The latest development in northern Syria

September 07, 2016

By Aram Mirzaei

With Multiple interventions and multiple offensives, the situation in northern Syria is messy to say the least. There are several frontlines with different parties struggling for the same piece of territory.

Two weeks ago, the Turkish army made an intrusion into the northern Aleppo countryside, in the small ISIL controlled border town of Jarabulus. The so called “Euphrates Shield Operation” offensive was aimed at creating a new Islamist rebel pocket in northern Syria, in addition to the Azaz pocket in the northwestern parts of the Aleppo province. Furthermore, the offensive was not only aimed at expelling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from the Turkish-Syrian border area, but also to stop the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” from connecting the Afrin Canton with the rest of their territory in northeastern Syria.

When the Kurdish YPG led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) captured the ISIL stronghold of Manbij last month, speculations arose as to what their next target would be. It would seem that the SDF had set its sights on the imperative border town of Jarabulus, situated north of Manbij in an effort to cut ISIL off from the Turkish border, thus isolating them further. This prospect would also give the SDF control of a second border crossing to Turkey, something which alarmed the Turkish AKP government as they have continuously opposed the formation of a Kurdish federative state on its southern borders. It is noteworthy that Turkey considers the YPG to be terrorists since they have connections to the terrorist designated Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

In response to those advances, the Turkish Armed Forces initiated the “Euphrates Shield” offensive, entering Jarabulus with tanks along with the so called “Free Syrian Army” and several Islamist proxy groups, most notably Harakat Noureddin Al Zinki and Harakat Ahrar Al-Sham in order to both push back ISIL out of Jarabulus and to deter the SDF from advancing any further north. The Turkish backed Islamist rebels met little to no resistance when they entered and captured Jarabulus and its surrounding villages, whilst Turkish artillery began shelling SDF positions almost immediately in order to pave the way for Islamist militants to advance southwards. They attacked the SDF on several occasions, thus creating a three-way battle between the SDF, Islamist militants and ISIL.

The Turkish incursion also received the backing of US Vice President Joe Biden who warned the SDF to retreat back to their positions east of the Euphrates river, and threatening to withdraw US support to SDF if they did not comply. [1]

Meanwhile, the Turkish-backed Islamist militants in the Azaz pocket in northwestern Aleppo began to move eastwards in an effort to connect the Azaz pocket and the newly established Jarabulus pocket, this prospect became a reality a few days ago when ISIL was fully removed from the Turkish-Syrian border area.

The Russian-Iranian-Syrian reaction to this Turkish incursion has been very silent with only minor expressions of dissatisfaction coming from Damascus and Tehran, while Moscow has been rather silent.

The Iranian media has been rather critical of the Turkish invasion with PressTV notably pointing out that Turkey has invaded Syria and that it still supports and arms Takfiri militants in the country. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi sounded a bit skeptical on Aug 31 when he highlighted that fighting terrorism cannot be used to justify the violation of territorial integrity and disregard of the sovereignty of another country, adding that “the Turkish Army should immediately stop its military operations there. [2]

The Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim also condemned the Turkish Army’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, emphasizing that they did not have the permission to enter the country unannounced and without coordination with Damascus. [3]

These are however rather weak responses when one considers the prospect of a similar invasion back in February 2016, with both Syria and Iran threatening to engage any invading force who entered Syria. This coupled with the fact that Russia has remained rather silent gives us a hint that perhaps this incursion was not so unannounced as one would believe. It may seem that Russia could have given Turkey the green light to enter Syria and clear the border area from ISIL, and while both Syria and Iran still view Turkey’s intentions as untrustworthy, they may have been swayed by Russia to at least wait and see what will happen in northern Syria before taking any actions which could lead to a tremendous escalation of the conflict.

It is worthy of notice that just before the Turkish incursion, the Kurdish YPG and their police forces “Asayish” were attacking the Syrian government forces in the city of Al-Hasakah, and despite numerous attempts at a ceasefire by the Syrian government, the Kurdish forces refused and declared their intention to fully claim Al-Hasakah for themselves. This could also explain why Syria and Iran have been neglecting the fact that Turkish forces are attacking the YPG/SDF as well. Indeed both Syria and its allies have previously tried to cooperate with the SDF or at least remain neutral towards them, yet recent events have shown that they answer to Washington rather than taking an independent stance towards the conflict. This was very much clear when the SDF spokesman Talal Silo said in an interview that “in Syria, the Americans forbid us from talking to Russia”. [4]

Whatever may have been said behind closed doors, and whether or not Syria and Iran were aware of the incursion beforehand, this invasion and the establishment of an Islamist corridor in northern Aleppo is of danger to the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance as this would open up a new front against the Syrian Army and its allies in Aleppo. Currently the Islamist militants have only the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing in Idlib to use for resupplying their forces and conduct attacks against the Syrian government positions in Aleppo. Should the Islamist militants push for the ISIL stronghold of Al-Bab which lies directly to the east of Aleppo city, they will be able to attack Aleppo city from both the western and the eastern flanks, which could spell a lot of trouble for the Syrian Army. However, the Turkish backed Islamist militants must first reach Al-Bab before the SDF does, as capturing Al-Bab is also the last hope for the Kurdish led SDF to connect their territory with the Afrin canton to the west. The race for Al-Bab is on.

On a different note and in a different area in the Aleppo province, the Syrian Arab Army conducted a powerful counter-offensive in response to the massive Islamist operation led by Jaysh Al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) to break the siege of Aleppo last month, with the army attacking the imperative Aleppo Artillery base, near the Ramouseh district. This battle went back and forth for almost two weeks before the army managed to break through the collapsing Islamist defences and managed to fully recapture the Artillery base on Sunday night, with huge advances being made the day after due to a total collapse in the Islamist frontlines in the Southwestern Aleppo city area. As a result of the capture of the Artillery base and its surroundings, the siege of Aleppo is once again established with the Russian Defence Ministry declaring that there are 7 corridors open for humanitarian aid and one corridor open for militants who want to surrender their arms. [5]

In the latest development, Iranian IRGC Major-General Qassem Soleimani has been seen in southwestern Aleppo inspecting the Harakat Al-Nujaba forces (Iraqi Paramilitary) stationed there, possibly in preparation for a new pro-government offensive on the town of Khan Touman, which was lost to Islamist militants in a May-June offensive this year.

Below are two maps showing mainly the Turkish-backed advance, with the second map focusing on the army’s advance in southwestern Aleppo city.


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