All eyes on the Middle East as all-out war between Israel and Iran becomes a greater possibility – By Darius Shahtahmasebi (The Anti-Media) (SOTT)

Middle East war

Over the weekend, Israel used the long-standing adversarial threat of Iran as a pretext to launch a barrage of attacks against targets in Syrian territory. According to the Israeli side, an Iranian drone launched from Syria flew deep into Israeli airspace, which prompted Israel to not only down the drone, but to also target the base the drone was allegedly launched from in Syria.

In turn, Syria activated its air defenses, which saw Israel lose one of its fighter jets soon after. Unhappy with this result, Israel launched a number of retaliatory strikes against Syria’s air defenses, including bases allegedly staffed with Iranian personnel as opposed to Iran’s mere proxy forces. Israel claimed it successfully destroyed half of Syria’s air defenses, and because this is allegedly the first time Israel has actually struck Iranian targets as opposed to Iranian proxies, the weekend’s developments undoubtedly represent an escalation.

We are seeing a renegotiation of the rules of the game with regard to the kind of military activity that each side tolerates in the other,” said Ofer Zalzberg, the senior analyst for Israel/Palestine at the International Crisis Group. “We will see more and more friction between the parties, given that we are seeing more and more this sense that Assad has the upper hand [against Syrian rebels]”, he added.

It’s worth noting that Tehran denied it launched the drone in the first place, stating its forces are in Syria in an advise-and-assist capacity only, yet western media has taken Israel’s claim at face value. Perhaps a drone did violate Israeli territory, but the implication that Iran launched it still requires further proof given the drone almost certainly came from Syria, which has a government and military of its own. Further, a pertinent question worth examining is why Iran would launch a drone into Israeli territory in the first place. As the Atlantic observed:

“The story may well be true. But in the absence of further information, including forensic evidence from the wreckage, one must wonder what would compel Iran to make such an incursion at a time when some in the country are trying to persuade the European signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal to stand by its side and not cave to the Trump administration’s attempt to torpedo it. This would seem an inopportune moment for provocation.”

Israel has already admitted to bombing Syria well over 100 times since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, and that point alone is enough to turn this debate on its head: Why is it okay for Israel to violate Syria (and Lebanon’s) airspace over 100 times over the course of half a decade while it remains largely unacceptable for Syria to do the same a single time? Surely this double standard cannot sustain a workable and civil international community.

Further, the drone itself was reportedly a surveillance drone. It posed no immediate threat to Israeli life compared to, say, Israel’s sophisticated bombers, which routinely violate Lebanon’s (and now Jordan’s) airspace to take out targets in Syria.

In light of the fact that Anti-Media has warned about rising tensions between Israel, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon multiple times, examining what’s still to come has become a necessity.

“Winter is coming from the north where we have a concrete threat,” Orit Perlov, a social media analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies, told the Jerusalem Post in an interview just days before the Israeli jet was downed in Syria.

VICE believes the situation did not escalate even further following the weekend’s activities primarily because of Russia’s diplomatic intervention, which was aimed at de-escalating tensions between the two rival nations. Haaretz observed that the effect of Russia’s intervention showed “once again who’s the real boss in the Middle East.” Even the Atlantic is calling on Russia to broker the peace between the two countries, stating:

“Moscow may be reluctant to assume a political role it has shown little capacity for playing. But as the dominant power in Syria that controls the skies, it has no choice. Unlike any other actor, moreover, it enjoys good relations with all the main actors: Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. There is no reasonable alternative to Russia as balancing power and mediator.”

However, the New York Times noted that even though Russia controls Syrian airspace, Israel received no warning regarding the alleged drone activity.

Despite Trump’s diehard pro-Israeli rhetoric, the U.S. is nowhere to be seen at a time when Israelis would probably value its American counterpart the most. In an op-ed published on Sunday in Haaretz, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro noted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was taking a trip through Jordan, Turkey (which is also currently violating Syrian territory), Egypt, Kuwait and even Lebanon – but not Israel.

This reality alone should give some of us hope that at the end of the day, an outright conflict cannot erupt between Iran and Israel without reckoning first with Russia on some level. According to Haaretz, Vladimir Putin intervened during the recent spat and, in a phone call, asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid moves that could lead to “a new round of dangerous consequences for the region.”

Haaretz also believes Russia is concerned about the proximity of the Israeli bombings on sites where Russian soldiers are currently stationed. Given reports are emerging that U.S. airstrikes may have killed a significant number of Russian operatives on the ground in Syria, Russia may be much more irked by the recent developments than first imagined.

Right now, Israel sees the conflict differently. Haaretz stated that Israeli airstrikes were part of what the IDF referred to as the “war between the wars,” designed to undermine Hezbollah’s attempts to empower itself. But the added risk now is the fact that Syria and/or Iran believe they can challenge Israeli airstrikes in the future, meaning one wrong move could catapult the tit-for-tat attacks into something far more extensive.

“We need to prepare ourselves operationally and intelligence-wise for the mounting threat,” Brig Gen Amit Fisher, the Israel Defense Forces chief responsible for the Syrian frontier, told troops on Sunday, according to the Guardian. “The big test will be the test of war.”

The Guardian also noted that the IDF has enhanced its defenses in northern Israel, close to the Syrian border, while the Jerusalem Post cited witnesses who claimed a convoy of missile-defense batteries had moved north.

“That’s the price of war. My assessment is that the incident isn’t over and that we’re now only in a timeout,” Maj. Gen Amiram Levin also told a local radio station, according to the Guardian.

Iran, for its part, has issued equally stern threats.

“The Syrian nation proved this time that it will respond to any act of aggression, as the era of hit and run is over,” Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council said.

“Iran can create a hell for the Zionists,” Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also allegedly said.

Right now, the concern for Israel is that the Syrian government might try to reclaim the Syrian side of the disputed Golan Heights region, a former part of Syria that was seized and then occupied by Israel. After the conflict erupted in 2011, Syria lost its side of the Golan Heights to armed rebel groups, which have effectively operated under free air support from Israel – but this might change in the not-too-distant future. However, this would put Israel in a worse off position than it was in prior to the conflict, as the over-extension of Assad’s forces means he may have to rely on Iranian proxies like Hezbollah to retake the area for him. If that happens, it is almost certain that we will see Israel further widen its involvement in Syria to combat this alleged threat.

Whether or not this will eventually lead to an all-out war with Iran is still unclear. Last year, a top Israeli general tasked with writing his country’s defense policy admitted that Israel could not take on Iran’s military alone and would have to rely on assistance from the U.S.

According to Ofer Zalsberg, the risk of “full-fledged war, conventional war, between Israel and Iran, is still very low.” Instead, the real risk is that a war between Israel and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy on the ground, is “increasing by the day,” according to Zalsberg.

The recent spats came at a time immediately after U.S. troops had arrived in Israel for joint military exercises aimed at preparing to defend Israel from a Hezbollah rocket attack.

In September of last year, Israel held its largest military drill in 20 years. It was specifically designed to simulate an invasion of Lebanon to combat Hezbollah.

Darius Shahtahmasebi has completed a Double Degree in Law and Japanese from the University of Otago, with an interest in human rights, international law and journalism. He’s a fully qualified lawyer in two separate jurisdictions, and writes about foreign policy for Anti-Media. Contact Darius: darius.shahtahmasebi@theantimedia.org. Support Darius’ work on Patreon: patreon.com/thetvsleaking

Tehran’s retaliation will ‘level Tel Aviv to the ground,’ Iranian official warns Israel – By RT

Tehran’s retaliation will ‘level Tel Aviv to the ground,’ Iranian official warns Israel
Israel’s capital will be leveled “to the ground” by an immediate retaliatory strike if Benjamin Netanyahu follows through on his threat to attack the Islamic Republic, an Iranian politician has threatened.

Waving a piece of an Iranian drone, allegedly downed over northern Israel last week, the Israeli Prime Minister last Sunday warned Tehran against testing Israel’s resolve. “We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself,” Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Munich Security Conference, after Israeli forces conducted a massive cross-border intrusion into Syria to strike Iranian targets.

The threat seems to have struck a nerve in Tehran. Iranian conservative politician, Mohsen Rezaee, who is also secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council, warned that the Islamic Republic stands ready to retaliate and strike Tel Aviv before the Israeli PM even gets a chance to flee the capital.

“About Netanyahu’s unwise words, I should say that if they carry out the slightest unwise move against Iran, we will level Tel Aviv to the ground and will not give any opportunity to Netanyahu to flee,” Rezaee told al-Manar news channel on Monday, according to Fars News Agency. “The US and Israeli leaders don’t know Iran and don’t understand the power of resistance and therefore, they continuously face defeat.”

READ MORE: Israel threatens to ‘bite hard’ after downing of its fighter jet in Syria

Tel Aviv has repeatedly warned Iran against meddling in Israeli affairs by supplying advanced missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel also remains very concerned over the foothold the Islamic Republic has in Syria. Netanyahu, who branded the milestone nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers a “historic mistake” and a threat to Israel’s survival, also continues to argue that that the deal is flawed and allows Iran to potentially produce hundreds of nuclear weapons that can strike Israel.

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In-depth analysis: US protecting ISIS to weaken rivals, justify and expand indefinite US occupation of Syria – By Steven Chovanec(Insurge Intelligence) (SOTT)

manbij fighters

Fighters of the Euphrates Liberation Brigade, part of the Manbij Military Council, in Manbij, of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Syrian Democratic Forces recently captured the al-Omar oil fields of Deir Ezzor with support from ISIS

The dominant view of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), Operation Inherent Resolve, is that its fundamental goal is the defeat of ISIS.

And so, in the wake of the routing of ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the core justification for an ongoing US military presence in Syria is ensuring that no post-mortem ISIS insurgency arises.

That the US is unequivocally opposed to ISIS is simply taken for granted.

Yet a closer look at the history of US involvement shows that counterterrorism has been a lesser concern relative to geopolitical and strategic goals. Whenever the goals of expanding territorial control or weakening rivals conflicts with the goal of opposing ISIS, the entity was either ignored or even empowered in pursuit of these more paramount concerns.

In some ways, by providing a pretext for extended military operations on foreign soil, and by helping to diminish the military might of the Syrian regime and its allies, some coalition officials have seen the Islamic State as a potentially beneficial phenomenon to the wider ends of weakening the Syrian state and opposing Iranian influence in the Levant.

Leveraging the Caliphate

In 2015, ISIS executed an unprecedented advance in Syria.

Audio leaks would later surface of then Secretary of State John Kerry explaining that the Obama administration saw this expansion as beneficial to the US position.

Seeing that this could be used to pressure Assad, the threat of state-collapse was something to be “watched” and “managed,” rather than deterred. “We were watching,” Kerry said:

“… and we know that this was growing… We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage – that Assad would then negotiate.”

Yet this was not simply a case of exploiting events that were entirely out of control. At this time, Obama’s regional allies had been conducting major influxes of support to jihadist factions among the rebels, including ISIS, for years in their bid to oust Assad.

US intelligence oversaw and was well aware of these policies. As Kerry’s observations suggest, the motive was that with “Daesh growing in strength”, the US military would be able to “manage” this development while the expansion of ISIS would mean that “Assad would then negotiate.”

This all changed when Russia, in response to the expanding ISIS movement, intervened. With Russia in the game, regime-change looked like an increasingly dwindling prospect.

Awkwardly, Russia was “carrying out more sorties in a day in Syria than the US-led coalition has done in a month,” while also targeting ISIS oil tankers, something the US-led coalition was reluctant to do – to the point that large convoys of oil trucks carrying ISIS oil were able to operate efficiently and in broad daylight.

The embarrassing contradictions of the “anti-ISIS” campaign were becoming difficult to explain away. Instead of being “degraded” or “destroyed”, ISIS was actually expanding during the bulk of the anti-ISIS campaign.

Durham University’s Dr. Christopher Davidson, one of the world’s leading scholars in Middle East affairs, has explained that:

“… the Islamic State was effectively on the same side as the West, especially in Syria, and in all its other warzones was certainly in the same camp as the West’s regional allies.”

Moreover, “on a strategic level, its big gains had made it by far the best battlefield asset to those who sought the permanent dismemberment of Syria and the removal of [the Iran-leaning] Nouri Maliki in Iraq.”

Therefore, the trick for the West was “trying to find the right balance between being seen to take action but yet still allowing the Islamic State to prosper.”

Citing a prophetic 2008 RAND Corporation report, Davidson explains that the “illusory campaign that would eventually need to be waged against the Islamic State” would therefore mainly consist of “the establishment of certain red lines” along a “contain and react approach.” This would “involve deploying perimeters around areas where there are concentrations of transnational jihadists,” while making sure to limit any action to only “periodically launching air/missile strikes against high-value targets.”

In other words, Russia’s intervention essentially called Washington’s bluff. Seeing this, and also seeing Syria increasingly in a position to reclaim those territories that ISIS had been so effective at denying them, it appeared that it was time to start getting serious about putting an end to the Caliphate.

Bombing Syria… Again

In terms of its proven effectiveness at weakening the militaries of Syria and Hezbollah, and of draining the resources of Syria’s sponsors, gaining maximum strategic benefit from Islamic State’s eradication would depend not only upon handing over administration of retaken territories to proxies on the ground, but also on ensuring that its guns were primarily being pointed towards Syria and Iran.

While ISIS was indeed fought on certain fronts where it sat upon lucrative energy resources and vital infrastructure, its fighters frequently operated away from allies and toward the front-lines of rivals.

For example, during ISIS’ 2015 surge, whose “threat” towards the Syrian Army (SAA) was to be “managed” by the US as leverage, they successfully encircled and besieged Syrian forces in Deir Ezzor.

deir ezzor map

© Newsweek
Figure 1. Map of Syria showing siege of Deir Ezzor (circled in blue) as of August 2015.

Deir Ezzor is important strategically because of its concentration of energy resources, housing the country’s single largest oil deposit, the al-Omar fields.

The only effective force fighting ISIS for the West was the Kurdish YPG militias, also called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who were concentrated along the country’s northern borders. Therefore, the US “sphere-of-influence” that was to be carved from ISIS’ decline was geographically limited to the territory adjacent to this region.

Since the important Deir Ezzor resources were therefore “in-reach”, it was imperative that the Syrian Army did not persevere against the Islamic State and find themselves in a position to take them before the US-backed SDF were able to.

rojova manbij map

© Daily Kos
Figure 2. Map of US-backed SDF advances vs. ISIS (yellow) in Syria, from September 2015 to March 2016.

It is perhaps not very surprising that an apparent coalition attack on SAA positions in Deir Ezzor occurred only months after ISIS began besieging the city, killing three soldiers and wounding another thirteen. The US-led coalition bombings effectively assisted the ISIS advance at the expense of Assad’s forces.

While the US vehemently denied responsibility for the attack, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a pro-opposition monitoring group that receives funding from Western governments, the jets that carried out the attack were “likely to be from the coalition.”

While this could admittedly be chalked up to a one-off mistake, it was not the only attack of its kind.

Almost a year later, as the Syrian government was still holding out against the siege, US-led coalition warplanes launched a much larger and sustained attack, dropping over a dozen airstrikes that reportedly killed dozens of Syrian soldiers while wounding at least a hundred others.

The attack was a major boost to the besieging Islamic State, as one British journalist described it: “in the immediate aftermath, Isis swarmed forward and cut the city in half,” further tightening the noose around the SAA while directly threatening their airborne supply-line.

With the facts this time undeniable, and eager to distance themselves from the obvious strategic advantage received, the US admitted culpability but denied it was anything more than a mistake. The media quickly accepted these denials, overlooking major inconsistencies that remained.

For instance, the official report revealed that the US had misled the Russians about the location of the intended strike, ignored intelligence reports saying Syrian soldiers were being targeted, and circumvented normal targeting procedures before the action was taken, downgrading the intelligence requirements needed to launch the strike.

As veteran journalist Gareth Porter pointed out, the “irregularities in decision-making [were] consistent with a deliberate targeting of Syrian forces.”

Another possible explanation pointed towards the open hostility that top Pentagon officials had expressed towards a joint US-Russia ceasefire deal agreed upon days earlier, which collapsed in the wake of the attack. The officials were specifically antagonistic towards requirements of cooperation with the Russian military, therefore displaying motive and ability.

A further possible explanation was provided by the director of Human Rights Watch. Using language not so different than John Kerry’s, and seemingly in agreement with such a strategy, he wrote on his Twitter handle asking: “As US kills 80 Syrian soldiers, is it sending Assad a signal for his deadly intransigence?”

What is certain is that for those committed to weakening Syria’s progress against ISIS in the much coveted northeastern “sphere-of-influence,” the coalition bombings securely tipped the balance of forces against the Syrian Army, who only managed to survive due to Russian air-power.

The strategic dimension of this is that as long as most of Deir Ezzor was occupied by ISIS, and not Syria, the option to retake it remained open. If Syria reestablished its control, taking the area would not be possible for the US-led coalition without a full declaration of war. Within this political dynamic then, the only way to make sure that the area remained “in-reach” of the coalition was by ensuring that the Islamic State remained in control and prevented further Syrian expansion.

And while conventional pundits would routinely dismiss the occurrence of such strategic considerations, they plainly did take place.

The US defense establishment thought-process was best described by the former director of the CIA, Michael Morell. Echoing Kerry’s mindset, Morell said the United States needed “to make the Iranians pay a price in Syria, we need to make the Russians pay a price,” specifically advocating the killing of Iranians and Russians operating in the country to do so. “I want to put pressure on [Assad],” he continued, “I want to put pressure on the Iranians, I want to put pressure on the Russians,” in order to make them “come to that diplomatic settlement.” Importantly, however, this was to be done “covertly,” he said, “so you don’t tell the world about it, right? You don’t stand up at the Pentagon and say, ‘we did this,’ but you make sure they know it in Moscow and Tehran.”

Indeed, these were the very possibilities being discussed among the highest policy-planning bodies within the administration.

John Kerry himself requested on multiple occasions that the US launch missiles at “specific regime targets”, in order to “send a message” to Assad to “negotiate peace.” Like Morell, Kerry suggested the US would not have to acknowledge the attacks, but that Assad “would surely know the missiles’ return address”.

Live to Fight Another Day

The strategic benefits afforded from ISIS were perhaps best described by Thomas Friedman. Writing in the New York Times, he explained that:

“America’s goal in Syria is to create enough pressure on Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah so they will negotiate a power-sharing accord… that would also ease Assad out of power.”

Therefore, since the Islamic States’ “goal is to defeat Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria – plus its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies… we could simply back off fighting territorial ISIS in Syria and make it entirely a problem for Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad.”

His assessment was that the US did not want to defeat ISIS straight away, because “if we defeat territorial ISIS in Syria now, we will only reduce the pressure on Assad, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.”

One way was to leave an open corridor for ISIS fighters to escape through, in areas where US-backed forces were battling the group.

This under-reported aspect of Obama’s official policy toward ISIS has quietly been kept in place during the Trump administration.

Prior to the battle in Mosul, top ISIS leaders were reportedly able to flee the city and find their way into Syria. As the battle was waged, regular ISIS units also apparently had open access to a similar escape route.

Sources described seeing hundreds of fighters fleeing Mosul and entering into Syria, heading towards Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. The strategic rationale was alluded to by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, when he told the media “if Daesh were forced out of Mosul, they were likely to go on to Syria.”

The Iraqi commander in charge of the operation would confirm that this indeed had happened. Citing intelligence information he received, the commander said that militants “were fleeing Mosul to Syria along with their families.”

Not long after this, ISIS launched an offensive in Deir Ezzor. The Guardian reported that the fighters breaking through government defenses were “primarily reinforcements coming over the border from Iraq’s Anbar province,” who then “broke through government lines, splitting its territory in half and taking control of the area where the WFP’s [World Food Program] airdrops landed.”

A year later, now during President Trump’s administration, the campaign against ISIS in Tal Afar, Iraq, ended in little over a week. Heralded as a testament to the strength of ISIS’ enemies, it soon became clear that the victory was only made possible by a major ISIS retreat.

In a direct reference to the ‘open corridor’ policy, the Iraqi commander helming the battle told reporters that “significant numbers of fighters were able to slip through a security cordon” and escape. More worryingly, this was made possible because “There was an agreement” with ISIS, according to Major General Najim al-Jobori, between the militant group and Iraqi Kurdish forces. Some of those retreating turned themselves in, while others “fled to Turkey and Syria.”

nyt article

© NYT

The report is notable given evidence, previously reported by INSURGE, that elements of Iraqi Kurdish authorities had ties to ISIS in relation to the facilitation of oil sales.

Later in Syria, the situation came to a head when the Syrian Army marched eastward and finally broke the three-year-long siege in Deir Ezzor, placing the surrounding oil-fields within their reach at a time when the US-backed SDF were also marching closer.

The New York Times would describe how “a complex confrontation is unfolding, with far more geopolitical import and risk…

“The Islamic State is expected to make its last stand not in Raqqa but in an area that encompasses the borders with Iraq and Jordan and much of Syria’s modest oil reserves, making it important in stabilizing Syria and influencing its neighboring countries. Whoever lays claim to the sparsely populated area in this 21st-century version of the Great Game not only will take credit for seizing what is likely to be the Islamic State’s last patch of a territorial caliphate in Syria, but also will play an important role in determining Syria’s future and the postwar dynamics of the region.”

It was within this context that another agreement was struck ending the battle for Raqqa. The SOHR said it:

“… received information from Knowledgeable and independent sources confirming reaching a deal between the International Coalition and the Syria Democratic Forces in one hand; and the ‘Islamic State’ organization in the other hand, and the deal stated the exit of the remaining members of the ‘Islamic State’ organization out of Al-Raqqah city.”

The SOHR “confirms that this agreement has happened.”

It was later revealed that the agreement included some 50 trucks, 13 buses, 4,000 evacuees and all of the fighters’ weapons and ammunition.

Further information came to light when a high-level participant in the negotiations blew the whistle.

Brigadier General Talal Silo, a former SDF commander who acted as the spokesman for the US’ leading partner in the fight against ISIS, and who has since defected to Turkey, explained that an “agreement was reached for the terrorists to leave, about 4,000 people, them and their families,” all but five-hundred of whom were fighters. He said that a US official had “approved the deal at a meeting with an SDF commander.”

Even more damning, and apparently confirming that specific end-destinations were included within these kinds of agreements, the commander:

“… came back with the agreement of the US administration for those terrorists to head to Deir al-Zor.”

The ISIS evacuees protected under the US-approved agreement were to head towards ISIS-controlled areas “where the Syrian army and forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad were gaining ground.” Here, they would “prevent the regimes advance.” The BBC corroborated this, tracking the convoy to one of these very areas.

Reuters also reported that the front being fought by the Syrian government in Deir Ezzor had “turned into a major base for Daesh militants after the US-backed offensive drove them out of Raqqa.” The deal, in short, directly “boosted the US fight against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” as Newsweek observed.

“According to the Americans,” Brig. Gen. Silo continued, “the regime army could reach Deir ez-Zor in six weeks” at first, “but when the regime army proceeded faster than expected, the US wanted the SDF to begin negotiations with Daesh.” The deal was then endorsed because the US “wanted a swift end to the Raqqa battle so the SDF could move on towards Deir al-Zor.”

Silo also claimed that the US and the SDF had made similar deals on at least 2 other occasions, corroborating a Syrian dissident and human rights activist who earlier claimed that a similar agreement had been reached during the battle for Mosul.

In terms of providing “a swift end to the Raqqa battle” and allowing the SDF to “move on towards Deir Ezzor”, the US-brokered deal proved a success. Just days later the SDF captured the al-Omar fields, the largest and most lucrative Syrian oil deposit.

But according to Elijah Magnier, journalist and war correspondent for the Kuwait-based Al Rai newspaper, after “the United States preceded Russia to the oil and gas Omar oilfield… ISIS then delivered [it] to the Kurds without any resistance.”

Validating this, an SDF spokesperson described how “our forces managed to liberate the fields without notable damages.”

Indeed, according to the SOHR, the “advancement achieved by the Syria Democratic Forces, in which they entered Al-Omar oilfield and took the control of it,” had occurred only “after a counter attack by ISIS [against the SAA], that kept the regime forces away of the outskirts and the vicinity of the field.” It was a tight race though, as “government forces were 2 miles away from the fields” at the time.

The remaining oil-fields and surrounding countryside east of the Euphrates were swept up by the SDF along similar lines, with ISIS voluntarily agreeing to evacuate the areas. SOHR’s sources further clarified “that ISIS prefer[s] handing over the organization-held areas to the SDF instead of handing them over to ‘the Shiite Militia’, in order to prevent the regime forces from advancing towards these area[s].”

As Elijah Magnier reported at the time that:

“US-backed forces advanced in north-eastern areas under ISIS control, with little or no military engagement: ISIS pulled out from more than 28 villages and oil and gas fields east of the Euphrates River, surrendering these to the Kurdish-US forces following an understanding these reached with the terrorist group.”

Furthermore, “this deal was an effective way to prevent the control by the Syrian army” given that “the United States seems determined to hold on to part of the Syrian territory, allowing the Syrian Kurds to control northeast Syria, especially those areas rich in oil and gas.”

Protecting the Pretext

The lines between Russia and the United States were therefore cut in two by the Euphrates; the SDF to the east, the Syrian Army to the west.

As ISIS’ Caliphate reached its final demise, the US established new rules of engagement, announcing it would not allow Syria or its allies to cross into its zone of control.

The US also announced it would continue its occupation of northeastern Syria indefinitely, even after ISIS is gone. The US currently has at least ten small scale military bases set up within the country.

sfd syria map

© mediafire.com/convkey
Figure 3. Map of Northeast Syria showing government-control (red) and SDF-control (light green) as of December 2017.

The overall strategy, according to an analysis by Joshua Landis, a highly-regarded Syria expert and professor at the University of Oklahoma, is aimed at thwarting economic recovery and interconnection within the region, in an attempt “to hurt Iran and Assad.”

The United States’ “main instrument in gaining leverage,” Landis said, are “the Syrian Democratic Forces” and the areas they have conquered in “Northern Syria.” By “denying the Damascus access to North Syria” and by “controlling half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land, the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced…

“Keeping Syria poor and unable to finance reconstruction suits short-term US objectives because it protects Israel and will serve as a drain on Iranian resources, on which Syria must rely as it struggles to reestablish state services and rebuild as the war winds down.”

Therefore, by “promoting Kurdish nationalism in Syria,” the US “hopes to deny Iran and Russia the fruits of their victory,” while “keeping Damascus weak and divided.” The US position “serves no purpose other than to stop trade and prohibit a possible land route from Iran to Lebanon,” and to “beggar Assad and keep Syria divided, weak and poor.”

Yet with such an approach in mind, the defeat of ISIS posed a dilemma.

Battling ISIS was the fig leaf under international law that the US relied on to legitimize its military operations on foreign soil without Syria’s consent. With ISIS gone, even this shaky argument does not hold. The US administration was therefore caught between a rock and a hard place.

It is perhaps not a surprise then that the US has, for months, been effectively safeguarding an ISIS contingent pocketed within SDF controlled areas along the northern border with Iraq.

Indeed, the official OIR reports register that virtually no airstrikes have been conducted in this area since at least mid-November 2017, only elsewhere along the eastern banks of the Euphrates, “near Abu Kamal” (see here for easier viewing).

By preventing Russia and Syria from crossing the Euphrates to finish fighting ISIS, and by refusing to attack it in these areas, the US presence has essentially protected the Islamic State from a full territorial defeat in Syria.

In that sense, it is extremely worrying that Defense Secretary Mattis has told reporters that the US will plan to stay in Syria and “keep fighting as long as they [ISIS] want to fight,” because “the enemy hasn’t declared that they’re done with the area yet.”

eir ezzor map

© mediafire.com/convkey
Figure 4. Close-up of ISIS contingent east of the Euphrates (black) not being attacked by US coalition, as of December 2017.

There is also another incentive. Much like the ‘open corridor’ policy, the US has announced “it will not carry out strikes against the militants’ last remaining fighters as they move into areas held by the Assad regime in western Syria.”

This has prompted even US-backed opposition fighters to suspect that:

“… their own side could be allowing small Isis pockets to survive so they can attack and weaken the regime and its main backer in the region, Iran.”

In closing, all of these polices have in one way or another been justified under the need to “protect civilians.”

Yet even within the bounds of official narratives, even if all of what has been presented here is disregarded, this is still problematic, given what Charles J. Dunlap Jr., professor of law at Duke University, has called “the moral hazard of inaction.” Since the end result of these US policies allows ISIS to survive, the notion that they “save civilians” isn’t really valid, since “the ISIS fighters who might have been killed lived on to butcher civilians” at a later time.

Unfortunately, thanks to the evolution of US military strategy, ISIS will continue to have the opportunity to do so.

Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSur, Consortium News, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec

Pro-govt Syrian fighters begin entering Kurdish Afrin despite Turkish threats – Syrian TV (VIDEO) – By RT

Pro-govt Syrian fighters begin entering Kurdish Afrin despite Turkish threats – Syrian TV (VIDEO)
A convoy of fighters waving Syrian flags has apparently entered the northern Kurdish-held region of Afrin, which Turkey is targeting in a cross-border operation, footage on Syrian state TV shows.

The pro-government fighters were filmed entering the village of Nubul in some 20 pickup trucks. An RT source on the ground has confirmed the movement of troops to Afrin.

A reporter at the scene for Syrian state agency SANA said that the area where the fighters arrived has already been targeted by an attack from the Turkish side.

 
 

Turkish media later reported that an artillery attack on the convoy forced it to retreat.

The deployment comes after a reported deal between Damascus and Kurdish authorities, which sought the involvement of the central government amid a continued fight against Turkey and the militias supported by Ankara.

READ MORE: Turkey will lay siege to Syria’s Afrin in coming days — Erdogan

Turkish officials earlier warned that their forces would lay siege to the city of Afrin if pro-Damascus fighters show up there.

 
 
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Disastrous Winter Olympics For the USA, May Lose South Korea to Peace – By Niall Bradley (Sott.net)

mike pence winter olympics

‘You have good time, Mike?’… ‘I’d rather be in Israel.’

I must confess some measure of schadenfreude at the sight of beady-eyed US Vice-president Mike Pence squirming through his ‘protocol headache‘ at the opening ceremony of the winter Olympics in South Korea last week. There he was, the distinguished emissary of South Korea’s ‘protector’, a representative of the Exceptional Nation, eclipsed by the surprise inclusion of a representative of ‘the enemy’. And at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, no less! Who politicizes sporting and cultural events like that? It’s outrageous!

The irony, no doubt, was completely lost on the Americans. After provoking Russia into responding to a military attack launched by that nutcase Saakashvili during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, then trying their level best to scare people away from participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, then pressuring international sporting bodies to ban Russian athletes from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, then doing likewise to cast Russians as untermensch at the current winter games, there’s some poetic justice in seeing the US deep state’s manipulation of the cultural sphere bite it in the rear.

Pro-Trump pundits lambasted the US ‘liberal media’ for its allegedly fawning coverage of ‘the Communist dictator’s photogenic sister’. While the coverage was somewhat reasonable towards the North Korean regime – after all, how could media, globally, fail to notice this turn of events after the past year’s bellicose rhetoric? – it was far from ‘doing Kim’s propaganda for him’, and it’s doubtful that US coverage was motivated by ‘making the Trump administration look bad’.

For example, that preeminent ultra-liberal outlet, The Guardian, disparaged the peaceful overture with this headline: ‘‘Humble’ Kim Yo-jong has charmed the media, but the glow is unlikely to last‘. The notion that coverage of the event was ‘partisan’ is also betrayed by this statement in a January New York Times op-ed from Obama’s State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, David R. Russell:

“It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the US behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea. And if the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.”

The obnoxious ‘leash’ Russell refers to is the one Korean-American historian Leo Chang Soon says, “South Korea has been under since Syngman Rhee flew into Korea on General Douglas MacArthur’s plane to become the first president of South Korea on September 2, 1945.”

So Trump, Pence, and the whole US government indeed appear foolish given that any protests they may raise against the two Koreas symbolically uniting under one Olympic flag amounts to the suggestion that North Korea had conspired to do so in order to ‘drive a wedge between South Korea and the US’.

Things went from bad to worst-possible-scenario for the US when South Korean president Moon Jae-In subsequently hosted Kim Yo-jong at the presidential ‘Blue House’ in Seoul, the first such visit by a member of the Kim dynasty since the Korean War ended, and during which she handed him a formal invitation to meet with her brother in Pyongyang ‘ASAP’.

Kim Yo Jong Moon Jae-In

Deep State warning lights all blinked red when this happened: Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, formally invites South Korean president Moon Jae-In to Pyongyang.

What some seem to have forgotten (more likely, never even considered) is that the only reason Trump has spent the past year in a dangerous war of words with Kim is because that is what the Deep State needed to happen. The shock that produced a president Trump – the Clintons’ fall in early November 2016 – came at exactly the same time that an apparently separate shock brought down South Korean president Park Geun-hye: the eruption of mass demonstrations in late October 2016 following the exposure that she had effectively handed the reins of power to a Rasputin-like psychic running an extortion racket with government funds.

In the fallout that followed (think Hillary’s Emails + Benghazi-gate + Uranium One… except that people actually went to jail), South Korean aides and ministers were arrested from November 2016 all the way through late March 2017, when Park herself was indicted. So the US Deep State was on notice that voters were about to swing ‘left’, which in the South Korean context meant electing a party that would be markedly less antagonistic towards its northern neighbor, which always increases the risk of peace breaking out on the Korean peninsula, and thus increases the risk of rendering the US’ massive military presence redundant.

With South Korean elections coming up in May 2017, and likely to bring in – for the first time in over a decade – a pro-unification government in favor of engaging with the North Koreans rather than threatening to bomb them back to the stone age (again), US War Chief James Mattis set off on a ‘reassurance’ tour of East Asian vassals and tributaries. Landing in South Korea on February 2nd 2017, Mattis pushed for the installation of THAAD missile systems before the new future government could, inevitably, object to new ‘facts on the ground’. Rex Tillerson followed suit with a civilian version of the tour, landing first in Japan on March 15th.

From February 11th, 2017 onward, North Korea began the first of 16 missile test launches that year – the most it has ever conducted in one year. This was almost certainly done with one eye on the political upheaval in both South Korea and Washington, and the US Deep State’s efforts to contain the fallout of both.

Trump then declared on April 2nd 2017 that the US “would be willing to go it alone to restrain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should China fail to change the situation,” which began the tit-for-tat insults between him and Kim, and the UN resolutions (further) sanctioning North Korea, thus generating the overall atmosphere of imminent Armageddon. If the ostensible strategic purpose of publicly bellowing ‘fire and fury’ at North Korea was meant to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US, then it apparently failed.

Then again, sabre-rattling over North Korea has always been a means to the end of surrounding China with US missile batteries, hence the need for an enduring ‘crisis’ over North Korea and serious US aversion to any moves towards a peaceful and unified Korea.

Remember that Trump started down this route just two days before reversing position on Syria and announcing that it had ‘crossed the chemical weapons red line’, which cemented the US strategy of doubling down on ‘Plan B’ by carving a piece out of Syria. The coincidental timing only underscores the political compromise Trump had to make; ‘yield on foreign policy if you want to live, much less see through the end of your term and implement any of your election promises’.

At the time I wondered if Kim was indeed crazy – not because he might actually start nuking people, but because from a PR point of view he appeared to be hurting his chances of success with the incoming pro-peace government in Seoul. But actually, he was applying the rule that all countries must eventually grasp; that in this world any sovereign nation-state seeking to protect or advance its interests must acquire the credible threat of violence to make diplomacy successful. When everyone learns to ‘speak softly, but carry a big stick’, then, maybe, we can have something approximating world peace.

North Korea would of course lose in any serious conflict with the US, but not before thousands of US soldiers and possibly millions of US citizens, died too. It’s doubtful whether any US politician, nor even its Deep Staters, would be willing to risk taking that kind of a hit to America’s status as the Exceptional Nation, particularly given the US’ chronically polarized political climate.

South Korea doesn’t have that ‘luxury’: conflict on the peninsula is for her an existential matter. It’s only by demonstrating just how much firepower North Korea has, and how far it is willing to go in using it, that South Korea is taking its northern neighbor seriously. Hence the friendly smiles in PyeongChang.

South Korean President Moon better watch out though – while it may be difficult for the CIA to get to Kim in the North, it would be a cakewalk for them to get to him.

Kim Yo Jong korea olympics

South Korean president Moon Jae-In, second left, talks with North Korea’s president of the People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam, second right, during a performance of North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra at the National Theater in Seoul. To the left of Kim Yong Nam is Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister. This photo was shared with the media by the SOUTH Korean government, not the North.

Niall Bradley (Profile)

Niall Bradley has a background in political science and media consulting, and has been an editor and contributing writer at SOTT.net for 8 years. His articles are cross-posted on his personal blog, NiallBradley.net. Niall is co-host of the ‘Behind the Headlines’ radio show on the Sott Radio Network and co-authored Manufactured Terror: The Boston Marathon Bombings, Sandy Hook, Aurora Shooting and Other False-Flag Terror Attacks with Joe Quinn.

 

Russian senators list 100 examples of US meddling in foreign nations’ affairs – by RT

Russian senators list 100 examples of US meddling in foreign nations’ affairs
A Russian parliamentary commission has prepared a report that lists over 100 cases of US interference in other nations’ internal affairs since the end of World War Two.

We have counted approximately 100, about 101 or 102 absolutely verified and recorded facts of American involvement in the sovereign affairs of over 60 UN member-nations since the approval of this organizations’ charter that bans any such involvement – since 1946 till this day,” the head of the upper house Commission for Protection of State Sovereignty, Senator Andrey Klimov, was quoted as saying on Monday by TASS.

The senator named one particular example from the list – the 1973 coup d’état in Chile that installed Augusto Pinochet as a military dictator and as a result of which the country’s parliament was dissolved and numerous human rights violations were committed. “Every such fact has a multitude of episodes of the US interference,” he noted.

Klimov told TASS that the annual report would be finalized and released at the end of the month, and added that senators were preparing a different edition which would be distributed among a “closed circle of persons” and which would not be released to the wider public in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, Klimov noted that not all cases of US involvement in other nations’ affairs could be formally described as such and thus were not included in the report. As an example, he named Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, in which the US president said that Washington was constantly meddling in other nations’ affairs and called for an end to such practices. “And these were the words of an inaugurated president, the commander-in-chief of the US military forces, who had been briefed through all files,” he said.

Another example was the 2003 speech of George W. Bush in which the then-US president urged change in political regimes in between 40 and 50 foreign countries.

The upper house commission for monitoring and countering foreign nations’ attempts to influence internal Russian politics was formed in mid-2017. Back then, upper house Speaker Valentina Matvienko said that attempts to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs had been ongoing for years and that up to $100 billion was sent to Russia from abroad annually to sponsor “political activities.” “We know the consequences of such meddling… and will not allow anyone to threaten Russia’s sovereignty,” she said.

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US must immediately leave area it controls in southern Syria — Lavrov – By RT

US must immediately leave area it controls in southern Syria — Lavrov
US troops must immediately shut down their zone of control in southern Syria in the area of Al-Tanf, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested when asked what should be done to help the Syrian peace settlement.

Lavrov was referring to an area on Syria’s border with Jordan and Iraq, which the US declared to be under its protection last year. Among other things, it contains the Rukban refugee camp. The facility is apparently used by radical militants, including members of UN-designated terrorist group best known by its former name Al-Nusra Front, to recover and raid other parts of Syria, Lavrov said at the Valdai Club conference on the Middle East in Moscow. The US is turning a blind eye to such abuses of its protection, he added.

“Inside the Al-Tanf zone, which the Americans unilaterally declared under their protection, and inside the refugee camp jihadists are regularly reported to recover strength. On several occasions they conducted raids from there into other territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. This zone must be shut down immediately,” the Russian minister said.

“Our colleagues from the UN for some reason are hesitant to say that humanitarian convoys cannot get into this US-controlled area because the US would not guarantee their safety,” Lavrov added. “Instead they focus attention on the humanitarian situation in Idlib or Eastern Ghouta.”

The minister added Russia has mounting evidence that the US has no intention to oppose this jihadist group in earnest.

The response came after a question from the think tank International Crisis Group about what “Russia could do more” in Syria to prevent an escalation of violence there, particularly between Iran and Israel. Lavrov said the question should be “what the US could refrain from doing” in Syria and that the answer was “stop playing dangerous games” and cease trying to partition the nation.

The Americans “in the territories they patronize east of the Euphrates River and all the way to the state border with Iraq create governing bodies which are designed by intention to have no links with Damascus,” he pointed out.

Lavrov also commented on the situation in the southwestern part of Syria on the border with Jordan and Israel – which was designated as a “de-escalation zone” by Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran – and Israel’s interests in Syria. Israel accuses Iran of using proxy forces to seize control of parts of southern Syria, including those along the border, and has threatened to use military force to reverse the situation.

“We negotiated the creation of this zone with Jordan and the US and it’s not a secret that our Israeli colleagues were informed about what we discussed,” he said. “Now to implement everything we had agreed on we have to focus on one particular article, which said all parties to the agreement would work to make sure that no non-Syrian forces were present inside and near this de-escalation zone.”

The Russian diplomat added that the US carving out the Al-Tanf area was the exact opposite – a unilateral move that no other party agreed to.

The dispute between Israel and Iran, Lavrov said, certainly complicated the situation in Syria, and Moscow believes both parties need to take steps to defuse it. For instance, Iran’s statements that Israel was a Zionist entity that needs to be destroyed are perceived as absolutely unacceptable in Russia. But neither does Russia see as constructive Israel’s policy of turning every problem in the region into a vehicle for opposing Iran, he said.

“This is what we see in Syria, this is what we see in Yemen, and even the latest developments around the Palestinian issue, including Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s exclusive capital, are to a large extent caused by the very same anti-Iranian bias,” Lavrov explained. “Both attitudes pose a risk of further damaging the situation in the region, which is already very pitiful.”

The Russian minister suggested that Israel and Iran should try to address their differences – including the latest flare-up involving an Iranian drone destroyed by Israel after reportedly violating the airspace of the Jewish state – by taking them to the UN for proper resolution. “Otherwise we will be rolling down the slope to a situation in which every incident is simply blamed on the other party and used to justify military action.”

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Arrogance: Former CIA chief Woolsey says US meddles in election of other countries ‘for their own good’ (Video) – By Alex Christoforou – The Duran (SOTT)

James Woolsey

© Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI
Former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey, Jr.

The hubris is amazing.

Former CIA chief James Woolsey was on Fox News to discuss how those devilish Russians meddled in America’s democracy by posting messages on Twitter and Facebook, forgetting about all the CIA coups, false flags, and election meddlings he oversaw when running the CIA.

The hypocrisy was so thick that when Laura Ingraham asked Woolsey if the US ever meddled in elections, the response (and laughter from both of them) was telling…

Comment: The neocons had Woolsey planted near Trump a the beginning of his term, but he didn’t stick. More Woolsey gems:

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US Aims to Separate Part of Syria to Create Kurdish-Dominated Autonomy – Lavrov – By RT

This Saturday, April. 29, 2017 still taken from video, shows an American soldier looking out of an armored vehicle in the northern village of Darbasiyah, Syria

© AP Photo/ APTV
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has commented on the situation in the war-plagued Syria, including the issue of US military presence in the country and its support of Kurdish factions.

“It is clear that the United States has some strategy which I believe entails staying in Syria forever with its armed forces… They are gearing up for separating a huge part of Syria from the rest of the country, violating Syria’s sovereignty of territorial integrity. There they will create quasi-local authorities, will try to create autonomy based on the Kurds,” Lavrov told Euronews in an interview.

The Russian Foreign Minister has stressed that Washington has deployed its forces in the war-torn country without a sanction from the United Nations of a request from the legitimate Syrian government in Damascus.

In this photo taken on Tuesday May 23, 2017, provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group, the Hammurabi's Justice News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a U.S.-backed anti-government Syrian fighter form Maghaweer al-Thawra stands on a vehicle with heavy automatic machine gun, left, next of an American soldier who also stands on his armored vehicle, right, as they take their position at the Syrian-Iraqi crossing border point of Tanf, south Syria
© AP Photo/ Hammurabi’s Justice News
In this photo taken on Tuesday May 23, 2017, provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group, the Hammurabi’s Justice News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a U.S.-backed anti-government Syrian fighter form Maghaweer al-Thawra stands on a vehicle with heavy automatic machine gun, left, next of an American soldier who also stands on his armored vehicle, right, as they take their position at the Syrian-Iraqi crossing border point of Tanf, south Syria

Lavrov’s interview follows a statement from Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who said on Thursday that the US had, in fact, created an “occupation” zone in the al-Tanf area. She added the US-controlled area was used by the remains of Daesh militants.

She also stressed that the US military “entered into a virtually open confrontation with the Syrian army” by openly supporting allied Kurdish militant groups.

Brett McGurk, US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, said in the end of 2017 that Washington would maintain a military presence at the al-Tanf garrison and other areas of Syria to prevent Daesh terrorists from returning o liberated parts of the country. The Russian military, in turn, noted that the al-Rubkan refugee camp was located 11 miles south of al-Tanf, stressing that the US presence could hamper the delivery of the humanitarian aid to the refugees.The US has been conducting airstrikes in Syria as part of the international coalition’s campaign to eradicate Daesh in the country. The US military coalition that consists of over 70 members has neither been authorized by the Syrian government nor the UN Security Council.

Will Lebanon Be the Next Energy War? – Author: F. William Engdahl (New Eastern Outlook)

Author: F. William Engdahl

 

 

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A new geopolitical confrontation is shaping up in the Middle East, and not only between Israel and Syria or Iran. Like most conflicts there, it involves a fight for hydrocarbon resources—oil and gas. The new focus is a dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the precise demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zone between the two countries. The prime actors at present, in addition to the governments of Israel and Lebanon include Russia, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and the US in the shadows. The latest Israeli attacks on alleged Iranian bases or Hezbollah camps inside Syria are closely tied to the Israeli aim to prevent a land link from Iran through Syria to the Hezbollah home-base infrastructure in Lebanon. The whole situation has the potential to lead to an ugly wider war nobody wants, at least almost nobody.

In 2010 the oil and gas geopolitics of the Mediterranean changed profoundly. That was when a Texas oil company, Noble Energy, discovered a huge deposit of natural gas offshore Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean, the so-called Leviathan Field, one of the world’s largest gas field discoveries in over a decade. The same Texas company later confirmed significant gas resources offshore in Cyprus waters near the Israeli Leviathan, called Aphrodite. Until recently, political paralysis inside Lebanon and the war in Syria had prevented Lebanon from actively exploring its offshore gas and oil potential. Now that’s changing. With the change, the tensions between Israel and Lebanon are escalating, and Russia is engaging in Lebanon in a bold way.

At a formal ceremony in Beirut on February 9, together with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, the heads of Total, ENI and Russia’s Novatek signed the first agreements to drill for oil and gas in the offshore sector claimed as part of Lebanon’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The event drew a sharp attack from Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who called Lebanon’s exploration tender “very provocative,” declaring Lebanon had put out invitations for bids from international groups for a gas field “which is by all accounts ours.”

The energy tenders from Lebanon take place amid a backdrop of dramatic new defense relations between Russia and Lebanon, creating an entirely new political calculus in the Mediterranean region.

The Riches of Levant Basin

What’s clear at this point, after some eight years of exploration offshore in the Eastern Mediterranean, is that the region is awash with hydrocarbons, something neither Israel nor Lebanon had previously been able to find. For Lebanon, to develop its own sources of natural gas would be a literal godsend. The country has been subjected to electricity blackouts since the 1975 civil war. The country daily must experience cuts in electricity, because the peak demand exceeds production by a large margin. Lacking its own gas or oil Lebanon must import expensive diesel fuel at an annual loss to the economy of some $2.5 billion. Lebanon is one of the world’s most indebted countries with debt to GDP of some 145%. The Syrian war and internal Lebanese political stalemate have frozen its offshore energy exploration until now.

A UK company, Spectrum, conducted geophysical surveys in the offshore Lebanese section of the Levant Basin in recent years, including 3D seismic, and estimated that the Lebanese waters could hold up to 25 trillion cubic feet of economically recoverable gas. Development of those gas reserves would alter the entire economy of Lebanon. Until now the war in Syria and political paralysis inside Lebanon had prevented exploitation of the offshore region.

The prospects are promising enough that an international consortium led by the giant French Total, Italy’s ENI and Russia’s Novatek, a private oil company close to Vladimir Putin has stepped forward to bid for rights to drill. Consortium leader Total has announced the first well will be drilled next year in Block 4, an undisputed sector, and that a second well will be in Block 9, the block that falls partly within an area claimed by Israel. Total was quick to clarify that the Block 9 drilling would occur more than 15 miles from the disputed zone claimed by Israel. Despite this, Israel is vehemently protesting the drilling. Lebanon has an unresolved maritime border dispute with Israel over a triangular area of sea of around 330 square miles along the edge of three of its 10 blocks.

Russian buffer between Hezbollah and Israel?

Given the potential for conflict over the energy resources of the region, it’s no coincidence that just as Lebanon welcomes the participation of a major Russian oil company, Novatek, in development of its offshore resources, the Russian government has authorized the Russian Defense Ministry to prepare a military cooperation treaty that includes a “comprehensive framework for coordination,” with the Lebanese military. The framework reportedly includes joint military exercises and Russian usage of Lebanese ports and airfields as well.

The Russian-Lebanese cooperation reportedly also includes, “exchanging information on defense means and enhancing international security capabilities; activating anti-terror cooperation; improving joint cooperation in the fields of cadre training, military exercises and armed forces building; exchanging IT expertise; establishing mechanisms for cooperation between the two countries’ armies.” In short it is major.

This, in addition to the now-permanent Russian bases in Syria–Hmeimim air base and the Russian Naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean–is a major move on Russia’s part to establish an permanent ongoing role in the volatile region as peace-broker or mediator as the credibility of Washington with her broken promises declines. This Russia-Lebanon deal is not exactly what is on Netanyahu’s wish list. The dramatic Israeli attacks inside Syrian airspace since February 10 indicate what seems to be a preemptive Israeli decision to try to disrupt the de facto Iran-Syria-Lebanon supply lines that could sustain the Hezbollah in Lebanon, that have begun to emerge in recent months.

Israel warns Putin of Hezbollah

If it were to come to a new Israeli-Lebanon-Syria shooting war, it would not be a war for simple control of potential oil or gas resources in the Lebanese offshore waters. The real target would be the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shi’ia political party and militia, and a major actor on the side of Bashar al-Assad and Russia in the Syrian war. Were Lebanon to successfully develop the gas in the offshore region it could go a long way to stabilize the Lebanese economy, ease the high unemployment and, as Netanyahu sees it, further entrench the pro-Iran Hezbollah in power as the key stability factor.

Well before the latest Israeli strikes inside Syria recent Israeli press stories carried provocative headlines such as the recent one from the English-language Jerusalem Post: “5 reasons why Israel is ready for war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.” In September of last year, the Israeli Defense Forces launched a war game simulating such a clash with Hezbollah. IDF troops practiced shifting from a defensive to an offensive posture and executing maneuvers designed for the terrain of South Lebanon.

Last November a second front in a possible Israeli war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah was mooted when Saudi Crown Prince and future king, Mohammed bin Salman, abruptly summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Riyadh to read a prepared statement of resignation. In the statement Hariri warned that unless Hezbollah ended its support for the anti-Saudi forces in Yemen as well as the pro-Assad Syrian engagement, the Saudis were prepared to impose severe economic sanctions on Lebanon as they did to Qatar. That would be devastating as the economically distressed Lebanese economy depends on remittances from some 400,000 Lebanese working in the Gulf who send home up to $8 billion yearly.

At this point Israel’s Netanyahu is in an open alliance with Saudi Prince bin Salman, with Washington in the shadows, to oppose Iran and Iranian influence in Syria as well as Lebanon and Yemen, following Netanyahu’s secret visit to Riyadh last September.

With the Trump Administration declaring its growing hostility to Iran as well as its highly-provocative unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, the preconditions for an Israeli third Lebanon war, this one backed from behind by Washington and up front by Saudi economic sanctions, using the pretext of territorial claims to Lebanese offshore waters, would have the potential to escalate into a far broader war across the Middle East. By inserting its formidable military presence as well as energy presence into Lebanon at this point, Russia at this point may be the only barrier to that new Middle East conflagration.

The dramatic escalation of Israeli attacks on Damascus and the Syrian shooting down of an Israeli F-16 jet, the first since 1982, and the disproportionate Israeli response against Syrian targets suggest how explosive the entire region is. As Ghassan Kadi writing for the Saker Blog recently notes in an excellent analysis of the situation in the region, “The recent escalation between Syria and Israel is not a prelude for a bigger war. Nobody wants a war; not right now, as they are all aware of the damage that can be inflicted upon them. Israel keeps testing the waters, testing Syria’s air defense capabilities, and above all, testing Russia’s resolve and determination to create a true balance of power in the Middle East.” As of this writing it appears as if Israel used the pretext of alleged Iranian drone incursion and the shooting of an Israeli F-16, something denied by Syria, to launch test probes of possible Russian and Iranian response going forward.

If Russia is able to contain these forces from an all-out war is not yet clear. The Russian decision to sign a military cooperation agreement with Lebanon at the same time a leading Russian energy company wins rights to drill for oil and gas offshore Lebanon is no spur-of-the-moment decision. It is a calculated chess move in one of the most entangled lands of the world. For the good of mankind let us hope it succeeds in restraining the war interests.

F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

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