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Syria: It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Bombing [Updated]

7 min read

No lead-in needed; we all know what’s happened, and we all know what looks to be in the works.  Let’s get into the news, but first, let’s get into the players (if you already know all this, feel free to skip):

Syria / Assad: No introduction needed. Controls generally the western/southwestern 2/3rds of the country, except for a few pockets which he has been eliminating one by one.  The one that he’s currently been attempting to eliminate is Douma, in the northeastern Damascus outskirts. The Syrian army is a mix of elite forces (Tiger Force), regulars (the SAA) and irregulars (the NDF).  The SAA was heavily depleted over the first several years of the conflict, leading to intervention by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.

Russia: Syria’s primary weapons supplier and effective air force.  Maintains two primary bases in the coastal province of Latakia: one at the port of Tartus (where weapons are shipped in) and one at Hmeymim near the city of Latakia, which is Russia’s primary Syrian airbase.  Russia also has smaller deployments at a number of Syrian airbases throughout the country and a number of forward operating bases. Russia and the US have a negotiated airspace dividing line, where any aircraft which cross are subject to being shot down by the other side, and a deconfliction line to help prevent this from happening.

Iran: In conjunction with Hezbollah, provides  the majority of Assad’s ground troops — primarily irregulars, although also including several thousand IRGC. It also provides a large amount of ground weaponry.

Lebanon / Hezbollah: Lebanon is officially not involved in the conflict, but Hezbollah is a very active participant in the conflict, among the most important ground forces fighting on the side of Assad.

Israel: Israel has been working to prevent Hezbollah from receiving better arms and Iran from becoming established in Syria, and depleting Syrian long-range missile capacity.  Around once monthly on average Israel launches airstrikes on targets within Syria, generally (but not always) via flying aircraft through Lebanese airspace and firing from outside of Syrian airspace.  Syria has been largely ineffective at preventing these attacks, although they did recently manage to down one Israeli aircraft.  Israel also issues an “overwhelming retaliation” whenever Syrian shells stray into the Golan heights.

Turkey: Turkey stands in stark opposition to both Assad and Kurdish militias within Syria, but has been trying to mend ties with Russia.  Turkey has been working to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian buffer, within Syrian space, managed by Syrian militias under Turkish control.  In addition to recently taking Afrin from the YPG under operation Olive Branch, and earlier taking northern Aleppo province under Euphrates Shield, Turkey is heavily involved in establishing “order” in the rebel-held province of Idlib. They’re setting up control points with their military to discourage Assad from attempting to take more of the province, and are purging local militias that will not fall under their command structure (including the remnants of HTS, itself formed from the remnants of Al-Nusra, which was originally established as al-Qaeda in Syria).  Turkey is very angry at the US support of the YPG, and in particular their obstruction of Turkish desires to control Manbij as part of the Euphrates Shield buffer zone.

United States:  The US primarily operates in the northeastern third of Syria, although it also controls a small circular exclusion zone around the US base at al-Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Syrian forces and aligned militias have repeatedly attempted to probe US-controlled areas, and the US has demonstrated the willingness to bomb them every time; a particular recent hotspot is a small Assad-controlled pocket on the eastern (US/SDF) side of the Eurphrates near Deir Ez-Zour.  The US, in turn , operates west of the Euphrates at Manbij and  al-Tabqah. The US operates around 2000 troops within Syria, with the SDF acting as its primary ground force.

SDF / YPG: The SDF is the US-backed militia, comprising Arab and Kurdish militias, but primarily the latter, which are organized as the YPG.  Turkey views the YPG as just the Syrian arm of the PKK and nothing more than terrorists; the US and YPG refute this.

FSA: FSA is a general term for either US or Turkish-aligned Arab militias.  Previously operating largely independently, they have increasingly fallen more directly into foreign command structures as the war has progressed.

ISIS / Da’esh: Previously controlling a caliphate across the majority of Syria and Northern Iraq, Da’esh territory has been reduced to one pocket south of Damascus, a tiny pocket in the southwestern corner of Syria, portions of the desert west of the Euphrates, several towns on the eastern side of the Euphrates near Syria’s southern border, and chunks of desert east of the Euphrates.  Various US-backed rebel groups have been working against the southwestern pocket; Assad has largely been ignoring the Damascus pocket but looks to at last be preparing an offensive; the desert pockets have only occasionally come under pressure from sweeps; and the southeastern cities are under regular assault from the US/SDF, although recent progress has been slow/limited.   The general impression has become that, despite the continued rhetoric, most parties view Da’esh as a defeated force and are not as concerned with them.

With that in place, let’s get to the news.

The US, UK and France have been acting in lockstep.  The US yesterday introduced a resolution at the UN, condemning the Syrian government for the attacks. Russia is expected to veto it.

Wikileaks seems to want to get involved. Despite Assange supposedly being without internet access, Wikileaks has offered a “US$100,000 reward” for documents “showing to who is responsible for the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria”.  Expect Russia to be glad to anonymously provide them with “evidence” that Syria was not involved — despite this contradicting Russia's current narrative that there was no chemical attack at all.

Israel warns that rather than being deterred, Assad has been rebuilding both his chemical weapons stockpiles and manufacturing capability.

Trump, answering questions in front of military leadersconcluded with: “We have a lot of options, militarily.  And we’ll be letting you know pretty soon.  Probably after the fact.

ShiaPulse is reporting that Russian special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, will be visiting Iran today for discussions.

A top Iranian official vowed that the Israeli attack against the T4 airbase that killed 7 Iranians would not go without a response.

France warns that it will respond if the chemical weapons “red line” has been crossed in Syria.

Conservatives MPs in the UK are pressuring May to take part in any retaliation against the Syrian government. 

Tony Blair has also come out in support, arguing that parliamentary approval is not needed so long as ground troops are not involved.

The conservative tabloid, The Daily Mail, reports that UK military leaders have been ordered to draw up strike options.

US acting secretary of state, John Sullivan, spoke twice with Boris Johnson about the chemical attack and how to respond.

Theresa May plans to speak with Donald Trump today and will chair a meeting of the British National Security Council.

There are rumours of increased British military activity at Cyprus.

Al-Jazeera reports that Russia’s Black Fleet air defenses have been moved to a state of alert.

Erdogan promises that those involved in the chemical attack will pay a heavy price.

Al-Arabiya reports that Saudi foreign minister al-Jubeir is discussing with allies how to respond to the chemical attackþ 

Syria may have tipped its hand concerning how it plans to respond to any attack. Jennifer Cafarella noted that in yesterday’s attack from Israel, which was initially believed to be a US attack, Syrian air defenses attempted to shoot down the missiles but not the aircraft that launched them.

The US claims that Russia has been scrambling its drone signals, hindering its offensives against Da’esh.

Ben Sasse (R, NE), responding to the drone jamming on Fox News, stated: “…Russia wants to undermine our interests at every turn. Putin is already waging a shadow war with the United States but too many American politicians are asleep on the watch.”

A Russian jet did a close flyover of a French frigate this weekend.

An I24 News correspondent reports that the Syrian army is on high alert, anticipating a US attack.

Le Figaro reporter Georges Malbrunot reports that the Syrian government has deployed missile defenses around the presidential palace and defense ministry, and is working to transfer aircraft to the Russian airbase at Hmeymim.

AP reports that the Syrian government has invited the OPCW to investigate the attack.  Expect this to be interpreted as a delay tactic.

The USS Harry Truman Strike Group sets sail tomorrow from Norfolk — seven warships armed with dozens of cruise missiles.

Reports are that Jaish Maghaweer al-Thurah (US-aligned FSA group) is preparing to enter government-controlled Deir ez-Zour.  (Note: the militias often talk a bigger game than the organizations that they’re working with allow them to actually implement).

Notes: the potential deployment of the OPCW might complicate plans to strike Syria in response to the chemical attack. Honestly, though, I don’t expect it to.  The Syrian government has pulled this gambit before, most famously during Obama’s presidency to get out of strikes for crossing Obama’s “red line”. I fully expect the US, UK and France to expect it, and to strike before any OPCW inspection while simultaneously demanding unfettered OPCW access.  But that’s just my take.

UPDATE: From the English-language UAE daily, The National: ‘However, a US official told The National, that while “Washington welcomes the OPCW mission, it will not affect the US decision on a response to Syria.” ‘

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