Assad's Call for the Americans to Leave Syria Was Not an Imminent Threat of Action Against U.S. Forces, But a Reminder Regarding Their Costly Occupation of Iraq
If you read the full transcript of the RT interview posted at Syria's government news agency site, it's clear from the context Assad is not issuing an ultimatum threatening American troops with imminent action if they do not get out. Rather, the Syrian President is comparing the U.S.-led occupation of sovereign Syrian territory alongside NATO allies the French and Turks to the Americans' over a decade-long stay in neighboring Iraq. The implication being, rather than conventional battles of the type fought between U.S. troops and pro-Damascus militias accompanied by a few dozen Russian mercenaries like the overhyped Conoco gas field clash of February 7-8, the Americans could face Iraq insurgent-style tactics, such as ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Washington (Langley/Bezos) Post aka Pravda on the Potomac has already acknowledged the public relations problem peaceful demonstrations by Syrians calling for U.S. forces to withdraw poses to a long term occupation and partition of the country.
Given that President Trump campaigned on a promise of no more foolish Mideast wars of regime change like those waged by George W. Bush in Iraq or Barack Obama in Libya, the real threat Assad is making is he and his allies can eventually make another 'Dubya' out of Trump. That is, to saddle an American President already opposed by the vast majority of the legacy media and much of the U.S. population with an unpopular Mideast war that involves a steady flow of flag-draped American coffins coming back home. Against this threat, we are likely to see counter-threats of U.S. bombing Syrian government forces and neocons magnifying an Israeli pundit's call for the assassination of Assad. But again, the alternate headline which the legacy media largely skipped over in reporting Assad's call for the Americans to leave his country was the quite real prospect of American and Russian forces clashing this spring.
In the RT interview, Assad quoted the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon's threat that if Russia's servicemen were harmed not only would the missiles be shot down but Moscow would strike back against the missile launchers -- meaning U.S. bases in the region. From social media posts in the days leading up to the April 14 illegal missile strikes on Syria, we know Russian Air Force Sukhoi jets were spotted over Latakia on the Mediterranean coast carrying supersonic anti-ship missiles capable of sinking US Navy vessels. We also observed reports that Moscow's long range bombers were placed on alert at Mozdok in the Caucuses and RuAF jets based at Kheimmim flew sorties during the U.S. missile strikes -- just in case the Americans attacked any Russians -- and the U.S. Air Force also flew F22 patrols over its Al-Tanf base in southeastern Syria to deter possible Russian counter strikes on American troops.
Notwithstanding Threats, the Wheels of Diplomacy Are Turning: Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman Meets Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in Moscow as Syrian Government Forces Are Poised to Retake Territory Back from Jihadists Along the Golan
That's the bad news -- along with the latest Israeli threat to carry out strikes throughout Syrian territory against Iranian forces. The good news is that the Russians appear to be poised for a major diplomatic breakthrough to hasten the end of the Syria conflict. Confirming previous reporting that the two sides were in serious talks to resolve the situation along the Israeli Defense Forces occupied Golan Heights, Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (a Moldovan SSR born Russian speaker) and his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu were meeting this week in Moscow. The agenda was finalizing a deal for Syrian government forces to retake the southern border region around Daraa and Quneitra from jihadist remnants, in return for Moscow's guarantee that Damascus will not deploy Iranian troops or Iranian-backed Shi'a militias to the area. According to retired Army Colonel and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst Pat Lang, Moscow and Washington are also in talks to have American troops pull out of their illegal base at Al-Tanf -- without any Iraq-style Syrian or Hezbollah allied Shi'a insurgents chasing them out.
Of course, as Assad stated in his RT interview, none of these breakthroughs would be possible without Moscow having protected Damascus from the most aggressive intentions of the U.S. and its Gulf state allies like Saudi Arabia. And after numerous strikes inside Syria, the Israelis know that they can only push their luck so far before the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) responds and inflicts casualties on their observation posts along the Golan Heights. The IDF is also facing missile attacks more serious than reported in the Western media, thanks to strict Israeli military censorship. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ongoing political scandals, including the latest revelation that he demanded the internal Shin Bet security service spy on his own military and Mossad chiefs for him, also would seem to make a three-front war with "Iranians" in Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinians less likely.
Idlib and the Turkish Occupation -- Syrian Containment More Likely Than Rollback
While Assad is correct to view ISIS remnants operating out of territory that his own forces are barred from entering on pain of U.S. air strikes as the chief threat, the Americans and French aren't the only ones illegally occupying Syrian territory. There is also the Turkish Army in the north, which is showing no signs of leaving the area around Afrin and Manbij. The latter has been the subject of talks between Ankara and Washington for some time as the two sides spar over the jailing of American citizens in Turkey, the Turks purchase of the advanced Russian S400 air defense system, and their most recent threat to buy Russia's fifth generation SU57 stealthy fighter if the Americans fail to fulfill their contract on the F35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The overall deterioration in U.S.-Turkish and Turkish-NATO (especially German) relations since the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proven favorable to Russian if not Syrian interests. Particularly as the work on the Turkstream gas pipeline has proceeded towards a planned December 2019 completion date, and as Turkey's lira currency/euro/dollar denominated debt crisis makes it even more dependent on its Eastern rather than U.S./European partners for credit and trade (more on that in a future RM JWS post).
Here again we see the contrast between Moscow's position and that of Assad, showing the Syrian President is a client and ally but not a puppet of the Kremlin. The Russians don't mind the Turks neo-Ottoman irredentist claims to northern Syria that much, so long as Turkey makes its jihadist proxies behave and rehabilitates more of them back into civilian life -- on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border. Assad and the Iranians on the other hand, want to liberate every meter of sovereign Syrian land to finish the war. A recent Turkish border incursion in the Jabal al-Turkmen mountains, previously the scene of Turkey's unprovoked November 2015 shoot down of a Russian Air Force SU24 and the murder of its pilot by Ankara's jihadist proxies, has angered the Syrian Arab Army. So too, has been a deconfliction deal reportedly reached between Ankara and Washington in the past week permitting U.S. occupying troops to stay in Manbij, in return for YPG units pulling out of the area. The YPG may be alienated from Damascus but are still considered to be Syrians, the Americans and their French partners are definitely not welcome.
In the coming weeks, the establishment by the Turks of "observation posts" not authorized in the peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan and the use of Turkish Army positions as cover for jihadi attacks on SAA units is likely to lead to a firmer response from Damascus. SAA artillery and rocket fire has already hit Turkish Army mountain top positions, killing and wounding many jihadis seeking to shelter alongside their Turkish patrons. Meanwhile, with many jihadists no longer collecting salaries from their Gulf funders and the Turks primarily focusing their proxies against the Kurds, severe infighting plagues the Idlib region outside of Damascus control. Several Al-Qaeda aligned Islamist commanders have been assassinated in recent weeks, whether by the hand of Turkish or Syrian security services, it remains unclear.
What is clear is that, after securing the Golan Heights and Jordanian borders, the SAA is likely to turn its attention to the Turks' creeping occupation and Idlib province. However, given Moscow's role as the mediator between Damascus and Ankara, any clashes are likely to remain brief and the SAA will advance slowly and cautiously.