2,500 ground combat troops to a staging base in Kuwait.” (“Congress Needs to Stop Trump’s Escalation of the War on Syria”, Nation)
Here’s more from Sputnik:
“Every two days the US deploys a large amount of weapons, primarily heavy armaments, to the region. They have sent tanks, armored vehicles, missiles, sniper rifles, mortar launchers and other types of weaponry…In addition, the United States has told us that a decision was made to send an additional 1,000 US troops to take part in the Raqqa operation,” he said, specifying that US troops will serve as military advisers during the operation and will not take part in the combat.” (Sputnik)
Washington is increasing its weapons stockpile to fend off any attempt by Russia and its allies to keep the battered nation together. A weaker, fragmented Syria governed by tribal leaders and local warlords will pose no threat to Washington or Tel Aviv’s regional ambitions. At least, that appears to be the thinking among US foreign policy elites.
But while Washington continues to pour gas on the fire, Russia remains committed to preserving what Putin calls “the fair world order”. In a recent speech he said:
“Russia opposes attempts to destabilize and weaken international relations, as this could lead to a chaotic and ever less controllable slide towards greater tension in the world.
We support joint action to ensure a democratic and fair world order based on strict respect for the norms of international law, the United Nations Charter, recognition of the unquestionable value of cultural and civilizational diversity, national sovereignty, and the right of all countries to decide their futures freely, without external pressure.”
The Trump administration’s plan to splinter Syria and establish a permanent garrison in the eastern part of the country won’t be stopped unless the American people express their opposition en masse. Investigative journalist, James Carden, recommends that Congress pass a “No Presidential Wars” resolution that “would prohibit the president from “initiating wars against state or non-state actors without prior congressional declarations under Article I, section 8, clause 11 (Declare War Clause).” It’s a great idea, but it won’t happen without pressure from below. People will have to get more involved if they want the bloodletting to end. There’s no other way.
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