Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Tensions Increase On Israel's Northern Border

Can Putin keep Hizballah from Israel’s borders?

Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon were on edge this week, as Prime Minister Binyamin prepared to raise Israel’s concerns about southern Syria at a critical meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Mossad Director Yossie Cohen. He has just returned from a failed attempt in Washington to draw the Trump Administration’s attention to the deteriorating security situation on Israel’s northern borders, where Russian Muslim troops are already in position.

Our sources report that he left Washington empty-handed for three reasons:

1. The White House was inundated in political crises on the home front.
2.  President Donald Trump had resolved to cut to the bone any US military involvement in the Syria conflict outside of the war on the Islamic State.
3.  Trump refused to hear of any compromise on his deal with Putin for cooperating in Syria, especially in the creation of de-escalation zones for gradually winding down the conflict.

Israel, like Jordan, repeatedly put forward objections to this arrangement, especially in relation to its Golan border with Syria. Neither Washington nor Moscow was interested.

This week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Amman to discuss Jordan’s concerns about the pro-Iranian Shiite militias landing close to its border with Syria.

Both their concerns were borne out in the last few days, when the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian Shiite allies including Hizballah launched four simultaneous warfronts at Deir ez-Zor in the east, Sweida in the southeast, Hama in the center and the Qalamoun Mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border in the west - all with Russian air support, often including paratroop drops.

Gaining the upper hand on those four fronts, our sources point out, will restore Syria’s border regions with Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to their status quo ante the outbreak of the 2011 civil war,  and bring Israel’s enemies closer than ever before to its northern door.

Their rapid battle momentum will effectively override the effect of the de-escalation zones established by the two presidents on two of Syria’s borders - with Russian support! Their Sweida offensive has already brought the Syrian army and Hizballah right up to the Jordanian border by circling around the Daraa de-escalation zone - under Russian cover.

This tactic is expected to be repeated in short order in the Quneitra zone which faces Israel’s Golan border, even though Russian troops are installed there as monitors, just as they are in Daraa..  

Furthermore, as Syrian government and pro-Iranian forces gain ground, the Syrian anti-Assad rebel front is breaking up, except for the Islamic State and other Islamist groups. Some former rebels are throwing in the towel or crossing the lines to Assad’s army. The disintegration of the Syrian resistance, if not halted, will sooner or later reach the rebel groups entrenched on the Syrian Golan. Israel will then see the buffer which served it as a security barrier for the past four years melting away.

Even if a Russian guarantee against Syrian and pro-Iranian forces reaching the Golan border is offered by Putin to calm Netanyahu’s worries, it will be of limited value - first, it was refused by Washington and second, it is unlikely to be respected. 

Although Russia is in a dominant position for determining Syria’s agenda, it is not the sole arbiter in Damascus. Iran and Hizballah - and even Bashar Assad - are quite capable of taking matters in their own hands and embarking on a limited expedition for heating up the border with Israel - if only as a reminder to Putin, Trump and Netanyahu that Israel will not be permitted to determine the situation on that border, only their own interests.

Moscow has fired back at the latest round of US sanctions targeting Russian interests, as Washington blacklisted one Russian company and four individuals for their alleged dealings with North Korea.
On Tuesday, the US Treasury revealed it had imposed sanctions on 16 Russian and Chinese nationals and companies for their alleged dealings with North Korea. The Treasury claims the sanctions are in line with the internationally agreed measures against North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. The companies are accused of working with blacklisted individuals, helping develop the North Korean energy sector, help it place workers abroad or move money from abroad. As a result, their US assets are frozen and Americans are forbidden from doing business with them.
“It is unacceptable for individuals and companies in China, Russia, and elsewhere to enable North Korea to generate income used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region,”Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

“We are taking actions consistent with UN sanctions to show that there are consequences for defying sanctions and providing support to North Korea, and to deter this activity in the future.”

Reacting to the sanctions, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov issued a statement expressing disappointment, and warning Washington that Russia was working on a response.

Andrey Klimov, a senior Russian senator, said that the US sanctions against Gefest-M and the others lack legitimacy.

“These sanctions are illegal in themselves, because the only thing recognized by international law is the sanctions of the UN Security Council,” Klimov told Interfax. “We must react in principle to this insane and confrontational policy. The toolbox is rich, let’s hope that we will act consistently, reasonably, professionally and effectively.”

Klimov’s words were echoed by the Chinese government, with a spokesperson saying Beijing “opposes unilateral sanctions out[side] of the UN Security Council framework.”
“We strongly urge the US to immediately correct its mistake, so as not to impact bilateral cooperation on relevant issues,” the spokesperson said, as quoted by the Financial Times.

The UN has expressed “deep concerns” over the mounting number of civilian casualties in Raqqa inflicted by US-led coalition airstrikes, condemning “any attack directed against civilians or civilian infrastructure.”

"Our humanitarian colleagues tell us they are deeply concerned by unconfirmed reports of a high number of civilians killed by airstrike in Raqqa city over the last 24 hours,” Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman  for the UN Secretary-General, told reporters at a daily briefing Tuesday.

“In recent days and weeks scores of civilians have reportedly been killed and injured in Raqqa due to airstrikes and shelling and up to 25 thousand people remain trapped in the city,” Dujarric said.
At least 78 civilians have died in the al-Sakhani and al-Bado streets and al-Tawasuaeh neighborhood in Raqqa city as a result of the US-led coalition airstrikes over the past 24 hours, Syrian news agency SANA reported earlier Tuesday, citing local and media sources.

“The UN condemns any attack that is directed against civilians or civilian infrastructure. We urge all parties fighting in Raqqa and across Syria to take every possible measure to spare and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure as in line with obligations under international humanitarian law.”

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