Posted tagged ‘Russia – Syrian war’

Moscow: US-backed SDF faces “destruction.” Pro-Iranian Iraqi force crosses into Syria

September 21, 2017

Moscow: US-backed SDF faces “destruction.” Pro-Iranian Iraqi force crosses into Syria, DEBKAfile, September 21, 2017

Israel’s strategic situation took several steps back in the first week of the New Year, chiefly: The US pulled back from E. Syria under Russian threat, allowing Iran to move in.

In just one week, the dire perils, which many military and political experts warned against for years, are suddenly looming on Israel’s northern border.

        1. From Sept.15-17, Syrian and Hizballah forces crossed the Euphrates to the eastern bank on pontoon bridges provided by Russia.
        2. Last Saturday, Sept. 16, Russian jets bombed the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) in the Deir ez-Zour region, as a warning against their obstructing the eastward impetus of those Syrian and Hizballah units.
        3. On Monday, Sept. 18, US Marines began blowing up buildings at the Zaqaf military base in eastern Syria and then retreating to the Jordanian border. The US set up Zaqaf early this year in the Syrian Desert as a barrier against this very Syrian/Hizballah crossing to impede their advance to the Syrian-Iraqi border.
        4. The following day, on the heels of the US withdrawal, Hizballah troops took charge of the Zaqaf base.
        5. On Wednesday, Sept. 19, the Iraqi Hashd Al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Units – PMU) crossed into Syria and linked up with the Syrian-Hizballah force. The PMU is under the direct command of Gen. Qassam Soleimani, head of Iranian military operations in Syria and Iraq.
        6. Iran, through its Iraqi, Lebanese and other foreign Shiite pawns, is now in control of 230km of the Syrian border, from Abu Kamal (still held by ISIS) in the north, to Al Tanf in the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border triangle in the south – where, too, US and coalition special forces have begun packing up ready to exit.
          Iran in recent years imported some 20,000 Afghan and Pakistani Shiite fighters to reinforce the Syrian army and Hizballah in their battles for Bashar Assad. The new Iraq arrivals boost that figure by tens of thousands and more are coming in all the time.
        7. On Thursday, Sept. 21, the growing disconnect between Moscow and Washington over Syria suddenly erupted into an open breach with a crude threat from the Kremlin: “Russia has officially informed the United States via a special communications channel that Russian forces will strike immediately US-backed forces if they attack or shell Syrian or Russian task forces operating near the Deir Ez-Zour city. Any attempts at shelling from the areas where the militants of the Syrian Democratic Forces are based will be immediately curbed. Russian forces will suppress firing points in these areas using all means of destruction.”

      A threat of this degree of ruthlessness has not been encountered in the Middle East for decades, it may recall Moscow’s threat to Israel in 1956 to end its invasion of the Sinai without delay or else…

      Where do these menacing steps leave Israel?

        • The US has washed its hands of central and southeastern Syria.
        • Russia is wholly, unreservedly and openly in lockstep with the Syrian army, Iran and Hizballah in all their objectives in the war-torn country, and moreover, willing to threaten any pro-American entity with total military punishment. Is this an indirect message to Israel too?
          Iraqi Shiite forces are surging into Syria; they have given Tehran the gift of control of a 230km segment of the border.

      And what does the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott have to say about all this?  In an interview to Israeli media as recently as Wednesday, Sept. 19, when it was all happening, he said: “If Iran  does entrench itself in Syria, that will be bad news for the entire region, including the moderate Sunni camp, and even more for the countries of Europe.”

He went on to explain: “That is why we have given the Iranian threat and halting its expanding influence very high priority as an issue to be dealt with.”

Gen. Eisenkott underlined the IDF’s focus as being to prevent [Israel’s foes] from obtaining weaponry, i.e. missiles – of high targeting precision.

The trouble is that, while the IDF focuses on this objective, commendable in itself, Russia and Iran are focusing and in full flight on a far wider-ranging goal, the precise and systematic deepening of Iran’s military presence in Syria. Iran and Hizballah have already established military commands at Arnaba just 6 km from Israel’s Golan border.

Yet the IDF chief is still talking about this as an untoward event that may – or may not – come some time in the future.

Syrian/Hizballah may call up Russian air strikes as cooperation deepens

September 18, 2017

Syrian/Hizballah may call up Russian air strikes as cooperation deepens, DEBKAfile, September 18, 2017

Russian air crews in Syria are under new orders to respond directly and immediately to Iranian and Syrian demands for air bombardments, without confirmation from the high commands in Latakia or Moscow.

This has enormously empowered Syrian and Hizballah officers on the ground for taking the war into their own hands. It led directly to Russian planes suddenly bombing a pro-US Syrian force in the Deir ez-Zour province of eastern Syria on Saturday, Sept. 16, and accounts for Moscow’s repudiation of the attack after its confirmation by the Pentagon.

Before the new orders, requests for Russian air cover went through command channels and were not automatically approved.

The license now awarded to Syrian and pro-Iranian Hizballah commanders to contact the operations rooms of Russian air squadrons, without going through the main Russian air base at Hmeimim in Latakia or the Syrian high command in Damascus, dramatically boosts the autonomy of Syrian, Hizballah and Iranian commanders in the field. It also gives sharp teeth to Moscow’s decision in August to place the Russian and Syrian air defense commands under unified command.

Word of this game-changer was delivered by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, when he sat down with Syrian ruler Bashar Assad in Damascus last Thursday, Sept. 14. According to DEBKAfile’s sources, they decided the next Syrian army and Hizballah steps after crossing to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, which were to head for the Syrian-Iraqi border and prepare to seize the towns of Abu Kamal and Mayedin from the Islamic State. The time table was established and Russian air, intelligence and logistic support laid on.

The Russian defense minister then flew to Tehran – this time in secret – to discuss Russia’s new operation plans for Syria with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Military leaders.

DEBKAfile’s military sources note that the actions set in train by Shoigu have radically ramped up Russia’s military cooperation in Syria with Iran, Syria and Hizballah. They were timed to take place shortly before President Donald Trump’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at UN Center in New York on Monday, Sept. 19.

Although their conversation was generally billed as focusing on the Iranian nuclear deal, our sources expect this major turn in the Syrian crisis to figure large in their talks. Washington clearly has no practical plans for countering the assertive Russian-Iranian advances in Syria.

Their ruthlessness was demonstrated Saturday, Sept. 16, by a Russian bombardment of the US-backed Kurdish-led SDF near Deir ez-Zour. Moscow was telling Washington that the US would not be permitted to impede the Syrian-Hizballah initiative for the capture of areas east of the Euphrates and Russia was ready to confront US-backed forces on the ground if they got in the way – while ruling a clash in the air.

The Kremlin was also putting Washington on notice that, after investing massive military and financial resources in Syria, it had no intention to let pro-American forces share in the kudos of the final victory over the Islamic State in Syria, which belonged solely to the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah war alliance.

For now, the Russian maneuver is heading for a successful outcome. The Pentagon, aside from a lame response to the Russian bombardment, has taken no counteraction.

Shoigu in Damascus, Tehran for anti-ISIS drive

September 13, 2017

Shoigu in Damascus, Tehran for anti-ISIS drive, DEBKAfile, September 13, 2017

Our military sources point out that now, because ISIS is concentrating on battering the Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces and stalled their advance to the Euphrates Valley, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, consisting mainly of Syrian Kurdish fighters from the YPG militia, have found that the road from Raqqa to Deir Ez-Zour is open and are overtaking the Russian-backed forces. The SDF is advancing rapidly with US helicopters providing them with fuel so their vehicles can press forward.

Ahead may be decision to commit more Russian military forces to the war against ISIS or explore a path to a breakthrough in talks with the Americans.

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After a tense conversation with Bashar Assad in Damascus Tuesday, Sept. 12, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources discovered the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had flown secretly to Tehran the next day. He then proceeded directly to Sochi to brief President Vladimir Putin on his mission, which was to pull together the Russian-backed Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah operations against ISIS on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

DEBKAfile’s sources report that Shoigu’s visits capped this effort by Moscow.

The bright prospects of success in breaking the ISIS’ long siege of Deir ez-Zour announced at the beginning of the week dimmed on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the claims of a major victory proved unexpectedly premature.

As of Wednesday evening, Syrian army units were still locked in battle for control of the main road from Damascus to Deir Ez-Zour, and were still about 15km away from the city. Reports that the ISIS siege on the large Syrian airbase adjoining Deir Ez-Zour had been lifted were also premature.  On Wednesday night, ISIS forces were still attacking the base’s perimeter in an attempt to break through.

In other words, the lofty claims in recent days by senior Russian officers, President Assad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, claiming the war was won, aside from small scattered battles, were over-hasty.

Our military sources point out that now, because ISIS is concentrating on battering the Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces and stalled their advance to the Euphrates Valley, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, consisting mainly of Syrian Kurdish fighters from the YPG militia, have found that the road from Raqqa to Deir Ez-Zour is open and are overtaking the Russian-backed forces. The SDF is advancing rapidly with US helicopters providing them with fuel so their vehicles can press forward.

As of Wednesday evening, the SDF was just 6 km away from Deir Ez-Zour, ahead of the Russian-backed armies which were taking the brunt of ISIS attacks.

When he saw this happening, Russian President Putin sent his defense minister over to Damascus and Tehran to look for ways to break through to the next operations scheduled for attacking ISIS strongholds on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Ahead may be decision to commit more Russian military forces to the war against ISIS or explore a path to a breakthrough in talks with the Americans..

Iran buildup in S. Syria – riposte for IDF drill

September 12, 2017

Iran buildup in S. Syria – riposte for IDF drill, DEBKAfile, September 12, 2017

 

An Iranian military buildup indeed appears to be taking place on Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel, in response to Israel’s mock thrust into Lebanon. But they are moving in on areas outside the de-escalation zones which are manned by Russian officers. Their tactic therefore is to entrench themselves in other parts of the southeastern Syria so that Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah forces form a continuous, impermeable line along Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan.

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Lebanese sources claimed that on Monday, Syria had fired S-200 missiles against two Israeli F-15 fighter bombers flying over the southern Lebanese port town of Sidon – but missed their targets. The Syrian missiles, they claimed, had been fired from “an air defense base in southern Syria.”

This report was not confirmed by any other source. But it was accompanied by a photo on various Syrian social media, which claimed to depict the firing of these missiles and also presented a Lebanese military spokesman as saying that the Syrian missiles were fired at precisely 11.30 a.m. when the Israeli planes were over Sidon.

The Lebanese and Syrian media accounts are clearly coordinated.

If this episode actually happened, it would be a game changer, in that for the first time, Syria would have launched missiles from one of its bases against a purported Israel warplanes flying over Lebanon.

Even if the two allies were just sending a message to Jerusalem by drumming up an incident, it gains substance from its timing, i.e. five days after an Israeli air strike on Syria’s chemical and missile weapons development facility, the Scientific Studies and Research Center near Masyaf, 38 km west of the central town of Hama.

Syrian military sources are moreover reporting an onrush of Iranian officers, troops and military advisers to southern Syria. According to one official, “Many Iranians are deployed as advisers and police in southern Syria, especially in the de-escalation zones.” Another Syrian official put it more plainly. “We have seen a big increase in the number of Iranian soldiers this month.”

|DEBKAfile’s military sources confirm that these reports are partially correct. An Iranian military buildup indeed appears to be taking place on Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel, in response to Israel’s mock thrust into Lebanon. But they are moving in on areas outside the de-escalation zones which are manned by Russian officers. Their tactic therefore is to entrench themselves in other parts of the southeastern Syria so that Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah forces form a continuous, impermeable line along Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, units of the Syrian army’s 5th Corps moved in on large sections of the Jordanian border, including parts close to Israel.

Neither the IDF nor the Jordanian army interfered with any of these potentially menacing steps. They are seen by DEBKAfile’s military sources as a combined Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah comeback for the IDF exercise, to demonstrate that, while Israel shows itself capable of invading Lebanon, the three allies have meanwhile become firmly ensconced on its northern border.

The next day, Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted: “We have won the war in Syria. Our martyrs, wounded, captives and people are changing equations and writing the region’s history, not just Lebanon’s.”

US-Russian pincer for ISIS in Euphrates Valley

September 10, 2017

US-Russian pincer for ISIS in Euphrates Valley, DEBKAfile, September 10, 2017

The US and Russia have just agreed to each provide air support for a conjoined pincer movement to pin the Islamic State down in its last strongholds of Abu Kamal and Mayadin in the Euphrates Valley, DEBKAfile reports from exclusive intelligence sources.

The number of jihadists assembled there, mainly from Mosul and Raqqa, is estimated at 10,000.

The new US-Russian understanding, our military sources say, provides a roadmap for twin offensives – one led by Syrian regime, Hizballah and pro-Iranian militia armies; the second, by the pro-US Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),  the Kurdish YPG and the Syrian Arab Shammari Sanadid Brigade. The first will fight under Russian air cover and the second under US air support. The tribesmen are fighting with the blessing of Saudi Arabia.

The two columns will advance through two separate corridors.

The Russian-backed formation will head east from the town of Ash-Shula along the M20 highway. En route, they are tasked with completing the capture of Deir ez-Zour, after breaking through the ISIS siege last week, and mopping up ISIS fighters outside the town. After that, they will head northwest to their final destination, the border town of Abu Kamal.

The US-backed force will set out from the northern Syrian Kurdish province of Hasakeh and push on to the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates. (See map.)  After crossing the Khabur, they will head along the Euphrates bank for the same destination, Abu Kamal.

Since the Russian and US air forces will both be operating in a very tight space, the US war room at the CENTCOM commander center in Baghdad and the Russian Hmeimim Air base in Syrian Latakia, will be coordinating aerial operations closely enough to prevent accidental collisions.

An agreement was reached between the US and the Syrian regime to drop references to “de-escalation zones”  and instead talk about “deconfliction.”

Although the two powers have reached an unprecedented measure of accord for working together with their respective allies and proxies for a concerted effort to wipe out the last ISIS strongholds along the Syrian-Iraqi border, nonetheless certain areas are still unresolved:

1. Which of the two will take charge of the oil fields of Deir ez-Zour? Control of this oil-rich region region is a valuable strategic prize for the winner.

2. Which of the two formations will actually lead the battles for Abu Kamal and Mayadin?

3.  And which of the two will be left in control of the Syrian-Iraqi border running through the Euphrates Valley?

Leaving any of these these points up in the air is a recipe for major clashes between the pro-Russian and pro-US forces which have banded together pro tem against the Islamic State’s last stand.

Russian-Syrian airborne radar covers all of Israel

August 30, 2017

Russian-Syrian airborne radar covers all of Israel, DEBKAfile, August 30, 2017

These days, America would find it hard to repeat the Tomahawk cruise missile attack President Donald Trump ordered on April 4 in reprisal for the Syrian army’s used of poison chemicals against civilians. That massive assault knocked out Syria’s Sharyat air base and a large part of its air force.

Israel will likewise not have an easy ride for another air strike like the one conducted on May 17 against an Iranian arms shipment for Hizballah near Damascus. Then, Syria tried for the first time to down the Israeli bomber-fighters with anti-air fire. It failed, but only because Israel was forced to send an Arrow missile into its first operation to prevent Syrian missiles from hitting the returning warplanes over Israeli territory. In future, Israel will have to adjust its tactics to the powerfully enhanced Russian-Syrian defenses.

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The Russian air force has recently deployed to Syria four of its most highly advanced early warning and control aircraft, the Beriev A-50 SRDLO (“Mainstay”), which is rated the most sophisticated AWACS in operation. Several A-50s were spotted flying over Syria in recent months, but they all turned around and headed back to Russia. Four are now installed in the hangars of the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in Syria’s Latakia province.

The plane’s Shmei-M radar is capable of pinpointing targets across a distance of 600km. While in flight, it covers all parts of Israel and can detect every aerial and military movement.

Moscow has deployed the A-50 in support of the unification of Russian and Syria air defense systems going forward in recent weeks. Henceforth, both their air defense systems will be controlled from a single command center at the Khmeimim air base, with the B-50 living up to its name as operational mainstay.

The Russian and Syrian air defenses will no longer need to swap information in the event of a US or Israeli air or missile attack over Syria before coordinating their operations. All incoming information will be channeled to the Russian joint command, which will determine how to respond and manage any combat which may result.

This development limits the freedom enjoyed hitherto by the US and Israeli air and naval forces over Syria and in the eastern Mediterranean and makes their operations far more hazardous.

The Russian air defense commander in Syria now has at his fingertips a wide range of tools for several synchronized maneuvers. He can, for instance, issue a direct order to simultaneously launch three sophisticated weapons systems with deadly effect, such as the Pantsir-S1 tactical, mobile surface-to-air missiles posted outside Damascus, also called the SA-22 Greyhound; the S-400s, installed on the Dhahaer ram Ahmed hilltop northwest of Latakia; and the anti-ship P-800 Oniks-Yakhont cruise missiles which guard Syria’s coast.

These days, America would find it hard to repeat the Tomahawk cruise missile attack President Donald Trump ordered on April 4 in reprisal for the Syrian army’s used of poison chemicals against civilians. That massive assault knocked out Syria’s Sharyat air base and a large part of its air force.

Israel will likewise not have an easy ride for another air strike like the one conducted on May 17 against an Iranian arms shipment for Hizballah near Damascus. Then, Syria tried for the first time to down the Israeli bomber-fighters with anti-air fire. It failed, but only because Israel was forced to send an Arrow missile into its first operation to prevent Syrian missiles from hitting the returning warplanes over Israeli territory. In future, Israel will have to adjust its tactics to the powerfully enhanced Russian-Syrian defenses.

The newly arrived A-50 also enables the Russian command in Syria to keep a controlling eye on the de-escalations zones going up in Syria, including the one taking shape on Syria’s southwestern border opposite the Israeli Golan.

Trump-Putin deal imperils Israeli, Jordan borders

August 12, 2017

Trump-Putin deal imperils Israeli, Jordan borders, DEBKAfile, August 12, 2017

Local US-backed Syrian rebel groups disbanded without a shot, went over to the Syrian government side and handed in their US-supplied weapons to Syrian army and Hizballah fighters.

Sooner or later, the Sweida model will be replicated in Quneitra. Neither the Russian troops nor UN peacekeepers will fight to stop it happening. By then, the Syrian rebel groups, in whose support Israel invested for years as a buffer against hostile Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces, are already falling apart. Disowned by their Saudi backers, they are being crushed by the US-Russian “de-escalation” steamroller. Israel like Jordan will soon find three hostile forces sitting pretty just across its border, far too close for safety.

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The transformation of a small, strategic wedge of land between the Syrian, Israeli, Jordanian and Iraqi borders is going forward apace without arousing much interest – even in Israel, where it should cause the most concern, DEBKAfile reports.

On Wednesday, Aug. 8, two Russian army companies of Ingushet troops from the northern Caucasus set up a command post in the Syrian village of Tal al-Shahm, 13km from Israel’s Golan border. Its commander, Col. Alexei Kozin, has thus taken charge of Syria’s border with Israel. As DEBKAfile reported last month, his task is to set up 10 control checkpoints along that border.

This border area was designated as one of four de-escalation zones agreed on between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at their meeting in Hamburg on July 7.

According to understandings reached between Washington, Moscow and Jerusalem, the UN separation force (UNDOF) will return to its Fawar base opposite Quneitra as a buffer between IDF and Russian forces. Its past history in this role between IDF and Syrian forces was never exactly impressive.

A piece of diplomacy consistent with this process was contributed by Russian foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, Aug. 11. It was an assurance that Russia would take into account Israel’s interests in Jerusalem in the framework of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

It also fits in with the surprising statement from Washington on the same day, namely, that Donald Trump, although in the midst of a fearsome crisis with North Korea with military overtones, is planning to send his senior adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Israel-Palestinian peace broker Jason Greenblatt, on an early visit to the Middle East to continue this mission.

To see how these disparate elements fill out the whole picture, we turn 70km east from Quneitra on the Syria Golan to the battles ongoing at Sweida in southeastern Syria opposite the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Russian troops moved into the key town of Daraa, abutting on the Jordanian border on July 13. Like in Quneitra, a month later, they set up command posts to monitor the first de-escalation or ceasefire zone to be set up under the Hamburg accord.

The Russian troops’ assignment was to stop the fighting there and execute the withdrawal of the combatant forces, the Syrian army, Iran, and its foreign Shiite militias, including Hizballah, to a distance of 40km from the border.

But that arrangement never stood up.

Nearly four weeks later, on Wednesday night, Aug. 9, on the same night that Russian troops moved into Quneitra, the Syrian army and Hizballah launched a major offensive in Sweida province. Three days later, by Saturday, they had forced the local rebel forces to retreat into Jordan and seized 57km of Syria’s southern frontier with the Hashemite Kingdom.

Neither the Russians nor the American interfered with the Syrian-Hizballah-led push, although the Russians took responsibility for maintaining the ceasefire, and US special forces were and still are posted to the east of Sweida at Al-Tanf in the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border triangle.

(See attached map)

DEBKAfile’s military sources add that the Syrian-Hizballah offensive violated the ceasefire deal. Local US-backed Syrian rebel groups disbanded without a shot, went over to the Syrian government side and handed in their US-supplied weapons to Syrian army and Hizballah fighters.

The Sweida episode demonstrated how the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah alliance sees its way to using the Trump-Putin ceasefire zones accord as an open door for seizing control of southern Syria and grabbing the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

The Syrian rebel movement is disintegrating at an alarming rate following the “Jubeir earthquake,” as it has become known – another momentous event which Western and Israeli front pages have chosen to ignore.

Last week, Saudi Foreign Mniser Adel al-Jubeir reportedly informed a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders invited to Riyadh that his government was pulling its support from their fighting militias, in the wake of President Trump’s decision to reduce US military action in Syria solely to the war on ISIS – and therefore end US resistance to the Assad regime.

Saudi officials did not deny the report, only termed it “inaccurate.”

But meanwhile, the decisions by Riyadh and Washington to abandon the anti-Assad cause spread like wildfire among Syrian rebel groups. Many responded by laying down their arms and surrendering.

The fate of the rebel movement after six years of cruel warfare against the dictator Bashar Assad should be an object lesson to other recipients of American and Russian promises. Therefore, Lavrov’s pledge to take Israel’s interests in Jerusalem into account should be taken with a pinch of salt. He was most likely shooting a line to allay Israeli skepticism about the prospect of Russian troops keeping Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah troops at bay from its northern border – even through this pledge was underwritten by Washington.

Instead of taking the two powers at their word, Israel need only watch what is going on in the last few hours just across the border at Sweida, to appreciate the value of such promises.

Sooner or later, the Sweida model will be replicated in Quneitra. Neither the Russian troops nor UN peacekeepers will fight to stop it happening. By then, the Syrian rebel groups, in whose support Israel invested for years as a buffer against hostile Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces, are already falling apart. Disowned by their Saudi backers, they are being crushed by the US-Russian “de-escalation” steamroller. Israel like Jordan will soon find three hostile forces sitting pretty just across its border, far too close for safety.