Ümit Kıvanç: From now on the point of debate will not be Aleppo but Idlib

From now on the point of debate will not be Aleppo but Idlib

During the months of March and April of 2015 something happened that led most of the observers of the Syrian civil war to think that Assad will rapidly loose territory and that the regime would collapse.


Map of the region (Ümit Kıvanç)

In June 2011 the police headquarters in Cisr al-Shugur, which is 20km. to the Turkish border, was raided by the rebels and the bodies of more than one hundred policemen were strewn to the Asi River. The city was besieged for almost four years and in the April 2015 was finally taken over by Jaish al-Fatah. Three kilometers east, In the village of Istebrak, jihadists had massacred Alawite villagers.

The jihadist coalition Jaish al-Fatah had gained considerable advantage by taking control of Cisr al-Shugur after having overrun Idlib in March. They will be able to control the greater part of Aleppo-Latakia highway and cut of the Syrian army’s ties with the Idlib countryside. They were able sustain their dominance in Aleppo for so long due to their absolute military superiority in the province of Idlib. When assistance from the Idlib to the armed groups in East Aleppo was cut off the tide began to turn in favor of the Syrian Army which had the backing of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Idlib turned out to be a very problematic area for the al-Assad regime. Not only due to its effects on Aleppo. For one, Al-Qaida’s Syrian arm the El-Nusra front has enough power here to declare an emirate here against the Islamic State’s caliphate. Secondly, the 80 kilometers of border that the province of Idlib has with Turkey allowed Sadia Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to easily assist any armed group and jihadi organization who was trying to topple the Damascus regime. Jaish al-Fatah was the product of just such joint project.

Indeed, following the takeover of Idlib and Cisr al-Shugur by the jihadi groups, the Syrian Foreign Ministry sent a letter to the United Nations openly incriminating Turkey. The letter stated that “the terrorist groups’ attacks on the cities of Idlib and Cisr al-Shugur were conducted by assistance of the Turkish army’s fire power and logistic support.” The Damascus government declared that they perceive this “as a direct act on Syria by Turkey.” There was no diplomatic outcome from this. The letter did have a clarifying effect.

Jaish al-Fatah, which was in part initiated by Ankara, did aim to pool together the most powerful jihadi groups in Syria. Under the active leadership of Al-Nusra (al-Qaeda), notably Ahrar al-Sham and other local and “Syrian” jihadi organizations banded together in this coalition and took Idlib.

The city of Idlib doesn’t matter to the regime nor to the Syrian economy as much Aleppo or the coastal provinces. But the province to which the city is the capital of has a big and continuing threat potential to the al-Assad regime not only by virtue of bordering Turkey. At the same time this province lies between Aleppo and Latakia. The province where the regime is strongest, Latakia, cannot directly intervene to Aleppo and the east through the shortest possible route due to the “emirate” in between, this makes life for the regime very difficult.

However, especially after Russia’s direct involvement in the war, the al-Assad regime began to employ a tactic that brings rather unpleasant possibilities to mind regarding the future of Idlib. In many parts of the country where armed groups were besieged by the Syrian army, they would first offer a cease fire and then a “safe passage” Those that accepted were pointed in the direction of Idlib. Busses were provided and they carried militants to Idlib from all across the country. We can describe what’s happening like this: The tacticians in Damascus (and Moscow), have lumped as many armed jihadis as they can to Idlib.

It’s obvious that they didn’t gather these people there to stage contests or seminars. In fact, in the final stages of the battle for Aleppo the alliance of besieged jihadi groups issued a declaration stating that they could vacate the city but that they did not want to go to Idlib and that they could go north. These demands were not met so they went to Idlib.

And henceforth joined the ranks of Jaish al-Fatah who will probably shortly face heavy bombardments. The exact number of fighters at this time is not known but it would not be surprised if it were to be pronounced as several tens of thousands.

Idlib is expected to turn into hell on earth due to heavy bombings in the near future. The fighters in this area will probably be driven north and northeast by the Russia-Iran-Hezbollah supported Syrian army. Since the Kurdish Canton of Afrin is situated due north, the flow of fighters is expected to head due northeast. Well, that northeast is Turkey!

In contrast with the possibility that al-Assad may yet get his country back, Ankara too has plans for these fighters amassed in Idlib. According to some, the government intends bring these fighters through the border, move them north inside of Turkey and after they have been chipped over Afrin reintroduce them to Syria in the areas controlled by Operation Euphrates Shield. The operation whose objective is to prevent the Kurds from conjoining their cantons can no longer be thought together with the malicious intent of meddling with Aleppo. From Ankara’s perspective, “Aleppo is gone.” It is no longer possible for Ankara to do things that would oppose Russia, and therefore Assad. The jihadists of Idlib cannot entertain any visions of Aleppo either.

Then what is Ankara to do with these jihadists who are on the run from Russia’s wrath? Will it try to have them attack the Kurds? Will al-Assad –and Putin- allow such a battle where the jihadists will suffer heavy casualties and be exhausted in order to wear down the Kurds as well and curb their enthusiasm for autonomy? Perhaps, because it will be a reciprocal exhaustion of the strongest of the opposition.

However, it is unfortunately impossible to tackle this situation solely in light of what going to happen within Syria. Because thousands of jihadists who have been sold out by Ankara in Aleppo have their fates’ tied to it and are now manipulated to further Ankara’s agenda yet again. Won’t these organizations that have numerous elements in Turkey that can move freely, who have supporters and protectors in Turkey somehow create problems for the Turkish society? We are talking about jihadists who have nothing to do but fight, jihadists who have already entered the struggle for dominance in the provinces or in various small circles, who have already reached the headquarters of each other, killed their men and stolen their weapons.

Aleppo is a historical, symbolic city whose fame transcends borders. The eyes of the world were on Aleppo and despite that, the Damascus regime, under the guidance of Russia, leveled the city and reached its objective. What is generally conducted is urban warfare with very little regard for civilian loss of life and human tragedy. It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of battle that will rage in an “emirate” area where thousands of jihadis were amassed on purpose. Probably a lot of blood will be spilled and there will be “sweeping” operations with intensive bombings. And many of Ankara’s crony jihadists will be knocking on its doors.

This is the likely outcome.

Ümit Kıvanç

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