Damascus from Elijah J. Magnier – @
Turkish Special Forces and tanks along with proxies of the Syrian forces (under the name of “the Euphrates shield”) mounted a large-scale military operation against the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) in the northern city of al-Bab. This significant advance was possible following a long debate between Damascus and its allies (Russia and Iran) prior to developing what they considered the most strategic and adequate plan for moving the main ground forces forward after the fall of Aleppo. Only less than 5 percent of land remains under the control of jihadists and their Syrian rebel allies, and their presence concentrated in a very small part of the city that being subjected to continuous heavy bombing. The fall of Aleppo and its return to Syrian government control is only a question of time.
But why was Turkey allowed access to al-Bab after being stopped at its gates for weeks?
From a well informed source in Damascus, Russia supported the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who wanted at all costs to stop his most hated opponent, the Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan from accessing al-Bab city and continuing towards Deyr Hafer, Assad lake and al-Tabqah to meet the US forces and their allies at the gates of Raqqah, the heart of ISIS. Assad was happy to close the road to Erdogan’s plan to annex al-Bab, especially after his bombing of Turkish forces last November which killed four Turkish men – despite Damascus’s denial of its involvement in the attack. The Russian-Syrian message to Erdogan was clear: you are not allowed into al-Bab.
But what has changed since?
Iran – according to the source – contested the Russian-Syrian plans by offering an approach different from the Russian-Syrian proposal. There is no interest in sending forces towards the northeast where the US is well established with Special Forces and military bases in the Kurdish controlled area. Moreover, there is no strategic interest in fighting ISIS at the moment because Raqqah is not supplied by outside support. It doesn’t represent a strategic priority”.
Iran expressed its willingness to despatch more new troops to Syria if necessary for the battle of Tel El-Eis, to free the encircled cities of Fua and Kfariya, and Jisr el-Shughur and reach the most important target: the city of Idlib.
A constructive discussion took place between the allies leading to the conclusion that “useful Syria” is formed of the main cities where the majority of civilians can live, even if the rural areas are not under government ‘control. ISIS, an organisation rejected and denigrated by the international community is occupying Raqqah. There is therefore no benefit in investing military means and men in fighting ISIS now when al-Qaeda and other rebels are receiving international support and attention. ISIS is doomed: it will be defeated once the map of control over Syria is clearer and complete. The Syrian map has begun to reveal itself: east of the Euphrates becomes the so-called American stadium while west of the Euphrates is the Russian – Syrian dominated area.
Sources in Damascus believe the US agreement to provide Syrian rebels’ working along with al-Qaeda with lethal weapons and anti-air missiles is clearly related to the Russian intention to push forces toward Idlib. It seems likely that President Obama approved this decision one month before the end of his mandate to embarrass the newly elected President Trump and force his hand on Syria. If Trump intervenes to stop the flow of weapons he will be harshly attacked by the conditioned mainstream media and will be accused of accepting the dominance of Russia over the United States of America in Bilad al-Sham.
“The approval of Assad to accept the state of Raqqah as it is, for now, and preferentially direct forces toward Idlib – even if he will publicly deny any deal and attack Turkey – is due to his knowledge of the Syrian dynamic and the principle the state is based upon: the Allawites control the security apparatus and the Sunni control the Syrian economy. This is the reason behind the rejection of the uprising in 2011 by the Sunni in Damascus and Aleppo, the centre of the Syrian economy. In fact, this upraising only involved rural inhabitants from the north, the same source that pushed Aleppo into confronting the Syrian government one year after the beginning of the so-called “revolution”.
Aleppo didn’t fall without a Turkish-Russian understanding. Turkey pulled out over 2500 militants from Aleppo few months before the battle to conquer the city. Al-Bab, on the other hand, has never been part of any deal until very recently. Serious discussions began last November with the visit of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and of Hakan Fidan Head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation to Tehran. The main topic was al-Bab, following the bombing of Turkish troops few kilometers from the city.
Following that meeting – and many others later – Russia agreed with Turkey to act as guarantor to avoid any future clashes between the Syrian Army and the rebel forces under Turkey’s control. Damascus’s official line will obviously be against any presence of Turkish forces on the Syrian soil. Bashar won’t easily forget that Turkey was and still is the main supplier of all Jihadists, including ISIS, and indeed of the Syrian rebels themselves since the beginning of the war.
But what Russia, Turkey and the US lay down does not mean unimpeded progress. Israel’s intervention in the south with its allies may constitute a potential hindrance because any victory by Assad means also a victory by Iran and the Hezbollah. Moreover, direct and indirect US support to the armed opposition and to the jihadists can potentially delay or obstruct the Russian plan.
The open battle between Russia and the United States in the Levant remains full of surprises and bodes much bloodshed. Not one of all the parties involved in the Syrian war has said the last word. The fall of Aleppo is an important step in the history of Syria. But the course towards Idlib will be anything but plain sailing even for Russia and its allies. At the end of the day, Syria has become a territory divided between Russian and American influence.