As the deadline of October 15 on the setting up of a buffer zone under the Turkey-Russia Idlib accord approaches, it is clear that the Turks are not interested in no for an answer, from Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham, or any of the other fighting groups. Above is a picture (Anadolu) of the latest reinforcements for the Turkish observation posts around Idlib; the fourth convoy in a month. At least Putin isn’t worried about Turkey’s ability to deliver its end of the bargain.
As this site has predicted for some time, Erdoğan convinced Putin of the need to de-escalate military threats in Idlib, through a combination of arming opposition forces, reinforcing Turkey’s positions, and organising a major diplomatic offensive to bring Western powers behind Turkish policy. The presidents of Russia and Turkey may have agreed yesterday to create a “demilitarised zone” around Idlib, but this outcome was far from obvious after the Tehran summit broke up on September 7th.
Putin’s sudden cooperative stance at Sochi, and his emphasis now on the importance of Russian trade relations with Turkey, means that he had not fully taken into consideration the extent to which Turkey was willing to go to support the opposition to Assad and the dangers that posed to the Syrian régime if an assault on Idlib had led to counter-attacks in Aleppo and Hama, widening the war once again and exposing the régime’s threadbare nature. The survival of Assad is essential for the presence of Russian bases in Syria, and so is the continuation of the myth spun by Russian media that he has somehow won the war, even if he controls less than 50% of Syrian territory, all of it an economic basket-case.
The economic burden that Assad’s Syrian region poses for Russia is clear from the unsuccessful road show Putin recently promoted in Western capitals for the reconstruction of Syria. If Idlib had caused a Russo-Turkish split once again, not only would the Assad victory myth be fatally undermined but Russian economic plans in Turkey would also have to be put on hold; whether Turkstream, the Akkuyu power plant, or the wider project for dedollarisation of Russian trade in general that its currently good relations with Turkey is making possible.
The same kind of scenario holds for Iran. Its latest supportive announcement in favour of the Russian-Turkish deal, follows the relief felt by the Iranian government over the Turkish rejection of anti-Iranian US sanctions. It also perceives the economic opportunities offered by Turkish trade and Turkey’s centrality to the dedollarisation project as crucial to its national interest. Iran also helped to sway the balance of forces away from an assault on Idlib, and encourage the withdrawal of Syrian régime forces. It is also clear to Iran, with the unprecedented Western-backed Israeli attacks on Syria taking place, that the real threats to its national security have little to do with Idlib or indeed Turkey.
The agreement between Russia and Idlib is extremely important for the survival of the political rather than military solution to Syria’s future. Much of the pro-Russian media and assorted liberal commentators have always argued for the military option, for the crushing of the opposition to Assad, and now they maintain that Assad is merely biding his time. That is false. Assad would have come off the worse for a confrontation with Turkey, even with Russian air cover. The new Russo-Turkish agreement is turning point for the Arab Spring, a revival of the hopes for which is now making liberal commentators furious.
The details of the Sochi agreement are that a 15-20km wide buffer zone in Idlib jointly policed by Russian and Turkish forces is to come into force by 15 October, involving the “withdrawal of all radical fighters” including the ex-al-Qaeda Hay’at Tahrir el-SHAM (HTS). Erdoğan and Putin also agreed on the withdrawal of “heavy weaponry from this zone,” including tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, and rocket launchers, much of which had recently been supplied by Turkey anyway, in preparation for the upcoming attack. Now all this will be withdrawn to Turkish territory once again, and the radical groups moved to the Jarablus region of Syria, on the border with Syrian Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence (MİT) has now bought time to sift through the individuals in all those groups to be able weed out the foreign fighters and more dangerous elements during relocation.
War drums in Iraq: While the US makes agreeable noises about this new Russo-Turkish agreement, it is hardly overjoyed at the strengthening of those relations and of the Turkish position in northern Syria. The idea that there is any active US backing for a ceasefire in Idlib and a political solution in Syria is further misdirection from liberal commentary. US belligerence is merely taking a new turn, as tensions in the region now shift from Northern Syria to Northern Iraq, where Iran is facing increasing military pressure from US proxies.
It has become clear that US control in Syrian Kurdistan is viewed by the Pentagon as a launchpad for the re-taking of Northern Iraq with the help of the alphabet-soup of various Kurdish proxies. US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk’s presence in Irbil during the negotiations for the formation of the next Iraqi government is evidence enough. Current US-backed Iraqi prime minister Abadi, whose future in those negotiations is uncertain as a result of his soaring unpopularity in the Iraqi street, is trying to curry favour with the US during this process by acting to bolster Kurdish positions in Iraq against Turkish incursions targeting the PKK.
After the Turks sent massive arms shipments to the (anti-Assad) opposition group National Liberation Front (NLF), organised by the Turkish armed forces, and after Western powers, led by Britain, backed Erdoğan’s stance on Idlib in no uncertain terms, Putin has invited the Turkish president for an urgent meeting in Sochi this coming Monday, to discuss his proposals for clearing Idlib of the ex-al-Qaeda group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
It must be clear to Putin that after the capture and arrest of Yusuf Nazik by Turkish intelligence (MİT), in an undercover operation in the Syrian régime stronghold of Latakia, Turkish support for the NLF will last for ‘at long as it takes’ for the Syrian opposition group to win out against Assad. Things have changed dramatically with the public arrest and confession of Nazik, who is a Syrian intelligence operative involved in in a bomb attack in Reyhanlı, Hatay Province, on 11 May 2013, planned by Assad, which killed 53 people.
What is clear to Putin now is that Turkey will use this publicity as justification for its long-standing negative stance on Assad, and that it is likely that the Turkish armed forces will exact revenge for a bombing, which is not the first atrocity Assad organised against Turkish interests over the years. Furthermore, in the current Syrian scenario, and as Turkey is positioned with 12 concrete-reinforced bases around Idlib, its armed forces are perfectly positioned to deal a major military defeat on Assad’s forces. This could cause the total unwinding of a threadbare régime that still fantasises about nailing all of Syria under its rule. That is, if Russia is not careful.
But all the signs are that Russia is being careful. Quite apart from the call for the urgent Sochi meeting with the Turkish president, a sudden withdrawal of the “Tiger Forces”, an élite unit of Syrian régime forces under direct control of Russia and led by Brigadier Suhail Hassan, has been announced. The unit withdrew from the northern Hama countryside of Idlib Province, back towards the desert countryside of Suwayda.
Turkey’s IHH send 20 trucks of aid to Idlib
Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, Major İbrahim Majbour spoke to Yeni Şafak about developments following the Tehran summit. The FSA has been organised by Turkey for the purposes of defending specifically the Idlib region, under the umbrella of Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).
In a dramatic turnaround, the Turkey government decided not to withdraw these elements from the region. This had been planned in order to isolate Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), weaken them and encourage substantial sections of the ex al-Qaeda organisation to surrender. By blacklisting HTS, Turkey declared their intension to respond to Russian concerns about threats to their airbase at Khmeimim from units infiltrated by Western intelligence personnel. However, it became clear at the Tehran summit that Putin planned for a comprehensive attack on all fighting forces in the Idlib region.
Seeing that Russia and Iran had begun to flout the principles of the Astana peace process, with a wide ranging air and ground assault, the Turkish government has decided to confront the attacks, and to allow the FSA/NLF to remain to do the same. The fast paced action is now essentially pitting Turkish-backed forces against Russia and Iranian-backed forces.
Majbour pointed out that Russia is redeploying the same tactic it used against Daraa in the southwest, noting that Russia is currently trying to divide Idlib into five different regions through its intensified bombardment aimed at severing all links between them. However, the FSA/NLF has prepared for this, according to Majbour, and has planned a defence strategy based on differences between Idlib and Daraa from the geographic and strategic standpoints.
Furthermore, as mass demonstrations in central Idlib, Taftanaz, Kafranbel and Maaret al-Numan called for a Turkish invasion force to enter Idlib, Majbour says: “We once again saw the true intentions of Russia and Iran during the Tehran summit. Turkey has the strongest hand both on the table and on the ground because it is the only side that wants reconciliation without bloodshed.”
“The people of Idlib are behind Turkey. For months, demonstrations have been held in every town and village. The whole world sees Turkey’s intense efforts. Those who want a show of force through bloodshed will realize that they will not actualize their goals.”
“We were able to arrest dozens of instigators through the ongoing intelligence efforts of Turkey’s Idlib observation posts and opposition headquarters. There’s a large number of cells attempting to get people to surrender and spread chaos. There are cells that serve not only the PKK and Daesh, but also Russia and Iran. There have been 80 blasts over the past 10 days in Idlib. Simultaneously, the same provocations are ongoing in the axis of Jarabulus, Azaz, Afrin and al-Bab.”
Majbour added that as a mark of respect for Turkey’s diplomatic efforts, the FSA/NLF had so far not mounted any attacks, noting that as soon as battle breaks out, the opposition forces had the capacity in fact, not only to defend their positions, but to counter-attack and overrun Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.
Clearly, while the Turkish government worked towards a compromise with Russia on sorting out the extremists from the moderate opposition forces in Idlib, plans were afoot all along in the event that Russia would reject that effort and tar all non-régime forces with the same brush, a point that stands out in the statements by Turkish presidential advisor, İbrahim Kalın.
If Majbour sees differences between the Idlib battlefront and all the previous confrontations with the Syrian régime, this is only partly due to the opposition’s determination and the well-laid battle plans that would seem now to enable the coordination of all opposition groups. The main reason for the difference is the fact that Idlib backs directly onto Turkish soil, and now that Turkey feels threatened by a new wave of refugees, it will ensure uninterrupted logistical supplies to opposition forces, for as long as it takes. So, the people of Idlib effectively have what they called for when they called for a Turkish invasion force. No more is necessary.
Iranian hubris at the Tehran conference was in evidence as Rouhani, taking Putin at his word that Russia would help Syrian régime and Iranian militias overrun Idlib, stated blandly that the next step was to remove American forces from Eastern Syria. The Syrian régime is threadbare and their Iranian backers will not be able to deal with organised resistance. How long will it take Putin to realise that he has made a mistake by not listening to Turkey on this matter? How long will it take for a tactical mistake to turn into a strategic one?
Space for peace: a future for Syrian children
İbrahim Kalın calls on the world to do more than talk and buy their consciences by setting red lines on the use of chemical weapons. Last time the red line was crossed the Pentagon cleared the military response with Russia, which directed them onto a series of empty warehouses. Kalın writes: Idlib is a de-escalation zone under the Astana agreement. As the three guarantor countries, Turkey, Russia and Iran have established military posts in the province. Turkey has 12 of them. The presence of Turkish soldiers there is probably the only guarantee to prevent any major assault because the Russian jet fighters and the regime ground forces cannot afford attacks while Turkish soldiers are there; we know that they do not care about civilians and legitimate, moderate opposition forces. Any attack on Idlib in the name of eliminating terrorist groups would undermine the Astana process.
Turkey has done its utmost and will continue its tireless efforts to prevent another humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. International support must go beyond statements of concern or “anger,” as U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted. It must be translated into concrete action for both a political solution and a plan for the refugees. Idlib is a ticking bomb. We can turn it off and start a new process in Syria if the international community gets serious about the Syrian war and shows that they do care about the Syrian people.
While the final statement of the Tehran Conference announces that there cannot be a military solution to the Syrian crisis, this is window dressing. Putin insists that driving out terrorist groups from Idlib is Russia’s unbending priority. It is interesting that he didn’t make it clear that by that he meant, in particular, Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS).
In the press conference following the summit, Putin underlined the fact that the fighting groups on the ground are very difficult to sort out one from the other, and from the civil population at large. An assault is therefore on the cards, and Turkish appeals for more time for negotiations will not in Russian eyes present enough pressure on HTS for their units to surrender.
Many aspects of the negotiations between Russia and Turkey in particular would not have been made public. Up to a point, much that is going on is an attempt at putting psychological pressure on fighting groups to surrender and give up their arms, and on the civil population to inform on their position to Turkish intelligence services.
Turkey, it seems, will organise a withdrawal of all the fighters under their aegis, in order to isolate those still resisting, thereby adding further psychological pressure, and driving home the reality of the fact that is no long any possibility for negotiating a retreat. However, in the end, Putin’s view of how to deal with terrorists is to act on promises of “a bloodbath” in the event of resistance.
His track record of carnage is a long one and began with the razing of Grozny. I can only hope that the accuracy of Turkish intelligence and the level of their cooperation with the Russians will allow a narrowing down of the zones of conflict in the case of Idlib. The Turkish involvement in Idlib will mitigate the prospective devastation, but not prevent it.
Nevertheless, the Turkish policy of positive involvement with the Syrian people will contribute considerably to the country’s soft power in the region over the long term. Its patience will be rewarded, while Russian policy will cost it dear in the not too long term.
The short-sightedness of supporting a régime in Damascus aiming to extend its influence to all corners of Syria, without the capacity to provide even minimal services in its own back yard, is truly blinding. Chaos and infighting reigns within the ranks of Assad’s régime, and its prisons are full to the brim of political prisoners.
The hollowness of Russia’s call to a (disinterested) world for the reconstruction of Syria is, furthermore, deafening. Syria is an economic black hole. Can it be that Putin is making a noose for his own neck in Syria? And that he will, after helping to kill a few more thousands in Idlib, eventually be turning to Turkey for help?
The most explosive potential problem is the alliance between the Damascus régime and Iran. Unprecedented ethnic cleansing and demographic restructuring in Syria’s capital and in the South West has meant that large communities of Shi’a militia (of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani origin) under Iranian control are now resident nationals of Syria. When war erupts between Syria and Israel: what will Russia’s position be then?
Sept 8: Assad drops barrel bombs on Khan Sheikhun, South Idlib Province, where he previously used chemical weapons
As Russia, Turkey and Iran sit down to discuss the future of Idlib today, there are a few facts to keep in mind which I have reiterated over and over.
Assad is an unreconstructed bloodthirsty and vengeful tyrant. He uses chemical weapons. The Russians rely on his régime to keep their military bases in Syria open. They spin and lie (convincingly) through their media outlets (RT) about his use of chemical weapons.
Russia has in its sights thousands of Chechen, Dagestani, and Tatar jihadis of Russian origin who fight with HTS, who are hiding amongst the civilians population, and will not surrender. Russia is the prime mover in the prospective fight in Idlib.
Russia has already conducted airstrikes to pressure Turkey ahead of the summit, and Turkey has responded by blacklisting HTS to indicate its willingness to cooperate in rooting these elements out, and to differentiate them from the Free Syria Army (FSA) elements organised by the Turks under the umbrella Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).
Only the considerable diplomatic pressure by the Turks, given the important economic relationship it has with Russia, has so far kept the lid on the advance on Idlib. It is also clear that the only relatively free and prosperous areas in Syria today are those in the north under Turkish control.
There is no sense among Syrians that Turkey, whatever its national interests, will ever let up on its efforts to counter the destruction meted out by Assad on his own people. Only Turkey, it seems, is looking out for the future of Syria’s children.
The Russian are meeting with the Turks and Iranians in Tehran on Friday. The Russians have begun limited airstrikes to soften up Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS) positions (above picture). These have been pinpointed by Turkish Intelligence (MİT), with raids beginning after Turkey blacklisted the organisation, in a final move pressuring it to disband and surrender to them. The Russians are impatient because of the repeated drone attacks by HTS on the Khmeimim airbase, and are the prime movers of the new phase of military operations in Syria.
On the other hand, the Syrian régime forces backed by Iranian militias are so far holding off on a major attack and engaging only in limited shelling. They are awaiting, it seems, the outcome of the Tehran summit. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s interventions with the US to hold off an American response has resulted in rumblings and threats from Trump against the Syrian régime and a full UNSC meeting on the subject of Idlib. The French are also pressuring to stave off an attack by Assad.
The likely outcome is for limited strikes and advances and a slow strangulation of the HTS units that refuse to surrender. The Iranian economy is heavily dependent on Turkey and this is already showing in Iran sensitivity towards Turkish demands. With the Turks ensconced in their positions around Idlib, their vision of a province surviving the crisis to go on to prosper in the manner of the northern Syrian areas of Al-Bab, Jarablus and Afrin, and avoid an apocalyptic fate similar to that of Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul, is become more likely with every passing day.
What happened in those last three historic Arab cities – cities that will now limp into the future as a mere shadow of their former selves- has taught us that there is little difference between the scorched earth military tactics of the Americans and the Russians. The future of Syria will lie with the Syrians both in Turkey and in the Turkish controlled areas of northern Syria, who have been given an economic future by the Turkish nation. The power of the Syrian people must become an economic not a military one.
After months of cajoling leaders of Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), ex-al-Nusra Front, to disband in order to avoid a Russian/Syrian régime attack on Idlib Province, Turkey has listed HTS as a terrorist organisation, now paving the way for the advance. The long negotiations with HTS did see many of their fighters join the force organised by the Turks in the province, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).
Now only hardcore elements remain in the rump ex-al-Qaeda organisation, who are sworn to fight to the bitter end. Unlike previous encounters between rebel fighters and the Russian/Syrian military in the Damascus and Aleppo environs, there is no longer anywhere for the HTS units to retreat.
A pincer movement against its fighters by the Assad régime, from the west and the south of Idlib, with Russian air support is planned. HTS is held up in Khan Sheikun, Jisr al-Shughur, Kafr Nabal, Idlib, and parts of Jabal al-Zawiya, Salqeen, Darkush, Harem, Sarmada, Sarmin and Ma’ra Misrin. However, the Turks have given clearance for an advance in only three areas:
- Jisr al-Shughur to secure the approach to the Russian airbase at Kmeimim
- Southern Idlib countryside to secure Hama airport
- The Hama-Aleppo main Road
The scenario that is unfolding has been planned by the Russians in agreement with the Turks, who are ensconced in 12 heavily fortified positions around Idlib. It is cautiously envisaged as unfolding in stages in order to minimise civilian casualties. Turkey is conducting joint intelligence work to identify the positions of the blacklisted organizations. Turkish intelligence (MİT) is crucial to this operation, which is why its head, Hakan Fidan, has been to Moscow so many times recently. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that he has asked the US to share their intelligence over the jihadist groups in Idlib to help the pinpoint operation. This might, however, be optimistic, given that the move against HTS will reduce the US footprint in the Idlib area. Still, not all US agencies are involved there, and some may help.
So now that Turkey has thrown its hat in the ring formally and agreed the terms of any advance, should it happen, there is little doubt that HTS’ days are numbered. Intermittent negotiations are likely to continue between Turkey and the HTS leadership for the group’s disbandment and surrender. Meanwhile, Russian naval exercises off the Syrian coast are intended to ward off any unexpected succour for the beleaguered HTS units that might prolong the conflict.