By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai
After the violation by Al-Qaeda (AQ) in the Levant (aka Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) of the Astana de-escalation agreement over the northern Syrian city of Idlib North, Turkey and Russia – with the blessing of Damascus – agreed to allow Ankara’s troops to push forward into Syrian territory to deal with al-Qaeda in the city. Turkish forces moved into the AQ controlled area following an understanding between the parties to avoid direct engagement for several reasons.
-Al-Qaeda is equipped with the best military arsenal imported via Turkey throughout the years of the Syrian war. International supporters (the West, led by US) and Middle Eastern countries (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) provided armaments to the terrorist group in Syria to keep fighting the Syrian Army and exhaust Iran and its allies in the Levant. Al-Qaeda also confiscated sophisticated US weapons seized from the so-called moderate “Free Syrian Army” and its various branches, armed and trained by both the CIA and the Pentagon.
-Al-Qaeda has proven to be the best organized jihadist organization, despite its losses in different wars (most notably the battle of Aleppo and its recent battles around Idlib following the Astana-Kazakhstan agreement). Syrian and Hezbollah officers speak with respect about al-Qaeda military capability, determination in the battlefield and ideology and they appreciate the courage of its militants.
-Al Qaeda has developed armed drones and armoured vehicles operating remotely and used in various attacks (with and without driver), proving quite effective in the battlefield. AQ also provided a moderate number of suicide bombers in contrast to the chaotic “Islamic state” (ISIS) which used dozens of unnecessary suicide bombers in every attack. This confirms that AQ is a good planner, and values its own militants, rendering it much fiercer and a far more powerful opponent than ISIS.
-The Turkish army was stopped at the gates of al-Bab for months: ISIS prevented Ankara’s troops from advancing. Turkey has been able to occupy the northern city of al-Bab only after bilateral understandings with ISIS to secure a withdrawal without fighting. The weakness of the forces loyal to Turkey has emerged in the fighting and its incapacity to occupy any important city where there are ideological forces (AQ and ISIS). Turkey, refusing to admit its public loss, was reluctant to acknowledge the barbaric murder of its captured Turkish soldiers: Ankara will definitely not be happy to see its soldiers captured again in future battles in Syria.
All of the above indicates that Ankara – despite Russian air support – will not dare to engage in full-scale military confrontation with al-Qaeda, but rather needs an understanding with the group to secure either AQ’s exit (if al-Qaeda wants to leave) or to allow AQ to remain under a new form or identity, pretending to be a local organisation.
The effectiveness of Russian aviation since September 2015 in the Syrian battlefield was significant because the ground troops (the Syrian Army and its allies) were in harmony and managed to take real advantage of the air bombardment. Russian allies disregarded human losses, favouring the defeat of jihadists at all costs, wanting to recover the occupied territory. This does not apply to the Turkish forces that are supposed to work with Russian aviation if AQ refuses to stand down and deliver the city of Idlib to Ankara’s envoys. Idlib has been announced as a city under AQ full control which expelled the pro-Turkish Syrian proxies of “Ahrar Sham” several months ago.
Syria is headed towards ending the war and ending also the jihadist (ISIS and AQ) organisations’ control of the Syrian cities. This would allow the beginning of a complex political process in which the interests of many countries clash: US and Turkey (both countries occupy part of the north), Russia (who maintains good relationship with the Syrian regime and many anti-regime groups, desperate to end the war in Syria to register a worldwide achievement), Damascus (which wishes to regain the entire Syrian territory), Iran (which considers itself and its allies winners in this war and does not mind continuing the battles with or without Russia until the end of existence of the US, ISIS and AQ in the Levant), and finally Saudi Arabia and Qatar (who supported the Syrian jihadists and rebels, and who are trying to take through politics – around the negotiation table – what they couldn’t achieve on the battlefield).
However, the US is still trying to shuffle the cards by using the Kurds (in Iraq and Syria) to separate part of Syria from Damascus’s control (and Baghdad) and prevent the arrival of the Syrian army and its allies at the Al-Qaim crossing, where ISIS’s last stronghold (on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border) is still standing firm.
US forces still keep al-Tanf crossing and have imposed a 60km security perimeter to prevent the Syrian Army and its allies from approaching what is an unnecessary gathering of forces in the so-called “fight against terrorism”. In fact, this month ISIS crossed the Syrian semi-desert from within this 60km safe corridor under US control to conduct a massive military attack on the Syrian Army. The US, whose forces are supposed to monitor the area, failed to deal with hundreds of ISIS militants who were attacking the Deir-ezzour liberated highway. Despite the recovery of most of the territory by the Syrian Army, Russia expressed serious anger towards the US policy: it was a punch “below the belt” apparently with the aim of prolonging the Syrian war and to slow down the Syrian Army and its allies on the Deir-ezzour front against ISIS.
This prompted Baghdad and Damascus to agree to unify military support by sending their troops to the border (Al-Qaim) and to strike and end the ISIS territory occupation once and for all.
The final chapter in Syria has not yet been written, but the beginning of the writing will begin next year (2018) when all the players will meet around the negotiation table. At that time the countries concerned will have no alternative but to reveal the reality of their intentions and objectives.