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.
Demonstrations in Idlib against Bashar el-Assad shows the spirit of the Arab Spring still lives on. The rights of the Syrian people (no less than the rights of all Arab peoples) have been trampled on, but what has been most surprising is how, in the Syrian context, the international left sees Assad as a sort of beacon and the Russian state as the angel of justice. Narratives across the alt-left blogs and newsletters have been as incomprehensible as those of the alt-right.
As Syrian opposition activist Yasin al-Haj Saleh said in an interview with the Intercept in 2016, when asked What did you expect from the left in its response to the Syrian revolution?:
‘It came to me as a shock, actually, that most of them have sided with Bashar al-Assad. I don’t expect much out of the international left, but I thought they would understand our situation and see us as a people who were struggling against a very despotic, very corrupt, and very sectarian regime. I thought they would see us and side with us. What I found, unfortunately, is that most people on the left know absolutely nothing about Syria. They know nothing of its history, political economy, or contemporary circumstances, and they don’t see us.’
At the time Saleh couldn’t have predicted that events would finally grind events down in Syria to a stalemate with the opposition surviving precariously in the Idlib enclave. All commentary still expects Assad’s thirst for terror soon to be quenched and Turkey’s insolence at suggesting peace and the beginning of a political process, to be punished with new mayhem and chaos, on the basis that tiny recalcitrant factions like Horas Al-Din and Jabhat Ansar Al-Din will throw a spanner in the works of the peace deal. But little thought is given to the fact that Turkey’s military force, the largest in NATO after the US, has been given over to counter-terror operations for the past 20 years in the Turkish South-East, and latterly in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey’s demand for peace isn’t a polite request, as Russia found out when it was informed that resistance to an Assad advance on a massive scale had been planned, and as Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham found out when it was officially blacklisted in Ankara. A copy of the Russian-Turkish one page memorandum of agreement (below), negotiated between Putin and Erdogan on 17th Sept. in Sochi, is a testament to the Turkish resolve not to bend in the face of an advance by Assad.
Ahead of Assad’s threats, Turkey reinforced each of its 12 military outposts around Idlib with 80 to 1,000 mechanized infantry and commando troops (totaling 1,200-1,300) and equipped the outposts with multiple rocket launchers and massive prefabricated concrete ramparts. Ankara then sealed off the border west and north of Idlib with military units, that planned to organise unlimited logistical support for the rebel fighting units. A long drawn out conflict would have shaken the continued viability of the Assad régime, which could well have endangered the status of the Russian military bases at Tartus and Hmeimim nearby. Furthermore, Iran’s absence on 17th September in Sochi and its failure to comment on the agreement showed its lack of enthusiasm, at least at this juncture, for Assad’s braggadocio at his allies’ expense.
In the agreement, Putin agrees to Turkey playing the role of “guarantor” of ceasefires throughout Syria, and accepts the continuing reinforcement and expansion of Turkish military forces in the Idlib governorate under the formula of “fortification” of Turkish “observation posts”, while their number (currently 12) is not restricted in area size or limited in terms of invested personnel and arms. Putin also agrees to “take all necessary measures to ensure that military operations and attacks on Idlib will be avoided and the existing status quo will be maintained.”
Meanwhile, the full extent of the new Turkish-ruled territory has been postponed, according to the wording of the Sochi pact. “The delineation of the exact lines of the demilitarised zone will be determined,” Point 4 says, “through further consultations.”
— Zeina Khodr (@ZeinakhodrAljaz) September 19, 2018
See the original Russian memorandum of agreement:
Data captured by Russia’s S-400 system at Hmeimim proves Israeli jets were responsible for the downing of the Russian plane and the killing of 15 personnel, according to the Russian Defense Ministry’s latest announcement today. Significantly, the data showed that the Syrian missile changed its course shortly before hitting the Il-20. Despite Israel’s frantic fabrications, it is clear then that the Syria missile had been fired at the Israeli F-16s, and that Israeli pilots ducked into the shadow of the Russian Il-20 at the last minute.
Putin may have initially softened the harsh tone of Russian Defence Ministry Staff over the shoot down, but the eventual official response was devastating. The S-300 had been promised to the Assad régime to update its air defence capabilities but, on his multiple trips to Moscow, Netanhayu had secured a promise from Putin that it would not be delivered. This decision is now reversed, and the S-300 will be handed over within two weeks. It will be accompanied by advance automated air defence management systems. Finally, electromagnetic jamming systems are to be installed in the area around the Russian military bases in Tartus and Hmeimim to suppress satellite navigation, onboard radar systems and communications of warplanes attacking targets on Syrian territory from the Mediterranean.
This is a spectacular victory for Iran, as its puppet Syrian régime is now enabled with an effective air defence capability. This will cow the Israeli air force, which has so far been able to campaign with relative impunity over Syrian airspace. Even with the old S-200 system, Syrian forces were able to shoot down an Israeli F-16. It is important, however, to take into account that these events are taking place as Hezbollah in Lebanon, through its leader Hassan Nasrallah, makes a point of announcing its possession of advanced ballistic missile systems targeting Israel.
It is expected that either Hezbollah or the Lebanese authorities themselves will announce within weeks that violations of Lebanese airspace by Israel will be met with an immediate missile defense response. This will be the culmination of a standoff between the two countries over oil and gas rights at sea. What is abundantly clear is that Israel’s relentless aggression against its neighbours, rather than cowing them, has produced a military response on a number of levels that it never would have expected. US politicians recognise that with this decision by Russia, Israel’s dominance over Middle Eastern skies draws to a close.
“Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” – Tacitus, Agricola Ch. 30.
Since U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the Daesh began four years ago, in August 2014, alliance spokespersons have put the civilian death toll at just over 1,000 civilians for both Syria and Iraq, and say all is done to prevent civilian deaths.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says today, however, that Syria strikes alone have since killed 2,832 civilians, including 861 children and 617 women. This monitoring group relies on a network of sources inside Syria and tracks flight patterns, aircraft involved and ammunition used to determine who carries out raids.
Meanwhile, more than 360,000 people have been killed across Syria since the conflict broke out in 2011, nearly a third of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory.
And yet the majority of Western journalists continue to vaunt what they call Assad’s “success” in the war, and little is said about Turkey’s forceful diplomacy in bringing the Russians round to the idea of a peaceful solution to the crisis in Idlib. Obviously, only with an opposition movement is any talk of a “political solution” not senseless delusion. However, while the fighting groups under the National Liberation front (NLF) umbrella have agreed the terms of the truce, there still remains the question of Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), which has not come to a decision yet and hosts a lot of foreign fighters not willing to surrender.
Many doubt that Turkey will be able to meet the October 15 deadline to disarm HTS. But this misunderstands the relative position of Turkey with respect to HTS, which is not only surrounded by Turkish military positions, but has been warned of Turkish determination. It is hard not to conclude that the Syrians within HTS will choose not to confront Turkey’s counterterror capabilities, in the shadow, furthermore, of massive Turkish artillery positions along the border, and in the certainty that their supply lines can be cut from all sides at once.
Ultimately, only in the Turkish controlled areas of Syria, in Idlib, Afrin, A’zaz, el-Bab, and Jarablus, all of which have been spared the Grozny treatment, will Syrians flourish and build a future. By contrast, it will take generations and many tens of billions of US Dollars for life to come back to Aleppo and Homs. As far as Raqqa is concerned – once an imperial city of the Omayyad Arab dynasty- so long as it remains in the control of the Marxist PYD/YPG organisation, the city will stay as a mere shadow of its former self. Meanwhile, the PYD’s capitalist masters (happy as the US is for the services of Kurds as proxies in its aimless wars) have point blank refused to commit funds for the reconstruction of Syria.
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?