Analysis: Syrian war is once again escalating

Islamist rebels, with Turkish support, push back against Syrian regime and its Russian ally, as US accuses Syrian army of chemical attacks

Yochanan Visser ,

Fighting in Syria
Fighting in Syria
Flash 90

Since the summer of 2018 the media have been reporting the Syrian war was winding down after the Iranian-Russian-backed pro-Assad solution regained control over roughly two-thirds of Syria.

However, if we take a good look at what is currently happening in the devastated country one can’t escape the impression that peace is a far- away-dream and the chance of an escalation in the direction of a regional conflict still exists.

Take for example what is happening in northwest Syria currently where the Assad regime supported by Russia is trying to regain control over the Idlib Province.

A month ago Assad’s army breached the Sochi ceasefire agreement and launched a bloody offensive against Turkey-backed Islamist militias in Idlib. The regime again used barrel bombs and reportedly again used chemical weapons albeit on a small scale.

This happened after Russia tried to convince the Turkish Erdogan government to allow Russian patrols in Idlib in a buffer zone which was meant to de-escalate the situation in the Islamist controlled region.

The Russian effort failed, however, and Turkey decided to send additional weapons to strengthen the Islamist militias which are dominated by the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra that changed its name into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham after announcing it would end its allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Jabhat Fatah al-Sham later merged with other Islamist militias in Syria and again changed its name in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham(Organization for the Liberation of al-Sham) in preparation for the battle against the pro-Assad coalition. Al-Sham is the area in the Middle East stretching from northern Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

Over the past week Turkey has sent new advanced weapons to its Islamist allies in north-western Syria.

The delivery of dozens of armored vehicles, rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles, and TOW missiles, helped roll back some gains by the pro-Assad coalition.

The Islamist rebels subsequently succeeded in recapturing the strategically important town of Kfar Nabouda on May 22 delivering a significant blow to the Syrian army which thought it would swiftly regain control over Idlib.

The United States has criticized Russia for its role in the new offensive after Russian warplanes carried hundreds of airstrikes on population centers which caused a new exodus of Syrians.

Roughly 300,000 people have thus far been displaced by the ruthless offensive against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other rebel groups in Idlib while another three million people are trapped in the only province in northern Syria which is still not ‘liberated’. They have nowhere to go.

The State Department also accused the Syrian army of carrying out chemical attacks on population centers which are under control of the Islamist rebel groups.

“We do have numerous sources including interviews with those present during the attack that did report that a number of opposition fighters were taken to local hospitals and presented symptoms that were consistent with chemical exposure," Morgan Ortacus, a spokesman for the State Department told reporters.

The Assad regime and Russia dismissed the new accusations about the use of chemical agents as fake reports and claimed the Islamist militias had staged a new false flag operation.

The US, however, warned the pro-Assad coalition that it would react “quickly and appropriately” if the “numerous sources” were proven to be right about the chemical attack.

In April 2018, the US army together with France and Brittain launched a cruise missile attack on the Syrian army after Assad’s forces killed 40 people in the Damascus region using chemical weapons.

On Monday this week, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) published a report documenting a new chemical attack on the Kbaina village in the eastern suburbs of Latakia during the current offensive against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on May 19.

The Syrian HR organization wrote that three missiles with chemical warheads were launched at Hayat Tahrir al-Sham positions which wounded four rebels. The victims showed “symptoms consistent with the exposure to toxic substances,” according to SNRH.

The chemical agent which was used was most likely chlorine gas. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons 217 times since the beginning of the civil war causing the death of at least 1461 people the Syrian watchdog said.

Four hundred of the 535 members of the US Congress now signed a letter to President Donald Trump in which they demanded a “new strategy” that would turn Syria into a regional and international arena, diminishing Iran’s influence and the US-Russian tension,” the Syrian Observer reported on Monday.

The lawmakers expressed their grave concerns about the growth of Islamist groups and ISIS’ activities in Syria while they also warned against the Iranian and Russian entrenchment in the country.

“The conflict in Syria is complicated, and the potential solutions are not perfect, but our only choice is to advance policies that can stop the growing threats to US interests, Israel and regional security and stability. This strategy requires American leadership,” the letter said.

“Russia’s destabilizing role only complements that of Iran – since Russia shows no willingness to expel Iranian forces from Syria,” according to the lawmakers who also warned about the growing threat Hezbollah poses to Israel.

The publication of the letter coincided with a European warning about Russia’s deceptive politics in Syria which are “militarizing” the country according to some European countries.

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, Iran is completing its land bridge to the Israeli border on the Golan Heights and to the Mediterranean Sea where the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps is currently establishing a navy basis in the port of Tartus.

The Iranians are building a new border crossing near the town of Abukamal on the Iraqi border satellite images released by the Israeli firm Image Satellite International showed.

Iran-backed Shiite militias are, furthermore, trying to increase their influence over eastern Syria by recruiting former members of Islamic State.

Local Syrian media claim that the Iranian-backed and founded militias have become the de-facto rulers of east Syria where they are causing frictions with Assad’s army.

For those who think that ISIS has disappeared of the Syrian battle fields there’s bad news.

The Jihadist group may have lost its Caliphate but is still carrying out terror attacks and last week called upon its supporters in both Iraq and Syria to use the scorching earth tactic to prevent agriculture in the countries.

The pyro-terror campaign has already started in the Kurdish-held territories in Syria and Iraq and could further aggravate the already dire situation in Syria and Iraq.