Ibrahim Mohammad Wahdi
Turkish threats of a wide-scale military operation in northern Syria and a Syrian-Kurdish approach under Russian auspices, while al-Julani continues his plan to control Idlib.
What follows is a detailed analysis of the terrorist groups and warlord factions involved in the occupation of north-west Syria and the interconnected Turkish neo-Ottoman agenda in northern Syria.
The role of Russia and its collaboration with the Syrian Arab Army is explored in depth and the areas where there is the greatest potential for conflict are revealed.
The war in Syria is not over and there are many UK/US-backed terrorist shifting alliances to be taken into account as part of the geopolitical power game that is now entering its most dangerous stage.
The tipping points are on multiple axes and it will take a great deal of political and military brinkmanship from Damascus and her allies to restore peace to Syria.
Warlord conflict in Idlib
Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) deployed its most powerful weapons and equipment, opened its depots and engaged the elite ‘Asa’ib’ fighters in the battles for Mount Al-Turkman.
The last 28 members of Jund Allah (God’s soldiers), led by “Abu Fatima Al Turki” were expelled from the mountain. These fighters had been responsible for the killing of 9 HTS and the kidnapping of more than 10 gang members but they escaped safely.
Muslim Abu Walid Al-Shishani (Murad Margoshivili), and his armed group “Junod Al Sham” have also fled the mountain after violent clashes with HTS. Murad’s brother “Abu Musa Al-Shishani” was captured trying to flee to Turkey and held at a Turkish checkpoint.
Junod al-Sham was established in 2012 under the leadership of Muslim Al-Shishani. The majority of fighters were from the Caucasus countries. The group never exceeded 300 members. Almost half of them left with the defection of “Abu Omar al-Shishani” when he pledged allegiance to terrorist group ISIS in 2013.
HTS is headed up by Abu Mohammed Al Jolani recently platformed in a Frontline interview in an apparent attempt to rebrand Jolani as viable Syrian opposition not the extremist violent former Al Qaeda leader he really is.
Al Jolani’s battles with the Junod Al Sham, Jund Allah and Guardians of Religion gangs must be viewed in the context of the bombings and suicide vehicle operations that have targeted Turkish military points and patrols since the last military operation of the Syrian Arab Army in the area that ended with a ceasefire on March 5, 2021.
The latest attack was on October 16th 2021 when a Turkish patrol was targeted killing two soldiers and injuring two more.
Such tactics were adopted by unknown organizations such as the “Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq Brigades”. Al Jolani accused these splinter groups of conducting these attacks to secure Turkish support.
The groups accused Jolani of using the attacks to blame unaffiliated groups in Idlib because he was seeking a monopoly in Idlib with Turkish backing. This is the gangs and counter gangs scenario that has been a hallmark of the US Coalition armed group activities in Syria since 2011.
Here comes the Turkistan Islamic Party‘s (TIP) role. TIP consists primarily of al-Qaeda loyalists, originally from Xinjiang Province, northwest China (Uighurs).
TIP has made a deal with Taliban leaders in cooperation with Turkish intelligence (MIT) to transport Junod Al-Sham and Jund Allah groups and leaders, alongside other terrorist fighters, to Afghanistan through Turkey according to local sources. The “Azm” operation room in Afrin has denied any existence of these groups despite having received them after they fled Idlib.
But how would that affect Idlib now?
In order to understand and predict, we must first know who’s left in Idlib, their allegiances and their importance.
Jihadist factions reconciled with HTS:
“Jaysh al-Badia” and Jaysh al-Malahem, two small jihadist factions, whose first and last allegiance is to al-Qaeda, defected from HTS in late 2017, due to its separation from al-Qaeda, but recently returned under its wing.
“Sham al-Islam” faction, which is stationed in Mount al-Turkman, northeast of Lattakia, and includes about 400 fighters, 150 of which are Moroccan leaders and fighters, in addition to 50 Sudanese, while the rest are Syrians.
“Ansar al-Tawhid” faction, was formed in March of 2018, in Sarmin town in Idlib, from the remnants of the “Jund al-Aqsa” organization (that launched a war against several jihadist factions, which hastened its elimination). They pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and joined the operations room ” Rouse the Believers” before declaring its independence from everyone in a statement issued on May 03, 2020.
“Ajnad al-Caucasus“, led by Abdul Malik al-Shishani, was one of the most prominent organizations that fought the Syrian Arab Army and its allies during the SAA campaign to liberate southern Idlib and northern Hama. Battles were halted by a ceasefire agreement on March 05, 2020, when the group suffered heavy losses, with no more than 250 fighters remaining (according to local sources) forcing it to retreat.
These groups do not pose a threat to HTS at the present time due to understandings between the leaders of the groups and HTS command:
The “Albanian Brigade” (Xhemati Alban), an independent group led by the Macedonian Abu Qatada al-Albani, was established in 2013, and includes jihadists from the Balkan countries Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, in addition to some Saudis and Syrians.
Its fighters are trained in all types of medium and heavy weapons. They formed a special squad of Albanian snipers. They currently operate in Kabana in the countryside of Latakia. The ideological orientation of the battalion is similar to HTS and Al-Qaeda, and it maintains a good relationship with HTS without engaging in internal hostilities.
The Salafist “Salah al-Din al-Kurdi Movement“, which began its activity in Syria in 2012, and is now deployed in Mont al-Akrad in Latakia’s northern countryside. The movement has its own training camp and local sources have informed the author that there is evidence that Qatar and Turkey are the bankrollers of the group. This claim is borne out by the fact that Turkey gave them a training camp in Afrin and they have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood which is sponsored predominantly by Qatar.
Its members are professional soldiers, and most of them hail from eastern Turkey, in addition to Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish fighters. These Kurdish factions believe in the Sunni Muslim roots of the Kurds and aim to expand their influence throughout the Syrian Kurdish communities.
“The Kurdish Immigrants of Iran’s Sunnis Movement”, the only Kurdish group that pledged allegiance to HTS. Most of its fighters come from northwestern Iran. Its fighters are fierce and highly trained, and guard important points in the Kabanah area. Additionally they deploy mobile offensive combat groups to guard some points of Mount al-Zawiya, south of Idlib City. The movement is led by “Abu Safiya al-Kurdi”, who participated in a meeting organised by al-Jolani with a number of Kurdish Salafist leaders in an Idlib mosque in mid-June.
Islamist factions opposed to HTS:
Al-Ghuraba Division (Strangers), which is deployed west of Idlib, and is led by the French-Senegalese jihadist ” Omar Omsen ” (Omar Diaby), who was previously arrested by HTS in August 2020 and his son Bilal was also arrested in late 2021. The French authorities accuse him of recruiting 80% of the French-speaking jihadists who went to Syria or Iraq.
“Rouse the Believers Operations Room“, which was established in October 2018, and includes:
– “Ansar al-Din Front” led by Abu Salah al-Uzbeki (Siraj al-Din Mukhtarov), from the Kyrgyz Republic. Founder and commander of the “Uzbek” battalion within HTS and the mastermind of the St Petersburg metro terrorist attack in Russia in 2017. He was arrested by HTS after his defection to Ansar al-Din in June 2020 and released in March 2021.
– “Ansar al-Islam” faction, Kurdish Salafist group stationed in the vicinity of Jisr al-Shughour, west of Idlib, and in the Dower al-Akrad within the al-Ghab Plain, west of Hama. Around 200 members – majority Iraqi Kurds along with Syrian, Turkish and Iranian Kurdish fighters. It was founded in 2001 in northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan) and fought against a number of Kurdish parties. It is considered the most fanatic among the Kurdish Salafist groups in Idlib, and the most powerful. One of its goals is to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia Law.
– “Guardians of Religion“, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, which was established in 2018 after defection from HTS. “Al-Zawahiri” recently complimented the group after they carried out a terrorist operation in western Damascus, on August 04, 2020 – The armed group announced in a statement that one of its divisions blew up a bus carrying officers of the “Republican Guard” in the capital, as part of the “Battle of Al-Usra” series, in “solidarity with the people of Daraa”.
The group was considered to “devote itself to ‘jihad’ work inside the capitol (Damascus)”. Today the group is going through a difficult transition. Its leaders have been repeatedly targeted by US drones, giving the US the opportunity of testing its new tactical weapon such as Hellfire missile, (which indicates the hidden intelligence cooperation between al-Julani and the CIA),
Frequent battles with Al Jolani on the ground in Syria have also reduced the number of fighters in the group. The organization included about 2,000 fighters of different nationalities when it was founded, but now that is less than 100.
These factions are most likely to be the next target of Al-Jolani’s campaign to eliminate competition in Idlib and northern Syria.
Islamist factions collaborating with HTS
Perhaps the most prominent of the HTS allies is the aforementioned “Turkistan Islamic Party” or TIP, led by “Abu Suleiman al-Turkistani”. These are the Uighur Al Qaeda loyalists from Xinjiang Province in northwest China. TIP comprises around 8000 fighters who are distinguished by their savagery and combat prowess.
TIP follows the HTS policies closely and secured the exit of extremist fighters from Mount Al Turkman during recent battles. It is unlikely that TIP will clash with HTS after violent disputes between the two groups.
Al Jolani brought the TIP to heel and claimed that China was providing weapons to Damascus to eliminate them in Idlib and Hama countryside. This claim forced the TIP to reduce their presence in the main cities and to withdraw their families to the ‘refugee’ camps on the Syria-Turkey borders near the town of Harem.
The importance of the party lies in its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which allowed it to establish strong relations with Turkey, Taliban and HTS at the same time. It is directly hostile to China. In September 2002 the US Treasury Department placed TIP on the list of terrorist organisations.
There remain a handful of small independent groups of foreign extremist fighters and groups who will face one of two fates. Either to be subjugated or neutralized in order for Jolani to achieve absolute control over Idlib governorate. This is in preparation for a full integration with the factions under the umbrella of the Turkish-backed so-called Syrian National Army.
This will complete the rebranding and recycling of HTS – a Turkish-UK-led agenda in northern Syria according to a ‘diplomatic source’ who informed Russian media, TASS in May 2021 that MI6 was involved in the project:
The British side suggested that the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group (outlawed in Russia, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra) should announce plans to abandon subversive activities against Western countries and build close cooperation with them […] Mohammad al-Julani received recommendations to give an interview to an American reporter in order to create a positive image for the alliance that he heads and rehabilitate it in the future. There are plans to engage some of the UK’s allies, primarily the US, in efforts aimed at rebranding the al-Nusra group.”
What is Al Jolani’s endgame in Idlib?
Al Jolani is trying to prove to everyone, especially Turkey, that he is the only one capable of controlling Idlib province from a security and military perspective. Idlib can be described as another “Tora-Bora” with embedded terrorist organisations comprising some of the most deadly foreign mercenaries.
Jolani is working on a reputation as the supreme warlord dissolving minor groups or reining in the more powerful factions. This is probably one of the main reasons that Jolani has not been assassinated by US/UK allied intelligence agencies, he is a useful asset in the last remaining terrorist-controlled pocket of north-west Syria.
Jolani’s agenda directly overlaps that of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – to persuade Western countries to remove HTS from the UN and US terrorist list by demonstrating Jolani’s willingness to “fight terrorism” and endorsing his claims that HTS has no desire to conduct terrorist operations against the US, UK or EU by limiting their terrorism to Syria and against the Syrian people.
Jolani’s rebrand presents him as the only viable political solution in Idlib which serves Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions to have control over strategic Syrian territory. Turkey can appear to be complying with Russian brokered agreements by ostensibly expelling terrorist groups from the de-escalation zones and securing the safety of the M4 (Aleppo to Latakia road).
Put simply, any group not complying with Jolani’s authority must be eradicated, prior to the great merger between the “Salvation Government” and the Turkish backed “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces“.
The Levant Front
Here we cannot ignore the “Levant Front” (LF), the largest faction of the “National Army” based in the countryside of Aleppo. The LF has formed a rival alliance to HTS in north-west Syria. It seeks to embrace the majority of political ‘opposition’ institutions in the areas of Aleppo countryside under its control combined with coordination with local armed groups to develop a shadow state in Idlib.
LF influence has expanded significantly since early 2021. The LF headquarters near the Bab Al Salama crossing has become a destination for the leaders of the National Coalition. LF recently hosted the commander of the so-called “Syrian Islamic Council“, Sheikh Osama Abdel Karim al-Rifai.
The battle for power in Idlib has resulted in a new factional map. HTS dismantling and restructuring of the “Ahrar al-Sham” (AS) movement, -which once represented an anti-HTS project- has pushed many AS members to defect and join the ranks of the LF seeking ideological synergy. Since early 2021 LF has received more than 900 AS terrorist fighters led by Alaa Faham who will form a brigade under the LF umbrella to confront HTS in the Aleppo countryside.
In July 2021, the LF formed a new military alliance separate to the National Army and the Interim Government or “Azm Operations Room”. The majority of factions operating in Aleppo countryside have joined the new coalition and present a considerable threat to HTS supremacy in Idlib.
Two months after the formation of the “Syrian Front for Liberation” (SFI) led by Al-Mu’tasim Abbas, the “Suqur Al Shamal Brigade” and the “20th Division” have defected and joined Azm increasing numbers to an estimated forty thousand comprising more than 15 factions deployed throughout northern Syria. This leaves SFL with only 3 factions and ten thousand fighters.
The supposed Islamist project of the LF, its military alliance leadership and its expansionist policies in northwestern Syria do not automatically mean that it is preparing for a new round of conflict with HTS.
On the contrary, we may witness a dramatic increase in coordination between the two powerful factions in various fields. De facto the LF alliance may facilitate the settlement of issues with Jolani which will pave the way for broader collaboration in the future.
Russia is opposed to any political solution in the region that includes HTS. Russian and Turkish delegations have met several times in the border areas after the Erdogan-Putin summit in September 2021.
Russia has requested a Turkish withdrawal from the eastern countryside of Idlib between the cities of Idlib and Saraqeb. This leaves Turkish forces in Idlib two options. First to repel any ground attack by the Syrian Arab Army which would result in serious losses for Turkish military, second to wait for the impending Syrian/Russian military campaign to liberate Idlib from terrorist occupation. The second option could result in Turkish bases being besieged as happened in 2019 and 2020.
Local sources indicate that the Turkish military divisions in Idlib, especially south of the M4, have reinforced their bases and closed some main roads with engineering barriers. The Syrian leadership intends to regain control over southern and western Idlib to secure the M4 and perhaps advance towards Idlib city.
There is potential for similar deals to be implemented as were recently successful in Daraa, south of Damascus city.
The collaboration between LF and HTS is not a recent phenomenon. They were previously limited to the terrorist economy – fuel trade, crossing control, checkpoints but have developed considerably since the end of 2020.
Certain opposition media outlets have reported that the two parties are coordinating in the security and military sectors. The Levant Front received officials and high ranking leaders from HTS in Azaz. A joint camp was recently established between Jolani’s forces and Sheikh Juma’a LF forces in the village of “Maabatli” as a trial military collaborative project.
Turkish military operations and the Erdogan conundrum
Turkey has weaponised the Muslim Brotherhood to expand military intervention in Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Libya.
Turkey is suffering the repercussions of these neo-Ottoman ambitions with internal issues that include an economic crisis, refugee influx and a declining Turkish Lira.
This has severely affected Erdogan’s popularity and combined with his deteriorating health, Turkish opposition parties are seeing an opportunity to win the upcoming elections in 2023 based on the resolution of the refugee issue as a primary concern for the majority of Turkish people.
A Turkish journalist specializing in American affairs, Bahar Feyzan, had leaked information about Biden and Erdogan meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 conference in Rome recently, including the advice of US President Joe Biden to Erdogan to withdraw from running for the upcoming elections, saying, “Take your health condition as an excuse to leave politics.”
Recent analysis by Steven A. Cook for Foreign Policy, covered the leak of media reports that claim Erdogan’s intention is to transfer authority to Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in case of any deterioration in his health, with a cabinet reshuffle and the appointment of Akar as First Vice President.
Erdogan is fearful, under pressure and sick, and he appears to have no other options but to export his problems abroad in order to survive. The Kurdish problem in particular has always been an existential threat to Turkish national security, which makes it the easiest card for Erdogan to play including securing internal authorisation to send military forces to Syria and Iraq for an additional two years.
With the increase in operations targeting Turkish soldiers in several areas, and the US-backed Kurdish Contra (SDF) non-compliance with the Turkish-Russian agreement in Sochi 2019, Erdogan is promoting a military campaign in north-east Syria to be conducted on four axes with an army of 35,000 comprising extremist mercenaries and Turkish armed forces.
Erdogan summoned leaders of the interventionist operations – “Euphrates Shield”, “Peace Spring” and “Olive Branch” including the National Army to a meeting in Ankara to determine frontlines and strategy of the latest attempt to quell SDF influence in northern Syria.
In addition to “Menagh” air base near Azaz, Turkey considers Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) among its main priorities, to cut SDF’s strategic support lines between Qamishli-Manbij-Kobani. This would ensure a direct link between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad with the Euphrates Shield areas.
The National Army has sent several military convoys through Turkey to Darbasiyah near the Iraqi-Syrian border, in preparation for a military operation.
NA leaders have announced the raising of combat readiness, and according to a military source in the National Army, the Turkish officers have informed them that Manbij will be a distraction axis, and the troops will advance towards Tal Tamr, Tal Rifaat, Ain Issa and Ayn Al-Arab, while Turkish reconnaissance planes dropped leaflets warning civilians to stay away from SDF military sites, and threatened a military invasion of the region.
Practically, it is unlikely for Erdogan to risk a military adventure in northern Syria without international endorsement, especially in Tal Rifaat, where it might lead to a direct confrontation with Russia.
Tal Rifaat is not a major stronghold for SDF, it is a strategic geographical target. It is also very close to Aleppo city which explains the Russian presence and recent large reinforcements sent by the Syrian Arab Army that include advanced T-90 tanks and BMP-2 armoured vehicles heading towards Malikiyah and Shawargha villages in northern Aleppo countryside. Both villages have experienced a violent exchange of shelling in the last few days.
The most convenient scenario, for Turkey, if a military confrontation is unavoidable is for Tal Rifaat to be a distraction axis to keep the SDF militia pinned down there while the main operation would target between Tal Tamr – Ayn Issa and Manbij-Ayn Al-Arab because they are the major Kurdish strongholds.
However Erdogan may refrain from military action altogether preferring to flex his muscles publicly by deploying tanks and forces in the area to trigger negotiations to share “security” in north-east Syria.
Military action can be impeded by the imposition of a No Fly Zone over any area being considered for confrontation. Without Russian and US consent, Erdogan would be foolhardy to precipitate possible conflict with both. Reuters quoted a senior Turkish security official saying:
The operation will start when all preparations are completed,” adding, “We are in coordination with Russia on the matter. The issue was addressed with the United States already,”.
How true this claim is remains to be seen.
Below is a video of a recent Turkish military convoy heading towards Tal Abyad:
Russia’s position and objectives
Russian Turkish relations are tense in Syria. Russia is unhappy with Turkish intervention in countries where Russia has geopolitical interests – Libya, Syria, Armenia, Ukraine.
Ukraine used Turkish-manufactured UAVs against positions of eastern Ukraine forces affiliated with Russia.
Russia has since sent a clear message by carrying out joint air exercises with the Syrian Arab Army in areas supposed to be Turkish targets for military invasion such as the vicinity of Tal Tamr, Tal Abyad and Ain Issa where the Russian flag has been raised.
This is combined with auxiliary forces redeployment between the 93rd Brigade area and the Russian military base located in Tal Al-Samn. A big SAA reinforcement was sent to Manbij in preparation for another round of military exercises.
This will complicate the situation for Erdogan who specifically wants Ain Issa due to its location on the M4 that links Latakia with Iraq through Aleppo and Hasaka in the north-east.
Russia has also deployed the S400 air defense system at Qamishli Airport, along with twelve Su-34 bombers and five Su-35s, while the Syrian forces will deploy MiG-29, in addition to twelve Mi-8 helicopters and five Ka-52 Alligator at the Mitras military airfield, (30 km) south of Ayn al-Arab or as the US/Israeli-backed Kurdish separatists call it – “Kobani”.
Despite the Turkish calls on Russia to cleanse Ayn al-Arab of Kurdish separatist militias, Russia does not favor the entry of the “National Army” into Ayn al-Arab. It is keen to ensure the security of its military base in “Serrin”.
Perhaps the clearest indication of repercussions for Erdogan-driven recklessness in northern Syria was the recent Syrian targeting of Sarmada which houses a communications headquarters for HTS.
This was followed by airstrikes and artillery bombardment of Turkish-backed 23rd Division forces for several consecutive days and the targeting of camps and shelters of the Turkestan militias on the border strip with Turkey.
We cannot separate the northeast from the northwest, as Russia may agree on a limited Turkish operation in exchange for parts of Mount al-Zawiya and the city of Jisr Al-Shughour, which is the most important part of the Turkish-Russian negotiation, especially if the Syrian-Kurdish negotiations fail.
If liberated, the strategic areas of Mount Al-Zawiya and Jisr Al-Shughour will lead to the defeat of terrorism in a significant area of Idlib countryside. Regaining these areas is one of the most important military objectives of the Syrian Arab Army in the impending battles to secure the M4. The Russian Reconciliation Centre has been repeatedly announcing terrorist violations of the ceasefire agreement and the potential for the staging of a “chemical weapon attack” to provoke international outrage against the Syrian government.
According to civilian sources:
more than 200 Turkish vehicles loaded with advanced weapons, ammunition and logistical materials entered Bab Al-Hawa and Khirbet al-Jawz crossings in two batches and deployed in the western countryside of Idlib and Mount al-Zawiya in order to strengthen its occupation points and provide direct support to terrorist organizations.”
Watch – video of Turkish military vehicles entering Syria via the so-called ‘humanitarian’ crossing:
The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Agency “IHH” announced the establishment of 16,239 briquette houses in Idlib Governorate. This is an indication of preparation for further displacement of civilians during an intensified military campaign.
With all the Turkish mobilization and media promotion of a huge Turkish military operation – waiting on international approval – the SDF has moved its most prominent military leaders from its headquarters adjacent to the Turkish border into the cities to protect them from the potential Turkish UAV attacks.
Suspected Turkish drone has targeted a vehicle in the al-Hilaliya neighborhood of Qamishlo city in northeast Syria.pic.twitter.com/QdqBHFTeVJ
— Kurdistan 24 English (@K24English) November 9, 2021
The past few days have witnessed a remarkable rapprochement between the Democratic Union Party (the SDF backbone) Damascus and Russia. The SDF removed the “Al-Quwatli”, “Al-Shabab City” and “The Industrial School” checkpoints in Qamishli city.
This lifts the longstanding siege on the security square of the Syrian forces in the city, which was imposed by the SDF after bloody confrontations erupted between the Kurdish units and the Syrian National Defense Forces back in April.
The increasing Russian influence in the Syrian east and the American retreat, which is still in its early stages, means placing the fate of the SDF in the hands of Moscow not Washington.
Despite the strenuous Russian efforts to reach a political solution with the Kurds, the US military presence is still a major obstacle. It is difficult to trust the Kurds who are divided among themselves and are far from autonomous having accepted US support to lay claim to Syrian territory.
Damascus prioritises Syrian territorial integrity and a central governance structure. This would force the Kurdish Contras to hand the oil fields back to Damscus and to accept a similar agreement to Daraa. This would include the integration of Kurdish military into a Syrian military division similar to the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Corps.
The Kurdish factions are divided between those who lean towards the United States and a separate Kurdish state, while others seek to reach an agreement that guarantees some Kurdish rights, such as the language.
The latter is in communication with Damascus to agree on a draft agreement between the Kurdistan Workers Party, the Democratic Union Party and the Syrian State. This would include the establishment of a joint military operations room for the Syrian Arab Army, SDF, Russian forces and other allies to repel any possible Turkish aggression, based on a statement from the Head of the National Initiative for Syrian Kurds, Omar Ossi to Al-Watan newspaper.
According to Kurdish leaks a joint delegation of the Syrian Democratic Council and the Autonomous Administration headed by Ilham Ahmed visited Moscow, on Wednesday, September 15, 2021.
Their meeting with the Special Envoy of the Russian President to the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, put forward a proposal that recognised the legitimacy of the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad, would agree to raise the Syrian flag in the areas of the so-called Kurdish controlled Autonomous Administration, share the region’s oil imports – 75% for the central government and 25% for the Autonomous Administration – among other terms.
Bogdanov informed the delegation that the only way to protect them is by cooperating with the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian state directly to prevent a repeat Afrin scenario, when Kurds were ethnically cleansed by Turkish forces after the Kurds refused collaboration with the Syrian Arab Army in early 2018.
In an interview with RT, the prominent leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Aldar Khalil confirmed their readiness for dialogue with the Syrian state directly in Damascus, without going to Geneva. He added that:
The resources and wealth in this region are not only ours. We do not have any intentions to monopolize them, but rather consider them a national treasure for all Syrians”
Khalil’s comments came days after the statements of Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader, Jamil Bayik, in an interview with Al-Nahar Al-Arabi newspaper where he said:
Our relationship with Hafez al-Assad and his family was close and warm. We cannot be anti-Syria or anti-Assad. We have previously established our relations on the basis of the general interest of the Kurds and the Kurdish-Arab brotherhood. Now we want to be a party to such a relationship.”
These statements coincide with reports of an agreement between the Russian Reconciliation Center and SDF that provides for the handover of areas in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor to the Syrian Arab Army (Al-Shuhail, Al-Busira, Dhiban, Al-Hawaij, Al-Shafa, Al-Susa and Al-Baghouz).
On Saturday 13th November the US pushed back against the Damascus-led negotiations with Washington’s Kurdish proxies. The official website of the SDF announced the arrival of US State Department officials and Ethan Goldrich – Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs – in north-east Syria. The US Officials met with the Commander in Chief of the SDF, Mazoum Abdi to discuss ‘humanitarian and security’ issues.
On the same day the US Embassy in Syria Twitter account announced that it would stay in Syria to ensure the “ISIS threat is eliminated” which can be interpreted as a reassurance for the Kurdish separatists as rumours abound of a US withdrawal which would encourage Kurdish factions to negotiate with Damascus.
US reluctance to support Turkish military invasion of Syria
It wouldn’t be easy for Turkey to get US consent for a military operation in light of the US-Turkish differences that were clearly manifested when the US Department of Defence (DoD) recently expelled Turkey from the F-35 project.
Turkey had threatened to buy SU-35s from Russia. The Biden administration has extended sanctions imposed on Turkey due to its military operation against Kurdish forces in Syria in 2019 for another year.
Brett McGurk, US Envoy for the coalition ‘fighting ISIS’, resigned from Trump’s administration in protest against Operation Peace Spring and would now be one of the fiercest opponents of any new Turkish military campaign in Syria. The US will not necessarily step in to protect the Kurdish proxies but Washington will oppose any Turkish threat to US supremacy and economic interests in the region.
The US military convoy movement in and out of Syria have increased in the past two months. The majority of these convoys come in empty and go back loaded with stolen oil. They are also involved in kidnapping civilians through airdrop operations in the countryside of Deir Ezzor and Al-Hasakah in the north-east.
The “International Coalition” has recently transferred another batch of ISIS prisoners of foreign nationalities from the Industrial School prison in the Ghweran neighborhood in Al-Hasakah city to its base in Al-Shaddadi city south of Al-Hasakah.
All these transfer and airdrop operations raise questions. Where are these prisoners going next? Are all these airdrops just to kidnap people or to extract valuable assets?
Between the Biden-Erdogan meeting, the Russian-Syrian military exercises and the SAA reinforcements in northern Syria, there are clear messages to be read:
It is not just about Biden or European rejection of Erdogan. The transnational corporatocracy is tired of Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism. His expansionist ambitions and blatant interference in multiple foreign state affairs, his weaponization of the refugee crisis and subsequent blackmailing of Europe, are all factors that make him a universal threat.
It is very clear that Erdogan wants full or partial control of the M4. He knows that once he loses this leverage he will have no cards in his hand for negotiation. If Erdogan chooses to occupy alternative areas of Syrian territory he may find it will bring more problems than solutions. North of the M4 is agricultural, has no resources to plunder but is occupied by disparate and unruly terrorist groups.
Once the M4 is fully liberated by the SAA, the only remaining prize to be claimed by Erdogan is Al Jolani himself who believes the Taliban model is achievable in Idlib and who is clearly an asset to US Coalition intelligence agencies as the new “Bin Laden”. Perhaps there is even potential of Al Jolani being squeezed out of Idlib and turning his attention to southern Turkey for his ideologically supremacist project?
The regions of northern Syria are within Russia’s political calculations and any possible agreement with Washington will not authorize Turkey to launch attacks without a Russian green light which is very unlikely. Therefore any military operation will be limited and only Turkish-backed proxies will be used to conduct the unlawful military operations of Turkey’s criminal leadership.
Russia has stressed to Turkey the need for military, security and political coordination in the ongoing difficult negotiations between the two sides. Washington has withdrawn from supporting the SDF except in the pseudo fight against ISIS in the north.
Russia presents itself as an alternative ally to the SDF capable of mediating between them and Turkey to prevent military conflict. Russia also perceives itself as the international guarantor of security and stability in the region in preparation for a US withdrawal destined to return Syrian resources to the Syrian government and people after years of US Coalition occupation and theft.
Despite the Turkish military build-up and the rapid developments, no one can indicate a zero hour for any military operation. It is obviously under negotiations between the three countries, and while some people rush to criticize, denounce, reject and deny the ongoing events in northern Syria, many forget that it is not about moods or wishes, and no one can predict any scenario or believe any news without first knowing the facts on the ground.
With a complete international, regional and internal consensus to resolve the files of eastern and western Euphrates within a great settlement in the Middle East, the facts on the ground and the emerging political factors impose inevitable war on those who reject a peaceful solution or try to obstruct it.
Northern Syria will almost certainly be the epicentre of fierce battles, military and political, that will determine the fate of Syria now and in the future. The final word rests with the Syrian Arab Army and allies and how they navigate the increasingly complex network of groups and alliances to achieve their objectives for Syria.
Ibrahim Mohammad Wahdi is a Syrian military analyst and researcher based in Aleppo, Syria.
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