|On 2 March the ancient city of Palmyra was liberated from the clutches of Daesh (so-called Islamic State, aka Isis or Isil), thanks to a combination of Russian air support, Russian special forces and the Syrian Arab Army.
A notable contribution to the joint effort came from a crack Syrian army unit identified as ‘Isis Hunters’. The unit took control of a power plant at the south entrance of the city, effectively cutting off the terrorists’ supply route and sending them fleeing to what Daesh hoped would be the defensible position of the military airport. In this they were mistaken: after an intense firefight lasting many hours, the terrorists were swept out of the airport and out of the city, with Syrian army patrols going street to street to round up any stragglers. In the course of this operation over a thousand terrorists were killed or injured.
The earlier temporary loss of Palmyra, facilitated by US duplicity, was eagerly seized upon by the enemies of Syria as evidence that the current tide of war was running less decisively in Syria’s favour. Now its decisive recapture, taken in conjunction with continued military progress being made in the north of the country, has shattered these jihadi dreams. The Syrian government now negotiates in the Kazakh capital Astana and the Swiss city of Geneva from an undoubted position of strength.
Astana and Geneva
The fact that Geneva IV (the fourth round of imperialist-sponsored ‘peace talks’) happened at all is in large measure thanks to the foundations laid in Astana in January. Whilst the Geneva talks include all the great and the (not so) good, the cast of characters is much narrower in Astana, including only actors with an immediate stake in the Syrian crisis. The US, invited to participate, agreed only to detail the US ambassador to Kazakhstan to attend the talks, a calculated snub that damaged only the US itself.
At the end of the Astana talks, Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin explained: “At the first round of the talks in the Kazakh capital Astana in January, Russia and Iran, allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, an Assad opponent, reaffirmed a shaky ceasefire between insurgents and the Syrian government. A mechanism to control the ceasefire has been created, which is the most important thing. This is the foundation that has allowed the Geneva negotiations to resume.” (Putin says Syria talks in Astana helped revive Geneva, Reuters, 27 February 2017)
Hauled out from under the protective skirts of US imperialism and forced to recognise the realities on the ground, the terrorists have the opportunity to stop grandstanding to the media and instead negotiate in earnest with its neighbours. The hope is that some of the hard lessons learned in Astana will wash back into Geneva. Talks in both cities are set to continue.
Attempts to derail the talks
The significance of the diplomatic process unfolding alternately in Kazakhstan and in Switzerland is perhaps best measured by the desperation of the efforts being mounted to derail it, not least by the simple tactic of procrastination.
Predictably enough, the ‘opposition’ has dragged its feet throughout, trying to raise eleventh-hour preconditions for each round of meetings. Announcing the timetable for the February talks in Geneva, the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura gave the squabbling rival ‘opposition’ groups an ultimatum: agree on a delegation by 8 February or he would select them himself.
Later, whilst welcoming the modest progress made at the February talks, Syria’s chief negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari gently took de Mistura to task for his excessive leniency towards the squabbling groups, noting: “De Mistura’s mistake was that he did not join several opposition groups into one. We need a national partner, not a Qatari, Saudi, French or Turkish one.” (Geneva talks outlined the way forward for Syrian settlement - Russian envoy, RT, 4 March 2017)
Yet both in Astana and in Geneva, the ‘opposition’ – or, more accurately, the ‘oppositions’ plural – eventually saw which side the bread was buttered and came to the table. The Geneva IV talks, which had been due to begin on 20 February, finally kicked off on the 23rd.
When ‘opposition’ efforts to sulk and filibuster their way out of talks failed to stop the negotiations and collapse the ceasefire, it was to be expected that resort would be had to more direct means. Sure enough, just two days into the Geneva talks, suicide bombers launched six attacks outside a number of Syrian military security offices, killing dozens of soldiers including the city’s head of military security.
Over 50 people were killed in total, and another 24 injured. The Syrian airforce responded to this terror attack by bombing the rebel-controlled quarter of Waer. Responsibility for the terrorist attacks was claimed by a criminal gang calling itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a recently rebranded al-Nusra Front (that is al-Qaeda) affiliate. De Mistura noted wearily: “Spoilers were always expected, and should continue to be expected, to try to influence the proceedings of the talks. It is in the interest of all parties who are against terrorism and are committed to a political process in Syria not to allow these attempts to succeed.” (Bombings air strikes in Syria rattle Geneva peace talks, Reuters, 25 February 2017)
After the Geneva talks concluded on 3 March, Russian envoy Aleksey Borodavkin, whilst acknowledging that there had been no great breakthrough yet, celebrated the fact that the ceasefire had broadly held and that “Warnings of ill-wishers, who predicted a failure of the Geneva round and the ensuing breakdown of the Syrian ceasefire – nothing of this came true.” (Geneva talks ‘outlined the way forward’ for Syrian settlement – Russian envoy, RT, 4 March 2017)
UN: Syria-bashing resolution backfires
Hoping to distract attention from the Geneva talks, Britain, France and the US hit the well-worn trail of tabling Syria-bashing resolutions to the UN security council – resolutions which it has been told in advance will be vetoed. This time the fictitious crime was the supposed use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, an allegation which was unfounded, and the requested punishment was that yet more sanctions should be heaped on the country, blacklisting a number of Syrian military commanders and banning the supply of helicopters.
The sole purpose of this resolution, destined in advance for the waste paper basket, was to try to claw back diplomatic ground by regurgitating old slanders against Syria. Yet even on this level the trick backfired on its authors. Not only did Russia and China exercise their veto, Ethiopia, Egypt and Kazakhstan boldly abstained and Bolivia, to its great credit, also voted against the resolution.
In response to comments by British envoy Matthew Rycroft, professing “astonishment” at the Russian veto and “surprise and disappointment” that Beijing had followed suit, China’s Liu Jieyi took the opportunity to tell a few home truths of his own about chemical weapons and dodgy dossiers.
The People’s Daily quoted him as follows: “We oppose the use of chemical weapons by any state, any organisation and any individual under any circumstance, and support the punishments against all instances of chemical weapons use. As a victim of chemical weapons back in those days, China has more right than any other country to condemn its use.
“We still remember the huge disasters brought by some countries after they waged wars against the region by accusing the latter of possessing a large amount of weapons of mass destruction, and the middle east still has not shaken itself from its after-effects ...
“Which actions are good and which ones are ulterior? It is extremely hypocritical to take the interests of the public only in words.” (Huan Xiang, Chinese diplomat unmasks ‘hypocritical’ slams against China’s veto on Syria sanctions, Global Research, 5 March 2017)
Similar sentiments were expressed recently by the head of Russia’s upper-house committee for international relations, Konstantin Kosachev, in relation to the endless Syria-bashing resolutions that MEPs submit to the European parliament. He commented: “There are a dozen of them, maybe more. When I looked at the content, I got a feeling that the European parliament exists in an isolated world and they don’t look deep into the situation in other parts of the world – particularly in Syria.”
Instead of drafting endless resolutions, their authors would do better “bringing together the little world the European parliament exists in and the real world.” (‘Go to Syria and see for yourself’: Top Russian senator invites EU lawmakers on fact-checking mission, RT, 1 March 2017)
US tries to keep the plates spinning
In the view of the Russians, one fly in the ointment at the Astana talks was the absence of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), a key actor in the Syrian crisis whose YPG military wing (People’s Protection Units) presently also form the Kurdish core of the US-backed SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces).
In temporarily sponsoring the YPG, US imperialism is solely concerned with pursuing its own agenda, and not at all with satisfying Kurdish national aspirations. This is of no consolation to Ankara, however, whose ultimate nightmare is the formation of some form of Kurdish enclave on its Syrian border, further destabilising Turkey. As co-sponsor of Astana, Turkey was able to veto any invitation to the PYD.
After the liberation of Aleppo and Palmyra, Washington’s fear must be that the Syrian Arab Army, assisted by Russian air power, will complete the liberation of its own country with no further ‘help’ from outsiders. In order to avoid this outcome, the US must press into its service allies whose mistrust of each other is matched only by their mistrust of their imperialist sponsor. This plays out militarily in situations that border on the farcical.
The city of Manbij, taken from Daesh by the SDF, is now anticipating attack by the Turkey-backed FSA (Free Syrian Army). To dissuade its FSA ally from assaulting its other ally, SDF, it is reported that the US has set up a military base in the city and unfurled the Stars and Stripes as a ‘warning sign’ to Turkish-backed forces.
Foreign Policy magazine reported Ankara’s view: “Turkish defence minister Fikri Isik said this week that Ankara’s forces would likely pivot to attack Manbij next, unless the US can guarantee that Kurdish forces have left. One American special forces soldier said that the Americans walked Turkish officials through the town once to show that Kurdish forces had left, but Ankara has ignored subsequent invitations.” (US-backed fighters in Syria worry more about Turkey than Isis by Paul McLeary, Foreign Policy, 24 February 2017)
The same article threw light on US attempts to train up and arm the SDF to go and do its bidding. “The US military maintains a light footprint in northern Syria, with small teams operating four training centres to funnel Kurdish and Arab forces into the fight for the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, and to protect [from whom?!] gains the Kurds have made in the north around the nearby city of Manbij.” It said that the SDF comprises 23,000 Syrian Arab Coalition fighters and 27,000 “battle-hardened” YPG, with most of the heavy-lifting done by the latter, and suggested that this “imbalance” within the SDF plays into “the US debate whether to supply arms to the Kurds, or only to the Syrian Arabs”.
An outraged Al Jazeera reported: “FSA factions, part of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, are encircled by regime forces [ie, the Syrian Arab Army] and the US-backed SDF to the east and south and are unable to proceed towards Isis-held Raqqa” – thereby frustrating Ankara’s dreams of a string of post-Daesh ‘safe zones’ in Syria under the Turkish thumb.
Qatar’s Al Jazeera mouthpiece recorded an FSA commander’s gloomy speculation that “the establishing of this territorial connection will increase the coordination between the regime forces and the SDF, which will be to the detriment of the FSA”. What brought about this happy state of affairs was the Syria Arab Army’s successful liberation of 20 villages – or, as Al Jazeera prefers to see it, “Isil withdrew from its positions ... allowing the regime forces to capture 20 villages”! How accommodating of them. (Syria FSA vows to attack government forces in Al Bab by Mariya Petkova, Al Jazeera, 28 February 2017)
It seems likely that, for all parties, the struggle for al-Bab is a dress rehearsal for the struggle for Raqqa, seen as the last major stronghold of Daesh. With what success imperialism will keep its temporary friends from flying at each other’s throats long enough for them to serve America’s ends remains to be seen.
Reports that the 500 US military personnel with their boots on Syrian soil are to be followed by a further 500 (in addition to all the unacknowledged special forces doubtless already in situ), coupled with sightings of US troops in the Raqqa area, raise the possibility that the Pentagon is so uneasy about leaving the battle for Raqqa to such troublesome proxies that a full-scale direct imperialist intervention is under consideration.
President Assad has reiterated that the US troops have not been invited by Syria and their presence on Syrian soil is an invasion pure and simple. Syria will prove a graveyard for any such intervention should US imperialism be so rash as to attempt it.
Victory to the Syrian president, government, army and people!