Last week we already foreshadowed that there are big changes on horizon for Syria. And then came the last, so far 17th round of the Astana – be now even the name of the city was changed to Nursultan – negations. For a while it seemed, though the preparations were clearly big from all sides, that things will end like in the famous maxim of Louis de Funes’s film, the Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob: “You promise everything, and I shall keep nothing.” So far, especially from Turkey’s side, that was the nature of the agreements’s implementation. After all, it has been almost a year since Sochi and Turkey not only did not managed to stop the terrorists from incursions from Idlib, but in a number of occasions even supplied arms to them.
In the last couple of months the Syrian Army moved to liberate Idlib, which was halted for some reason, and then since late July it agains started operations all around the so called de-escalation zone. Only to be stopped again for the Astana talks last weekend. Which again reaffirmed the previous stance and guaranteed a ceasefire. That undeniable caused some bitter reactions in Syria as it seemed the terrorists in Idlib were once again saved from a military showdown by a swift agreement. Or in other words the great powers once again agreed on the expense of Syria.
This time, however, there is something noticeably different. The delegations barely arrived home when the settlement has already fallen apart. Al-Ğulānī from the an-Nuṣra – by now rebranded as Hay’at Taḥrīr aš-Šām, Organization for Syria’s Liberation – was the first to announce that it shall not adhere to any agreement. Ironically, he shouldn’t have been included in any sense of the agreement, since Sochi – like all previous accords – clearly excluded terrorist organization, and it is hard to find any clearer example for that than al-Ğulānī’s band. On 4 August 2019 yet another attack was made on the Russian base in Ḥamaymīm, and shortly after several others on the Syrian Army. The Syrian leadership immediately withdrew from the ceasefire and on 6 August new operations were promised by the infamous Tiger corps. Only a day before Ankara announced that shortly new operations will be started into Eastern-Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), practically the PKK. At the same time, on the night of 5 August the US moved in massive supplies to SDF from Iraq at al-Qāmišlī. Suddenly everything is on the move, amidst very curious Russian silence. Interestingly all those now started to make fresh moves did not threaten the other, as if everyone is busy to finish off someone else. Surely there are big preparations behind the scenes. But in this huge chessboard the main question is not military, but tactical. Who can outsmart whom?
We still have little intel what really happened in Astana, therefore we have to judge the meeting on the aftermath. As we saw last week the Syrian state already laid the ground for a new reality in Idlib and went to Astana as either a satisfying settlement will be reached with the removal of most terrorist forces and a step toward the pacification of the province, or army will forcefully retake all occupied areas. Even if that means a confrontation with Turkey. That, however, is definitely something Moscow tries to evade now, as it lures Ankara ever closer to its sphere of influence. After Astana all parties were silent, only noting that the previous deal was renewed, but there was an tangible frustration from the Syrian side that after great preparations the army’s operation was only halted by the big powers. That could already foreshadow that the settlement is very fragile and might not last long.
Whatever the side indeed agreed upon collapsed almost immediately, but it was still not the Syrian government to scrap the deal. Only few hours after the announcement of the renewed ceasefire, on 2 August the well-known Saudi terrorist, ‘Abd Allah al-Muḥaysanī issued a video interview. That was most important for the terrorist factions, since this infamous terrorist was rumored to be dead or severely injured only a few weeks before, so he not only wanted to prove that he is alive, but also that he is still in control. The rather lengthy interview is puzzling, since he gave the picture that not only they are in perfect conditions, but the Russians asked a ceasefire from them as they failed in all their operations. He completely mitigated the results by the Syrian Army as only temporal setbacks, and that their happiness for liberating some villages, which he considers insignificant, is for him a clear sign of military weakness. He affirmed that not only Sochi is invalid, but all other ceasefires, and thought they adhered to them, it was the Syrian Army, which broke the deal, therefore the war in going on. In other words, now Astana changes nothing, and he put all the blame on the other side. On 5 August the more infamous terrorist, al-Ğūlānī held a “press conference” to a number of net tv channels, all operating from Turkey or the terrorist held areas, and in that al-Ğūlānī repeated his al-Muḥaysinī’s points, as they are in perfect conditions and thought the ceasefire was and is invalid, all blame is on the Syrian side, which only tried to achieve a ceasefire to save its weakened positions.
This behavior is somewhat puzzling, since we saw last week that the Syrian Army managed to score significant victories, gained control of a number of strategic positions and laid the ground for a major operation. And here we still not mention that there were not one day these terrorist groups would not shell the villages around the demilitarized zone, but that sort of double standard was consistent throughout the war, completely denying their actions, but any hit by the Syrian Army considered as massacre should be avenged. Now, to prove their point, on 5 August they attacked the Russian airbase once again. It might be hard to understand that in such a dire situation why are they refusing the ceasefire and try their best to provoke a renewed confrontation. In that we should not forget that these factions rely heavily on their capabilities to attract financial and human support in fighters via the media by proving themself strong and capable. After the severe losses last week, and that the Russian and Syrian air forces hit their command posts they have to should results. Otherwise the support for they would dwindle.
Also, they are aware that a major operation is imminent and they are frustrated that they were not included even in a indirect way in the Astana talks. Therefore they suspect that the Turks might double crossed them. In that sense the only way to reinforce their shaking positions is to prove that they still can operate on their on. Having failed to do that fighters might start to desert or resort to local deals with the army and put down their arms.
On the other side, however, that Syrian Army just got the perfect excuse to carry on where they left off. On the 5 August the Syrian Army announced that the ceasefire collapsed, which it announced on 1 August, and put all the blame on Turkey this time, as it is not holding itself to its vows and proved incapable to prevent breaches by the terrorist factions. From Damascus’s point of view that message is clear. It will take the hard way. From tactical and political sense, it took all the possible steps to achieve a more subtle way for the liberation of Idlib, but now the ground is ready and political mediation was given a chance, this is the ideal time to enforce a new reality. Since 5 August it capitalized successfully on the gains of last week and constantly pushing in a slow, but steady past as the terrorists’ lines are collapsing. It is still early to judge, but it seems this is still not a major strike, like around the capital or in the south last year, but much rather a slow push. Securing every taken point, but at the same time squeezing the militants to either flee or go to other areas. That strategy, however, has a significant political edge to it.
Here we should notice the Russian silence, almost as if they were not present on the ground. In one hand it shows that it approves the Syrian operation as it is viewed necessary, but on the other does not want to antagonize relations with Ankara with heavy accusations. Again the statements of Robert Ford discusses last week are significant, since they show that Washington was well aware of an imminent operation in Idlib and there was a sort offer by it to Moscow, as the US would approve the liberation of Idlib in exchange for the East. That, however, would have left Ankara in a very uncomfortable position losing ground in Idlib, taking all the blame in Astana, eventually having to deal with all the fighters retreating from Idlib and not gaining anything in exchange as the spoil of war would be taken by the Americans. That does not mean that Moscow would have accepted the offer – if indeed it was understood this way – and certainly the Damascus would have not, but Turkey measured the consequences even on a temporal basis. And that prompted action.
Turkey steps in
Ankara practically had nothing to say about Astana, and even about the collapse of the ceasefire and chose not to react to Damascus. Instead, seeing where thing are heading, Erdoğan on 4 August announced a new operation to Eastern Syria from ‘Ifrīn. So even before the ceasefire collapsed, which is very telling about what conclusions the Turkish leadership drew from Astana. This explains their silence. The limits of this new operation was not discussed. Not the size of the forces planed to include, nor the depth of the thrust, not what would happen if they confronted American troops on the ground – not to mention other allied forces -, only the clear frustration with the American behavior and the intention to crush the Kurdish buildup. As we shall see, the Americans were already on the move and they were not caught be surprise, but here the intentions are the really important factors. What does Ankara try to achieve here, and why now? Since Erdoğan first presented this vision of his almost a year ago, and was hinting some move in this fashion even since the ‘Ifrīn operation two years ago.
The idea here is not hard to decipher. As Idlib’s fall might be imminent, after which talks will inevitably turn to northern Aleppo, and at the same time the Americans might dig in, the prospect is that Turkey will end up with no influence in Syria, millions of Syrian migrants on its soil with no way to get rid of them in the long run, an effectively ending the long adventure in Syria with no gains at all. Meaning that after a long gamble Erdoğan might have settle with Damascus and with no influence at the end in the peace negotiations. Now, with some shameful losses in the last local elections the Turkish President desperately needs results and to turn public attention away from the Syrian folder now turning bitter. That is exactly where this planned new invasion fit in, and from these political considerations it is clear to say why no details were presented. They are not needed. In one hand this way Turkey can signal both to Russia and the US that it still has influence, it cannot be sidelined and if the two major powers think they can deal with each other without Ankara they must think again. In this sense, now bargaining heavily with both size, buying weapons from Russia, and also demanding the stop of Washington’s economic war on Turkey and continuation of military cooperation, Ankara now raises the stakes. But of course, it is ready for any face saving settlement, which can salvage some gains, and can be presented as victory domestically.
The other part of the idea is also triggered mostly by domestic concerns. The officially two, presumably as many as four million Syrian refugees now slowly integrating to Turkey’s everyday life started to cause major irritation in many cities. Now with moving into Eastern Syria Turkey can possible carve out a more substantial land mass than ‘Ifrīn, firmly under its control, to where it can drop most of these Syrians. Setting up local councils, school – like in ‘Ifrīn and Idlib, where local population is altered to a more Turkish fashion – it can set up a pseudo-autonomy, where migrants and fighters pushed out of Idlib can be settled. That would relieve Turkey from most of the burden and the result can be presented at home as some sort of victory. Also, if a major military push is made into Eastern Syria, here most of the fighters fleeing from Idlib can be redeployed. From Ankara’s point of view this is a win-win situation, since the so far patronized terrorists and SDF Kurds can finish off each other and the winner is almost insignificant. So the main idea is not to annex Syrian lands in a classic colonialist fashion, but to create an area, where Syrians can be settled, and still having enough influence to secure a word at the final Syrian solution.
There are a number of positive and negative prospects in this scenario from Damascus’s point of view, and that is why, while renouncing the clear Turkish aggression, it has so far refrained to do much against it. In one hand Syrians are worried that Turkey want to change the ethnic composure of these areas, like it is going on in Idlib and ‘Ifrīn, and eventually annex it, like it did with Syrian Iskenderun in 1938. Though this possibility cannot be excluded, it is probably not what is Erdoğan up to. If only the northern border area would be annexed, that has little economic value and the rehabilitation would consume huge funds, which now the Turkish economy simply cannot handle. The southern part of Eastern Syria is more lucrative as it has oil, but that is hard to take away from the American and Israeli control already present, and since there is oil around Cyprus, that is not so urgent for Turkey now. That is well kept in mind in Damascus and that is why Syrians while being suspicious, annexation is not the biggest worry for them. Ankara dumping millions of poor refugees to the north, which in time will be a rehabilitation problem. That is a bigger concern, but now there is not much Damascus can do about this and so far rehabilitation worked well in all other areas. On the other hand this Turkish operation might not be completely negative for Damascus. It is a major gain if terrorists would be deployed here against the SDF, since this way they would be disposed of with no blame falling on the Syrian government. Also, if the Turks, either by their terrorists or by their on forces crush the SDF forces, they might just weaken them enough to make them understand they cannot count on the Americans for protection. After all, while it is easy for Washington to stand ground against the Syrian Army or even the Russians, the evaluation is very different against the second most powerful NATO member. Consequently the Kurds might eventually resort to ask help from Damascus, like it happened in ‘Ifrīn, and liberate great territories without any bloodshed. If the Turks prove resolute enough, they might just accelerate the American pullback, regaining some parts of the East easily, while leaving the Turks in the north. And here there is a major difference between the American and the Turkish aggression. While the Turks in a number of settlement affirmed Syria’s full territorial integrity with not reservations on its future government, the American never did that and openly talk about Kurdish autonomy here. Meaning partition. Therefore in the long run, while it is far from ideal, Turkish control is still preferable than the American.
Simply put, now Damascus sits and waits, and hopes that Ankara might push out he Americans and crush the Kurds, therefore regaining vast territories with minimal effort. This way the Turks would do the job they and the Russians now cannot really do, and in the meantime big numbers of terrorist and Kurdish militants can be eliminated.
The American reaction
As indicated before, the statements of Robert Ford indicate that Washington expected a major change in Idlib and wished to brace its eastern positions even before that. The Turkish idea of a new offensive might caught them by surprise, but considering this is not a totally new project, surely they counted with this eventuality. On the night of 5 August the Americans sent in 200 trucks of supplies to al-Qāmišlī from Iraq, as well as new troops to brace SDF before a possible Turkish strike. That perfectly shows that regardless of Trump’s promises last December, the Americans do plan to continue their occupation for long. The main intention, however, was not to stop Turkey as Washington knows it can reach a settlement with it, while if a major offensive does take place there is not much it can do against it. The main point was to send a message to the Kurds not to seek refuge at Damascus, as Washington can still protect them. This way its own and the Israeli possessions on the Syrian oil can be secured and the economic war against Damascus can still be carried on.
There are indications, however, that now the Kurds heavily bargain on both sides to secure the biggest possible gains after the war. For them, the best would be a wide, Iraq-style autonomy under American guidance, especially that by the ethnic composure they have no chance to secure such gain on their own. The second best option is to reach a deal with Damascus salvaging some parts of their influence. Though this would be limited, but more secure not being dependent on an outer protector. The worst is to stand against the Turkish Army, after which in time they would end up under Damascus’s control in the long run, but by then with no means of bargaining.
And the Turks cut a deal
For days guesses swung back and forth whether there would be a Turkish-American showdown in Syria, which in the meantime the Syrian Army can accelerate the Idlib operation. Yet on 8 August Turkey cut a deal with the Americans. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in presence of the American diplomats held a press conference, and announced the sides agreed to create a safe zone, a separating corridor along the Syrian-Turkish border, to where Syrian refugees could return. In other words, where Turkey can resettle Syrian migrants.
That might seem to be a major blow for the expectations in Syrian leadership, but once again the silence from Damascus, and even more from Moscow is more telling then the heated statements. Not all is so bright in the Turkish-American deal, and not all is so grim for Damascus. Since practically there are no specifics around this agreement, only a general idea, and we all know the devil dwells in the details.
First of all, it is still not known, how big this area will be and where will be its borders. Will it extend to areas where the Syrian Army is still standing, like al-Qāmišlī? Secondly, it is still unknown what sort of forces will take charge of security in this zone. Will it mean Turkish control? Can Turkey deploy its terrorist affiliate here? Will there a joint patrol? All possibilities are hotbed for further disputes. Baring in mind how Turkish controlled terrorists behaved in Idlib, it is hard to imagine they would be any less problematic here. Not to mention the burden of American patrols together with an-Nuṣra groups, while their pretext for staying here s to fight terrorism. Finally the most doubtful point is that it does not clear whether this will cancel the Turkish operation, or that would happen to create this zone. And if the zone is created by Turkish force without the borders of the zone are drawn, where will Turkish troops stop?
The stakes rising
Conveniently, right at the day of the deal Pompeo announced that new security reports suggest Dā‘iš is about to re-emerge in Syria. And that is why the US is reinforcing it presence instead of finally ending its illegal aggression. Now considering there is no indication that Dā‘iš would indeed be on the rise in Eastern Syria that is a very foolish excuse. The American-SDF forces and in control in this area for almost two years now. So now if we compare the situation between these and the government held areas, if Dā‘iš was indeed re-emerging that would prove that the Syrian government is not only the legal power to take control, but it is also much more efficient. After all, where ever the Syrian Army reestablished its control Dā‘iš disappeared completely, except is some occasions, when it attacked from areas under American control. Like it happened in Palmyra, of a year ago in as-Suwaydā’.
It is very noticeable that the new Turkish-American deal did not solve the matter, only prolonged the confrontation. Suddenly the number of articles about possible extended Turkish occupation in Syria surged, and many of these openly put Turkey in the aggressors’ light, conveniently forgetting that the US is steeling Syrian oil and that the deal only delayed a confrontation, but did not solve the problem. That shows the frustration of Washington.
So far not much is clear how this projected separation zone would manifest and function. The undoubtedly negative side of it that is prolongs the suffering of Syrians in the area, and by its economic effects, what the American occupation inflict on Syrians all over the country. But the positive side of the events that finally Idlib is about to be liberated. If it happens relatively fast that will give hope in other areas as well, and will change the equation between Moscow, Damascus, Ankara and Washington over Eastern Syria. But seeing the events of only this one week, how turbulent that was, until than much can change.