Category Archives: Idlib province

Showdown in Idlib: the Media War

RT is conducting a sustained campaign to pre-empt a chemical attack supposedly being organised by Western-backed forces in Idlib Province by elements within the rebel fighting force, Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS).

However, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF), reported a convoy of vehicles carrying barrels containing chemical materials being transferred by the Syrian régime from Damascus to the countryside of Hama. A statement issued today by its spokesman, Naji al-Mustafa specified that 10 barrels left the “155th Brigade” barracks near Damascus last night, unloaded in warehouses in the town of Kitlun, and then transferred to another unknown place. NLF is the Turkish-backed umbrella group that merged  Ahrar al-Sham, the Syrian Hawks and the Free Syrian Army amongst others.

This statement comes after persistent Russian warnings of impending chemical attacks in the province of Idlib by rebel factions together with elements from the “Civil Defense” (White Helmet) units. The head of the Russian-Syrian Reconciliation Center, Alexei Siganakov, claimed that members of the White Helmets had transported a large load of toxic substances to a store in the town of Sarqab, under the control of Ahrar al-Sham. Earlier the White Helmets had also been identified by the Russians as associated with planned chemical attacks on Kafrzita and Jisr al-Shughur.

Al-Mustapha maintained that Russian announcements were fabrications that boded ill for local populations. Russia was thus fronting the Assad régime’s preparations for a chemical attack against civilians, as it had already done in previously documented events in Idlib Province and eastern Ghouta, with a sustained media campaign through RT news to soften up international opinion ahead of any atrocities. In an interview with Einab Baladi (The Grapes of my Country news site) yesterday, the director of the Civil Defense units, Raed al-Saleh, echoed al-Mustapha’s warnings about these Russian tactics, and rued the fact that they were not in a position to counter the media dominance of RT’s campaign.  

However, looking more closely at events, it looks like Russia rather than the Assad régime is the prime mover in the Idlib showdown. In of themselves, the latter’s threats against an area increasingly controlled by Turkey are empty without -that is -Russian agreement with Turkey on the diplomatic front. The Russian media campaign is also warning US/UK/French operatives working with and in HTS, of its planned eradication, as part of the same deconfliction protocol that the US/UK/France used during the last rocket attack. HTS has consistently opposed integration into the NFL, and poses a threat to nearby Russian bases because of itslinks with US, British and French intelligence. 

In fact, Russia is currently negotiating with the Turks about the best way to go about ending what Lavrov is now calling an “abscess“. The Turks have made their point that, in the case of Idlib Province, there cannot be the same kind of dumb scorched earth approach used so far in Syria. Their talks with Iran are reinforcing the point. But Russia is putting pressure on Turkey about HTS, and certain limited areas have been cleared by the Turks for an advance by Assad régime forces, one of which is al-Shughour bridge (Jisr al-Sughur), to allow the securing of the approach to the Khmeimim airbase on behalf of the Russians. In today’s world of sanctions, however, both Russian and Iranian geoeconomics depend crucially on Turkey, and weight will continue to be given to Turkish strategic concerns. The final picture will not emerge until the Russia-Turkey-Iran summit in Tehran on Sept 7th.

*N.B.: update in post: Sadr wins the recount: nothing changes but the mood sours (update)

 

The Syrian War: Showdown in Idlib

While a semblance of peace reigns over Idlib’s marketplace, Syrian government forces are striking the Turkmen Mountains in northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, with Assad himself threatening a major offensive to retake Idlib Province, at least rhetorically. Not long ago on July 31, the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, had made it clear on the sidelines of the Astana 10 conference that ‘Any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.’ However, Sergey Lavrov, in a visit to Turkey yesterday said, despite warnings by the Turkish government that an uncontrolled offensive would be catastrophic, that ‘Syria has a right to defend itself against militant groups’.

Despite the apparent disagreement, things are not what they seem. Turkey, with Russian and Iranian consent, has set up “observation posts” around Idlib’s conurbation of some 3 million people, most of whom are displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, now threatened once again by Assad’s army. Apart from the observation posts dividing Afrin from Idlib to the north, a front has been established facing Syrian government forces from El-Eis south of Aleppo to Kafr Sijnah and Qalaat al Madiq to the south of Idlib (north of Hama), and back up on the western side up to Jisr al-Shoughour. Furthermore, these positions have been heavily fortified with massive prefabricated concrete (being delivered below), and it doesn’t look as if  the Turks intend to move anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Turkish security officials have been negotiating for some months now to integrate the various fighting groups spread across Idlib Province into an organized defence force under their control. But Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS or the Institution for the Liberation of the Levant), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) when it was still a declared al-Qaeda affiliate, has, typically, been refusing to cooperate.

Furthermore, elements from within HTS have been making and sending armed drones to cause damage at the Russian airbase at Khmeimim, which has made the subject of HTS’ dissolution a matter of heated debate between Russia and Turkey. While Turkey has recently been having more success at reducing the numbers of HTS’ followers, hardcore elements have broken away to form a new group called Tanzim Horass el-Din which, in virtue of its name (Organisation for the Protectors of the Religion) seems to be declaring an inflexible conservative stance. The al-Jazeera video below summarises these and other related events.

So while Russia is expressing its impatience with the situation in Idlib in its support for the threatened advance by Assad’s forces, the Turks continue to insist that the campaign be stopped. Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın told reporters at a press conference today: ‘We are calling for the immediate termination of the operation into Idlib. Referring to Turkey’s role in the Astana  process, he said: ‘ As a guarantor country, we are working to avoid the mistakes carried out by the [Assad] régime in other parts of Syria, like Deraa and Homs, in Idlib.’ This is a diplomatic way for the Turks to say that they are not moving, and that the Russians have to give them more time to get the situation in Idlib under control. It is understood, however, that Russia’s change of tone conveyed in Lavrov’s statement yesterday is a necessary threat in the interests of speeding things up with recalcitrant fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, it is the next round of the Astana process in Tehran that will be decisive in all these respects (including Assad’s advance) since, undoubtedly, the Iranians will be bringing into the mix the question of trade with Turkey, in trying to overcome the difficult new sanctions environment .

Idlib: the rebel capital of Syria

Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to implement a de-escalation zone over the entire Idlib Province of Syria at the last (6th) Astana Conference. According to the agreement, Turkey would become the guarantor of rebel opposition groups situated in the province. In this way another destructive campaign by the Assad régime in Syria could be avoided, and the migrant populations that have moved there due to their opposition to the régime would be saved from further harm. Turkey is deploying its troops in Idlib, not only to bring peace to the  area itself, but also to surround and neutralise the YPD/PKK Kurdish pocket in Afrin, in conjunction with the Euphates Shield A’zaz to Al-Bab zone to the north. This would bring about Turkey’s aim of halting plans for a unified and contiguous Kurdish state in Syria, and doing so without spilling any further blood.

Idlib has seen many refugees flock to the city, especially after the dramatic fall of Aleppo, bringing the overall population (of the city alone) to well over a million. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), dominated by the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), took control of much of the province after many military confrontations with its rival Ahrar al-Sham. Despite HTS’s overall control, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Jays al-Izza and Jays al-Idlib, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki continue to control different pockets throughout the province. While these latter groups support the Turkish deployment and its backing of the Free Syria Army (FSA), HTS remains opposed, and there it is likely that a confrontation with Turkish troops occurs at some point. HTS have informants within the other opposition groups and also have high ranking officers who are in the service of Western intelligence agencies.

Turkey’s Idlib Operation replaced the previously planned Euphates Sword, which would have seen an advance directly into YDP/PKK territory in Afrin. It is being conducted with the FSA factions in the lead, in a similar manner to the previous Operation Euphrates Shield (OES), which began from Jarablus. One of the successes of the Turkish Idlib Operation has been to encourage small groups of fighter to split off from HTS, in order to strengthen the FSA with new elements with local knowledge. Another success seems to have been the marginalisation of HTS by prioritising humanitarian aid and reconstruction. It would appear that HTS finds itself in a corner as a result of this policy, since any attack on its part would lead, not only to many losses among its fighters, but also any local standing it might continue to have in the community.

Developments in Iraqi Kurdistan with the collapse of the Barzani independence referendum saw Turkey help Iraq, leading to the prospect of the maintenance of Iraq’s sovereign integrity. Turkey’s change of stance has rebalanced forces within Iraq, where Abadi, instead of relying purely on the US to fend off the extreme pro-Iranian political factions in the Shia coalitions, can now count on a new ally with significant local economic import, to strengthen his suit. Iran , far from seeing this as an unwelcome development in Iraqi politics, is relieved that Turkey can thus dilute the importance of the US here. This reduces the commitments Iran needs to make to the Iraqi economy to keep US influence in the country marginalised, and lessen the reactions against its presence, from nationalist groups such as the Sadr movement. Abadi new tough language with the US is a sign of this rebalancing and of his new political standing.

A new geopolitical understanding has also been reached over a remarkably short period between Turkey and Iran, based on all these developments, which in turn will also help to consolidate the Idlib Operation. The Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana process has brought peace to the region. In this – its latest phase – the marginalisation of two the major tools of the Western intelligence agencies in the destabilisation of the region is complete: HTS and the YPG/PKK. So quickly has Turkey been able to effect its establishment of bases across Idlib Province, that it appears that a new operation is being envisaged in Afrin province itself.