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What will happen to the Central Asian jihadists in Idlib after the Sochi Memorandum?

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Putin and Erdogan at the time of signing the Turkish-Russian agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria's northwestern Idlib province

It became obvious that, the persistent calls and strict warnings from the UN, the United States, the EU and Turkey about the inevitability of a catastrophe and mass casualties in the event of a military operation on the Idlib Province, the last major rebel holdout in western Syria and home to about four million people, has begun to bear fruit. A military operation in Idlib was cancelled and the world sighed with relief.

The Price of Peace in Idlib

On September 17, 2018, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Ankara and Moscow signed a memorandum to create a demilitarized buffer zone in Syria’s Idlib region to separate government and rebel forces, in which acts of aggression are prohibited. The memorandum provides for a “withdrawal of all radical fighters” from Idlib including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Moscow and Ankara also agreed on the withdrawal of “heavy weaponry from this zone,” including tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems, and rocket launchers belonging to all armed opposition groups by October 10. The demilitarized buffer zone will extend between 15 to 20 kilometers (9-12 miles) deep into Idlib.Russia and Turkey will conduct joint patrols along the zone’s perimeter.

Ankara’s diplomatic victory is that the National Liberation Front (NLF) — a rebel coalition in Syria formed in May 2018 under Turkey’s auspices — will remain in Idlib as a “new owner”. The NLF includes Sunni groups Ahrar al-Sham, Nur al-Din al-Zenki as well as several factions battling under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, which Western countries consider “moderate armed opposition. According to The Sochi Memorandum, Moscow, Damascus and Tehran have practically recognized NLF as the only moderate armed opposition in Syria.

The Sochi Memorandum, which at the last minute stopped the bombing of Idlib, completely suits Ankara. De facto, Turkey is expanding its presence deep into Syria, and takes the political and economic management of Idlib into its own hands, as was done in Afrin.In the past Turkey conducted a military operation, code-named Olive Branch, against the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria for more than two months,in order to achieve the conquest of Afrin. However,in contrast, Ankara has now seized Idlib as a result of its diplomatic initiatives. It should be expected that in the near future Ankara will immediately begin to establish pro-Turkish self-government by Idlib province.

Residents of Idlib welcome the Sochi Memorandum

Today more than 60 percent of the Idlib province is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, former al Qaeda linked Al Nusrah Front. According to The Washington Institute, HTS has 30,000 combatants. It should be noted that in order to turn Al Nusrah Front into a serious political player in the intra-Syrian conflict and in order to avoid international sanctions, the group’s leader of Abu Muhammad al Julani in July 2016 announced that he would break off their ties from al Qaeda. HTS has managed to expand its political and governance efforts, coordinating them through a civilian-run “Salvation Government” in Idlib. The group has expanded and energized initiatives to provide core services, from education and healthcare to electricity and water.

Now Turkey will seek the transfer of the reins of political, military and economic government by the province from HTS to NLF. But a clear mechanism for the transfer of power has not yet been developed. It is not excluded that a new redistribution of spheres of influence in the province may be accompanied by armed conflicts between “new” and “old” owners. A significant share of the HTS budget came from customs and tax collections in the territory of “Salvation Government”, arms smuggling and human trafficking along the border with Turkey.

But the most difficult challenge for Turkey is cleaning radical jihadists out of Idlib, first of all, from HTS. Ankara has taken on an excessive responsibility for separating the moderate opposition from the Islamist extremists in Idlib which is not easy to implement. If Turkey manages to withdraw weapons from armed members of al Qaeda, HTS, Uyghur, Uzbek and Chechen Salafi-jihadi militants, and drive them all out of Idlib, then a new impulse will be given to the world struggle against Islamist radicalism. Then Erdogan, who positions himself as a defender of Sunni Islam in the world, would strike a tangible blow to the ideology of ISIS and al Qaeda.

On the other hand, if Ankara is able to include all foreign terrorists and jihadists from Central Asia and China in Idlib into the National Liberation Front and the NLF becomes for them a new “amir”, then the Sochi memorandum would become the next survival tool for these al Qaeda linked radical groups.

Foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union and China in Idlib

Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations, has become a real-life shelter for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families from Central Asia. The militants from the former Soviet Union and Chinese Xinjiang are the largest foreign jihadists in Idlib Province.

Which Russian-Speaking Foreign Salafi- jihadi groups operating in Idlib were ready to defend the “Sham’s Liberated Lands” (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham calls these lands his possession) from attacks by the Assad army and pro-Iranian Shia militant formations?

The Turkestan Islamic Party is one such group, mainly consisting of Uyghur Islamic fighters from the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan established in the 80s of last century in Chinese Xingjian was later renamed into the Turkestan Islamic Party and since 1997 it has been known to be based in Afghanistan. Since then, TIP is actively cooperating with the terrorist groups al Qaeda and Taliban. The amir of TIP is Abd al-Haqq al Turkistani. In February 2012 Uyghur militants moved to Idlib province and together with Al Nusrah Front are fighting against government forces of Bashar al-Assad. The al Qaeda’s jihadi doctrine is the basis of the TIP’s ideological platform. From 8 to 10 thousand Uyghur militants with their families are concentrated in Jisr al-Shughur.

Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad is affiliated with the Al Nusrah Front and its ancestor al Qaeda. The Salafi-jihadi group includes citizens of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Abu Saloh (Sirojiddin Mukhtarov) is the amir of the group whowas born in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan. He speaks emotionally, confidently and often quotes the Quran. Abu Saloh is a faithful and aggressive propagandist of the al Qaeda’s ideology. He organized jointly with the Uyghur terrorists from the Turkestan Islamic Party the explosion in the Bishkek-based Chinese embassy in August 2016 in Kyrgyzstan. Also, the Federal Security Service of Russia has accused him of organizing an explosion in the metro of St. Petersburg on April 3, 2017. The approximate number of the KTJ militants is about 400 people, mostly Uzbek jihadists.

The Katibat Imam al-Bukhari detachment was created in Afghanistan on the basis of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and pledged loyalty to the Taliban. After the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2012 KIB moved to Syrian Idlib Province and distinguished itself as one of the major rebel groups fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad. Today one group of the KIB’s jihadists is based in Afghanistan and fighting together with the Taliban. Abu Yusuf Muhojir, the Uzbek militant from Tajikistan, is the amir of the group. About 300-350 militants are known to fight in the KIB. The US State Department designated KIB as global terrorist organizations on March 22, 2018. KIB takes a close position by its military and ideological views to the al Qaeda linked Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al-Sham. Later both groups formally announced the break in their relations with al Qaeda, although their ideological jihadi platforms did not change. Despite the fact that KIB claims to be an “independent” faction, al Qaeda’s radical Salafism and militant Takfirism are the fundamental basis of the jihadi ideology of the KIB. During the bloody conflict between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham led by Al Nusrah Front and the Syrian Liberation Front headed by Ahrar al-Sham in February 2018, KIB took a neutral stance and tried to play an intermediary role in their reconciliation.

4.The so-calledChechen groups“, which have been formed from the inhabitants of the North Caucasus of Russia and Georgiaare also involved in this conflict.Today in Idlib there are groups from the North Caucasus calling themselves “independent” factions Ajnad al Kavkaz (lider – RustamAzhiev), Junud al-Sham (lider – Murad Margoshvili), Jaish al-Usrah (lider – Peizulla Margoshvili), Jamaat Katibat Ibadar-Rahman (lider – Tarkhan Gaziyev) and Liwa al Muhajireen wal Ansar, which are part of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The number of militants in these Russian-speaking groups from the North Caucasus are much less than the Turkic-speaking Salafi-jihadi groups from Central Asia. Unlike the Uzbek and Uygur jihadist groups, there is no singular identical ideological doctrine among the “Chechen groups”. As a result, they did not always enter into a coalition with Syrian opposition groups of local Arabs and did not accept the ideology of the global players of the world jihad.

After analyzing ideological platforms, it can be concluded that all these foreign Salafi-jihadi groups from Central Asia, Western China and the North Caucasus, which are stationed today in Idlib, have two factors in common.

First, they all have close cooperation with Al Qaeda and consider his leader Ayman al-Zawahiri their ideological leader.

Secondly, they coordinate all their military operations in Syria and conduct them under the leadership of the HTS. Practically Uzbek and Uighur militants became an integral part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The jihadists of Central Asia became the link between Al Qaeda and HTS after their quarrels.

So far, neither the HTS, nor the Central Asian jihadists, nor the militants from the North Caucasus have expressed their opinion on the Sochi Memorandum

Where will the Central Asian jihadists go, if they leave Idlib?

After the signing of the Sochi Memorandum, the fate of the foreign jihadist groups in Idlib became dependent on Turkey. Now, the Turkish armed forces will apply pressure on foreign radical groups to leave the territory of Idlib for the creation of a 15-20 kilometer demilitarized belt by October 15, 2018, in order to fulfill the provisions of the memorandum.North Caucasus and Central Asian jihadist groups will react to Turkish pressure based on the positions of HTS. That is, they will follow the example of the HTS, the largest and well-armed group in Idlib.

First option. HTS surrenders its heavy weapons, dissolves itself and integrates into the Turkish backed National Liberation Front. In this case, Chechen, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz jihadists will look for ways to stay in Idlib and join the NLF. But Russia and China will be opposed to this path and will likely present an ultimatum to Ankara for their detention and transfer.

The second option. If the HTS does not agree to disarm, then the intervention of the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib will become inevitable. If conflict flares up between the HTS and the Turkish military, the North Caucasus and Central Asian jihadists will likely not interfere in it and will try, as far as possible, to leave Syria and move to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.It is unlikely that the kinship of Uzbeks and Uyghurs to the Turks will prevail over their religious-political jihadi ideology and cause them to disarm.

The third option. After the establishment of the pro-Turkish government in Idlib, led by the moderate opposition of the NLF, Russia and Turkey would jointly conduct military operations to eliminate Chechen and Central Asian Islamists.

In conclusion, it is likely that a decision about the future of the foreign Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria is drawing closer to a resolution each passing day.

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam. Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Member. SpecialEurasia, Team Member.

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Ethnic War a Newfangled Pakistani Forward-policy for Afghanistan

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According to the intelligence information, Pakistan’s ISI is trying to start ethnic and maneuvering war again in Afghanistan, of which distinct objective is to refurbish the age-old enmity between the Achakzai and Noorzai tribes in the southwest zone. Besides, they want to start an ethnic war among Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns across Afghanistan, and between the northern and southern directions, thus, the prominent leaders of the Taliban, who are led by the ISI, have been entrusted with the task. As in the east and north of Afghanistan, Pashtun Taliban militants are oppressing other Non-Pashtuns, raiding their homes; however, no high-ranking Pashtun Taliban officials are preventing them because the ISI network leads this strategy. In order to revamp a civil war in Afghanistan, score of influential figures have been summoned by the Pakistani military establishment. 

The latest examples are as follows: Two days ago, the Pashtun Taliban killed the former police chief and an influential tribal leader in Mandol district of Nuristan province, which caused many emotions against Pashtuns especially about southwest zone of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in order to afresh the years of hostility between the Noorzai and Achakzi tribes in the southwestern region of Afghanistan, the ISI network raised the issue of a mass grave by several leading Taliban militants, especially by the current governor of Kandahar province and Noorzai tribe leading leader, Haji Mohammad Yousef Wafa.

Qari Aslam Noorzai call for by Pak security forces

At a time when the former leader of the Noorzai tribe, the leading smuggler of drugs and heavy weapons in Central and South Asia, and the financial supporter of the first Taliban regime, Haji Bashar Noorzai was released from the US prison in Guantánamo. The Noorzai tribe once again became twice as strong and dominant in Afghanistan, especially in the southwest zone.  Resulting threats towards the Achakzai people, on the other hand, ISI has started rapid efforts to recommence the years of enmity between these two tribes.

Hajee Feyzullah Khan Noorzai meets Pak military Intelligence

Recently, Pakistan’s intelligence network ISI, with the help of some leading social media and high-ranking Taliban officials, has kept the issue of finding a mass grave in Kandahar province in the southwestern zone of Afghanistan broiling, namely by inducing  the blame-game. Meanwhile, local tribal leaders and residents of Spin Boldak district claim that such a grave is the grave of those who were taken out of their homes by the Taliban after August 15.  Since, they were connected to Achakzai tribe and on the other hand, they served in the security departments of the overthrown Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that is why the Taliban night raided their houses, and massively killed them.

Moreover, mass murdering Hazaras at their educational institutions via suicide bombing and meantime blowing up the worship places of Sufi-Muslims, who preach the non-violent form of Islam, while calling for De-weaponization and De-politicization of Islam.

Consequently, by applying such a forward-policy, Pakistan will achieve its fancied strategic-depth in Afghanistan, while subjugating the Afghan Nation.

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Pakistani Intelligence Agencies ignite Tribal Conflicts in Pak-Afghan Region

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According to the intelligence information, Pakistani intelligence community supported by some international rings want to once again spread dispute and disharmony among the tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan; subsequently the centuries-old evils and wars between the tribes will once more take a new color and become fresh. Recently, rumors of the discovery of a mass grave in Kandahar province in the southwestern zone of Afghanistan are spreading; the blame for this mass murder falls on the former police chief of Kandahar province and the former leader of the Achagzai tribe, General Abdul Razaq Achagzai.  In order to afresh raising the reaction of the Norzi tribe against the Ackzai and anew the evil and war between these two tribes. Even though the current governing body of Afghanistan is completely under the control of the Noorzi tribe, because most of the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban, including the leader of the Taliban, Sheikh Haibatullah, are related to the Noorzi tribe, so there is a greater threat posed to the Achakzi tribe.

Even now, in spite of such menaces, more than 6000 Achakzi families live in Kandahar province, whose members served in the security departments under the command of General Abdul Razaq Achakzi, a staunch opponent of the Taliban.  Currently, in such a tense situation that the Taliban administration has control over Afghanistan and the head of this administration is connected to the Nurzi tribe, the harsh criticism of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai’s mass killings is logical, which can cause international and internal outcries.  As a result, the major victims will be the youths and leading tribal leaders of the Achakzai tribe.

By the advent of Taliban on August 15, 2021, in the first four months, more than 600 youths and tribal leaders from the Achakzi tribe were killed in the southwest zone of Afghanistan, while applying night operations or raids by the Taliban. The most famous case happened to the family of Haji Fida Mohammad Achakzai in Spin Boldak district. Haji Fida Muhammad Achakzai, known as Haji Fida Aka, is a leading leader of the Achakza tribe of Spin Boldak district and had close relations with the family of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai.

 When Kandahar province fell to the Taliban before August 15, the two young sons of him were killed by the Taliban on the first night, unfortunately none of the Taliban officials took any action to prevent the tragedy. Nevertheless, this time, there is a plan going on at the international level to renew the age-old differences between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes, which the international media warmly supports.  If this time the internal differences and conflicts between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes in Afghanistan get sturdier, then it will have damaging effects not only in Afghanistan, but also, serious negative measures will be taken against the Norzai under the leadership of Mahmoud Khan Achakzai, the head of the Achakzai tribe, in the Pakhtunkhwa provinces of Pakistan.

In the meantime, the decision of the Pakistani government to hand over the Pashtun areas in Pakhtunkhwa provinces to the Taliban was approved and supported by the Nurzi tribe, conversely, this action of the Pakistani government was strongly condemned by Mahmoud Khan Achakzai and PTM leader Manzoor Pashtun.

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Afghan Zarqawi is shot dead in Panjsher valley of Afghanistan

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According to intelligence information, the leading Taliban commander Maulvi Habibullah Sheeran, who was known as Zarqawi, a resident of Zhrhai District, Kandahar Province, in the southwestern zone of the Taliban was killed in Panjsher battle.

Meantime, the intelligence report indicates, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the general military officer of Panjshir and Andrab and the deputy of the Ministry of National Defense, was injured in Panjshir on Friday, September 16 at 3:25 p.m.

Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who is considered one of the leading and influential war commanders in the southwest zone of the Taliban, has the support of about 4,000 low-ranking and high-ranking Taliban fighters. He is one of the Taliban military commanders who, during the first mobilization of the Taliban, formed the Taliban group with the support of Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid, the founder of the Taliban, and attracted hundreds of young men from Helmand province to the Taliban group.

When the Taliban came to power for the second time in Afghanistan, due to internal differences among the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir left the Taliban for a short time and went to his native Kajki district of Helmand province. However, due to the many efforts of the Taliban, especially Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir’s assistant and the current head of security of presidential palace  Mullah Mutaullah Mubarak, He joined the Taliban again and was appointed as the Deputy Minister of Defense.

Taliban leaders made more efforts to reunite Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir with the Taliban, because he was an influential military leader, and on the other hand, Taliban leaders were receiving reports that Mullah Qayyum Zakir wants to join ISIS against Taliban. Nevertheless, when he joined with the Taliban leaders for the second time, he was assigned the position of Deputy Minister of Defense, So, for a period, he cooperated with the Minister of Defense Maulvi Yaqoub as a military advisor in the Ministry of Defense.

 When the rumors of the fall of the northern part of Afghanistan were spread and the fighting between the NRF or the National Resistance Front and the Taliban in Panjshir and Andrab intensified, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, based on the special permission of Sheikh Haibatullah, Appointed General Military Officer of Northern Afghanistan. In addition, from September 9, under his leadership, a special military operation named Al-Fath began in Panjshir and Andarabs to clear and liberate northern Afghanistan from the fighters of the National Resistance Front.

As a result of the operation, from September 9th to September 16th, dozens of NRF fighters were also killed but the casualties of Taliban fighters are methodically shown below, although scores of Taliban fighters were destroyed.

  • The bodies of 60 to 70 Taliban fighters who were killed in the battle of Panjshir have been transferred to Uruzgan province.
  •  The dead bodies of 50 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Kandahar Province.
  • The dead bodies of 33 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Helmand Province.
  •  The dead bodies of 22 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Ghor Province.
  • The dead bodies of 11 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Takhar province.
  • The dead bodies of 6 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Kunduz Chahar Dara.
  •  The dead bodies of 12 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Zabul province.
  • The dead bodies of nine Taliban fighters have been transferred to Wardag Province.
  • The dead bodies of 10 Taliban fighters have been transferred to Dandi Ghori in Baghlan province.  

Last Friday, September 16, in the bloody battle, Mullah Qayyum Zakir, the military officer in charge of Panjshir and Andrab, was seriously injured and eight of his bodyguards, who were residents of Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, were killed. Mullah Qayyum Zakir was transferred to the 400-bed hospital in Kabul at 10 o’clock in the evening on September 16, and former Taliban doctor Atiqullah was invited to Kabul from Al-Khair Hospital of Balochistan province of Pakistan for treatment.

There is a bloody war going on in the north of Afghanistan and around 300 al-Fatih forces are going to Panjshir from Kabul tonight and may reach tomorrow. Meanwhile, in Vienna, the plan for the formation of a new military and political movement was announced in a three-day meeting of the anti-Taliban political officials of the former government of Afghanistan. Moreover, based on that military plan, after dividing Afghanistan into five major parts, the political and military leaders of each zone will start preparing their organizations against the Taliban, and they will use such political and military tactics as the Taliban used against the government of the Republic of Afghanistan during the last 20 years of resistance.

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