Diplomatic tensions between the United States and Russia are rising over the Syrian city of Idlib, as the US is warning that any attack on Idlib “will escalate the crisis in Syria and the region.”
Last Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Russia's foreign minister of the risk of escalation of an already dangerous conflict in Syria and accused Moscow of supporting a Syrian assault on Idlib. Several US officials stressed they are worried that an impending Assad regime assault on the rebel stronghold could involve the use of chemical weapons if the rebels are able to slow regime advances. The US is concerned they could eventually be used to launch another chemical attack using chlorine-filled barrel bombs, though these are readily available for a conventional assault.
The warning comes as a tripartite meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Russian and Turkish counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is planned for Friday September 7th in Tehran. According to an Iranian spokesperson, the summit will be dedicated to the discussion of the protracted crisis in Syria and fighting terrorism. Turkey announced that it had given up trying to convince Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which rules most of Idlib province, to leave, effectively, giving the green light for a Syrian/Russian operation in Idlib.
US experts say that the attack on Idlib will commence only after the September 7th summit of the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Tehran. Meanwhile, US officials said that intelligence and military targeting experts have drawn up a preliminary list of Syrian chemical weapons facilities that could be struck if President Donald Trump were to order a new round of airstrikes in the country. According to a senior Pentagon official who spoke to 7Dnews a decision to take action has not been made. The official said the US military “could respond very quickly” if Syria launched a chemical weapons attack and the initial targeting data assembled would give the Pentagon a head start if the President decides to take action.
The Pentagon is also closely watching Russian military manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean. The Russian Ministry of Defence says 26 warships and more than 30 combat aircraft will be part of large scale exercises in the area. By having so many ships there, the Russians can attempt to use their shipborne radars to blanket the area and "see" any potential US Tomahawk missiles coming, the US official said. One scenario the US is considering is that Russian shipborne radar could then cue Russian S-400 class anti-aircraft systems on the ground in Syria and try to shoot down US missiles.
The US is massively expanding its positions in north-eastern Syria. More than 1,600 trucks with new equipment has arrived in the last month.The US now has 18 bases in north-eastern Syria, six of which have their own landing strips. Some media report that the US has 2,000 soldiers in the north-east, but the real number is likely to be more than double or triple that. Experts say that the US presence in north-eastern Syria will be used in a new attempt to achieve the long held US aim of regime change.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared as much in a recent press conference. Asked about Iran in Syria he said, “What are they doing in Syria in the first place, other than propping up someone who has committed mayhem and murder on his own people? They have no business there. And our goal is to move the Syria civil war into the Geneva process so the Syrian people can establish a new government that is not led by Assad and give them a chance for a future that Assad has denied them, with — with overt Russian and Iranian support.”
US goals in Syria have been sketched publicly by Pompeo and Mattis, which are withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the country, rather than just from a 50-mile buffer zone along the Israel border as in the deal Russia arranged and a political transition that can prevent Syria from becoming a terrorist base again and stabilise it enough that refugees can return to their homes. Pompeo and Mattis also want more US involvement in the Geneva deliberations on political transition.