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An air attack in eastern Syria killed 52 Syrian and Iraqi government-backed forces who were fighting ISIS. They blamed the US, but it said Israel is responsible. Max Blumenthal says this is part of a larger campaign to destabilize and fragment Syria and weaken its ally Iran

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BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

Israel has played a key role in the ongoing seven year war in Syria, although its intervention has largely been downplayed by media outlets and governments. At midnight on June 18, Israel killed 52 Syrian and Iraqi government allied forces fighting in eastern Syria in an air attack on al-Harra, a town close to the Iraqi border. The Syrian and Iraqi government-backed forces had been fighting ISIS when they were attacked by the Israeli military. More than a dozen Syrians were reportedly killed, along with two dozen Iraqi fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are known as the PMFs. These are militias that are backed by the Iraqi government, and have been fighting ISIS inside Iraq.

The Iraqi government harshly condemned the attack. The Syrian government and the Iraqi militia initially accused the U.S. of carrying out the airstrike that killed 52 fighters, but then a U.S. official confirmed to CNN that it was actually an Israeli attack. This is one of the bloodiest air attacks on pro-government forces in the war in Syria.

Joining us to discuss this and the escalation by Israel of these attacks on Syrian and Iraqi forces is Max Blumenthal. Max is an award-winning journalist. He’s also the editor of the independent investigative news website The Grayzone Project, and he’s reported extensively on Israel, and also the war in Syria. Thanks for joining us, Max.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Good to be with you.

BEN NORTON: So the U.S. says this was an Israeli strike, and this would be incredibly important politically, because although Israel has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in Syria, this hasn’t been reported well in the media. Most of these airstrikes have been largely in the western portion of Syria. This attack is actually hundreds of miles away from the occupied Golan Heights. What is your take on this?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, or Israel’s attack , the T4 airbase where they say there, you know, there are Iranian assets. In this case the attack appears to have been on Hashd al-Shaabi militia members, which included, apparently, some Iraqis. They’re basically Shia militia members who are defending their area against ISIS and [Taqriri] Sunni militias. You know, groups which are mysteriously operating near the U.S. And that brings us to another interesting facet of this attack, which is that the United States is operating right nearby, either with its Kurdish partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, or there are U.S. troops, thousands of U.S. troops, directly in this area.

The U.S. has controlled since last year the al-Tanf border crossing, which is at the Jordanian, which is at the Jordanian border. And they’ve been training so-called moderate rebels there. The reason the U.S. has been there is to simply hold Syrian territory, and then they’ve moved into northeastern Syria and the Deir ez-Zor province, basically replacing areas that ISIS controlled with U.S. control. The reason they want to be there is there are, you know, there are two real reasons why the U.S. wants to be there. Number one, to fragment Syria, to prevent the state from reconstituting. That would allow what the U.S. considers a land bridge to form between Baghdad, Damascus, and all the way to southern Beirut. This is, you know, something that Israel also fears. A Shia land bridge, or a land bridge of the axis of resistance.

Then there’s the oil fields. There are two major oil fields that the U.S. currently controls in the Deir ez-Zor province. And there’s the Conoco oil plant. And the U.S. would like to expand control over this area. So this attack took place in near the Abu Kamal border crossing, which the Syrian government currently controls. And the U.S. would love to take control, probably like to take control over that border crossing. Actually, Nicholas Heras, who is an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, which is a kind of liberal interventionist think tank run by Victoria-, overseen by Victoria Nuland, who is a, you know, I guess you could even call it neoconservative. It’s funded by the arms industry. They’re not exactly, you know, Chomskyite anti-imperialists. Heras went on Twitter and said that if the U.S. would actually take control of the Abu Kamal border crossing, its control over northeastern Syria would spread by osmosis. Which would mean that if the U.S. took control over the area which Israel supposedly attacked, the U.S. would be entrenched in Syria for years and its troop presence would grow.

Now, who would like that to-. Who would like for that to happen? When we say the U.S., do we mean the White House? Or who are we talking about? I think we’re talking about the Defense Department, and maybe some elements in Trump’s National Security Council, the anti-Iran hardliners like John Bolton, you know, Pompeo at State is another anti-Iran hardliner. But Trump himself has said that he would like to see U.S. troops out of Syria.

So it would be really productive for the figures in the Trump administration to see a massive expansion of U.S., the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria, which is strategic, in order to kind of trump Trump, and the non-interventionist elements, such as they are, in the administration. This also is a priority of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli military intelligence apparatus, because as I said, they want to obstruct the imperatives of what they consider to be the Iranian axis of resistance. And I think they exaggerate the power of it and its presence in Syria substantially.

So Israel attacked this area close to U.S. troops. It’s hard for me to imagine if Israel did attack, and U.S. officials have been denying that the U.S. did this, but it’s hard for me to imagine that if Israel did attack it would have been carried out without either U.S. consent or U.S. direction and orchestration. And what this attack simply does is give the U.S. plausible deniability while fulfilling its own tactical goals.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: You raise a really good point there about the contradictions within the Trump administration, with the extremely hawkish neoconservative wing represented by John Bolton and Pompeo who have been pushing for this very aggressive line against Iran. So certainly, you know, as you mentioned, it’s possible that this was coordinated. And because Trump is at least rhetorically claiming he wants to back out of Syria, that Israel is picking up the slack and carrying out these these attacks that elements of the U.S. military would not be able to carry out.

So in terms of Israel’s military intervention, which has been closely allied with the U.S. in the war in Syria, we of course saw that in the past seven years the U.S. spent billions of dollars in one of the largest covert operations in the history of the CIA arming and training rebels. The U.S. has carried out thousands of airstrikes, as well. And then Israel has carried out more than 100 airstrikes. Can you just talk more about this intervention, because this single attack, which as I mentioned killed 52 Syrian and Iraqi government allied forces, this is actually a very significant attack in terms of the scale. There have been dozens of attacks on these forces, but 52 people, that’s a lot of fighters to be killed. And it seems like even though the war might some, sometime come to an end, maybe possibly soon, at the same time Israel and the U.S. are actually carrying out even bloodier attacks like this.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: I think one other aspect of the attack that’s worth mentioning is the presence of ISIS in the area in the days leading up to what is said to be an Israeli attack. And that really provides another demonstration of a dynamic that’s been in play in Syria since at least 2012. And it’s the symbiotic relationship between Sunni, Salafi, jihadi militias, and the U.S. and Israel, which kind of act as, you know, provide them with air and artillery cover so they can advance. The other, you know, the other value that a group like ISIS, I don’t even know if you can call them ISIS anymore since they no longer command a state, but you could just call them, you know, Sunni jihadi militias, that they provide to the U.S. is that when they’re defeated the U.S. can claim the need to stabilize the area, thereby expanding its actual footprint within Syria.

So in the days leading up to this attack, ISIS staged a series of suicide bombings like vehicle-borne IED attacks on the Hashd al-Shaabi militias, and you know, aiming at the Syrian government and its allies, and the U.S. did nothing to retaliate. It did not attack ISIS. So it’s clear that with this attack ISIS is receiving air cover again. It’s also, this is also taking place in southeastern Syria. The Israeli government and the U.S. do not want the Syrian government to retake control of southeastern Syria outside Daraa, which is where the unrest against the Syrian government really began.

For years Israel has been acting in coordination, and it really is coordination, with ISIS and with the, you know, defunct Free Syrian Army, which was basically in a weapons farm for ISIS and al Qaeda. And there is one case which was admitted to by the former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at a conference in Israel where ISIS accidentally fired a mortar into Israel and then apologized to the Israeli military, and the Israeli military accepted the apology from ISIS, which is just such a clear demonstration of the relationship that they’ve enjoyed. You know, basically Israel was happy to see these Sunni jihadi militias, you know, attack a state that they consider to be a critical adversary, which has provided arms and support to Hezbollah. And it’s still going on now in northeastern Syria. This is really a new, a new scenario, because Israel has never attacked that deep into Syria right on the Iraqi border.

And it really, I mean, if anyone is concerned about an Israeli war with Iran or a U.S. war with Iran, and I’m not really suggesting that this is in the cards, I would be watching this this area around the Abu Kamal border crossing.

BEN NORTON: Well, on that note we’ll end our discussion. We were joined by Max Blumenthal. Max is an award-winning journalist, and he’s the editor and founder of the Grayzone Project, which is an independent journalistic initiative. I contribute to the Grayzone Project, and I also cohost a podcast with Max called Moderate Rebels. Thanks for joining us here, Max.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

BEN NORTON: For The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.

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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.