On Sunday we highlighted comments from Secretary of State John Kerry which seemed to indicate that Washington’s strategy is Syria may have officially unraveled. Speaking in London on Saturday, Kerry said the following:
"For the last year and a half we have said Assad has to go, but how long and what the modality is ...that's a decision that has to be made in the context of the Geneva process and negotiation. It doesn't have to be on day one or month one ... there is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved."
That, we said, “might fairly be described as the most conciliatory language yet,” as it relates to Washington’s vision for Syria’s political future.
We also noted that it now appears as though Russia and Iran will end up determining Assad’s fate which, if you know anything about Tehran’s relationship with Assad and about regional powerbrokers, should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the surprise is that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar ever thought the effort to oust Assad had any chance of going smoothly in the first place.
On Monday, the Syria news flow continues unabated.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his planned trip to Moscow to discuss how Russian and Israeli forces can avoid an “accidental” confrontation in the skies above Syria. That’s the headline anyway. Of course Netanyahu’s primary concern here is that sophisticated Russian weaponry will find its way into the hands of Hezbollah. Here’s Reuters:
A rapid Russian build-up in Syria, which regional sources have said includes warplanes and anti-aircraft systems, worries Israel, whose jets have on occasion bombed the neighboring Arab country to foil suspected handovers of advanced arms to Assad's Lebanese guerrilla allies Hezbollah.
Israel is also concerned that top-of-the-line Russian military hardware now being deployed could benefit Hezbollah and one day be turned against the Jewish state.
"Our policy is to do everything to stop weapons from being sent to Hezbollah," Netanyahu said.
Note that this is not some far-fetched scenario. In fact, it’s more likely than not that arms will ultimately be funneled to Hezbollah if not directly by the Russians or Assad, then almost certainly by the Quds Force whose presence in Syria is seen as a “rumor” in the mainstream media even as it's so well known in regional intelligence circles as to be considered par for the proverbial course. And make no mistake, Netanyahu is also well aware of the fact that Tehran is effectively angling to make Russia a de facto member of its existing axis of power that includes Syria and Lebanon and will ultimately include Iraq given Iran’s control of the Shiite militias and heavy influence in Baghdad political circles:
The Netanyahu ex-adviser said Israel worried that Russia's reinforcement of Assad in the conflict, now in its fifth year, could effectively create an axis between its long-standing enemies, Hezbollah and Iran, and Moscow.
And speaking of Russian arms, here's what US officials have confirmed is in Syria as of now: 28 combat aircraft including 12 Su-25s, 12 Su-24s & 4 Flankers (Su-27s or Su-30s), up to 20 helicopters split of Mi-24 Hind attack & Mi-15 Hip transport copters, and up to 9 tanks.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon also says Russia has begun drone flights (via Reuters):
Russia has started flying drone aircraft on surveillance missions in Syria, two U.S. officials said on Monday, in what appeared to be Moscow's first military air operations inside the country since staging a rapid buildup at a Syrian air base.
Finally, with all of the above in mind, we close with the following rather ominous bit from Tass and a tweet from AFP which seems to portend imminent escalation:
The Russian embassy in Damascus has come under mortar fire, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday.
The ministry said Moscow condemns the "criminal attack" on the Russian diplomatic mission.
"At 09:00 a.m. on September 20, a mortar shell hit the territory of the Russian embassy in Damascus. The shell was driven deep into the earth and made no damage," the ministry said. "We condemn the criminal attack on the Russian diplomatic representation in Damascus."
#BREAKING Russia calls for 'action' after shell hits Damascus embassy compound— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) September 21, 2015