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Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

This map, produced by pro-gov. Syrian group, hints
to Syria’s claim over most of Hatay province, could explain
the strategy for dealing with Idlib.
There are historical and political reasons for Turkey’s determination to prevent the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria. However, Turkey’s government might be nervous not just because of the Kurdish separatist aspirations, but also because of its long territorial dispute with the Syrian government, which considers most of Hatay province (Iskenderun) Syrian territory. Looking at the military strategy the Syria government has put in place since the start of its military campaign to regain lost territory, it would appear that the Syrian government wants to address its sovereignty claim over Iskenderun in the context of this armed conflict, in which Turkey has been deeply involved politically and militarily. Turkey, on the other hand, given its erratic decisions related to the Syrian crisis and given its fickle alliances, finds itself alone, abandoned by old allies, Saudi Arabia and the US, and untrusted by its new one, Russia and Iran.

 
First, Turkey’s government knows that a sovereign and united Kurdistan with access to international waters is a formidable one. A landlocked Kurdistan will depend on the goodwill of its neighbors to have access to international markets and to the global community in general. But a Kurdistan stretching from the Iraqi-Iranian border in the east to the Mediterranean in the west is viable, strong, and rich. Turkey, more than all its neighbors is threatened by this prospect for many obvious reasons. That is why Turkey feels the need to act now before a political solution for the Syrian crisis, which might result in the creation of a semi-autonomous region in northern Syria, is reached. 
 
Second, it must be noted that Hatay province is inhabited by diverse ethnic and religious groups, but Arabs and Alevis are a majority in its population of nearly 1.5 million people. The region, therefore, despite being under Turkish control, is strongly pro-Syrian government and throughout the Syrian crisis period, many of its people demonstrated in support of the Syrian government.
 
Third, nearly 500,000 Syrians were displaced by the violence in Aleppo and Idlib provinces and these displaced people settled in Hatay province. Moreover, the province borders the very volatile Idlib province that has been a relocation destination for all armed groups who chose not to enter into “reconciliation” agreements with the Syrian government. Idlib is controlled primarily by the powerful Islamist factions supported by Turkey and Qatar, mainly Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS; formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). 
 
Most recently, a number of factions defected from Ahrar al-Sham to join HTS making it the largest Islamist armed group in northern Syria. Parts of Idlib has been designated by the agreement (sponsored by Turkey, Russia, and Iran) as reduced violence zone. However, Russia has insisted all along that all de-escalation zones must exclude terrorist organization and, in the case of Idlib, given its proximity and connection to Turkey, Russia asked Turkey to dissolve or liquidate HTS. Turkey failed to do so, choosing instead to prioritize fighting Kurdish armed groups over fighting HTS and its affiliates. That development initiated a series of other events leading to the current situation. 
 
First, the Syrian government and its allies determined that Turkey has failed to deal with terrorist organizations in Idlib. The government, aided with Russian air force and allied troops, launched a multi-front offensive from the eastern regions under its control and appears to be moving westward. Today, the Syrian government announced full control of Abu Duhu airbase, a large strategic military facility, nearly 16 km2 at the intersection of three key provinces—Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo, that can be used to launch future operations deeper into all three provinces. 
 
Turkey moved troops to some points in Syria and began a military campaign against the Kurds in Afrin. Meanwhile, the US shifted its support to Kurds from assistance to defeat ISIS to training and equipping a permanent military force that it called border control units, which angered the Turkish government and raised some questions about the legality of US presence in Syria without clear UNSC or government authorization. 
 
The Syrian government’s long term strategy is now revealed by its actions on the ground. It appears to involve military campaign to clear internal regions and relocate the diehard armed groups to Idlib with the intent to ultimately force them into Hatay province. Once there, they will be Turkey’s problem to deal with them on its own or enter into an agreement with the Syrian government to settle the border dispute and accommodate the people living therein. That is an impressive long-term strategy, unlike Turkey’s, involving trusted, reliable regional and international allies. 
 
Turkey on the other hand, did not seem to have had a long-term strategy. That fact can be deduced from its erratic alliances. First it joined the anti-Assad coalition led by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and several EU states. Then it joined the anti-ISIS coalition led by the US. Finally, it turned to Russia and Iran. But in the end, and with its Afrin operation, Turkey finds itself alone. Turkey, now, must deal with the ramifications of a crisis that it helped create but failed to control its outcome. Syria, on the other hand, may end up regaining control over disputed border territory or use it to settle its undesirables and all foreign fighters who came to support them. A Hatay province under Turkish control but full of diehard zealots will continue to be a threat to Turkish security and stability–in fact, more so than the imagined or real Kurdish threat.

 
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated. For more information, please visit: http://www.ahmedsouaiaia.com

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Deir al-Zour is the end of the road in Syria for both, US and Russia, will they collide or reverse course?

Deir al-Zour is the end of the road in Syria for both, US and Russia, will they collide or reverse course?

By Abdel Bari Atwan
US-backed SDF (yellow) are now face to face with Russia-backed SAA (red)
For the first time since the Syrian crisis began some seven years ago, there is a growing prospect of a military collision taking place between Russia and the United States over the oil and gas fields in and around Deir az-Zour. The US wants these wells to fall into the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) so they can be used to sustain a future Kurdish enclave or state in northern Syria. Russia wants them to revert to the sovereignty of the Syrian state so their revenues can help fund the country’s reconstruction.


On Sunday, the Russian defence ministry held the US responsible for the deaths of senior military advisor Lt.-Gen. Valery Asopov and two colonels who were accompanying him who were killed when their position was shelled by Islamic State (IS) forces in the village of Marat east of the Euphrates River. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described the deaths as ‘the bloody price for two-faced American policy in Syria,’ adding that ‘the American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of IS … but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington.’ The accusation was unprecedented, and led to a sharp rise in tension between the two sides.

The village was the first site to be recaptured by Syrian government forces east of the Euphrates, and was being used as a base from which to control Deir az-Zour and retake the oil and gas fields to its east.
The more damning accusation, in the view of many observers, is Russia’s claim to  have evidence supported by photographs of collusion between US forces backing the SDF and IS east of the Euphrates. It also accuses the Americans of being behind the major assault launched last week by Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) from Idlib governorate, which they control, against government positions in Hama, aimed at slowing the eastward advance of Syrian and Russian forces towards Deir az-Zour and the oilfields.
On Tuesday, Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Moscow was still awaiting replies from Washington to questions about ‘whom US Special Forces in Syria are fighting with and against’. He referred to images of former IS positions that had been taken by American Special Forces that showed no sign of fighting or aerial bombardment having taken place, and which lacked the protective defences that would normally be expected, implying collusion between the two sides.
The US has had nothing to say about these charges, or about allegations by Iranian commanders that the US held back from fighting IS in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
One of the triggers of the Syrian crisis was that the government in Damascus turned down proposals to build a pipeline through Syria to carry Qatari gas to Europe. It did so partly at the request of Russia, which feared that the project was aimed at  under-cutting its own gas exports to Europe. Now another ‘oil war’ seems to be looming in the east of the country.
This poses a serious question: Is the ‘war on terror’ declared by the US a mere façade, or are Russia’s accusations of US collusion with IS and al-Qaeda off the mark? And when did this alleged collusion begin, at the outset of the crisis or just in the past year? We cannot offer answers at present. The American side has not presented evidence to disprove the Russian claims. But no evidence is needed of the US’s strong backing for the Kurdish SDF as it fights to secure control of al-Raqqa and the Deir az-Zour oilfields, and takes steps toward establishing a Kurdish state in northern Syria by holding municipal elections to be followed by parliamentary polls.
Russia can be expected to exact revenge for the killing of its commander and two colonels, as it did by launching airstrikes targeting Nusra Front commanders in Idlib in retaliation for an earlier attack on its troops. This could result in US forces on Syrian soil coming under Russian attack, potentially sparking the fuse of a confrontation.
The next big crisis brewing in the region may not stem from this week’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, but from growing tensions between the US and Russia – though Washington’s ambiguous attitude to that referendum, and to Syrian Kurdish separatist plans, is inextricably related to that tension.
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* SAA = Syrian Arab Army

Was Astana Meeting on Syria a Success? Consider the reaction on the ground in Syria

Was Astana Meeting on Syria a Success? Consider the reaction on the ground in Syria

Analysis: Was Astana Meeting on Syria a Success? 
Leader of the new faction created by Nusra: Abu Jabir al-Sheikh
In past, when the U.S. administration and the Russian government attempted to solve the Syrian crisis, their efforts collapsed because they failed to reach an agreement on identifying and separating terrorist groups from non-terrorist groups, or groups that are willing to negotiate a political settlement from those who don’t. Then, after a single meeting held in Astana, which was convened by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, armed groups in northern Syria appear to be separating themselves along those lines. If that process continues, the Astana meeting would have achieved what many meetings have failed to do.

Even before the end of the Astana meeting, which was attended by representatives of about ten armed groups in Syria, the powerful group formerly known as al-Nusra, launched a preemptive war against the groups that took part in the meeting. Nusra accused them of signing on a deal that will isolate Nusra and label it as a terrorist organization, which will allow forces of the various coalitions operating in Syria to attack it. 
Seeking protections from Nusra, smaller armed groups quickly moved to join stronger Islamist groups. According to Ahrar al-Sham, on Thursday alone, six rebel factions, including Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, joined its ranks.

Ahrar al-Sham, which presents itself as a mainstream Sunni Islamist group, sided with the FSA groups and said Nusra had rejected mediation attempts. It said that any attack on its new members will be tantamount to a “declaration of war.”

The groups that joined Ahrar al-Sham are: Alwiyat Suqur al-Sham, Fastaqim kama unmirt, Jaysh al-Islam–Idlib branch, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya–west Aleppo branch.

Ahrar al-Sham is considered a terrorist group by Moscow and did not attend the Russian-backed Astana meeting. But it said it would support FSA factions that took part if they secured a favorable outcome for the opposition.
    

These steps taken by Ahrar al-Sham created an internal crisis for the group. A number of its leading figures resigned and there were reports that some factions within the group left and joined Nusra. 
On Friday, and underscoring the titanic shift that took place after the Astana meeting and other developments around the world, Nusra, which had changed its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham, announced that it is dissolving itself and merging with four other armed groups to form a new faction calling itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. This new coalition consists of Nour Eddine Zenki Movement, Liwa al-Haq, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunna. They called on other armed groups to join them.
These events are extraordinary. Some have criticized the Syrian government for accepting settlements with armed groups and allowing their fighters to move to Idlib. It seems that Assad’s government has had a long term strategy after all. With the infighting that is going to start soon that now new alliances are formed among the rebels, his forces may not have to fight these armed groups. They will battle each other to near extinction, given their propensity to see an enemy in every one who disagrees with them. The Syrian government will then move in and retake the province form the exhausted survivors without major losses.


Why does the U.S. administration want its agreement with Russia on Syria to remain secret?

Why does the U.S. administration want its agreement with Russia on Syria to remain secret?

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) scheduled a meeting this week to create a legal frame for the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria. The meeting was eventually cancelled when France and several other permanent members of the UNSC asked for a copy of the actual agreement instead of being briefed about it by the two countries representatives. Russia agreed with France and expressed readiness to make public the agreement reasoning that they can’t expect their partners to endorse a deal they don’t know its details. After the cancellation of the meeting, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said:
 

“Most likely we are not going to have a resolution at the Security Council because the United States does not want to share those documents with the members of the Security Council. We believe we cannot ask them to support a document that they haven’t seen.”

The U.S. administration refused to make public all the documents contending that doing so could put some lives at risk and jeopardize the success of the plan since it contains sensitive “operational details.” 
 
In any case, the Obama administration finds itself in a very delicate situation. The main sticky point that delayed the agreement with the Russian government was related to Russia’s insistence that the U.S. and its allies identify and separate the so-called “moderate” rebels from terrorists so that a political solution can be negotiated. Ostensibly, the U.S. administration eventually agreed to do so and its military and intelligence officials have provided their Russian counterparts with a list of names, without indicating their locations. 
It is likely that the named groups are members of the loose collective called the Free Syrian Army—FSA—which, in reality, was mostly crushed by al-Nusra and ISIL about three years ago. What is left of the FSA is either isolated in and/or near Turkey (and Jordan) and the rest are mingling with al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Fath. Those still mingling with Jaysh al-Fath released a statement criticizing the agreement and rejecting the part of the agreement that calls for joint U.S.-Russian military action against Jabhat Fath al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. They considered al-Nusra a legitimate rebel group. 
The FSA currently consists of these armed groups:
 

Faylaq al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, al-Firqa al-Shamaliyya, Jaysh al-Nasr, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zanki, al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad al-sham, al-Jabha al-Shamiyya, Jaysh al-Tahrir, al-Fawj al-Awwal, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Safwa al-Islamiyya, Liwa’ Suqur Jabal al-Zawiya, al-Firqa 101, al-Firqa 13, al-Firqa al-Wusta, Liwa al-Hurriya al-Islami, Jabhat al-Asala wa-‘l-Tanmiya, Failaq Hims, Liwa’ al-Fath, Tajammu’ Fastaqim kama Umirt, and Jund Badr 313.

 
Nearly half of the above mentioned groups are also members of other coalitions, some of which include al-Qaeda affiliated Salafists, like Fath al-Sham and Jaysh al-Fath. These complex networks and affiliations underscore the administration’s real dilemma.

The U.S. administration is reluctant because, one the one hand, revealing actual names and locations of groups it supports would make it easy for terrorist groups to accuse them of collaboration with the “crusaders” and kill them, as they did with many individuals and groups in the past. On the other hand, revealing the actual names could expose the U.S. administration’s support for groups that might have committed war crimes, such as the case with al-Zanki, whose members self-documented themselves slaughtering a sick child near Aleppo not long ago (just this July).

 
Given the  atrocities committed by many of rebel groups, affiliated with the FSA, the U.S. administration prefers to leave its connections to groups that might be found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity secret to preserve deniability. However, the inking of the agreement with Russia made that task utterly difficult and the administration will be better served breaking any ties with groups suspected of committing crimes and working towards a solution that will stop the bloodshed and punish those responsible for some of the most gruesome crimes on both sides.
 

Will Jabhat Fath al-Sham (aka al-Nusra), Jaysh al-Fath, and ISIL join forces?

Will Jabhat Fath al-Sham (aka al-Nusra), Jaysh al-Fath, and ISIL join forces?

With a Russian-U.S. agreement intended to isolate them from the so-called moderate opposition groups, Salafist fighters could end up joining forces to survive in Syria and Iraq. This scenario is made possible by a religious decree issued by the foremost religious guide for Salafists, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The latter just issued a fatwa declaring the Turkish army and all opposition groups supported by Turkey “murtadd.”This declaration practically authorizes Salafist fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda and its derivatives to fight the Turkish government and rebel groups it supports.

It should be noted that al-Maqdisi intervened to keep peace between ISIL and al-Nusra and when that attempt failed he sided with al-Nusra. With both groups now being targeted by Turkey, Russia, U.S., non-Salafist rebels, and the Syrian government, Salafists may be forced to reunite again to spread the conflict zones and cause the cease-fire regime to which the U.S. and Russia has just agreed to fail. This unification option has been in the making since the U.S. and Russia began to talk early this year. Salafist leaders wanted to create a Sunni army  out of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Istaqim kama umirt, and Jaysh al-Islam and other smaller groups affiliated with these armies.

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