World War 5
With the fall of Syria's southern province of Daraa to Assad regime forces earlier this month, only Idlib in the north remains as a last pocket of opposition control. The besieged rebel forces there are anticipating a final offensive by Assad and his Russian backers. The pro-Moscow Al Masdar News headlines that Damascus is preparing for the "mother of all battles in Idlib," with the Syrian Arab Army's elite Tiger Forces to lead the offensive. But a complicating factor is that Turkey is occupying areas of Idlib, which means an offensive there threatens international escalation. Speaking to reporters in Ankara before heading for a summit of emerging market countries in South Africa, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would speak there with Vladimir Putin about how to resolve "the issue of Idlib." (YNet)
A new Amnesty International report accuses the US of "war crimes" in the bombardment of Raqqa, and the virtual "annihilation" of the city. The fact that the US-led bombardment was in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their campaign to take the city from ISIS has contributed to pitting Kurd against Arab and brought northern Syria closer to ethnic war. Ironically (if predictably), now that the Syrian Kurds have served their purpose in defeating ISIS, Washington is about to kick them overboard—just as Assad and Erdogan alike are preparing offensives against them.
Just over a year after Trump's air-strikes on an Assad regime airbase in response to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, we've witnessed a repeat of this episode—although this time the air-strikes were on wider targets, and carried out in conjunction with British and French forces. In response to last week's chemical attack on Douma in Syria's besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave, missiles and warplanes from the USS Donald Cook in the eastern Mediterranean carried out the first Western strikes on targets around the Damascus area. The following targets are reported to have been hit: the Damascus Scientific Research Center, said to be linked to production of chemical and biological weapons; another purported chemical weapons lab in Barzeh; a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs; and headquarters of various elite military units. Iranian forces were apparently also targeted, with a base used by the Republican Guard struck. However, this military action looks like it will be no more sustained than that of last April. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called it a "single shot," and is believed to have put the brakes on the scope "to keep this from escalating." He told reporters after the initial sorties: "Right now we have no additional attacks planned." There are no reports of any deaths in the air-strikes, and the few known casualties are all military personnel. (American Military News, Middle East Eye, Reuters, NYT, CNBC, BBC News)
A new report published by the US-based Project 2049 Institute says that it is "a matter of time" before the People’s Republic of China launches a "short, sharp war" to take the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands, but currently controlled by Japan. The report is entitled "White Warships and Little Blue Men" (PDF)—a reference to China's Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, both of which have seen a dramatic build-up in the past decade, along with the rapid modernization and expansion of the naval forces of the People's Liberation Army. We are not sure we share the assessment that the conflict will be "limited yet decisive," in the paraphrase of Epoch Times...
Russian-backed Assad regime forces are on the verge of taking the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria's Eastern Ghouta enclave, in the Damascus suburbs. A Russian military commander boasted: "The militants are being evacuated from Douma, their last bastion in Eastern Ghouta, and within a few days the humanitarian operation in Eastern Ghouta must be completed." This "humanitarian operation" has seen the near-total destruction of Ghouta by aerial bombardment over the past weeks, with some 1,500 killed. Thousands of fighters and residents have been allowed to evacuate via buses to Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held province, under what was reported as a "surrender agreement." (Al Jazeera, Syria Direct)
This is a political tragedy, and bodes more poorly than ever for any eventual return of peace to Syria. This week, Assad regime forces joined the Kurdish militia defending the northern enclave of Afrin from Turkish aggression. The People's Protection Units (YPG), military force of the Kurds' Rojava autonomous region, confirmed in a Feb. 20 statement that after days of negotiations the "Syrian government" and allied forces had entered Afrin. "After more than a month of the legendary resistance of our forces against the Turkish invasion army and the terrorist groups aligned with it from Jabhat al-Nusra, Da'esh and others, and causing severe losses for the invaders... our units considered to call the Syrian govt and its army to undertake its duties in participating in defending Afrin and protecting the Syrian borders against this evil invasion," YPG spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud said. "The Syrian government has thus heeded the call...and sent military units...to concentrate on the borders and participate in defending the unity of Syrian lands and its borders." (The Region)
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 25 advanced the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock to two minutes of midnight from its previous two-and-a-half minutes. "In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II," the Bulletin said in a statement. Finding that the "greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm," the statement of course cited the crisis over North Korea's atomic program, but also ongoing military exercises along the borders of NATO, upgrading of nuclear arsenals by the US and Russia, tensions over the South China Sea, a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and uncertainty about continued US support for the Iran nuclear deal. These threats are worsened by "a breakdown in the international order that has been dangerously exacerbated by recent US actions."
The US approved the sale of $47 million worth of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) to Ukraine Dec. 22, with the State Department issuing an export license for 210 of the Javelin ATGMs and 35 command launcher units (CLUs) to fire them. Responses from Kiev and Moscow were predictable. "I am grateful for the leadership of President Donald Trump, clear position of all our American friends, and for strong bipartisan support of Ukraine," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Facebook in English. Countered Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: "Today the United States is clearly pushing [Ukrainian authorities] towards new bloodshed. American weapons can lead to new victims in our neighbor." He added that Washington had "crossed a line." (Popular Mechanics, RFE/RL, TASS)