As President Obama was reading his teleprompter on March 20th to announce sanctions against Russia, Syrian rebel forces, led by al Qaeda-linked Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra, launched a surprise offensive in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border.
The offensive, known as “The Martyrs Mother’s,” captured the three area border crossings into Turkey and killed Hilal al Assad, Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s cousin and head of the militia known as the National Defense Force. With the U.S. secretly arming the rebels and President Obama in Saudi Arabia, the new Cold War with Russia is heating up in Syria.
The objective of the Martyrs Mother’s offensive appears to be opening up new supply lines for the Syrian rebels from Turkey. Recently Syrian government forces, supplied by Russia and its allies, cut all rebel supply lines from Lebanon by launching a series of largely successful offensives across western Syria. Stratfor Global Intelligence reported the Syrian army “currently has the strategic initiative, in large part thanks to Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah aid.” But successfully attacking the Latakia province has high symbolism since it is Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s home town.
Rebels had been focused on a vicious fight between various rebel groups and their former ally, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But in recent weeks, rebels from the Islamic Front, Free Syrian Army, and Jabhat al-Nusra ejected the Islamic State out of the Latakia and Aleppo areas. The United States and Great Britain had both suspended “lethal” aid to northern Syria last summer after reports of Islamist fighters seizing Western-backed rebel weapons warehouses. But Reuters reported non-lethal aid was resumed to civilian groups in that region in late December.
Reuters and other media sources confirmed on January 27th that the U.S. Congress had secretly approved supplying supposedly “small arms” to the supposedly “moderate” Syrian rebel factions in the south through September 30th. Reuters reported deliveries were not to include weapons such as shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADs, but Congress did approve anti-tank rockets. The Martyrs Mother’s rebels have used both anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles during their offensive.
Stratfor reported that Turkey must have played a significant role in the rebels’ ability to carry out their current offensive since the “Turks have largely turned a blind eye to rebel movement through their borders, even as they fiercely defend their territory from [Syrian] government incursion. Most recently, on March 23, Turkish interceptors shot down a Syrian air force MiG-23.”
Prior to Russia’s intervention in the Crimea, Saudi Arabian officials were reported to be “highly displeased over Washington’s overtures to Iran and reluctance to strike Syria and have threatened to break away from the US sphere.” In October 2013, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan vowed to make a “major shift” in relations with the US in protest over the Obama Administration’s decision to backpedal on plans to launch airstrikes on Syria in support of Saudi Arabia’s proxy war as the chief financier of anti-Assad jihadist groups aimed at toppling the Syrian government and rolling back the influence of Hezbollah and Iran in the region.
The timing of President Obama’s announcement of Russian sanctions, the Syrian rebels’ offensive, and the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia at the height of the offensive may have just been coincidental, but all three issues viscerally impact Russia’s vital interests. Prior to the Syrian rebel offensive and the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia, 50% of Americans believed the U.S. and Russia were “headed back to a new Cold War.” With Syria’s civil war heating up, the odds of a Cold War with Russia are moving up.