After the US-UK-French attack in Syria

After the US-UK-French attack in Syria
The USS Monterey guided missile-cruiser fires a Tomahawk missile in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations against Syria over its use of chemical weapons

Update from AIJAC

 Update 04/18 #03

As readers are undoubtedly aware, on Saturday, 105 missiles were fired by American, British and French military units at Syrian chemical weapons research and storage sites, in punishment for the latest Assad regime chemical weapons attack in Douma on April 7, which killed at least 75 people. This Update looks at the significance of that attack for the future situation in Syria.

We lead with recent AIJAC guest Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, who argue that while the strikes were the right thing to do, alone they can do little to either end the conventional slaughter in Syria or help change the realities on the ground, where the regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, are increasingly dominating the country despite their crimes. He argues that what is now needed if the efforts to date are not to go to waste, are measures to “to make it increasingly more difficult for Syria, Iran and Russia to operate on the battlefield.” Schanzer offers some concrete suggestions, including new no-fly zones, and efforts to undermine Hezbollah and other Iranian-organised militias operating in Syria. For the rest of his analysis of what more can and should be done in Syria, CLICK HERE. Before the strike, Schanzer also had an interesting analysis of the destructive role of Russia in Syria.

Next up is Syria expert Jonathan Spyer, who speaks from the knowledge he has gained during his surreptitious visits to the country over recent years. He is even more sceptical of the after-effects of the strikes alone than Schanzer, labelling them a diversion from the main point – especially if the US proceeds with announced plans to finish pulling its forces out of eastern Syria, where they had been sent to fight ISIS. He argues if they do so, these areas will be conquered by the regime and its allies, allowing Iran to create the “land corridor” to the Mediterranean it has long sought, and essentially leaving Israel to face this intolerable threat on its own, which may lead to Iran-Israel war. For Spyer’s perceptive analysis of the current big strategic picture in Syria, CLICK HERE.

Finally, renowned New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has more on the likelihood of an Iran-Israel war over Syria – and the strategic nightmare this could create for the US and Russia. He notes that the Feb. 10 raid on Israel by an Iranian drone from Syria, it is now clear, was an armed attack, not just surveillance – leading to the Israeli air-raid on April 8 on the T4 base from which the drone was launched. Reporting from Israel, Friedman notes that Israel is determined not to allow Iran to turn Syria into a base against Israel, the way Lebanon has become such a base under Hezbollah control. He also notes that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard under Gen. Qassem Suleimani appears determined to be “the biggest ‘occupying power’ in the Arab world today” and use Syria to confront Israel. For Friedman’s piece in full, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, arguing that Israel urgently needs to continue to escalate its efforts to deter Iran from setting up a major permanent base in Syria is Harvard scholar and former deputy Israeli National security advisor Chuck Freilich.

Readers may also be interested in…

Article1

Why targeting Syria’s chemical weapons is not enough to stop rising civilian death toll

by Jonathan Schanzer

Fox NewsApril 15, 2018

By firing 105 missiles at Syrian chemical weapons targets before dawn Saturday, the U.S., Britain and France sent a clear message to dictator Bashar Assad: they will not tolerate his regime’s use of toxic gas and other weapons of mass destruction against his own citizens.

But it seems the tripartite alliance is prepared allow Assad to keep killing Syrians on massive scale using conventional weapons. The death toll in Syria after seven years of war is more than 500,000 – and rising. The fact that these deaths did not involve chemical weapons makes them no less tragic for their victims and surviving loved ones.

It’s hard to know exactly how many of the Syrian deaths have been caused by chemical weapons. But we know they represent a relatively small percentage. The Assad regime has killed far more Syrians through crude barrel bombs, mass executions, starvation and deprivation, and in other ways.

On top of this, there have also been conventional military strikes conducted with and without the help of Assad’s allies – Iran and Russia. Both those nations have devoted significant resources to the war.

So despite the new attack announced by President Trump, the Syrian-Iranian-Russian conventional war machine that is responsible for the overwhelming majority of the murders of innocent Syrians remains intact. And it is not being threatened by America and our allies.

Of course, President Trump has conveyed his utter contempt for Assad and the forces backing him. He has called Assad an “animal,” and he has called out Iran and Russia as being “responsible” for backing him.

But President Trump remains ambivalent about crafting a foreign policy that would prevent those three nations from continuing their slaughter. Just last week, the president vowed to pull America’s estimated 2,000 troops out of Syria “very soon.” This announcement was certainly welcomed by Assad and his allies.

President Trump’s advisers have apparently convinced him to leave U.S. forces in Syria for a little while longer to battle the Islamic State. But administration officials are assiduously avoiding the question of the post-Islamic State reality – namely that Iran, Russia and Assad are poised to grow stronger and keep on killing Syrians until Assad has crushed opposition to his rule.

To be fair, the crisis in Syria is not of President Trump’s making. He inherited that disaster from President Obama. But keeping a narrow focus on the Islamic State and chemical weapons while ignoring the rest of the bloodshed is actually perpetuating President Obama’s horrendous policies.

The U.S. policy of focusing only on stopping Assad’s chemical weapons attacks is a recipe for more misery, death and destruction. It’s also an abdication of American leadership.

With the world now focused on the atrocities in Syria, the time is right for President Trump to retool America’s policy there. Such a course correction need not lead America into another Middle East quagmire.

What is needed now is a strategy that enables the United States and its allies to make it increasingly more difficult for Syria, Iran and Russia to operate on the battlefield.

There are those who warn of a direct clash between the United States and Russia or Iran. And those concerns are valid. That’s why it’s time we examine the vulnerabilities of Hezbollah, the terrorist military force from Lebanon that is Iran’s lethal proxy in Syria.

Hezbollah has deployed thousands of fighters to Syria to attack the Syrian opposition to Assad. Similarly, we need to look at ways to undermine the scores of Shiite militias that Iran has assembled to fight in Syria in support of the Assad dictatorship.

We also need to revisit once again the idea of creating safe havens for Syrians and no-fly zones to protect them. And we need to think creatively about other ways to minimize the abilities of Russia, Iran and Assad to slaughter more Syrians – all without committing to occupy or rebuild the country.

The United States, France and Britain acted morally and responsibly by striking Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program in Syria. But without a broader strategy, our air strikes will send the wrong message: that we are not concerned about the vast majorities of mass atrocities that have become commonplace in Syria for the last seven years.

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Article 2

The Great Distraction of Punitive Airstrikes

by Jonathan Spyer

The New Republic, April 15, 2018

Despite escalating worries about Russia in past weeks, the skies did not fall as a result of the American-led punitive raid on Syria’s chemical weapons storage and research facilities Saturday morning. Great care was taken to avoid hitting the many sites within “Assad-controlled” Syria which are in fact administered by powers other than the Syrian dictator—namely, Russia and Iran. “A perfectly executed strike,” the president declared on Twitter. “Mission accomplished.” U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley struck a similar tone of satisfaction. ‘“If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again,” she told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, “the United States is locked and loaded.”

A great victory, then—depending on whom you ask. Damage was done to Assad, a tyrant responsible for the deaths of an increasingly uncountable number of his own civilians. The careful planning seems to have prevented anything but angry rhetoric from Russia. And the participation of France and the United Kingdom lent at least some air of multilateralism.

But while the tactical prowess of western armed forces over Syrian air defenses was confirmed, it is not quite clear what else has been achieved. Assad will remain in power. The humanitarian crisis persists. And arguably, the focus on checking off proportionate punishment for chemical substances represents a diversion from the issues really at stake in Syria.

U.S. and western officials were keen to note that the operation of recent days did not represent an intervention in the Syrian civil war. A “one-time shot,” Defense Secretary James Mattis called it. It may therefore be assumed that the western stance toward that war remains unchanged. Earlier this month, President Trump declared his intent to  withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, “ideally” within six months. These forces are currently guaranteeing a western-aligned, Kurdish-dominated entity that controls 28 percent of Syria, including the greater part of its gas and oil assets.

If the withdrawal of these forces means that U.S. air power will also no longer be employed to keep Assad, the Iranians and the Russians out of this area, then the region will certainly be reconquered by the regime and its allies. Support for the non-jihadi rebels in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, meanwhile, was ended in December, and renewed regime bombardment, despite last year’s “de-escalation zone” truce, began in March. The removal of chlorine from the equation is unlikely to change rebels’ fate.

If U.S. withdrawal proceeds as planned, the Syrian war seems likely to end in strategic triumph for Assad, Iran, and Russia. Western allies, including Israel, are deeply concerned at what is likely to follow from a geopolitical perspective.

Iran is currently engaged in the construction of an extensive infrastructure in Syria. This includes the establishment of permanent military bases. In addition, the Revolutionary Guards are supporting proxy militia forces on Syrian soil in considerable numbers, and recruiting local “Syrian Hizballah” type forces such as Quwat al-Ridha from the Homs area, al-Ghalibun from the Sayida Zeinab area in Damascus Governorate, and the 313 Brigade from the Deraa area.

The Iranians have helped create and train multiple “Syrian Hizballah” groups such as al-Ghalibun.

Tehran seems to intend to extend this structure to the area immediately east of Quneitra Crossing and the Golan Heights, in order that it may serve as a tool of pressure and potential aggression against Israel. Currently, the enclave controlled by the U.S. and its allies—including the non-Islamist rebel-controlled enclave in Deraa, which birthed the Syrian revolt—blocks Iran’s ability to develop the contiguous land corridor it seeks to extend all the way from the Iraq-Iran border.

U.S. withdrawal of support for these areas, and their subsequent collapse, would mean that Israel would be facing this advance alone—a scenario which has already sparked concern in Israeli media.

Israeli officials have made clear that the entrenchment of this Iranian project and its extension to the border are utterly unacceptable to Jerusalem. The large-scale raid last week on the T4 base outside Palmyra, in which seven Iranian personnel including a colonel were killed, was an indication of the direction of Israeli policy. As Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated following this operation, “Accepting Iranian entrenchment in Syria would be to accept Iranians putting a chokehold on us. We cannot allow that.”

In other words, although the U.S. and Russia appear to have avoided conflict over Syria, the current strategy seems almost guaranteed to leave Iran and Israel on a collision course. When the current western barriers to Iranian advancement are removed, Iran and its allies will finish off the rebel and Kurd forces that remain. Thus consolidated, Iran will then be the dominant actor in a giant land area stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian border with Israel. Israel will at this point seek Russian assurances to curb a further Iranian advance—which it is unlikely to get. What happens after that is the stuff of strategists’ nightmares.

When seen from this point of view, the destruction of a number of Assad’s chemical weapons research facilities might be seen as at best a diversion from the main point. Not only Syria’s humanitarian nightmare, but also the practical geopolitical problems, remain unchanged.

Jonathan Spyer is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a research associate at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS). He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.

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Article 3

The Real Next War in Syria: Iran vs. Israel

By Thomas L. Friedman

New York Times, April 15, 2018


Israeli soldiers taking part in a training session last week in the Golan Heights. Credit: Jalaa Marey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SYRIA-ISRAEL BORDER, Golan Heights — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Syria is going to explode. I know, you have heard that one before, but this time I mean really explode. Because the U.S., British and French attack on Syria to punish its regime for its vile use of chemical weapons — and Russia’s vow to respond — is actually just the second-most dangerous confrontation unfolding in that country.

Even more dangerous is that Israel and Iran, at the exact same time, seem to be heading for a High Noon shootout in Syria over Iran’s attempts to turn Syria into a forward air base against Israel, something Israel is vowing to never let happen. This is not mere speculation. In the past few weeks — for the first time ever — Israel and Iran have begun quietly trading blows directly, not through proxies, in Syria.

And this quiet phase may be about to end.

Israel and Iran are now a hair-trigger away from going to the next level — and if that happens, the U.S. and Russia may find it difficult to stay out.

Let me try to explain what is unfolding from a lookout post on the Syrian-Israel border, where I stood a couple of days ago. To follow along at home, I highly recommend this website, which tracks the multiple interlocking Syrian conflicts in real time and is used by the U.N. observers here on the Golan Heights.

Let’s start with the fact that the latest U.S., British and French cruise missile punishment attack appears to be a one-off operation and the impact will be contained. Russia and Syria have little interest in courting another Western raid and raising the level of involvement in Syria by the three big Western powers. And the three Western powers do not want to get more deeply involved in Syria.

It is the potentially uncontained direct shooting war brewing between Israel and Iran that is much more likely and worrisome, because it may be about to enter round two.

Round one occurred on Feb. 10, when an Iranian drone launched by a Revolutionary Guards Quds Force unit operating out of Syria’s T4 air base, east of Homs in central Syria, was shot down with a missile from an Israeli Apache helicopter that was following it after it penetrated Israeli airspace.

Initial reports were that the Iranian drone was purely on a reconnaissance mission. But the official Israeli Army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said Friday that the drone’s flight path and Israel’s “intelligence and operational analysis of the parts of the Iranian unmanned vehicle” indicated that “the aircraft was carrying explosives” and that its mission was “an act of sabotage in Israeli territory.”

I have no ability to independently verify that claim. But the fact that the Israelis are putting it out should raise alarm bells. If it is true, it suggests that the Quds Force — commanded by Iran’s military mastermind Qassem Suleimani — may have been trying to launch an actual military strike on Israel from an air base in Syria, not just reconnaissance.

“This is the first time we saw Iran do something against Israel — not by proxy,” a senior Israeli military source told me. “This opened a new period.”

It certainly helps to explain why Israeli jets launched a predawn missile raid on the Iranian drone’s T4 home base last Monday. This would have been a huge story — Israel killed seven Iranian Quds Force members, including Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit — but it was largely lost in the global reaction to (and Trump tweets about) President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons two days earlier.

“It was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets — both facilities and people,” said the Israeli military source.

(After the story appeared, the Israeli Army’s spokesman’s office disputed the characterization and accuracy of the raid by my Israeli source, and emphasized that Israel maintains its policy to avoid commenting on media reports regarding the raid on the T4 airfield and other events. He would not comment further.)

Russian and Syrian military officials both attributed the attack to Israel and the Iranians not only openly announced their embarrassing losses through the semiofficial Fars news agency — they have played down previous indirect casualties from Israeli strikes in Syria — but then publicly vowed to take revenge.
“The crimes will not remain unanswered,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, said during a visit to Syria.

Since then, senior Israeli defense officials have let it be known that if the Iranians were to strike back at Israeli targets, Israel may use the opportunity to make a massive counterstrike on Iran’s entire military infrastructure in Syria, where Iran is attempting to establish both a forward air base, as well as a factory for GPS-guided missiles that could hit targets inside Israel with much greater accuracy — inside a 50-meter radius — and deploy them from Syria and with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

These defense officials say there is zero chance Israel will make the mistake it made in Lebanon – of letting Hezbollah establish a massive missile threat there – by letting Iran do the same directly in Syria.

Now you can understand why it is such a dangerous situation – even without the U.S., French and British punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

Iran claims it is setting up bases in Syria to protect it from Israel, but Israel has no designs on Syria; it actually prefers the devil it knows there – Assad – over chaos. And it has not intervened in the civil war there except to prevent the expansion of Iran’s military infrastructure there or to retaliate for rebel or Syrian shells that fell on Israel’s territory.

I understand Iran’s security concerns in the Gulf; it faces a number of hostile, pro-American Sunni Arab powers trying to contain its influence and undermine its Islamic regime. From Iran’s perspective, these are a threat.

But what is Iran doing in Syria?

Tehran’s attempt to build a network of bases and missile factories in Syria – now that it has helped Assad largely crush the uprising against him – appears to be an ego-power play by Iran’s Quds Force leader Suleimani to extend Iran’s grip on key parts of the Sunni Arab world and advance his power struggle with President Hassan Rouhani. Suleimani’s Quds Force now more or less controls — through proxies — four Arab capitals: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana.

Iran has actually become the biggest “occupying power” in the Arab world today. But Suleimani may be overplaying his hand, especially if he finds himself in a direct confrontation with Israel in Syria, far from Iran, without air cover.

After all, even before this, many average Iranians were publicly asking what in the world is Iran doing spending billions of dollars — which were supposed to go to Iranians as a result of the lifting of sanctions from the Iran nuclear deal — fighting wars in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

That is surely one reason Iran has not retaliated — yet. Suleimani has to think twice about starting a full-scale, direct war with Israel, because of another big story many people have not noticed: Iran’s currency is collapsing back home. Consider this April 12 story on CNBC.com:

The Iranian rial “has plummeted to a record low amid growing economic and political uncertainty, causing a rush to the banks as Iranians desperately try to acquire U.S. dollars with exchanges forced to shut their doors to prevent long and chaotic lines.” The rial has lost one-third of its value just this year, the story noted.

Moreover, Israeli military officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin and Suleimani are no longer natural allies. Putin wants and needs a stable Syria where his puppet Bashar Assad can be in control and Russia can maintain a forward naval and air presence and look like a superpower again — on the cheap. Iran’s President Rouhani probably also prefers a stable Syria, where Assad has consolidated his power and that is not a drain on the Iranian budget. But Suleimani and the Quds Force seem to aspire to greater dominance of the Arab world and putting more pressure on Israel.

Unless Suleimani backs down, you are about to see in Syria an unstoppable force — Iran’s Quds Force — meet an immovable object: Israel.

Fasten your seatbelt.

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