Hard on the latest agreements at Astana between Russia, Turkey and Iran on the de-escalation zone Hayʼat Taḥrīr al-Shām (or “Levant Liberation Committee”, ex-Jabhat al-Nusra, ex-Jabhat Fatḥ al-Šām) rejected the deal and launched an unannounced attack on Assad régime positions yesterday in the Hama environs. Other factions joining the attack included the “Islamic Party of Turkistan” and Jeish al-Ezza or “Army of pride,” Jeish el-Nasr or “Victory Army”, Jeish Idlib al-Hor or “Idlib Free Army” and Al-Firqah al-Wastah or “The centre organisation.”
Taḥrīr al-Shām spokesman Abu Anas al-Shami said that the move was intended to signal to the parties in Astana that they had no weight on the ground, and specifically that they reject Turkey’s plan for the Idlib zone. What seemed to be the overriding consideration driving the attack is a desire by Taḥrīr al-Shām to re-unite all the different remaining jihadi factions behind it, and to give itself credibility by showing-off its military strength.
But frustrated opposition activist Maaz Hamwi in Idlib countered with the observation that “these battles have now proved a total military failure, as the Syrian army and the Russians now return in force with widespread bombing, with the probable aggravation of the further displacement of innocent civilians as a consequence”.
His words were echoed by Russian army spokesmen claiming major hits against Taḥrīr al-Shām’s positions with 850 fighters killed and the destruction of considerable amounts of equipment. Moving against the agreements between Syrian opposition leaders and Turkey, Taḥrīr al-Shām is doomed, despite its backing from the US and its allies (Israel, Saudi and the UAE) intent on undoing the efforts expended at Astana to bring peace.
The announcement of the Turkish peace keeping force which arrived at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Thursday night, received an overwhelming vote of confidence from local Syrian residents and their leadership, who are relieved that the overlordship of Taḥrīr al-Shām over Idlib and its environs has now effectively ended.
While the Turkish force is emphasising its peace-keeping role, it plans with Russia to counter aggression from jihadi groups as it occurs. The overwhelming power that the Turkish and Russia militaries present together in that particular area is unlikely to be challenged. The attack on Assad régime forces was only possible due to their perceived weakness, as well as their unpopularity with the residents of North-Western Syria. It is significant that a number of the jihadi fighting groups have now offered to join the Turkish effort, thus undoing in short measure the efforts of CIA-proxy Taḥrīr al-Shām to give itself credibility.
It would appear the previous plan to announce ‘Operation Euphrates Sword’ against YPG Kurdish forces in Afrin by the Turkish military has been cancelled and replaced with a plan to encircle Afrin from the South with Turkish forces and the East with SDF forces, instead. The new plan would appear to achieve Turkish objectives for the time being without further complicating relations with the US.