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Why Turkey is Amicable to Iraqi Kurds Yet Fights with Syrian Kurds

Uran Botobekov

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Operation Olive Branch and the presidential election, 2019

The Turkish military Operation Olive Branch in Afrin has demonstrated that the problem of Syrian Kurdish militias YPG has driven a serious wedge between the USA and Turkey who are strategic partners and leaders among NATO members based on the size of their military. The reason for the invasion of the territory of Syria by the Turkish military has been the statement by CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale who said that the United States work to establish the People’s Protection Units on the Syrian border with Turkey and Iraq composed of 30,000 Kurdish militias. Ankara has been alarmed with Washington supplying military equipment and ammunition, including mortars, antitank weapons systems and heavy machine guns to the YPG fighters. The refutation by the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that Washington was not going to establish an armed group in the northeastern border of Syria, which Turkey seems to have misunderstood, has failed to stop Turkey from achieving its goal.

The charismatic leader of the ruling AKP party, Recep Erdogan, who has been ruling the country for 15 years at his discretion and in a tough way, could not but seize the opportunity to strengthen his political capital before the 2019 presidential election. The opposition, except for the pro-Kurdish HDP, has all lent full support to the operation.By launching the military operation, he has managed to draw the Turkish nationalists over to himself. The leader of the nationalist party MHP Devlet Bahceli has already stated that his party would not nominate its candidate, but will support Erdogan in the elections.

If Erdogan manages to complete the military operation without heavy casualties, resettle over 4 million Syrian refugees from Turkey to the Syrian province of Afrin and create a strong buffer zone free from Kurdish militants, he can win the forthcoming election. Thus, many factors have intertwined in the Operation Olive Branch: state security protection, fight against Kurdish terrorists, geostrategic interests of Turkey in the Middle East, and domestic policy challenges.

Turkey’s Carrot and Stick Method on Kurds

It should be emphasized that in the last 15 years Turkey has been pursuing differentiated policies towards the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. If the cooperation with Iraqi Kurds is a tactical friendship, there’s a tough war between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. What is the secret behind such different attitudes towards Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who belong to a single ethnic group?

The Kurds are one of the largest nations in the world with no national statehood. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, the Kurds were divided between the four countries in the Middle East – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. However, currently there are three active Kurdish ethnic groups that have complex relationships between them.

The first group is led by ex-president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barzani, who has managed to establish cooperation with Ankara after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The second group is composed of adherers of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Iraqi Sulaimani that has lost its one-time influence after the death of its leader, Jalal Talabani, in 2017. The attitude of Ankara to this group of Kurds can be described as relatively stable. However, Turkey strongly disapproves of the initiatives of KDP and PUK to declare the independence of Kurdistan. Partly due to the diplomatic and economic pressure by Turkey, Erbil has had to freeze the independence referendum results as of September 25, 2017, and remain as an autonomous region of Iraq.

The third group includes Syrian Kurds who have united behind the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls the armed militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). According to Ankara, these armed groups of Syrian Kurds are closely related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered by Turkey and western countries as a terrorist organization. It should be emphasized that the Kurdish militants of PKK have been fighting against the Turkish Government to gain sovereignty since 1984. Therefore, Erdogan believes that PYD, YPG and PKK are all terrorist organizations. All three of them Erdogan refers to as Daesh (Arabic language acronym ISIS).

The concerns expressed by Ankara contain elements of truth. Despite the statements made by the Syrian Kurds about their non-affiliation with the PKK militants, evidence suggests otherwise. The training camps of PKK have been known to be based in Syria and Kurdish militants after committing terrorist attacks in Turkey have been hiding there successfully in the north of Syria. It is no secret that the leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison in Imrali, is very popular among the Syrian Kurds. Therefore the Syrian Kurdsbuilt a huge, 53-meter-high, statue as a monument of Abdullah Ocalan on the slopes of the Darmyk Mountain in the northern Syrian region of Afrin, which the Turkish air force bombed during the Operation Olive Branch.Yet his life sentence has not stopped him from attempting to become the leader of the whole Kurdish world and to create the united Kurdistan at the junction of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Given that the Talabani group is not strong enough to compete, there’s an ongoing ideological struggle for leadership between Barzani and Ocalan, which has an impact on the situation in the region.

Turkey, in its relations with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, is using a carrot-and-stick approach. The government of Erdogan uses skillfully disagreements between the three Kurdish groups to improve its national security. Ankara is actively developing economic cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan and hosts Masoud Barzani at the highest level. In turn, Masoud Barzani reciprocates for the ‘Turkish carrot’. He tries to force the PKK militants out of his territory and upon the request of Ankara closes the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan for the Syrian Kurds. When in May 2014 the Syrian region inhabited with Kurds raised the question of establishment of autonomy, Masoud Barzani did not support his fellows and took Erdogan’s position. Thus, Barzani and Erdogan’s government have found common interest, which satisfies both leaders.

Unlike their Iraqi fellows, today Syrian Kurds in Afrin feel the brutality of the ‘Turkish stick’ approach. According to the General Staff of Turkey, over 1,000 PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists have been killed since the launch of the military operation. The Turkish army, jointly with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has managed to clean up a significant part of Afrin areas. Operation Olive Branch has demonstrated that Turkey is overreacting to the attempts of the Syrian Kurds to transform into an independent political force in the region.

Putin’s ‘hybrid tactic’ in the confrontation between Ankara and Washington

Erdogan has said that afterthe military operation in Afrin the Turkish army is prepared to clean up Manbij where about 2,000 U.S. troops and an umbrella group of Kurdish fighters YPG are stationed. He has called on the U.S. to leave Manbij and stop supporting the Syrian Kurds. In fact, Ankara has laid out a condition to Washington to choose between the Kurdish militias and Turkey. Washington meanwhile manages to walk a fine line between the Syrian Kurds and Ankara.According to YPG,if the United States refuses to support the Kurdish militias, who have turned out to be a strong support to the Americans in their fight against ISIS,it would be as bad as capitulating to the so-called Islamic State. Yet the red line across Manbij comes closer and closer every day.

Finally, it may be concluded that the confrontation between Ankara and Washington strengthened the positions of Russia, Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in the Middle East. Russia,who has troops in Afrin and controls the skies over the region, has given a green signal to Turkey to attack US-backed YPG. Thus, Moscow punished the Syrian Kurds for rapprochement with Washington and the refusal to release Afrin to the army of the Assad regime.

Expectedly, the Kremlin will keep on trying to influence the two NATO members to collide, which will curb the influence of the United States in Syria. Erdogan, who has recently strongly demanded regime change in Syria, today he fears that Bashar Assad and YPG can unite against Turkey. This all reminds me of Putin’s ‘hybrid tactics’ during the brexit in the UK and interference in the US electoral process.

Today it is difficult to predict how long the Turkish “whip” diplomacy against the Syrian Kurds will last. The situation is becoming more dangerous. In this situation, much will depend on the statements and actions of Washington, which still has enough influence and resources to defuse the tense situation in northern Syria.

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Mohammed bin Salman: For better or for worse?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Embattled Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could prove to be not only a cat with nine lives but also one that makes even stranger jumps.

King Salman’s announcement that Prince Mohammed was put in charge of reorganizing Saudi intelligence at the same time that the kingdom for the first time admitted that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed in its Istanbul consulate signalled that the crown prince’s wings were not being clipped, at least not immediately and not publicly.

With little prospect for a palace coup and a frail King Salman unlikely to assume for any lengthy period full control of the levers of power, Prince Mohammed, viewed by many as reckless and impulsive, could emerge from the Khashoggi crisis, that has severely tarnished the kingdom’s image and strained relations with the United States and Western powers, even more defiant rather than chastened by international condemnation of the journalist’s killing.

A pinned tweet by Saud Al-Qahtani, the close associate of Prince Mohammed who this weekend was among several fired senior official reads: “Some brothers blame me for what they view as harshness. But everything has its time, and talk these days requires such language.” That apparently was and could remain Prince Mohammed’s motto.

Said former CIA official, Middle East expert and novelist Graham E. Fuller in a bid to identify the logic of the madness: “As the geopolitics of the world changes—particularly with the emergence of new power centres like China, the return of Russia, the growing independence of Turkey, the resistance of Iran to US domination in the Gulf, the waywardness of Israel, and the greater role of India and many other smaller players—the emergence of a more aggressive and adventuristic Saudi Arabia is not surprising.”

Prince Mohammed’s domestic status and mettle is likely to be put to the test as the crisis unfolds with Turkey leaking further evidence of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi or officially publishing whatever proof it has.

Turkish leaks or officially announced evidence would likely cast further doubt on Saudi Arabia’s assertion that Mr. Khashoggi died in a brawl in the consulate and fuel US Congressional and European parliamentary calls for sanctions, possibly including an arms embargo, against the kingdom.

In a sharp rebuke, US President Donald J. Trump responded to Saudi Arabia’s widely criticized official version of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi by saying that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”.

A prominent Saudi commentator and close associate of Prince Mohammed, Turki Aldakhil, warned in advance of the Saudi admission that the kingdom would respond to Western sanctions by cosying up to Russia and China. No doubt that could happen if Saudi Arabia is forced to seeks alternative to shield itself against possible sanctions.

That, however, does not mean that Prince Mohammed could not be brazen in his effort to engineer a situation in which the Trump administration would have no choice but to fully reengage with the kingdom.

Despite pundits’ suggestion that Mr. Trump’s Saudi Arabia-anchored Middle East strategy that appears focussed on isolating Iran, crippling it economically with harsh sanctions, and potentially forcing a change of regime is in jeopardy because of the damage Prince Mohammed’s international reputation has suffered, Iran could prove to be the crown prince’s window of opportunity.

“The problem is that under MBS, Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable strategic partner whose every move seems to help rather than hinder Iran. Yemen intervention is both a humanitarian disaster and a low cost/high gain opportunity for Iran,” tweeted former US Middle East negotiator Martin Indyk, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Mr. “Trump needed to make clear he wouldn’t validate or protect him from Congressional reaction unless he took responsibility. It’s too late for that now. Therefore I fear he will neither step up or grow up, the crisis will deepen and Iran will continue to reap the windfall,” Mr. Indyk said in another tweet.

If that was likely an unintended consequence of Prince Mohammed’s overly assertive policy and crude and ill-fated attempts to put his stamp on the Middle East prior to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, it may since in a twisted manner serve his purpose.

To the degree that Prince Mohammed has had a thought-out grand strategy since his ascendancy in 2015, it was to ensure US support and Washington’s reengagement in what he saw as a common interest: projection of Saudi power at the expense of Iran.

Speaking to The Economist in 2016, Prince Mohammed spelled out his vision of the global balance of power and where he believed Saudi interests lie. “The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” the prince said.

In an indication that he was determined to ensure US re-engagement in the Middle East, Prince Mohammed added: “We did not put enough efforts in order to get our point across. We believe that this will change in the future.”

Beyond the shared US-Saudi goal of clipping Iran’s wings, Prince Mohammed catered to Mr. Trump’s priority of garnering economic advantage for the United States and creating jobs. Mr. Trump’s assertion that he wants to safeguard US$450 billion in deals with Saudi Arabia as he contemplates possible punishment for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is based on the crown prince’s dangling of opportunity.

“When President Trump became president, we’ve changed our armament strategy again for the next 10 years to put more than 60 percent with the United States of America. That’s why we’ve created the $400 billion in opportunities, armaments and investment opportunities, and other trade opportunities. So this is a good achievement for President Trump, for Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said days after Mr. Khashoggi disappeared.

The crown prince drove the point home by transferring US$100 million to the US, making good on a long standing promise to support efforts to stabilize Syria, at the very moment that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week landed in Riyadh in a bid to defuse the Khashoggi crisis.

A potential effort by Prince Mohammed to engineer a situation in which stepped-up tensions with Iran supersede the fallout of the Khashoggi crisis, particularly in the US, could be fuelled by changing attitudes and tactics in Iran itself.

The shift is being driven by Iran’s need to evade blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog. Meeting the group’s demands for enhanced legislation and implementation is a pre-requisite for ensuring continued European support for circumventing crippling US sanctions.

In recognition of that, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dropped his objection to adoption of the FATF-conform legislation.

If that were not worrisome enough for Prince Mohammed, potential Iranian efforts to engage if not with the Trump administration with those segments of the US political elite that are opposed to the president could move the crown prince to significantly raise the stakes, try to thwart Iranian efforts, and put the Khashoggi crisis behind him.

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament’s influential national security and foreign policy commission, signalled the potential shift in Iranian policy by suggesting that “there is a new diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America. There is room for adopting the diplomacy of talk and lobbying by Iran with the current which opposes Trump… The diplomatic channel with America should not be closed because America is not just about Trump.”

Should he opt, to escalate Middle Eastern tensions, Prince Mohammed could aggravate the war in Yemen, viewed by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration as a proxy war with Iran, or seek to provoke Iran by attempting to stir unrest among its multiple ethnic minorities.

To succeed, Prince Mohammed would have to ensure that Iran takes the bait. So far, Iran has sat back, gloating as the crown prince and the kingdom are increasingly cornered by the Khashoggi crisis, not wanting to jeopardize its potential outreach to Mr. Trump’s opponents as well as Europe.

That could change if Prince Mohammed decides to act on his vow in 2017 that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

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A gruesome murder bares world powers’ flawed policies

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder raises fundamental questions that go far beyond Middle Eastern geopolitics.

They go to the risks of support for autocratic regimes by democratic and authoritarian world powers, the rise of illiberal democracy in the West, increasing authoritarianism in Russia, and absolute power in China in which checks and balances are weakened or non-existent.

Mr. Khashoggi’s killing is but the latest incident of hubris that stems from the abandonment of notions of civility, tolerance and plurality; and the ability of leaders to get away with murder, literally and figuratively. It also is the product of political systems with no provisions to ensure that the power of men like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is restrained and checked.

Mr. Khashoggi was an advocate of the necessary checks and balances.

In his last column published in The Washington Post posthumously, Mr. Khashoggi argued that “the Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.”

Mr. Khashoggi’s words were echoed by prominent journalist and political analyst Rami Khouri. “We are heading to the law of the jungle if big power and Mideast state autocracy is not held accountable,” Mr. Khouri said.

In a similar vein, a survey by the Arab Barometer survey concluded that public institutions in the Arab world, including the judiciary enjoyed little, if any, public trust.

“Part of the lack of trust comes from the disenfranchisement felt by many, especially youth and women… The lack of alternative political forces is adding to the fatigue and lack of trust in institutions. Citizens in the region struggle to find an alternative to the ruling elite that might help address the issues of ineffective governance and corruption,” said a report by the Carnegie for Endowment of Peace.

“Citizens are increasingly turning toward informal mechanisms such as protests and boycotts, and focusing more on specific issues of governance, such as service provision, particularly at the local level. Furthermore, with democracy under threat across the globe, calls for broad democratic reform have been replaced by more basic demands,” the report went on to say.

What puts the price Mr. Khashoggi paid for advocating controls of absolute power in a class of its own, is the brutality of his killing, the fact that he was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul rather than, for example, by an unknown killer on a motorbike; and the increasingly difficult effort to resolve politically the crisis his death sparked.

Beyond the support by world powers of often brutal autocrats facilitated by a lack of checks and balances that in the past three decades has destroyed countries and costs the lives of millions, Mr. Khashoggi’s murder is also the product of the failure of Western leaders to seriously address the breakdown in confidence in leadership and political systems at home and abroad.

The breakdown peaked with the 2011 popular Arab revolts; simultaneous widespread protests in Latin America, the United States and Europe; and the increased popularity of anti-system, nationalist and populist politicians on both the right and the left.

Mr. Khashoggi joins the victims of extrajudicial poisoning in Britain by Russian operatives of people who like him may have been a thorn in the side of their leaders but did not pose an existential threat – not that that would justify murder or attempted murder.

He also joins the millions of casualties of failed policy and hubris caused by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurds in the 1980s and reckless 1990 invasion of Kuwait, support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s determination to cling to power irrespective of the human cost, the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen that has produced the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, and China’s attempt to brainwash and socially engineer what the country’s leaders see as the model Chinese citizen.

And those are just some of the most egregious instances.

No better are the multiple ways in which autocratic leaders try to ensure conformity not only through repression and suppression of a free press but also, for example, by deciding who deserves citizenship based upon whether they like their political, economic or social views rather than on birth right.

Take Bahrain whose minority Sunni Muslim regime has stripped hundreds of its nationals of their citizenship simply because it did not like their views or Turkey with its mass arrests of anyone critical of the government.

The irony is that if elections in democracies are producing illiberal leaders like US President Donald J. Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Victor Orban, in Asia and Africa they are bring forth governments mandated to reverse Belt and Road-related, Chinese funding of projects that primarily benefit China rather than the recipient economically and pave the way for greater Chinese influencing of domestic politics as well as the export of systems that enhance unchecked state power.

In some cases, like Malaysia, they produce leaders willing to take on China’s creation of a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state in its north-western province of Xinjiang.

It matters little what label world powers put on their support for autocrats and illiberals. The United States has long justified its policy with the need for regional stability in the greater Middle East. Russia calls it international legality while China packages is it as non-interference in the domestic affairs of others.

Said Middle East expert and former US official Charles Kestenbaum building on Mr. Khashoggi’s words: “If they (Middle Eastern states) want to compete with the globe in IT (information technology) and tech more broadly, they must encourage risk, innovation and freedom to fail. Such social and political freedom does not exist adequately in the region. The opposite in fact, authoritarian regimes repress such initiative and openness. So what do they have to compete and globally engage in the 2020’s? Nothing.”

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Can the Idlib Memorandum Freeze the Conflict?

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During their Sochi talks in September 2018, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement on preserving the de-escalation zone in Idlib and abandoning the military operation that the Assad regime had been preparing to launch against the opposition groups in Idlib. The main provisions of the Sochi agreements boil down to the establishment of a demilitarized zone, 15–20 kilometres deep in the de-escalation area and the withdrawal by the conflicting parties of their heavy weaponry, including armoured vehicles, artillery, mortars and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) by October 10, and of radical terrorist groups by October 15 (the units of moderate rebels will hold their positions). Free movement and freight carriage is set to be restored on the M4 (Aleppo to Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo to Damascus) roads.

A Step Toward a “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria”?

Ankara has consistently advocated for the preservation of the opposition-controlled de-escalation zone, and it was the efforts of Turkey, and of Erdogan personally, that averted the military threat to Idlib, even if temporarily. Many provisions of the Sochi agreements rely on the so-called “white paper” that Turkey conveyed to Russia back in July. Ankara’s demonstration of military power also played a role. Between the Tehran summit of the “Astana troika” and the Sochi talks, the Turkish military was actively building up its forces in the Idlib de-escalation zone, boosting them with tanks and artillery. At the same time, additional weapons were supplied to the Syrian National Army units deployed in the Turkish “buffer” zone in Northern Aleppo, and its forces were ready to move to Idlib to assist the local opposition groups.

These steps indicate that Turkey is ready to press for the Province of Idlib to gradually turn into a Turkish “protectorate,” as happened in the regions of Northern Aleppo, which fell under the country’s “security umbrella” following the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. Accordingly, preserving the opposition’s control over the regions remaining under its power gives Turkey a chance to head up and supervise the peaceful process together with Russia. Should Idlib transition under Assad’s control before a final political settlement in Syria is achieved, Turkey would essentially be left out of Syrian settlement, which would strip its fosterlings in the ranks of Syria’s opposition of any say and the opportunity to be represented in the transitional governmental bodies.

Therefore, it is important for Turkey to prevent the fragmentation of Idlib’s de-escalation zone and keep it under Turkish control without allowing the Russian military police to “take root” there as patrols or outposts, let alone as any administrative bodies of the Syrian regime. This is why Ankara supported the position of the Syrian rebel groups that opposed the Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone or their deployment along M4 and M5 routes. Ankara believes that Turkish troops are capable of handling the task independently. A compromise with Russia could be achieved on the issue. Turkey agreed to the demilitarized zone going exclusively through opposition-controlled territories. Consequently, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry will only apply to the insurgents, and not to the “conflicting parties” as the memorandum stated. In response, Ankara insists that any Russian military presence in the demilitarized zone is unacceptable.

Additionally, Syrian refugees pose an extremely grave problem for the Turkish leadership. The country’s population is growing progressively more discontented with accommodating several millions of Syria’s forced migrants in the long term. Applying the Lebanese scenario to resolve this problem is unacceptable for Ankara, since it would mean pushing the refugees back into Syria while the current regime is in power. Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Bashar al-Assad is guilty of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and has even called him a “murderer.” For Turkey, the most convenient solution would be to create the necessary conditions for accommodating Syrian refuges in opposition-controlled territories. Camps are being built in Northern Aleppo that can take in over 150,000 forced migrants. Nonetheless, the Turkish “protectorate” areas in Northern Aleppo may not be enough. Therefore, the de-escalation zone in Idlib could become the principal region for returning Syrian refugees from Turkey once the required infrastructure is in place. However, it will only be possible if the danger of Syria’s governmental troops conducting a military operation there is averted and if the issue of terrorist groups present there is resolved.

Has the Triumphant Progress Stopped?

For Damascus, the Sochi agreements effectively put an end to a victorious 2018. Over that time, Damascus took control over opposition enclaves one by one: Eastern Ghouta, Al-Dumayr and Eastern Qalamoun, Yarmouk, Homs, Deraa and Quneitra. It seemed that one last push would have been enough to ensure a complete triumph for Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, there is reason to believe that, despite official statements, the Syrian authorities were not satisfied with the terms of the Sochi memorandum. The Syrian regime insisted on a military operation without taking into account many risks, such as the large numbers, motivation and equipment of the Idlib insurgents, who, unlike in other regions where Bashar al-Assad had achieved success, could count on military and other support from Turkey. In addition, Ankara had 12 observation points transformed into fortified bases along the perimeter of the de-escalation zone.

Nonetheless, Damascus did not resign itself to the current situation, and its representatives have said that the opposition has until December to reconcile and put down their weapons, although there are no such provisions in the Sochi agreements. For the Syrian regime, transforming Idlib into a Turkish “protectorate” is all the more unacceptable because it essentially rules out a military solution to the Idlib problem in the foreseeable future. That is, al-Assad’s regime would like to view the Sochi agreements as the first stage of the process to force the Syrian opposition to lay down their arms and reconcile following the scenario implemented in the south of the country. Damascus is likely to put pressure on Russia to pay greater attention to Syria’s wishes and channel the process of implementing the Sochi agreements into the direction that Damascus needs.

Moscow between Ankara and Damascus

Moscow is in a rather tricky position as, on the one hand, it is forced to take the position of Damascus into account, while, on the other, it understands that it is futile to engage in an open confrontation with Ankara. Moscow is still forced to look for compromise options in implementing the Sochi agreements. Nonetheless, Russia has demonstrated that it still has a decisive word in Syrian affairs, as well as enough influence on both Damascus and Tehran to prevent a military operation with as much as a decision only. In addition, Russia can count on Turkey making concessions on the political track of the Syrian settlement process. In practice, Turkey can be expected to promote various “frozen” projects more actively within the peace process that would stand no chance of being implemented in the event that military actions were to start. This applies in particular to those initiatives that were spearheaded and elaborated by Moscow, such as forming a constitutional committee where serious shifts were taking shape following the Geneva talks on September 10–11. Such a situation could have a positive effect on Russia’s plans to involve the countries of the European Union and the Persian Gulf in restoring the Syrian infrastructure, which would allow the process of returning the refugees to start.

Therefore, if the military escalation around Idlib continues to defuse, Ankara will be able to influence the Syrian opposition, forcing it to be more receptive to suggestions coming from Russia as part of the political settlement process. Thereby, Turkey will attempt to preserve Russia’s interest in further deferring the military operation until it is removed from the agenda completely, which, on the one hand, will promote the success of Russia’s peaceful initiatives and, on the other, oppose radicals in Idlib and demonstrate specific steps taken in that area.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham

Turkey consistently works to undermine the standing of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that in early 2017 subsumed Jabhat al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in Idlib. In summer 2017, the large group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki split from the HTS. The presence of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki had made it possible to claim that the transformation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham was not another re-branding of Jabhat al-Nusra. The HTS’s positions were further weakened when Jaysh al-Ahrar split from it as it set a course for restoring ties and developing cooperation with its “parent” structure Ahrar al-Sham. Turkey appears to have played the key role in the HTS split, since the excessive strengthening of the radicals, who had established their control of the province’s capital of Idlib shortly before that, was against Turkey’s interests. Ankara still has influence over various groups that are part of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, as well as over the leaders of the organization. Apparently, further steps should be expected from Ankara to stimulate individual HTS factions capable of reaching and maintaining an agreement to split from the alliance and join the moderate opposition. To make the HTS more amenable, Ankara put the alliance on the list of terrorist groups in late August. Thus, even though today Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham controls a little over a half of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, it remains significantly weakened compared to the winter–summer of 2017. The HTS numbers have fallen almost twofold since then and are now estimated at 12,000–15,000 militants. Additionally, the Turkistan Islamic Party consisting of 2300 Uighur militants actively interacts with the HTS.

The HTS units are highly combat-effective and, in terms of their combat capabilities, are no worse than the larger groups of moderate opposition. Nonetheless, during the fighting that took place in February–April 2018 between Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), the former lost many of its positions in Idlib. After moderate groups assembled in the National Front for Liberation, these factions gained even greater superiority in numbers, which could push the HTS to make further concessions and comply with the provisions of the Sochi agreements on the HTS withdrawing from the 15-kilometer demilitarized zone.

The HTS is split on the issue of implementing the Sochi agreements. Consequently, as of the writing of this article, this group has not yet declared its position. The debate between followers of the two major factions still continues in the HTS’s Shura Council. One faction is the pro-Turkey Syrian bloc that insists on withdrawing the HTS forces from the demilitarized zone and further integration into the moderate opposition, since they connect their future with Syria. The other group is comprised of hard-liners, the “intractables,” many of whom are foreigners who may make their presence known once again in the event of a fresh exacerbation. And in case of failure, they plan to leave the country and continue their subversive activities in other regions.

Al-Qaeda

The “Syrian” part of the HTS is ready to gradually transition to the moderate opposition camp. Should the group continue to fragment, its radical wing is ready for a rapprochement with their former partners who had split from the HTS when it declared it was cutting ties with Al-Qaeda. These radicals have formed their own association, Hurras ad-Din, which is currently an Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. However, it is not a serious force, with no more than 800 people. Another group of the “intractables” is Ansar al-Din, numbering 300 people, which is a part of the HTS that refused to join the organization, judging it to be too moderate. Thus, radical groups in Idlib number up to 20,000 people in total. The province also has IS units, however, they are represented solely by secret underground cells.

The National Front for Liberation (Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir)

In addition to causing dissent among radicals, Ankara has been working successfully on rebuilding the positions and consolidating the forces of the moderate opposition. In February 2018, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (the Syrian Liberation Front), an alliance that proved capable of opposing the HTS and of pushing back against HTS radicals in Idlib, was established. The next stage was deploying the National Front for Liberation in May 2018; Jabhat Tahrir Suriya joined in August.

Establishing the National Front for Liberation in May 2018 was an important step on the way toward installing Turkey’s control over the armed opposition in Idlib with the prospect of its further integration in the united Syrian National Army. Establishing the National Front for Liberation drew a line under the process of separating moderate opposition from radicals: all the groups (besides Jaysh al-Izzah) that are outside the National Front for Liberation in Idlib can be called “radical.”

The next stage, in turn, envisions the merger of the National Front for Liberation deployed in Idlib with the Syrian National Army (SNA) formed in the Syrian protectorate of Northern Aleppo. The plan is to gather all the moderate opposition forces under its banner. However, the National Front for Liberation can merge with the SNA if the Idlib problem is resolved in accordance with the “Turkish scenario,” i.e. after de facto transforming the region into Turkey’s “protectorate.” It should be kept in mind that the SNA forces did not take part in the military operations against Assad’s regime in Idlib. They operate solely in the regions covered by the Turkish “security umbrella” and were primarily geared for military operations against Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party.

Virtually all factions surviving into the eighth year of the Syrian conflict and operating under the Free Syrian Army “brand” joined the National Front for Liberation: the Free Idlib Army, Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Nukhba, the Free Syrian Army 2nd army (Jaysh al-Thani), the Free Syrian Army 1st Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 2nd Coastal Division, the Free Syrian Army 23rd Division, Daraya’s Shuhada al-Islam, Liwa al-Hurriya and several other small Free Syrian Army factions, including units brought into Idlib from Damascus and other regions. Nonetheless, the National Front for Liberation’s principal assault force is comprised of moderate Islamist groups such as Faylaq al-Sham, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (a coalition of Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki), Suqour al-Sham and Jaysh al-Ahrar (with the exception of the first group, they all joined the National Front for Liberation somewhat later, in August 2018). Today, the National Front for Liberation numbers 50,000–55,000 militants.

The Syrian National Army

Even though the Syrian National Army (SNA) is not deployed in Syria’s de-escalation zone, it does have an immediate influence on the situation in the region. Should the army’s units be retrained, re-armed and equipped by Turkey and shifted to Idlib, the situation there could change in terms of both possibly repelling Bashar al-Assad’s offensive and suppressing radicals there. Additionally, should the need arise, SNA units may come over to the National Front for Liberation side and join their “parent” units on the front, since both the National Front for Liberation and the SNA often comprise brigades from the same groups, for instance, Ahrar al-Sham.

The SNA is formed in the regions of the so-called Turkish “protectorate” or “buffer,” i.e. in those Syrian regions where the Turkish military operates and which are covered by Turkey’s aviation, thereby minimizing the possibilities of al-Assad’s regime and its allies carrying out a military operation.

The SNA includes five legions or corps. Three (the 1st, 2nd and 3rd) were deployed in Northern Aleppo and one (the 4th) in Homs. After the region was surrendered to al-Assad’s regime in May 2018, it was also deployed in Northern Aleppo. In July, the 5th legion began deployment in north-eastern regions of Idlib’s de-escalation zone (the Aleppo province). Factions from the National Front for Liberation are expected to join it, and the legion may become a transition model for integrating the National Front for Liberation’s Idlib factions into the SNA.

The 1st legion was formed from Turkoman brigades such as Mehmed the Conqueror Brigade and the Samarkand Brigade that formed the legion’s core. It also includes the Descendants of Saladin Kurdish Brigade (pro-Turkish), Victory Brigades, the 21st united Free Syrian Army division, the 101st Free Syrian Army division etc. The SNA’s 2nd legion is also considered Turkoman, and its principal parts are the al-Sultan Murad Division and the al-Hamza Division. Additionally, the legion includes the Mutasim Billah Brigade, the al-Safwa Battalions and others. The 3rd SNA legion may be called “Islamic,” since it comprises moderate Islamic groups, such as three factions of al-Jabhat al-Shamiya: the Northern Storm Brigade, the Sword of the Levant Brigade and the Soldiers of Islam Brigades, as well as some Ahrar al-Sham units operating in Northern Aleppo such as Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt and Liwa al-Manbij, among others. The 4th SNA legion is also considered “Islamic.” It comprises Liwa al-Haqq, Faylaq Homs and Ahrar al-Sham brigades that had previously operated in Homs. As of August 2018, the SNA numbers 35,000 militants in total.

The process of units from other factions integrating into the SNA continues. The SNA may be boosted by units of Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam being withdrawn from around Damascus and positioned in two camps around Afrin and al-Bab in the Turkish “protectorate” of Northern Aleppo. Today, at least Jaysh al-Islam already operates under the SNA’s “umbrella,” although it has not been fully integrated into its corps structure. Therefore, once fully deployed, the SNA may number 50,000 troops. Accordingly, if the NFL joins the SNA, they will number 100,000 troops total: these are the forces at the disposal of Syria’s moderate opposition.

In addition to the National Front for Liberation and the SNA, the Jaysh al-Izzah group should also be counted as moderate opposition. It is the only faction flying the Free Syrian Army’s flag that still preserved its independence and did not join alliances. It numbers 3500 fighters.

Thus, the balance of power between the moderate opposition and radicals gives reason to hope that Ankara’s measures to ultimately free Idlib from terrorist groups will succeed. Although the Sochi memorandum does not provide a timeframe for “cleansing” the region of terrorist groups, or indeed the terms and methods of doing so, the temporary or long-term preservation of Idlib’s status quo will largely hinge on the resolution of this very question.

First published in our partner RIAC

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