Trump and Putin
Trump and Putin REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Tensions between the United States and Russia escalated over the weekend after President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton warned the administration would react “very strongly” in case Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad again uses chemical weapons in the upcoming offensive against Sunni Islamist rebels in the northwestern Idlib Province.

Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem last week the U.S. is very “concerned about the possibility that Assad may use chemical weapons again.”

“Just so there’s no confusion here, if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time,” Bolton said after his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

On Friday, Bolton told his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev that the US response to a new chemical attack by the pro-Assad coalition “will be stronger this time” Bloombergreported.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov subsequently warned the U.S. not to take “reckless moves” in Syria.

“We warn the Americans and their allies against taking new reckless steps in Syria,” Ryabkov told the RIA news agency adding that Russia remains committed to “the total elimination of terrorist epicenters in Syria and the return of this country to a normal life.”

The Russian warning came after the Bosporus Observerspotted an unusual number of Russian warships which passed through the waterway in Turkey on their way to the Syrian port of Tartus, Russia’s only navy port on foreign soil.

One of the ships is Admiral Essen, a frigate armed with Kalibr SS-N-27 missiles which is now the fifteenth Russian warship stationed in Syrian waters.

The move by the Russian navy followed a Tass report which quoted Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov saying that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France are making preparations for what he dubbed a “ provocation” and an “act of aggression against the Russian military” in Syria.

Konashenkov claimed American, English and French officials had made “absolutely unfounded statements” about “the alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government."

The Russian spokesman claimed Bolton’s and other statements by Western officials were “aimed at another dramatic escalation of the situation in the Middle East and at disrupting the peace process on the territory of Syria.”

To make his point, Konashenkov revealed the US military had deployed “the destroyer Sullivans with 56 cruise missiles on its board” in the Persian Gulf several days ago “while a B-1B strategic bomber of the US Air Force armed with AGM-158 JASSM air-to-surface missiles was redeployed to the Al Udeid air base in Qatar."

The Russian general, furthermore, claimed Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham (HTS) a merger of several powerful Salafist rebel groups in Syria, was preparing “another” false flag chemical attack during the upcoming Idlib offensive.

Konashenkov said HTS had transferred “eight chlorine tanks” to the town of Jisr al-Shugrur in order “to stage’ a chemical attack in a nearby village. The attack would be supervised by British experts who work for the private military company Oliva, the Russian spokesman claimed.

“The militants have the task of simulating the rescue of the victims of the chemical weapons attack dressed in the clothes of the famous ‘White Helmets,'”according to Konashenkov.

He was referring to a Syrian first aid group which the pro-Assad coalition accuses of collaboration with the Islamist rebels.

The Russian military in Syria also reported HTS and other Islamist rebel groups in Idlib are currently building up a massive force which is in the possession of heavy weapons and preparing for a pre-emptive assault on the pro-Assad coalition.

Maj. Gen. Alexei Tsygankov, a Russian officer who heads the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Sides in Syria, told reporters HTS and the other rebel groups in Idlib still control 70 percent of the province’ territory and are preparing for “jihad against the secular Syrian state."

Tsygankov claimed the rebels would soon attack Aleppo, the devastated city east of Idlib which was retaken by Assad’s forces in the summer of 2016, and Hama which borders the Sunni Islamist stronghold in the south.

HTS last week published a new propaganda video named Lan Narkaa illa li-llah”, or “We Kneel Only to God” in which it admitted the rebels in Syria had suffered defeat after defeat against Assad’s forces but acclaimed there would be no surrender or “reconciliation” this time.

The video shows HTS’ Special Forces which are armed with tanks and other heavy weaponry and are familiar with urban warfare.

HTS also heavily criticized the Islamist rebel groups along the Israeli and Jordanian border for “yielding” to Assad and for not fighting to the end.

The video also depicted the “inghimasiyeen” or "those who plunge deeply into the enemy" - HTS fighters who carry out daring attacks on the enemy in small groups, a tactic which was also used by ISIS during the blitz in 2014 which eventually resulted in the establishment of a new caliphate.

Turkey, which has a military presence in Idlib and supports rebel groups there, is now trying to stave off the imminent battle for Idlib by engaging the Russian government in a dialogue.

“A military solution here would be a disaster, not just for the Idlib region, but a disaster in terms of Syria’s future,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Moscow after an emergency meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

The Turks, however, have little sway over HTS and claim it forms a threat to the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the autocratic strongman who is turning Turkey into an Islamist state.

At the same time, the Assad regime officially asked Hezbollah to stay in Syria “for an additional period of time even after the end of fighting in the north-west and north-east regions,” the Hezbollah affiliated Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar reported on Saturday.

The news about Hezbollah’s continuing entrenchment in Syria coincided with a report about the first confrontation between Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Assad’s regular forces in the region adjacent to the border with Iraq.

The fighting between the Iranian controlled militias and Assad’s army started two weeks ago and is related to the Iranian attempt to create a contiguous land bridge between the Iranian Iraqi border and the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.

All this shows the Syrian war is far from over and could still turn into a regional or even global conflict.

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