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...
UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement April 9 saying he is "deeply concerned" about ongoing air-strikes on Douma in Syria's besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave, noting the "killing of civilians" and "destruction of civilian infrastructure," including hospitals and health facilities. The statement said he is "particularly alarmed by allegations that chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations in Douma." It also noted reports of civilians killed by shelling of Damascus from rebel positions in Douma. Guterres called on all sides to abide by Security Council Resolutions 2401, which last month demanded a 30-day halt to hostilitiess. He reiterated that there is no military solution to the conflict.
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)
A few hundred of the several hundreds of thousands trapped in besieged Eastern Ghouta have been allowed to evacuate to rebel-held Idlib governorate through a "humanitarian corridor" supposedly free of regime and Russian air-strikes. The Assad regime and its allies have now managed to split the enclave into three blocs, each surrounded and under bombardment. Aid groups warn that conditions in the enclave surpass even those seen during the 2016 Aleppo crisis. Ghouta's fall looks increasingly certain, leaving Idlib as the last rebel-held pocket of Syria. (Middle East Eye, NYT)
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)
Turkish forces, backed by allied factions of the Free Syrian Army, are now in their third day of an offensive on the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, and have captured a number of villages—despite stiff resistance from the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkish air-strikes are making the critical difference, and are taking the predictable toll in civilian casualties. Afrin's Kurdish authorities report that a poultry farm in the village of Jalbara was hit, killing eight civilians. Turkish warplanes also struck al-Ashrafiya neighborhood in Afrin city, killing six civilians, including a child. In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would not "step back" in the assault, and claimed to have the support of the Great Powers—including both Russia, which supposedly had troops backing the YPG in Afrin, and the US, which has been backing the YPG against ISIS as part of the Pentagon-directed Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Kurdish question in northern Syria has really put US imperialism in a bind—its most effective anti-ISIS allies on the ground are the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), regarded as "terrorists" by longtime NATO ally Turkey. We've been wondering if the US would dump the SDF in deference to Turkey after they had succeeded in taking Raqqa from ISIS, or continue to groom them as a proxy force to carve out an influence sphere in Syria's north—thereby risking its alliance with Turkey. Washington has been tilting first one way, then the other. Just weeks ago, the White House announced it would be demanding back the weapons it has supplied to the SDF to fight ISIS. Now comes the news that the Pentagon intends to train SDF fighters as a special force to control the northern border zone.