Update from Peter Ford, Former British Ambassador to Syria – 21 August 2019
After a period of stagnation, progress is now visible on several Syrian fronts – notwithstanding counter-efforts by Western powers and Turkey.
The de-escalation agreement concluded in September 2018 under Russian and Turkish auspices was never going to be more than a short-lived truce. From the outset, the militias supported by Turkey refused to implement the provisions for a pull-back from the buffer zone, and shelled from their advanced positions a number of targets including the Russian base at Humaymeen near Lattakia, a cluster of Christian villages in Hama, and the outer suburbs of Aleppo.
This was tolerated while Russia played its own careful game with Turkey, which included the conclusion of an important arms deal (for the S-400 air defence system) vehemently but in the end unsuccessfully opposed by the US. In May, however, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with strong Russian support, started to advance on the southern Idlib salient, which includes parts of Hama province bordering Idlib. (The jihadis also control a section of mountainous northern Lattakia.)
At first, the SAA made swift progress but then met stiffer resistance as Turkey channelled huge amounts of advanced Western weaponry, notably deadly TOW anti-tank systems, to their allies, particularly the so-called National Liberation Front. The dominant group in Idlib, the Al Qaida affiliate Hayat Tahrir Ash Sham (HTS), also received copious amounts of military assistance from Turkey. It appeared for several weeks as though the war-weary SAA was stymied and opponents of the Syrian government in the West and the Gulf began to exult in what they saw as Assad’s weakness.
Not for the first time in this conflict, however, many were underestimating the resilience of the SAA and the loyalty of Russia to its allies. In mid-August, the SAA struck decisively to rollup fierce resistance in the approaches to Khan Sheykhoun, a key bastion of HTS in southern Idlib. The subsequent recovery of this town, which straddles the M5 highway linking Aleppo and Damascus, is important not only strategically but also psychologically, for what is now to prevent the SAA grinding out a series of similar victories ending up with Idlib city itself? It may take time but the writing is on the wall.
The stakes at Khan Sheykhoun were extremely high, which may explain why Turkey chanced its arm by sending into the eye of the storm a 50-vehicle convoy including armed personnel carriers and tanks, and why Syria attacked it from the air, stopping it in its tracks. On a battlefield where Russia ultimately controls the skies, there can really only be one winner here and it is not Turkey.
It is claimed that, on their way to victory in Khan Sheykhoun, the SAA and Russians pursued scorched earth tactics, but is that not what the Coalition did as it advanced on Mosul, Fallujah and Raqqa? How could it be otherwise when armed gangs supported to the hilt by Turkey and encouraged by hysterical Western media coverage to hope for Western intervention refuse to budge?
As to claims that the Syrian and Russian planes bombed hospitals, civil defence centres and schools, again how could it be otherwise when as per the cruel laws of asymmetric warfare, the jihadis systematically use these locales for military purposes while notifying them as civilian to the UN, which has no international monitors on the ground?
In like vein Turkey has been using the 13 ‘observation posts’ it was allowed to set up in the never implemented Idlib buffer zone to provide assistance and shelter to the armed groups. Russia, having imposed this arrangement on Syria against the latter’s better judgement, was not only honour bound to help Syria in correcting Turkey’s behaviour, but also obliged to do so if it was to retain a pre-eminent position in Syria vis a vis Iran, which at Russia’s behest has held back from sending into Idlib its allied forces such as Hizbollah.
Despite alarums the dog which puzzlingly has not (yet) barked in the Idlib campaign has been the alleged use of chemical weapons. Is it fanciful to imagine that the US has intimated to Turkey that it will not be manipulated by Turkey’s proxies into going head-to-head with Russia over Syria, and that as long as the Syro-Russian operations remain measured the US will not allow itself to be drawn into a conflict which would be bound to put it embarrassingly and openly on the same side as Al Qaida? And not only Al Qaida but also Islamic State since Turkey has reportedly diverted to Idlib 6,000 fighters belonging to Jund Al Aqsa, an IS affiliate, from the Turkish-controlled areas further north, in a desperate bid to stem the advance of the SAA. Or is it that the delivery some months ago of the Russian S-300 air defence system to Syria has made Syria less of a risk-free punchbag for Western air forces, which struck twice before on the back of alleged chemical weapons use?
The North East (Hasakeh and Deir Ez Zor)
The issue of withdrawal of US forces announced by Trump back in December and walked back in January has not gone away. It appears that about half of the 2,000 US troops have quietly been withdrawn and Trump recently repeated his intention that all be withdrawn in due course.
Trump’s lieutenants have had some success in dragooning other countries to supply replacement forces, with the UK reportedly agreeing to increase the number of special forces it has operating in Syria. (Claiming that special forces operations must never be commented on – why, when they involve not commando raids demanding secrecy but what is effectively long term occupation? – the British government has hit upon a novel way to participate in occupation of countries whose governments it dislikes without ever having to face scrutiny.)
The irony is that no Western troops at all are needed to prevent Assad from recovering the resource-rich North East. It is not those token numbers of troops who stand in the way of the reunification of Syria but the implicit threat that the US Air Force (and the RAF?) would bomb Syrian forces if they advanced into areas controlled by the Coalition’s ally, the Kurdishdominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This has already happened on the rare occasions when pro-Assad forces have forayed over the demarcation lines. It will therefore not necessarily be cause for unalloyed jubilation when the last American and British soldier leaves, which is likely to be delayed anyway because of the situation not with Assad or ISIS but Turkey.
The North: Creation of a ‘safe zone’?
For the best part of a year, the US and Turkey have been haggling over the proposed creation of a demilitarised strip of territory separating Turkey from Kurdish-controlled territory, which would give Turkey what it claims would be a buffer against the Kurds. That the Kurds have never launched any significant attack against Turkey from these areas, and that they would be mad to do so, has not caused the Turks to moderate their demands for a 20-mile deep strip, hundreds of kilometres long, which would include a number of Kurdish-majority towns. After Erdogan appeared to bring matters to a head in July by threatening to send in troops, the US gave him a ladder down which to climb by offering five miles of Syrian territory, joint patrols and the setting up of a joint command centre in Turkey. Erdogan has pocketed the concessions and proclaimed the negotiations a success, without conceding any of his maximal demands.
The contested territory is touted by both US and Turkey as a ‘safe zone’. Even leaving aside the fact that the former imperial power in Syria and the new one cannot under international law dispose as they wish of the territory of a sovereign state, the reality is that the ‘safe zone’ would in fact be a new danger zone. Turkish patrols would inevitably be targeted by the Kurds, prompting retaliation and more problems along the new more southerly seam lines. The idea that some of Turkey’s hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, an increasing source of friction inside Turkey, might be decanted into this new hellhole, appears absurd yet that is Erdogan’s proclaimed intention.
The Kurds have brought on themselves the spectre of all this happening by putting their faith in the US and spurning meaningful negotiations with the Syrian government. Fortunately for them, the record of a previous US-Turkey arrangement in the Manbij area West of the Euphrates suggests that all these manoeuvres are heading into the sands. In Manbij the Kurds were supposed to withdraw and the town would be monitored by joint US-Turkish patrols. None of this has happened. The outlook therefore is for a continuing messy situation.
One scenario Western planners would be wise to anticipate, however, is that after retaking Idlib, now looking nailed on, Syrian government forces start to tackle the pro-Turkish militias operating close to the Turkish border in areas including Afrin, previously Kurdish-controlled. At that point, assuming a ‘safe zone’ had been set up as per US-Turkish plans, who would bet on Kurdish forces not joining up with Assad against the common enemy, and if that happens how long before the Kurdish rug is pulled out from under the feet of the Americans and British in the Coalition-occupied areas of Hasakeh and Deir Ez Zor?
A recent Pentagon report was overstating the evidence but not entirely wrong in reckoning that ISIS is regrouping in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS has metamorphosed into a hit and run gang, mounting raids and assassinations here and there in both countries. The report however appeared designed to bolster the case for leaving US forces in Syria indefinitely.
The contrary case would be stronger: the SDF, being under Kurdish orders, are poorly placed to keep order in majority Arab rural areas where ISIS have gone to ground. The Al Hol camp for 60,000 ISIS families, loosely controlled by SDF under US guidance, has become a new safe haven for ISIS, just as the Al Tanf enclave (including the Rukban camp) under total US control on the Jordanian border has become a safe haven for ISIS and other jihadis.
It seems almost absurd in light of the military situation on the ground to be even discussing the Geneva, Sochi and Astana (now renamed Nur Sultan) processes focussed on a new constitution and elections. Yet the UN, the West and Russia continue to flog these dead horses.
The absurdity is even greater when it is remembered that the besuited negotiators on the Syrian opposition side carry zero weight with the jihadi fighters, have no say in their operations, and are totally ventriloquized by their Western, Turkish and Gulf backers. Yet it is so, and progress has been announced towards agreement on the composition of a constitutional committee.
It can perhaps be charitably assumed that the ultimate idea here on the part of the Russians – unrealistic as it seems – is to provide some cloak of international acceptability for the inescapable eventual military solution, thereby unlocking lifting of sanctions and international reconstruction assistance