The US-led NATO alliance is dispatching warships to the Mediterranean to allegedly help ease Europe’s refugee crisis. However, a closer look at the naval vessels in the NATO mission shows that this is no refugee rescue attempt – but rather a full-on war mobilization.
The timing comes just as US-Russian diplomatic talks on the Syrian crisis reach a make-or-break moment, suggesting that NATO is preparing military action in league with Turkey in order to salvage the covert war for regime change in Syria.
That war has seen rapidly mounting losses for the United States and its allies who have been fueling clandestine proxy militias to topple the Assad government since March 2011. Those losses have escalated since Russia began its aerial bombing campaign four months ago to help stabilize the allied Syrian state of President Bashar al-Assad.
After a meeting with NATO ministers in Brussels on Thursday, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that “without delay” the Standing Maritime Group 2 would be dispatched and “will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal [refugee smuggling] crossings in the Aegean Sea in cooperation with relevant authorities”.
Significantly, in addition to the Aegean Sea crossing, the NATO mission will be tasked with monitoring the Syrian-Turkey border, again allegedly to combat human trafficking of refugees. That purported surveillance implies that the NATO vessels will be operating in the East Mediterranean, near Cyprus, where the Standing Maritime Group 2 is normally based.
“Mr Stoltenberg said reconnaissance and intelligence gathering was also being stepped up at the Turkey-Syria border”, according to the BBC.
The mobilization has been ordered by NATO Supreme Commander General Philip Breedlove. Breedlove has distinguished himself previously for his rabid Cold War-style rhetoric against Russia. His new role, ostensibly, as a concerned humanitarian does not seem fitting.
The New York Times reported:
“Gen. Philip M Breedlove of the United States Air Force, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, has ordered ships to the Aegean, Mr Stoltenberg said. The vessels are from Canada, Germany, Greece and Turkey, officials said”.
Breedlove is quoted by the NY Times as saying:
“This mission has literally come together in the last 20 hours, and I have been tasked now to go back and define the mission. We had some very rapid decision making and now we have to go out to do some military work”.
The NATO military commander appears to be dissembling. Last week, NATO reported that the Standing Maritime Group 2 had just completed “extensive” training operations with the Turkish navy in the East Mediterranean, according to the alliance’s own website.
The same group of vessels are now being sent allegedly on a “refugee rescue” mission. It beggars belief that General Breedlove, the top NATO military planner, claims that “this has literally come together in the last 20 hours”.
Comprising the NATO Standing Maritime Group 2 are three ships: FGS Bonn (Germany), HMCS Fredericton (Canada) and a Turkish Barbaros vessel. These are heavy-duty warships, bigger than destroyer class, each bristling with an array of weaponry, including anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-submarine and anti-missile firepower.
When the NATO naval group – which is described as a “rapid reaction force” – conducted its exercises last week in the East Mediterranean, the maneuvers included drills with Turkish F-16 fighter jets and corvettes.
Britain’s Independent newspaper cites NATO’s secretary-general Stoltenberg as saying that the naval mission will involve five ships and that more vessels may be included.
The Independent added:
“The extent to which the NATO vessels will interact with refugee boats remains unclear. NATO diplomats said that rather than direct intervention, intelligence gathered about people-smugglers is likely to be handed over to Turkish coastguards to allow them to combat the traffickers more effectively”.
Stoltenberg said that the objective was “not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats” but about contributing “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks”.
If NATO ships are not there to interact with refugee vessels, then what are they for?
The notion that heavy-duty warships are sent to tackle human trafficking gangs is also not plausible. The traffickers rarely make the crossing on the overcrowded boats with the refugees. After the extortionate fees are handed over on Turkish shores, the boats are pushed out to sea by the traffickers who then disappear inland.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was also attending the NATO meeting in Brussels. He said of the new putative rescue mission:
“There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people and this is an organized smuggling operation. Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had… That is the principal intent of this”.
The apparent humanitarian intentions of this NATO mission lack credibility. As the BBC noted: “The decision marks the security alliance’s first intervention in Europe’s migrant crisis”.
The question is: why now? Last year, more than 3,000 people perished in Mediterranean crossings and up to one million entered the EU. So, why is NATO suddenly finding a sense of urgency now in allegedly tackling Europe’s refugee problem? It doesn’t add up.
More glaringly incongruous is the vast mismatch in vessel types and the supposed humanitarian naval purpose. The Standing Maritime Group 2 is a war operation, not a coastguard formation.
Another clue is that the mission has been initiated by NATO members Germany and Turkey. Earlier this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Turkey where she publicly backed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calls for Russia to halt its military operations in Syria. Merkel iterated the NATO propaganda line that Russian bombing has “inflicted civilian suffering” and is responsible for the latest surge in people fleeing the Syrian city of Aleppo to Turkey’s border.
Russia’s successful military support for Syrian government forces has enabled dramatic strategic gains against the anti-government militia, most of whom are al-Qaeda-linked foreign terror brigades who have been infiltrated and weaponized by the US and its NATO allies, including Turkey and regional partners Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In a separate report this week, the New York Times disclosed that Washington and its allies are under increasing pressure from Russia’s military success in Syria. In a startling admission the NY Times reported:
“The Russians have cut off many of the pathways the CIA has been using for the not-very-secret effort to arm rebel [read “terror”] groups, according to current and former [US] officials”.
Losing the covert war in Syria because of Russia’s intervention, Washington is thus considering “Plan B”, added the NY Times, which means “a far larger military effort directed at Assad”.
The losing dynamic of the US-led covert war in Syria also explains why frustrations between Washington, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are bursting into the public sphere, with Erdogan in particular rebuking the Americans in speeches this week.
The deployment of NATO warships to the Mediterranean under the cover of “stemming Europe’s refugee crisis” may be a sop from Washington to Turkey to feign a more muscular response to the covert military losses in Syria, and thereby shut Erdogan up for a bit.
There again, it could be a sign of the adverted Plan B, and a real military contingency toward more direct US-led NATO intervention in Syria. Time will tell.
Why the Syria Ceasefire is a Long Shot
An end to the Syrian conflict is desperately needed. But the latest plan for a cessation of violence is unlikely to take hold, as the deal struck by international powers is based on fundamentally opposing premises.
In short, Washington and its allies want regime change, while Russia and Iran insist that President Bashar Assad and his government are the legitimate ruling authorities in Syria. All sides are mandated by UN resolutions to respect the sovereign will of the Syrian people – to determine the political future of their country.
But the Western powers and their regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in particular, are insisting – explicitly or implicitly – on their objective of ousting Assad. This premise of unlawful interference in the affairs of a sovereign state is the crux of the problem, and why the latest seeming agreement for a nationwide truce is as thin as the paper it is written on.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced the proposal for a cessation of hostilities following six hours of negotiations with 15 other member states belonging to the International Syria Support Group in Munich last Friday. The truce is supposed to come into effect later this week.
The truce outlined in an ISSG communique does not apply to two militant groups: Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL/ISIL or Daesh) and the Jabhat al Nusra Front. Both are linked to Al Qaeda and are officially listed by international governments as terrorist organizations. The provision also exempts “other terror groups” but does not specify the names. This is a major loophole in the proposed truce deal which will make its application extremely problematic if not infeasible. That loophole also alludes to the foreign-backed nature of the conflict in Syria.
Following the Munich communique, the Syrian government and its Russian ally both said that their combined military operations against terror groups would continue.
President Assad vowed that his armed forces were moving ahead with their offensive, backed by Russian air power, to “retake the whole country.” He said the battle for the northern city of Aleppo – the country’s largest – was crucial to “cut off terrorist supply routes from Turkey.”
Given the delineation of terror groups in the Munich communique and in recent UN resolutions (2249 and 2254), it would appear incontestable that the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies have every right to maintain the military momentum.
Yet Syria and Russia’s continued offensive around Aleppo over the weekend provoked recriminations from Western powers. Western media coverage tended to portray the continuation of military operations as a bad faith breach of the tentative truce.
Reuters news agency reported: “Russia keeps bombing despite Syria truce; Assad vows to fight on.”
Secretary Kerry expressed irritation when he said:
“If the Assad regime does not live up to its responsibilities and if the Iranians and the Russians do not hold Assad to the promises that they have made… then the international community obviously is not going to sit there like fools and watch this. There will be an increase of activity to put greater pressure on them.”
Kerry even warned that “greater pressure” could involve foreign troops being sent into Syria, without naming from which countries, saying: “There is a possibility there will be additional ground troops.”
The top American diplomat made the comments while attending the Munich Security Conference along with several world leaders, held the day after the truce deal was brokered by the ISSG. Kerry told delegates ominously:
“We hope this week can be a week of change. This moment is a hinge point. Decisions made in the coming days, weeks and months can end the war in Syria. Or, if the wrong choices are made, they can open the door to even wider conflict.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also addressed the Munich conference, but he warned that any ground invasion in Syria by foreign forces ran the grave risk of unleashing an all-out war.
Over the weekend, it was reported that Saudi F-16 warplanes are to begin flying out of Turkey’s NATO base at Incirlik, allegedly on combat operations against the Islamic State terror group in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that a combined Saudi-Turkish ground force was ready to intervene in Syria, and there were reports of cross-border Turkish artillery shelling of Syrian Kurdish sites.
The nub of the proposed truce is that Syria and Russia are legally entitled to eradicate ISIS, Al Nusra and related groups. Strategically, too, it can be argued that the defeat of such illegally armed insurgents is a priority task in creating conditions for an end to the five-year conflict.
However, “the related terror groups” also include many other militants whom Western governments and Western media mendaciously refer to as “moderate rebels.” So, while the Syrian Arab Army and Russian fighter planes can legitimately make the case that these groups are to be targeted, Washington and its allies will deceptively allege that Moscow is attacking “moderate rebels.”
This is a risible fiction constructed by Western governments, their regional partners and the Western media. It is well documented that groups like Jaish al-Islam, Jaish al-Fateh, Ahrar al-Sham and Farouq Brigade – heavily sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – are integrated with the officially recognized Al Qaeda terrorist organizations. Even the so-called “secular” Free Syrian Army – much championed by Washington – is in league with ISIS and Al Nusra, as are the Turkmen brigades openly supported by the Turkish government.
US government-owned news outlet Voice of America described the terror-rebel connection in the following delicate way:
“The Munich deal writes out any cessation of hostilities for not only the Islamic State but [al Qaeda] affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra or other groups deemed terrorists by the UN Security Council. Some of those groups, aside from IS, have been battlefield allies of other rebel factions around Aleppo.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post admitted that Jabhat al-Nusra “in some instances fights alongside rebel forces supported by the United States and its allies.” The Post article added that even in the event of a truce taking hold:
“The United States and its partners would continue their current level of equipping and training the opposition so as not to leave the rebels at a disadvantage if the cessation of hostilities collapses.”
The cessation that Washington has assiduously tried to craft is not premised on finding a genuine end to the conflict. Rather, it is evidently a tactical pause to afford proxy forces on the ground badly needed respite from the Syrian-Russian onslaught. That onslaught is threatening to wipe out the myriad terror- and terrorist-related brigades.
That’s why John Kerry has been so concerned to stymie Russia’s intervention. That intervention ordered by President Vladimir Putin less than five months ago is wiping out terror assets that Washington and its allies have invested in for regime change in Syria over five years. That investment is going up in smoke, and that is also why Washington and its regional partners Turkey and Saudi Arabia are reserving a direct military contingency – in order to salvage their regime-change project.
The proposed cessation in Syria is a long shot that will miss the mark of bringing peace to the war-devastated country. Because Washington and its allies are not interested in peace. They want regime change – by hook or by crook.
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