As the Assad regime, backed by Russian air-strikes, opens its offensive on the Free Syrian Army's Southern Front in Daraa governorate—and towns start to fall to pro-regime forces, with thousands fleeing their homes in fear of reprisals—the Trump White House has issued a statement to the rebels, warning, "[Y]ou should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us." This despite Washington's earlier warning to Assad and Putin that any violation of the so-called "de-escalation zones" would have "serious repercussions," including "firm and appropriate measures." (Reuters, Reuters, DW) Not surprisingly, this betrayal comes just as Trump reportedly told King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House that he is seeking a deal with Putin on terms for a withdrawal of remaining US forces from Syria. Reports indicate the deal will be on the agenda when Trump meets with Putin in Helsinki next month. (CNN)
The US Department of the Treasury issued new sanctions against Iran on May 17. The new sanctions target two individuals, Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi and Abdallah Safi al-Din. Both of them have been identified as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). Bazzi has been identified as a financier for Hezbollah, and Safi al-Din has been identified as Hezbollah's representative to Iran. The Treasury Department stated that the sanctions "show the convergence of Iran's support for terrorism with many facets of illicit criminal activity, including narcotics trafficking." The sanctions come after President Trump's decision to leave the Iranian nuclear deal last week and to begin reimposing sanctions against Iran.
US jets attacked a convoy of forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in southern Hama governorate May 18—ironically within one of the "deconfliction zones" established by the US and Russia. The convoy was apparently approaching the base at al-Tanf, which is used by FSA forces and US advisors. "We notified the coalition that we were being attacked by the Syrian army and Iranians in this point, and the coalition came and destroyed the advancing convoy," said Muzahem al-Saloum of the local FSA militia, Maghawir al-Thawra (also rendered Maghaweer al-Thawra). The pro-Assad militia targeted in the raid was named as Saraya al-Areen, apparently an Alawite force commanded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The regime was also said to be moving Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary forces into the area.
"More Than 7,000 People Evacuated From 4 Besieged Syrian Towns." That's the somewhat misleading headline in the New York Times of April 14. Reads the lede: "After nearly two years of punishing siege and bombardment by their enemies, more than 7,000 people were bused out of four towns in Syria on Friday in the most recent population transfer during six years of war." Note the euphemistic language. This isn't "evacuation," which implies it is voluntary and in response to some objective disaster. This is "sectarian cleansing," part of an intentional Assad regime strategy to purge its growing areas of control of Sunnis, all of whom are apparently deemed official enemies. "Population transfer," as it is dubbed in the lede, is another euphemistic term, one all too familiar to those who have followed the growing consensus for territorial purging of perceived ethno-sectarian enemies in Israel.
The US military is denying reports that it bombed a mosque in northwestern Syria during evening prayers March 16, killing at least 50. There is even controversy over whether the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque in al-Jinah (Jeena) village, Aleppo governorate, is still standing. The Pentagon admits to a an air-strike that supposedly killed several al-Qaeda militants in the village, which is held by Islamist factions including Ahrar al-Sham. The Pentagon released a statement saying the strike was "across the street from a mosque," with footage (supposedly taken minutes after the strike) showing that a mosque next to a destroyed building remained standing. (Al Jazeera, BBC News, Reuters) But Bilal Abdul Kareem, a US national who operates On the Ground News from northern Syria, recorded his own video from the purported bombing site. Kareem shows what he calls part of the "mosque compound" in ruins, and claims the mosque was operated by Jamaat Tablighi, a proselytization group that has hosted prayers there every Thursday for the past four years. (LWJ)
The Trump administration has seriously turned up the heat on Venezuela, slapping sanctions on the country's vice president as a drug "kingpin." The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on Feb. 13 officially named Tareck Zaidan El Aissami as a "Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker" under terms of the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) of 1999. The order charges that El Aissami received pay-offs from a trafficking network linked to Mexico's Zetas narco-gang. Under the order, US nationals and corporations are barred from doing business with El Aissami, and all his assets within the country are frozen.
Remember the reports of a Russian "withdrawl" from Syria over the summer? They were immediately followed, of course, by a massive escalation of Russia's military intervention, with the destruction of Aleppo by Moscow's warplanes. Let's hope we are not in for a replay. With the departure of most of Russian's war fleet from Syria's coast—most prominently, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov—CNN last week reported: "Russia 'starts to withdraw' forces from Syria." The Interpreter, a neo-Kremlinologist website, flatly contradicts this. It finds that most Russian combat operations have been flown out of ground bases in Syria, not the carrier. At Hmeymim air base (also rendered Khmeimim and Hemeimeem) in Latakia governorate, Russia has now deployed Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Syria and even beyond its borders. Far from withdrawing, The Interpreter says that Russia is "just getting started" with a military build-up in Syria.
As thousands of civilians flee the Assad regime's advance on eastern Aleppo, rebel groups are charging that the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) are collaborating in the offensive. The YPG and rebels aligned with the Free Syrian Army have clashed several times in Aleppo, mostly around the Kurdish-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud enclave. In recent days, as the pro-regime forces press their advance on the east, Kurdish fighters have taken over several areas abandoned by the rebels. Photos and video showing the regime flag and the yellow YPG banner raised on top of a building were circulated on social media, suggesting that the Kurdish forces and Syrian national army were in fact fighting together. The YPG, however, said the images were faked, and denied any cooperation with the Syrian army.