Syraq SITREP 37: SU57s Flying in Syrian Skies, More Details on U.S. Attack on Russian Mercs, Syria/Turkey Confrontation in Afrin

Two Stealthy SU57s of Russia's Latest Frontline Fighter Type Confirmed in Syria

The SU57 deployment, even in the very limited number of four planes, comes as a surprise to American analysts. The Russian Air Force has been flight testing the stealthy fifth generation jets with a 2020 service entering date. Indeed, the SU57 only flew with a new production rather than the SU27-35 AL41 series engines in December 2017. Dave Majumdar notes the precedent set by the Soviets who combat tested new types of aircraft during the 1980s Afghan War. Majumdar also says the U.S. Air Force will be very keenly monitoring the SU57 flights. This will likely be done using ground sensors in Turkey, Jordan and Israel as well as potentially airborne radars on AWACS flying in Turkish air space or the F22s now flying over Syria (which the SU57 was developed to counter). Whether the 5th generation fighters will actually meet somewhere over the Euphrates, with Russian and American pilots warily eyeing each other, remains to be seen. 

What Really Happened:
Were the Russian/Donbass PMCs Set Up for a U.S. Aerial Ambush?

Also on Thursday, The Washington (Langley/Bezos) Post, which is typically used as a mouthpiece for the CIA or in this case NSA, published an article supposedly citing signals intercepts of oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin. The story bolsters the narrative of Prigozhin as an extremely Kremlin connected powerbroker who simultaneously runs a restaurant and food service empire, St. Petersburg troll farms to meddle in American politics, and a mercenary army larger than Blackwater's personnel number at its Iraq War height.

In typical since November 2016 fashion the WaPost story not only compromises precious 'sources and methods' for monitoring high level Russians communications, but makes U.S. intelligence about Russian intentions (especially SIGINT) out to be far better than it actually is. In a key excerpt, the WaPost's Pentagon sources claim not only that American units weren't at fault, but that they warned the Russians in advance not to permit their Syrian partners to launch a reconnaissance in force across the Euphrates deconfliction line the U.S. imposed (though the Post uncharacteristically admits with Daesh defeated, the U.S lacks a legal basis for its occupation of eastern Syria):

The intercepted communications show not only that Prigozhin was personally involved in planning the attack but that he had discussed it with senior Syrian officials, including Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Fadlallah Azzam.

In a Jan. 24 exchange, Prigozhin said he had secured permission from an unspecified Russian minister the day before to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative and was awaiting a decision by the Syrian government.

On Jan. 30, Prigozhin “indicated he had a ‘good surprise’ ” for Assad “that would come between 6 and 9 February.” According to one intelligence report, he also was assured by Azzam that he would be paid for his work.

The reports indicated an increased tempo of communications between Prigozhin and Kremlin officials during the same period, including Putin chief of staff Anton Vayno and deputy chief of staff Vladi­mir Ostrovenko, but the content of those talks is not known. The communications continued until Feb. 5 and resumed the day after the attack.

U.S. Special Forces at the base and overhead reconnaissance had seen the attack force mobilizing west of the river at least a week before the attack, according to Mattis and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command. They notified the Russians at that time and warned that the base would defend itself. Asked in a briefing with reporters last week to characterize the conversations, Harrigian said only that they “remained professional.”

On the night of the attack, Mattis said, “the Russians profess that they were not aware when we called about that force that had crossed, and it came closer. They were notified when the firing began,” and the Americans were told “there were no Russians there.”

When the attackers, using tanks and artillery, began firing in their direction, Harrigian said, the Americans struck back.

Asked Sunday as he returned from a trip to Europe whether the Russian government was responsible for its citizens fighting under contract in Syria, Mattis told reporters aboard his aircraft: “I’d prefer not to answer that right now. I need more information to understand and answer that authoritatively.”

The Syrian government has repeatedly threatened to use force to ensure the departure of U.S. troops from Syria. Russia, even as it has formed an uneasy partnership with the United States to avoid confrontation, also has condemned the U.S. presence as “illegal,” because the United States, unlike Russia, has not secured permission from the Syrian government.

An account published on Friday in Newsweek, a once proud publication rapidly spiraling downward into bankruptcy and irrelevance, slightly differs from the WaPost version, saying the Americans only raised the flag over their positions as their artillery opened up on an advancing convoy hundreds of yards from their position. Completing the media blitz on the story timed ahead of the March presidential elections in Russia, the U.S. government funded Voice of America (VOA) outlet published what it claimed were authenticated audio clips of the survivors. claimed to have obtained the recordings from sources close to the Kremlin, but they could not immediately be authenticated.

The Russian version of February 7-8 events, which has emerged in snippets and interviews with angry friends of the dead and survivors, is that the Americans engaged in a set up. That is, there were secret negotiations going on between the pro-Damascus Syrian tribes in the area and ex-ISIS aligned tribes plus Kurdish forces who controlled a large oil field. The 'Wagner' types were hired to take control of the hydrocarbons in return for a 25% cut of the oil field output. Either through deception or perhaps being tricked by the Americans, the Kurds feigned interest in handing the field over while putting up token resistance. Instead, when the day of transfer arrived and the Syrians advanced with their Russian partners in the open, not expecting to be bombed or even to face any mortar or artillery fire, we know what happened. The CIA or other intelligence agencies (British, Mossad?) who caught wind of the negotiations, arranged for the U.S. forces in the area to either overreact or in a premeditated action, drop massed fires on a battalion they knew included Russian contractors.

The Russian Analyst strongly leans toward a Deep State plan to 'kill Russians' (in ex-Deputy CIA Director Mike Morrell's words) in Deir Ez Zor province. If only because no group of Russian combat veterans whether from the Army or voluntary fighting against the far less competent Ukrainians in the Donbass would suicidally advance in the open on American troops, knowing the American m.o. is to instantly call for artillery or air support when threatened. The notion that the 'Wagner'ian Russian warriors were so cocky as to deliberately attack Americans with zero SAM or air support or even artillery is asinine. Nonetheless, we doubt Secretary of Defense Mattis -- who professed to be perplexed about the clash -- or anyone in the Trump White House personally planned the provocation. Although the loose rules of engagement and very broad definition of 'self defense' given to American commanders by the Trump White House made an altercation like this more likely.

The broad dirty deep state goal from this arranged clash, as the video below speculates, is to maintain mistrust if not provoke active hostilities between Russian and American forces in Syria (and perhaps to build up overconfidence among U.S. troops that they can shell Syrian, Iranian or even Russian forces with impunity, never getting shelled or more likely IED ambushed back). Preventing another staged 'incident' in which the Americans start bombing active duty and not just private military volunteer Russian units triggering a violent Russian response is paramount. In the meantime, any Anglo-American PMCs roaming separately from the protection of U.S. special operators presence could be hit with a tit for tat attack for which Moscow's Shi'a allies, rather than the Russians, could take credit. Thus the dirty Deep State puts targets on the backs of PMCs and servicemen on both sides of the Cold War 2 Euphrates line.

East Ghouta Battle:
Humanitarian Outcry That Spares Jihadists of Any Responsibility for Civilians

On Friday the United Nations Security Council, where Syria's ally Russia freely wields its veto, postponed a vote on a ceasefire resolution for Ghouta. The heavily urbanized region east of Damascus has been the scene of heavy bombing and rocket strikes taking a toll on the civilian population. Less reported by Western media have been the rockets fired from besieged Ghouta at areas of Damascus which have killed or wounded scores of civilians for many months. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley like her predecessor Samantha Power is loathe to admit that the territory is dominated by HTS, the Al-Qaeda loyalists in Syria. As experienced Mideast correspondent Robert Fisk writes in The Independent:

The “rebels”/”terrorists”/“Islamists”/“armed opposition” – you must pick the mantra of your choice – are, of course, the one other “fact” of the Ghouta bloodbath which must not be addressed, spoken of, mentioned, referred to or even acknowledged. For the Nusrah fighters in Ghouta – whether or not they have brought pressure on the civilians of the suburbs to stay as “human shields” – are part of the original al-Qaeda movement which committed the crimes against humanity in America in 2001 and which have, more often than not, been prepared to cooperate in Syria with Isis, the vicious cult which the US, the EU, NATO and Russia (add here all the other usual defenders of civilisation) have promised to destroy. Nusrah’s allies are Jaish al-Islam, yet another Islamist group.

This is a very odd state of affairs. No-one should doubt the scale of the slaughter in Ghouta. Or the suffering of the civilians. We cannot howl with indignation when the Israelis assault Gaza (using the same “human shields” motif as the Russians today) while making excuses for the bloodbath in Ghouta because the “terrorists” under siege are Isis-tainted al-Qaeda Islamists.

But these armed groups are curiously absent when we express our outrage at the carnage in Ghouta. There are no Western reporters to interview them – because we (though we don’t usually say so) would have our heads chopped off by these defenders of Ghouta if we tried or even dared to enter the besieged suburb. And the footage which we receive shows – incredibly – not a single armed man. This does not mean that the wounded or the dead children or the bloodied corpses – albeit with faces “blurred” by our own thoughtful television editors – are not real or that the film is fake. But the footage clearly does not show all of the truth. The cameras – or their film editors – do not depict the al-Nusrah fighters who are in Ghouta. Nor are they going to.

Negotiations continue with the Egyptians acting as intermediaries between Damascus and Moscow on one side and the 'moderate' representatives of the jihadists on the other to evacuate many militants and their families from the pocket. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken of the Aleppo peace deal that ended fighting for that heavily built up urban battlefield, as a model for evacuating the rebels moderate or otherwise to Idlib. Others could also go to Turkey, with which the Russians are maintaining a wary series of discussions. The Turks for their part are placing troops and observation posts seemingly designed to check a Syrian Arab Army (SAA) advance further into Idlib province, while attacking pro-government forces which joined with the YPG Kurds in the defense of Afrin. The Turkish Army and their 'moderate' rebel as well as Al-Qaeda allies have yet to besiege Afrin, but several more villages fell to their advance closer to the city this weekend.

Writing earlier this week for his Turcopolier blog, retired DIA analyst and Army Col. Patrick Lang writes of the Turks gamesmanship and Damascus response, drawing closer to the YPG Kurds who'd previously imagined Uncle Sam would protect them from a NATO ally's wrath:

There was another set of negotiations going on last week. Damascus and the Kurds were attempting to come to an agreement as to when the SAA will move into Afrin to defend the northern border of Syria and under what conditions that move will take place. The Kurdish position was that the SAA would only move to the northwest border with Turkey and act as border guards. Damascus wanted the full return of Afrin to SAR control and the disarmament of independent YPG forces. Kurdish fighters would become part of the SAA.

The news of on-again-off-again agreements have been circulating for days. My guess is that the two sides are meeting somewhere in the middle. A Kurdish report (ANF) claimed that the Russians were initially obstructing these talks for some reason. Interesting, if true. The same sources, along with Elijah Magnier, claim the agreement talks about an eventual joint SAA-YPG operation to retake al-Bab and Jarabulus. Even more interesting. Al Masdar News reports NDF units from al-Safira are poised to enter Afrin within a few hours. I have no idea what other Syrian units might enter Afrin. The cream of the SAA is now concentrated outside Damascus to take the Ghouta pocket. Clearly any SAA military move into Afrin will be an economy of force move to forestall further Turkish incursions into Afrin and to separate the Kurds from CENTCOM and the Trump administration. It is a move of political finesse rather than military force.

Back on the ground, another ominous event is in motion. The Turks have sent several convoys into rural Idlib to establish positions that seem to be designed to block further SAA advances once the battle for Idlib recommences. There could be something to this. However, under the Astana Accords, Turkey is to establish a series of twelve monitoring centers throughout this part of Idlib. Given the recent advances of the SAA into the eastern part of Idlib, the prearranged locations of the monitoring centers do appear to be more a blocking action than a fulfillment of an agreement.

It's noteworthy that some of the leading pro-Syria jihadist neocons, like Michael D. Weiss, aren't particularly happy about Kurdish units ceding the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood of east Aleppo to the SAA, despite the Kurds needing more manpower to resist Turkish aggression.

With neither side eager to engage in all out war, the war of nerves between the Turkish Army and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its Shi'a militia allies now fighting alongside the YPG continued Friday. The Turks reportedly again shelled a convoy of National Defense Forces (NDF) headed toward Afrin, but this time the SAA returned artillery fire. There were no confirmed Turkish casualties but the risks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan  of a shot down fighter jet or seriously bloody nose for his troops who have yet to face massed thermobaric rocket or artillery fire from heavy weaponry of the type the SAA can bring to the fight. Pro-Damascus sources on social media continue to insist that the Turks will settle for a face saving compromise whereby many YPG units simply lower their PKK linked flags and raise the Syrian government flag and that of the NDF over their positions. If that does happen, it may be possible for Erdogan to declare victory and partially pull back Turkish regulars while holding Syrian proxies in place along a ceasefire line that consolidates territorial gains around Afrin as leverage in talks.