Two weeks after a US B-52 strike killed scores of Russian mercenaries in Syria, which according to Bloomberg and Reuters were are as many as 200, while Russia said no more than 5 Russians were killed in the attack then promptly refused to discuss the embarrassing topic further, Moscow has clearly not forgotten this latest – and most serious – escalation in the 7-year-old proxy war, and on Monday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the Trump administration not to “play with fire” as he lashed out at the U.S. over what he described as its “provocative” support for autonomy-seeking Kurds in Syria, while urging US troops in the area of Al-Tanf to “leave immediately.”
Speaking to a Moscow audience at the Valdai Club conference on the Middle East, Lavrov said that US troops must immediately cease operations in the Southern Syria area of Al-Tanf, adding that he once again calls “on our American colleagues not to play with fire and measure their steps proceeding not from immediate needs of today’s political environment, but rather from long-term interests of the Syrian people and of all peoples of this region, including the Kurds, of course,” the Russian top diplomat was quoted as saying by TASS News Agency.
Lavrov was referring to an area on Syria’s border with Jordan and Iraq, which the US declared to be under its protection last year. Among other things, it contains the Rukban refugee camp. The facility is apparently used by radical militants, including members of UN-designated terrorist group best known by its former name Al-Nusra Front, to recover and raid other parts of Syria, Lavrov said at the Valdai Club conference on the Middle East in Moscow, alongside his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and a top adviser of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US is turning a blind eye to such abuses of its protection, he added.
“Inside the Al-Tanf zone, which the Americans unilaterally declared under their protection, and inside the refugee camp jihadists are regularly reported to recover strength. On several occasions they conducted raids from there into other territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. This zone must be shut down immediately,” the Russian minister said.
He added Russia has mounting evidence that the US has no intention to oppose this jihadist group in earnest.
His response came after a question from the think tank International Crisis Group about what “Russia could do more” in Syria to prevent an escalation of violence there, particularly between Iran and Israel. Lavrov said the question should be “what the US could refrain from doing” in Syria and that the answer was “stop playing dangerous games” and cease trying to partition the nation “which could lead to the dismemberment of the Syrian state” and added that Russia is “seeing attempts to exploit the Kurds’ aspirations.”
The Americans “in the territories they patronize east of the Euphrates River and all the way to the state border with Iraq create governing bodies which are designed by intention to have no links with Damascus,” he pointed out.
Lavrov also commented on the situation in the southwestern part of Syria on the border with Jordan and Israel – which was designated as a “de-escalation zone” by Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran – and Israel’s interests in Syria. Israel accuses Iran of using proxy forces to seize control of parts of southern Syria, including those along the border, and has threatened to use military force to reverse the situation.
“We negotiated the creation of this zone with Jordan and the US and it’s not a secret that our Israeli colleagues were informed about what we discussed,” he said. “Now to implement everything we had agreed on we have to focus on one particular article, which said all parties to the agreement would work to make sure that no non-Syrian forces were present inside and near this de-escalation zone.”
Lavrov’s comments take place as the U.S. is setting up a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border protection force in the northeast of Syria, which Assad’s backers Russia and Iran have condemned as an attempt to carve out an American zone of influence.
Zarif for his part said Iran is concerned about a “new wave” of foreign intervention in Syria led by the U.S. after the defeat of Islamic State. Quoted by Bloomberg, he accused the U.S. of trying to capture Syrian territory by making use of proxies.
Meanwhile, for the past month has been is pursuing an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northwest Syria – a military operation whose name “Operation Olive Branch” pretty much wins 2018 in the irony category. Also this month, Israel launched its biggest strikes in Syria since the 1982 Lebanon war after one of its warplanes was shot down in the wake of the destruction of an apparent Iranian spy drone inside Israeli territory.
Israel’s prepared to act “not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday at the Munich Security Conference.
On Monday, Lavrov dismissed Western criticism of Iran’s role and demands for a pullout of Iranian troops and military advisers, saying they’ve been invited by the government in Damascus, something which no US troops in the region can claim. Iran chimed in too, saying that the Syrian government has a “right to self-defense” and Israel should stop its “acts of aggression,” while Turkey has no right to intervene in Syria, Zarif said.
The dispute between Israel and Iran, Lavrov said, certainly complicated the situation in Syria, and Moscow believes both parties need to take steps to defuse it according to RT. For instance, Iran’s statements that Israel was a Zionist entity that needs to be destroyed are perceived as absolutely unacceptable in Russia. But neither does Russia see as constructive Israel’s policy of turning every problem in the region into a vehicle for opposing Iran, he said.
“This is what we see in Syria, this is what we see in Yemen, and even the latest developments around the Palestinian issue, including Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s exclusive capital, are to a large extent caused by the very same anti-Iranian bias,” Lavrov explained. “Both attitudes pose a risk of further damaging the situation in the region, which is already very pitiful.”
The Russian minister suggested that Israel and Iran should try to address their differences – including the latest flare-up involving an Iranian drone destroyed by Israel after reportedly violating the airspace of the Jewish state – by taking them to the UN for proper resolution.
“Otherwise we will be rolling down the slope to a situation in which every incident is simply blamed on the other party and used to justify military action.”
Finally, in the most bizarre twist yet, earlier we reported that Russia-backed Syrian army forces have agreed to help the US-backed Syrian Kurds fight troops belonging to NATO member Turkey, and who “may enter the border town of Afrin within hours,” according to the official SANA news agency. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the plan won’t derail the offensive.