Erdogan’s Long-Coming Reality Check:

February 14, 2020

by Ghassan Kadi for The Saker Blog

It is hard to say if Erdogan is running out of choices, friends, time, or all of the above; and his stands on various issues and the contradictions he ploughs through are making his situation increasingly untenable.

For the benefit of readers who haven’t heard this before; Erdogan is juggling being a Turkish Muslim reformer who parades under the photos of Turkish secular anti-Muslim nation-builder Mustafa Kemal; an EU-aspiring member and also an aspiring global Sunni leader; an ally of Israel as well as Hamas; an Islamist who is also at odds with the Wahhabi Islamists; a nationalist Turk who wants to curb Kurdish aspirations not only in Syria and Iraq but also in Turkey; a Sunni leader who wants to restore the Sultanate and Caliphate and the fundamentalist Sunni version of anti-Shiite Islam but is also a friend of Shiite Iran; a NATO member with a special relationship with America, and a special friend and ally of Russia.

Ironically, despite all the contradictions and conflicts of interest, he has thus far managed to get away with wearing not only all those hats, but also turbans and fezzes in between. Clearly however, this maneuvering cannot last forever and, sooner or later, he is going to end up painted into a tight corner. I certainly would like to believe that he is already in this space.

Erdogan however believes that he has a mandate from God. Following his November 2015 election win, in an article titled “Erdogan the Trojan Horse of Terror” (https://thesaker.is/erdogan-the-trojan-horse-of-terror/), I wrote: “With this win, Erdogan felt invincible. For an Islamist, and this is what Erdogan is, feeling invincible takes on a whole new meaning.

This is a simplistic translation of a Quranic verse: “If God is by your side, no one can defeat you” (Quran 3:160).

Erdogan believes he is invincible because he believes that he is on a mission and that God is by his side. If he had any reason to doubt this divine role he believes he has, the November election results put that doubt to rest.”

Ironically, Erdogan is able to comprehend the contradictions of others. Whilst America for example does not give two hoots about the Syrian Kurds and is only using some vulnerable leaders to dig a wedge between the Syrian Government and the Syrian Kurdish population, Erdogan has most vehemently stated to both the Obama and Trump administrations that America cannot be an ally of Turkey and the Kurds at the same time.

Yet, this same Erdogan justifies for himself the supplying of Idlib terrorists with state-of-the-art weaponry to attack not only Syrian Army units with, but also the Russian Hmeimim Air Base. The Russians have thus far thwarted countless attempted drone attacks on the base, and if Turkey did not directly supply the weapons, it definitely facilitated their transport.

Remember that the Idlib area that is controlled by Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as Al-Nusra) lies between the Syrian-Army controlled area and the Turkish border. It has an open highway to Turkey where all arms and fighters move freely from Turkey into Syria.

And even though Erdogan has signed an agreement with Russia to end the terrorist presence in Idlib, according to veteran Palestinian journalist Abdul Bari Atwan, he does not want to understand why Russia is fed up with him and his antics and why President Putin is refusing to meet with him. In his article written in Raialyoum https://www.raialyoum.com/index.php/لماذا-يرفض-بوتين-لقاء-قمة-مع-اردوغان-لح/, Atwan argues that the Russians refuse Erdogan’s call for a new disengagement negotiation meeting and that Turkey must adhere to the existing Sochi agreement; which it has broken on several occasions by Erdogan.

Atwan adds that:

Firstly: “the Turkish gamble and reliance on Syrian opposition and the Free Syria Army in particular have failed because those forces abandoned their positions and the Syrian Army entered the towns of Khan Sheikhoun and Maarra Al-Numan unopposed without suffering a single casualty

Secondly: The 12 Turkish surveillance posts that were established in the Idlib district have turned into a liability because seven of them are under siege by the Syrian Army with a hundred Turkish soldiers trapped in each and can easily be destroyed by the Syrian Army in case Turkey launches a major offensive against Syria.

Thirdly: Russian support to the Syrian Army has reached an unprecedented level after the Russians shot down two drones launched by Tahrir Al-Sham yesterday” (ie the 10th of February 2020).

In addition, according to Atwan, “Erdogan missed a golden opportunity when he refused the (recent) Iranian initiative proposed to him by Iranian FM, Zarif, to find a political resolution for the impasse with Syria, and this was perhaps the last opportunity to reach a diplomatic resolution before a direct open confrontation with Syria”

In a Financial Times article titled “Testing Times for Erdogan and Putin” https://www.ft.com/content/cbe31640-4726-11ea-aeb3-955839e06441, the author is a tad short of saying that the relationship between Erdogan and Putin is irreconcilable. According to him, “If Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was looking for a way to convey his anger at Russia over the death of eight of his country’s troops in Syria, a visit to Ukraine provided the perfect opportunity.

At a guard of honour at the presidential palace in Kyiv on Monday, Mr Erdogan shouted “Glory to Ukraine”, a nationalist slogan deeply associated with anti-Russia sentiment and the country’s fight for independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His carefully chosen words — to an army battling Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — were a clear rebuke to President Vladimir Putin”.

In all of this, what Erdogan needs more than anything, is a long-coming reality check, and it seems more forthcoming than ever.

He may believe that he is a president for life who deserves the purportedly one thousand room palace he built for himself. He may hope to rebuild the Ottoman Empire and resurrect the Caliphate. He may imagine that, having been able to build up the Turkish economy to a level that has earnt a position in the G20, he has become the leader of a super power; but he has not. Turkey is at best a regional power, but it is only powerful if it has more powerful friends and allies to back it up. For as long as Turkey has to literally beg the Russians and/or the Americans to buy state-of-the-art weapons to defend itself with, then it is not in a position that allows it to stand on its own feet; not in the manner that Erdogan wishes it to stand. He should take heed and look at history. Mehmet Al-Fatih built his own guns to breakdown the defence walls of Constantinople. Even though the engineer who built them was from the Balkans, but they were Mehmet’s guns and they were the biggest in the world at the time.

I am not advocating that Erdogan should build his own nuclear arsenal, fighter jets and defence and attack missiles. In the ideal world, no one should. But to add to his list of contradictions, if Erdogan wants to wear the Turban of the Sultan, huff and puff at Russia, he cannot be riding Don Quixote’s donkey at the same time.

And if he thinks that he can now make a U-turn and be the loyal NATO leader and dump Russia, he will find himself again facing the same impasse he had with the Americans over the Kurdish issue. Furthermore, what will this do to his trade deals with Russia and his gas supplies?

And if Erdogan also thinks that America would come forward to save him in Idlib, one would have to remember that the illegal American presence in North East Syria is hundreds of kilometres away from Idlib and separated by the Russian-backed Syrian Army. Why would America, even Trump’s America, risk a confrontation with Russia to save his hide?

Erdogan has thus far evaded Karma because he has been hedging his bets in all directions, working up his enemies and allies against each other. But unless one is powerful enough to stand on his own feet when he needs to, then such a strategy in the long run can only leave one with no friends, a long list of enemies and a hoard of untrusting onlookers.

Above all, what do Turkish people want from the Turkish presence in Syria? Turkey hasn’t been at war for a whole century. The leader that once promised “zero problems” with neighbours is digging in his heels and seems determined to engage in an all-out war with Syria. The average Turkish citizen may ask why and to what end?

Erdogan has hopefully finally wedged himself into a corner that he cannot weasel his way out of without losing face. He will either have to bolster his military presence in Syria and fight the Syrian Army and Russia, or back off. If he takes the former option, he will not find any international supporters, and possibly the support of his own people will become questionable. But if the psychopathic, megalomaniac feels that he has to retreat, he will be scrambling for a face-saving exit, and the options are running out.

Russia was prepared to put the deliberate Turkish downing of the Su-24 in November 2015 behind and move forward. A lifeline was given to Erdogan back then, based on the promises he made and the later agreements he signed. But time proved that he was only looking for buying time, and that window with Russia is up.

Body bags have already been sent to Turkey and there are unconfirmed figures of how many Turkish soldiers have been killed defending Al-Nusra fighters. What is pertinent here is that, in the event of an all-out war with Syria, Syrians will be fighting an existential battle, aided by Russia and regional allies. Turkey however, will be fighting a different type of existential battle; one for Erdogan, not for Turkey itself.

Turkey has no reason for having a military presence and fight in Syria. It is only Erdogan’s ego and dreams that do.

BATTLE OF IDLIB AND PROSPECTS OF TURKISH-SYRIAN WAR

South Front

In February 2020, the Syrian Army reached the vicinity of the main stronghold of anti-government forces in Syria, the city of Idlib. This development plunged into shock supporters and the leadership of Idlib armed groups and became a visual confirmation of something that Western powers and their media structures do not want to admit. The government of President Bashar al-Assad not only survived the 9 years of the bloody war but also appeared on the winning side.

Idlib city is the capital of Idlib Governotare. It is located 59km southwest of Aleppo, and about 22km from the Turkish border. The city is divided into six main districts: Ashrafiyeh, Hittin, Hejaz, Downtown, Hurriya, and al-Qusur. Before the war, Idlib city was a rapidly growing urban center. From 2004 to 2010, its population grew from approximately 99,000 to 165,000. The majority of inhabitants was Sunni Muslims. Additionally, there was a significant Christian minority that almost completely disappeared by 2020, for obvious reasons.

In 2011, Idlib and its countryside became one of the main the centers of violence. Anti-government armed groups seized the city for the first time in the same year.

The key role was played by members of Ahrar al-Sham, a radical Islamist militant group declaring the aim of creating an Islamic state ruled under Sharia law. Ahrar al-Sham gained a wide prominence as the key ally of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria. Their fruitful cooperation continued until 2017, when the relations between the groups became colder. Their funding base started crumbling after militants had suffered a devastating defeat in Aleppo city. This caused a series of contradictions between the formal allies that even turned in some local clashes. In 2020, the coalition of Ahrar al-Sham and several other groups armed and funded by Turkey are known as the National Front of Liberation. It still maintains a significant relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra that changed the brand to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in an attempt to hide its al-Qaeda backbone from the international audience.

In February 2012, anti-government groups lost the city to the Syrian Army, which launched a large-scale military operation in the area. Idlib once again fell into the hands of militants in April 2015 after the united forces of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and several other al-Qaeda-linked groups had assaulted the city from 3 directions. After this, militants captured another important urban center in Idlib province – Jisr al-Shughur, the prewar population – about 44,000 people.

Since then, Idlib and Jisra al-Shughur have consistently evolved into the two key centres of attraction of radicals in the region. These include both members of various militant groups defeated by the Syrian Army across Syria, and multiple foreign nationals seeking to join some powerful Middle Eastern terrorist group. This impacted the balance of power within militant groups operating in the region. Ahrar al-Sham lost a large part of its previous influence. As a part of the National Front for Liberation (NFL), it receives additional funding and supplies from Turkey, but the entire alliance is no more a competitor to Jabhat al-Nusra. The NFL played the role of auxiliary forces in most of the recent battles involving Jabhat al-Nsura. Its main strong side is the access to a constant flow of Turkish military supplies, including anti-tank guided missiles. Through the NFL, Turkish-supplied weapons regularly appear in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. The NFL claims that it has up to 70,000 members. Nonetheless, local sources say that the real number of active fighters can be estimated at no more than 25,000.

Despite the setbacks suffered in Aleppo city, northern Hama and southern Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra remains the most powerful force in Greater Idlib. Its main political and military HQs are located in Idlib city. The group also created several weapon depots and equipment maintenance facilities inside the city. It intentionally puts own infrastructure in a close proximity to civilian targets using locals as human shields from air and artillery strikes. Large known al-Nusra weapon depots are also located in Khan and Sarmada. The Khan weapon depot is set up right near the camp for displaced civilians. On November 20, 2019, several civilians from the camp were killed, when a Syrian Army missile hit the weapon depot area. A number of smaller weapon depots were moved to the Turkish border area following the militants’ withdrawal from Maarat al-Numan and Khan Shaykhun. The number of militants fighting under the current brand of Jabhat al-Nusra – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – is estimated at over 30,000.

Jisr al-Sughur and its countryside turned into the nest of the Turkistan Islamic Party, another al-Qaeda-linked militant group. It mostly consists of ethnic Uyghurs and other foreigners. The group’s ideology declares an aim to create a Caliphate in China’s Xinjiang region, and eventually in the entire Central Asia. Meanwhile, they are using Syria’s Idlib as a foothold to gain combat experience and resources for attacks in China and the Central Asia. Ankara, which uses various radical forms of pan-Turkism as a tool to expand own influence, turned a blind eye to the influx of foreign terrorists to the Idlib de-escalation zone. The number of fighters of the Turkistan Islamic Party with their families is estimated between 10,000 and 20,000.

The total manpower of groups operating in Greater Idlib is estimated around 110,000. Nonetheless, a majority of small groups are polarized and demoralized even more than their big brothers.

The Syrian Army operation in Idlib, which started in December 2019, allowed the Damascus government to retake over 1,200km2 from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies, and the advance is ongoing. Pro-government forces captured the largest subdistrict of the Idlib district of the province – Saraqib Nahiyah (population about 88,000), and took control of the crossroad of the M4 and M5 highways. Thus, Idlib groups lost a key logistical hub, which they had used to supply its forces and move reinforcements between northern Lattakia, southern Idlib and northern Aleppo. The loss of Saraqib also exposed the southwestern flank of Al-Eis, the main Hayat Tahrir al-Sham strongpoint in southwestern Aleppo. The army diversionary attack in the area immediately turned into a real offensive. Government troops took control of a number of settlements, including the militant stronghold of al-Eis.

The Syrian Army currently has two main priorities:

  • To secure the entire M5 highway, which links the cities of Hama and Aleppo. This will allow government forces to freely redeploy troops and equipment just along the current frontline. Thus, they will have an additional advantage in maneuverability;
  • To increase pressure on the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham hive, Idlib city, which is now located in about 8km from the active frontline. This is an unprecedented situation, which had not happened since 2015. All the previous year the city remained in a permanent safety from any ground offensive by government forces. So, its current rulers did not bother itself with creating strong fortifications. The same approach explains why the speed of the Syrian Army’s offensive increased after it had passed the main defense line of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies near Khan Shaykhun.

The rapid advances by the Syrian Army caused a strong negative reaction among the powers not interested in removing the Idlib point of instability, including Turkey. Ankara is an official participant of the Astana format and a state guarantor of the Idlib de-escalation deal. The issue is that Ankara did not comply with the key point of the Astana agreements – it did not separate Turkish-backed “moderate rebels” from the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists that are excluded from the ceasefire regime. Any such attempt will inevitably reveal that terrorists control over 80% of the opposition-held part of Greater Idlib. Ankara will have to confirm officially that the Syrian Army operation against them goes in the framework of the Astana agreements. This is unacceptable for the Turkish leadership, which has been for a long time using a variety of military and diplomatic measures to prevent the Assad government from retaking the northwest of Syria and consolidate own influence in the areas where Turkish forces are present. Under the demilitarization agreement (September 2018), the Turkish Army also established 12 observation supposedly intended to monitor the ceasefire. Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely thought that by this move he claimed the entire Idlib for own geopolitical games.

In the course of the Idlib operations (2019-2020), Syrian forces besieged 5 Turkish observation posts and even several shelled the Turkish military several times. In response, the Turkish leadership announced that its forces had delivered strong blows to the ‘Assad regime’. However, the strikes did not stop the Syrian Army advance. This is why the Turkish military has been steadily increasing its military presence across the militant-held part of the Greater Idlib region, including the countryside of Idlib city. According to some reports, up to 1,000 pieces of Turkish military equipment have been deployed in this part of Syria.

On February 5, President Erdogan presented an ultimatum to Syria. He demanded the Syrians to halt military operations against Idlib militant groups and withdraw from Turkish observation posts abandoning the area liberated from terrorists in the recent months. The Turkish leader gave the Damascus government time until the end of February. If Syria rejects the ultimatum, Erdogan vowed to launch a full-scale military action against the Syrian Army. This was not first such threat by the Turkish leadership and all the previous ones appeared to be empty words. Nonetheless, this time the situation could develop under another scenario. Many will depend on the state of relations among Turkey, the United States, Israel and Russia.

Erdogan will not risk with a direct military confrontation with Russia. This will cost too much for Turkey. Nevertheless, if the Turkish leadership is sure that Russia provides no real answer to a full-scale attack on the Syria Army, there will be a strong chance that Turkey will carry out such an attack. The Erdogan government already has an experience of carrying out a direct aggression against Russia. In November 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian S-24 fighter-bomber in the Syrian province of Lattakia. The Kremlin left this action unanswered in the military sphere.

After all, the fully-fledged Turkish war with Syria is unlikely because Ankara does not have enough resources for such a move. The more possible scenario is a large military operation by the Turkish Armed Forces. Even this move would require means and forces that would be many folds larger than those involved in Operations Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Peace Spring. If Erdogan decided to approve this military operation in Syria, it will undermine the already weakened economy of Turkey, undermine positions of Turkey in the region and significantly complicate its relations with the European Union. Therefore, the Turkish military action will likely take a form of the quasi-military PR action (like the US strikes on Syria in 2017 and 2018).

The Turkish plans could be undermined by the further collapse of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s defense in Idlib. Militants appeared to be unable to the Syrian Army breakthrough into the operational depth of their defense, where they have no needed defense infrastructure. So, pro-government forces have a chance to deliver a devastating blow to militants and at least reach the suburbs of the city of Idlib until the end of the month.

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Syrian War Report – December 26, 2019: Russian Airstrikes Wipe Out Convoy Of Turkish-backed Militant Group

Russian Airstrikes Wipe Out Turkish-backed Militants’ Convoy

South Front

By the evening of December 25, government forces have repelled a counter-attack by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its Turkish-backed allies on the town of Jarjnaz in southern Idlib and have resumed their advance on the town of Maarat al-Numan.

The militant counter-attack started on December 24 evening with at least two suicide bombing attacks on positions of the Syrian Army. Despite this, the terrorists were not able to break the army defense line. Pro-militant sources claim that they destroyed at least 5 units of military equipment belonging to the army and killed over 12 soldiers. Despite this, Idlib militants appear to be unable to stop the army advance in an open battle.

On December 25, the Russian Aerospace Forces bombed a military convoy of Ahrar al-Sham moving near the town of Kafr Nubl in southern Idlib, according to reports by Arab media. The terrorist group’s General Commander Abu Jaber al-Sheikh was reportedly injured in the strike. Several other influential Ahrar al-Sham commanders and members were killed.

Ahrar al-Sham is the radical Turkish-backed militant group. It is the core of the pro-Turkish militant alliance known as the National Front for Liberation.

Leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Abu Muhammed al-Jolani released an official video statement on the recent developments in southern Idlib. The terrorist blamed Iran and Russia for the recent setbacks of the “revolution” in Greater Idlib and threatened the region with consequences.

He also claimed that his forces achieved many of their goas against the “regime” (mostly destroying Syrian economy and killing civilians) and is about to achieve the victory. However, Russia and Iran stand on their way. The Russian motivation, according to al-Jolani, is to restore “the glory of the USSR”. It is interesting to note that this remark reflects the mainstream propaganda that often paints the current situation around the world as the Second Cold War and Russia as the USSR 2.0.

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الجيش السوري يتقدم نحو مدينة سراقب بريف إدلب

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Jaish al-Islam Militants Start Evacuating From Douma Area In Eastern Ghouta – State-Run Media

On April 1, Jaish al-Islam militants started evacuating from the Douma area in Eastern Ghouta under a deal with the Syrian government, according to the country’s state-run news agency SANA.
“SANA’s correspondent at al-Wafidin Camp at the outskirts of Douma said that a number of buses and vehicles belonging to the Red Crescent are gathering near the safe corridor leading to al-Wafidin Camp in preparation to enter Douma and begin transporting Failaq al-Rahman terrorists to Idleb.
This comes less than 24 hours after the Syrian Arab Army declared the towns of Zamalka, Erbin, Ein Tarma, and Jobar clear of terrorism after the exit of all terrorists and their families from them to Idleb. More than 41,000 terrorists and their family members exited Eastern Ghouta during the past 8 days.
The correspondent said that an agreement was reached to have Jaish al-Islam leave Douma and go to Jarablos, while those who remain will have their legal status settled and the state establishments will return in full to Douma city.
The agreement also stipulates for the terrorists to turn over all civilian and military abductees and the bodies of martyrs, along with handing over their heavy and medium weapons to the state, the correspondent added,” SANA reported.
Jaish al-Islam Militants Start Evacuating From Douma Area In Eastern Ghouta - State-Run Media
Click to see the full-size map
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Update: Free Syrian Army fighters stranded in Damascus’ Douma city evacuated to north Syria

Picture source: Aleppo Media Center (AMC)
BEIRUT, LEBANON (5:47 P.M.) – Despite the fact that Faylaq al-Rahman (Free Syrian Army affiliate) rebels operated far away from Douma city in Damascus’ East Ghouta region, it has become apparent that some group’s fighters nonetheless got stranded in the Jaysh al-Islam stronghold.
In any case, as of Sunday, all Faylaq al-Rahman that found themselves besieged in Douma alongside Jaysh al-Islam militants have since been evacuated to Syria’s northern province of Idlib; hundreds of civilians have departed with them.
It is unclear exactly how many Faylaq al-Rahman rebels (dozens or hundreds) left Douma, information on this may emerge later.
As for Jaysh al-Islam, evacuation of its fighters (i.e. those who have chosen not to reconcile with the Syrian government) to areas of Aleppo province under Turkish-backed rebel forces control so far only includes those who are injured; standing militants are yet to depart.
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What is after Al Ghouta? تدحرجت الغوطة فماذا بعدها؟

What is after Al Ghouta?

مارس 25, 2018

Written by Nasser Kandil,

Those who ask questions about the victories of the Syrian army and its future should remember the questions they posed with every similar victory before the decisive battle of Aleppo, and questions as will the Russians support the Syrian army till the end? And will Turkey stand doing nothing? What about the Russian- Iranian relationship with Turkey? And what can Israel and America do, since they will not leave the Syrian army emerge victorious?. Despite the facts in the battle of Aleppo, and then in Deir Al Zour, Boukamal , and today in Al Ghouta the same questions emerge without benefitting from the answers provided by a year and a half of the battles and the consecutive victories.

The answer to the questions starts from saying that Aleppo is more important than Al Ghouta to Turkey, and Boukamal is more important than Al Ghouta to America, Al Quneitra and the south-west line of Syria is more important than Al Ghouta to Israel. The bargaining of the allies with the Syrian state may be possible in everywhere other than Al Ghouta. What was proven by the battles of Aleppo, Deir Al Zour, Boukamal, and Al Ghouta together as the stability of the allies, the power of the Syrian army, and the inability of the enemies dominate the future of what remains of the war on Syria.

Al Ghouta which many were wondering despite the victories and the liberation of more than of its half a week ago about how to end the rest which is described by the most difficult, is providing the answer through the rolling stones of domino from Harsta, Ain Tarma, Irbin, and Zamalka and the withdrawal of the militias of Ahrar Al Sham and the readiness of the militants of Al Rahman legion to do the same, in addition to the confusion that affected the leadership and the militants of the army of Islam who were ready to withdraw but their problem was the rejection of the armed groups to receive them in Idlib and the refusal of the Syrian army to allow their withdrawal to Idlib.

After Al Ghouta as every time the analysts wonder what is the next destination of the Syrian army, usually it is surprise. Is it Idlib, countryside of Aleppo, Daraa, or Quneitra? But for sure the results will be in favor of the Syrian army and will be added to the cohesion of its allies and the limitedness available options and the weakness of the ability of its enemies to form serious challenge capable of stopping that progress.

Despite the Turkish and the American occupation of the north and their hiding behind the Kurdish title, the Syrian country and its allies have options and margins that are not used yet to repeat the liberation politically and militarily as happened in the other areas. The former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford talked about a bilateral that; there is no US war to protect the Kurdish entity and there is no hope in the long staying for the Americans in Syria when Syria and its allies decide to resolve the progress northwards, he said in the end they know that they will soon pack their bags for departure.

Israel which supports that war, links its destiny, presence, and strategy with the future of this war. When Israel asked the United Nations to redeploy the UNDOF units on the separation line in Golan after it violated it itself and made it under the domination of the armed groups hoping of a security belt once, and betting on the desecration of the Syrian geography many times, then this means that Israel has found that hiding behind the United Nations is the best bad available options and what is coming is worse through betting on variables that weaken the Syrian state and stop its path towards victory and liberation.

Translated by Lina Shehadeh,

تدحرجت الغوطة فماذا بعدها؟

مارس 23, 2018

ناصر قنديل

– من الواجب على الذين يطرحون الأسئلة حول انتصارات الجيش السوري ومستقبلها أن يتذكّروا الأسئلة التي كانوا يطرحونها مع كل انتصار مشابه منذ ما قبل الحسم في معركة حلب، وهي هل سيقف الروس حتى النهاية مع الجيش السوري؟ وهل ستقف تركيا مكتوفة الأيدي؟ وماذا عن العلاقة الروسية الإيرانية بتركيا؟ وماذا يمكن أن تفعل إسرائيل وأميركا وهما لن تتركا للجيش السوري أن يخرج منتصراً وهما تتفرّجان؟ ورغم ما جاءت به الوقائع في معركة حلب وبعدها في دير الزور والبوكمال واليوم في الغوطة تعود الأسئلة نفسها دون الاستفادة من الأجوبة التي قدّمتها سنة ونصف من المعارك والانتصارات المتلاحقة.

– الجواب الطبيعي على الأسئلة يبدأ من القول إن حلب أهم لتركيا من الغوطة وإن البوكمال أهم لأميركا من الغوطة، وإنّ القنيطرة وخط جنوب غرب سورية اهم لـ «إسرائيل» من الغوطة، وإنّ المساومة من الحلفاء مع الدولة السورية قد يكون وارداً في كلّ مكان أكثر من الغوطة، وإنّ ما أثبتته معارك حلب ودير الزور والبوكمال والغوطة معاً، من ثبات الحلفاء وقوة الجيش السوري وعجز الأعداء صار قانوناً حاكماً لمستقبل ما بقي من الحرب في سورية.

– ها هي الغوطة التي كان الكثيرون يتساءلون رغم الانتصارات وتحرير أكثر من نصفها قبل أسبوع عن كيفية إنهاء الباقي منها، ويصفونه بالأصعب، تقدّم الجواب بتدحرج حجارة دومينو سيطرة الجماعات المسلحة من حرستا إلى عين ترما وعبرين وزملكا، وانسحاب ميليشيات أحرار الشام واستعداد مسلّحي فيلق الرحمن لفعل الشيء نفسه، والارتباك الذي يصيب قيادة ومسلحي جيش الإسلام، الذين سبقوا زملاءهم بالاستعداد للانسحاب، لكن مشكلتهم كانت برفض الجماعات المسلحة لهم في إدلب ورفض الجيش السوري السماح لهم بالانسحاب إلى إدلب.

– بعد الغوطة، كما في كلّ مرة يتساءل المحللون أين هي الوجهة التالية للجيش السوري، وغالباً ما تكون مفاجئة، فهل هي إدلب أم ريف حلب، أم درعا، أم خط القنيطرة على حدود الجولان، لكن الأكيد أن أياً كانت الوجهة التي تسلكها وحدات الجيش السوري فإن النتائج التي كرّستها المعارك السابقة ستزداد تأكيداً، لجهة قدرة الجيش السوري على الإنجاز والتحرير، وجدية وتماسك حلفائه من خلفه، وضعف قدرة أعدائه على تشكيل تحدٍّ جدي قادر على إعاقة تقدّمه، ومحدودية الخيارات المتاحة أمامهم.

بالرغم من خصوصية الشمال في مناطق الاحتلالين التركي والأميركي، واختبائهما وراء العنوان الكردي فإن الدولة السورية وحلفاءها يملكون أوراقاً وخيارات وهوامش لم يتم تظهيرها بعد تتيح تكرار فعل التحرير سياسياً وعسكرياً، كما جرت الأمور في المناطق الأخرى، وما قاله السفير الأميركي السابق في سورية روبرت فورد عن ثنائية لا حرب أميركية لحماية كيان كردي، ولا أمل ببقاء مديد للأميركيين في سورية عندما تحسم سورية وحلفاؤها التقدم شمالاً، قائلاً في النهاية يعرفون في واشنطن أنهم في ساعة غير بعيدة يجب أن يحزموا حقائب الرحيل.

– تبقى «إسرائيل» الجهة الوحيدة التي وقفت بالأساس وراء الحرب، وترتبط مصيرياً ووجودياً واستراتيجياً بمستقبل هذه الحرب، وعندما تتوجّه «إسرائيل» بالطلب من الأمم المتحدة لنشر وحدات الأندوف على خط فصل القوات في الجولان، بعدما قامت هي بانتهاكه وتسليمه للجماعات المسلحة أملاً بحزام أمني مرّة، ورهاناً على استباحة الجغرافيا السورية مرات، فإن ذلك يعني أن «إسرائيل» باتت تجد في الانكفاء خلف خطوط الأمم المتحدة والاحتماء خلفها أفضل الخيارات السيئة المتاحة لها، وتعلن أن مقبل الأيام أسوأ من ماضيها من زاوية النظر الإسرائيلية لجهة الرهان على متغيرات تضعف الدولة السورية وتحدّ من اندفاعتها نحو النصر والتحرير.

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SYRIAN WAR REPORT – MARCH 22, 2018: SYRIAN ARMY GETS CONTROL OF HARASTA, MILITANTS WITHDRAW

South Front

About 1,500 Ahrar al-Sham militants and 6,000 civilians, mostly families of the militants, are set to leave the Harasta area of Eastern Ghouta under an evacuation agreement with the Syrian government on March 22.

Under the agreement militants surrender all of their heavy weapons and get an open corridor towards the militant-held part of the province of Idlib.

Late on March 21, a source in the 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) told SouthFront that militants had started burning their HQs and weapon depots.

If the agreement is successfully implemented, the SAA will get a full control over the urban area of Harasta further isolating the southern part of Eastern Ghouta from the militant-held area of Douma.

Meanwhile, the SAA, the Republican Guard and the Tiger Forces captured a large part of the Ein Tarma farms and entered the town of Hazzah. According to pro-government sources, a major part of Hazzah is now under the government forces control. However, this still has to be confirmed.

The mass evacuation of civilians and humanitarian aid delivers allow the Syrian-Iranian-Russian alliance to decrease a factor of civilian casualties and human shields usage in the ongoing operation, implementing an Aleppo-like scenario when every evacuated family undermine the militants’ defensive capabilities.

Over 40 tonnes of toxic agents have been found in the areas liberated from militants, Major General Igor Kirillov, said on March 21.

“Damascus has officially confirmed its readiness to assist in any investigation into a chemical attack in Syria. However, international organizations have refused to cooperate with the Syrian government, practically conniving with terrorist organizations in their illegal activity. The Syrian Foreign Ministry pointed out that more than 40 tonnes of chemical warfare agents have been discovered on the territories liberated from terrorists,” Kirillov said recalling frequent accusations of an alleged chemical weapons use against the Damascus government. “At the same time, the international community prefers turning a blind eye to the real facts in which chemical weapons are used in Syria against the government troops and civilians,” he added.

ISIS have captured the whole neighborhood of al-Asali and 90% of al-Madaniyah neighborhood in the al-Qadam district in southern Damascus, the ISIS-linked news agency Amaq claimed. According to Amaq, ISIS has killed 173 SAA soldiers and has destroyed 2 battle tanks, a rocket launcher, a bulldozer and a BMP-1 armored vehicle in clashes for the area.

The Turkish Army and its proxies captured the town of Barad and the village of Kimar south of the city of Afrin following clashes with members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and some government-linked militia there.

After the fall of Afrin, Turkey has slowed down its military operation in the area. However, its forces are still willing and are able to capture some settlements in a de-facto buffer zone between them and the SAA.

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Crucial moments in Al Ghouta’s battles لحظات حاسمة في معارك الغوطة

ستون دقيقة مع ناصر قنديل ……الحلقة ال 19.

Crucial moments in Al Ghouta’s battles

مارس 14, 2018

Written by Nasser Kandil,

There are four stories that summarize the scene in the eastern Ghouta of the Syrian capital. First, the accelerated progress of the Syrian army in the areas which all have equal military and strategic importance, after the division of Al Ghouta into three parts under siege and the liberation of the rest parts of it. Second, the collapse of the armed groups after dismantling them in every area, they exchange the detainees with the exit of their wounded, and their civil councils announce the search for the evacuation of the civilians. Third, the threats issued by the International Security Council for the unilateral military action quoted by the representatives of France and America. One is depending on the assumption of the use of the chemical weapons, and the second is depending on the failure of the Security Council in adopting one month truce without preconditions. Fourth, the urgent US call for a meeting of Jordanian-US- Russian Joint Committee of de-escalation zone which sponsor the calm in the south of Syria after the raids of the Syrian army on Al Nusra fronts’ sites in the south-west of Syria.

It is clear that the Western and Arab efforts to encourage the armed groups whether by speeches or diplomatic pressures to urge them to stand still more, have lost their influence in the light of the military change on the ground, moreover, the information of the west leaders and their allies clarifies the magnitude of the military and political dramatic collapses unless a great thing occurs and changes the course of events. It is obvious as well that Russia’s steadfastness behind Syria and its allies in the military option has not been affected by the American and the French threats neither in this session of the Security Council nor in what preceded it. The scenarios which have been circulated have become under the practical test, or the matter has been resolved in favor of Syria, Russia, and their allies, in addition to the implications on the balances which surpass Ghouta and maybe Syria, after the show of the mutual force between Moscow and Washington reached to its peak after the speech of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The urgent session for which Washington called the Joint Committee seems to be the final one to stop the Syrian progress in  parallel with a ground scenario that is considered by Moscow and Damascus the last French-American attempt, entitled  the usage of the chemical weapons by the armed groups to justify the western military intervention in the light of a Russian- Syrian decision that includes all the allies to repel any western military action under this pretext, whether as the way of bombing Shuairat Airbase a year ago, or a similar circulated scenario of attacking dozens of the Syrian military and strategic goals by ballistic missiles. Putin in his recent speech warned that this will summon harsh Russian response.

The difficult questions are facing the US decision at these crucial hours, between the recognition of Russia’s control over the region and the regression of every action that is included in the American and French threats and thus the recognition of Syria’s rolling victories from Ghouta towards northward and southward, or the involvement in a risk that may start with a limited action as Washington and Paris said, but it can turn into uncontrolled confrontation and may transcend the ongoing conflict in Syria and the region,  and thus it becomes  an international confrontation. It is clear that the American call for Amman’s meeting does not aim only at searching for solutions that face-saving, but also to see the Russian reaction in case of any limited military action and the seeking to promote it as Washington tried to do after the events of Khan Sheikhoun, and the blow of Al Shuairat Airbase, or as happened in the reign of the former President Barack Obama when the US fleets came to the Mediterranean for war after fabricating the chemical file in Al Ghouta in 2013, but all the American options are seen with Russian warning of consequences and repercussions.

Translated by Lina Shehadeh,

لحظات حاسمة في معارك الغوطة

مارس 13, 2018

ناصر قنديل

– أربعة أخبار تختصر المشهد في الغوطة الشرقية للعاصمة السورية، تقدّم متسارع للجيش السوري في الأماكن التي صارت كلها متساوية الأهمية عسكرياً واستراتيجياً، بعدما قسم الغوطة لثلاثة أجزاء تحت الحصار، وحرّر الباقي. والخبر الثاني حال الانهيار التي تعيشها الجماعات المسلحة بعدما تمّ فصلها عن بعضها كلّ في منطقة، فتبادل الأسرى لديها بخروج جرحاها، وتعلن مجالسها المدنية البحث بإخلاء المدنيين. أما الخبر الثالث فهو ما شهده مجلس الأمن الدولي من تهديدات بالتحرّك العسكري من طرف واحد، على لسان كل من مندوبي فرنسا وأميركا، الأول معطوف على فرضية استخدام السلاح الكيميائي، والثاني معطوف على فشل مجلس الأمن بإقرار هدنة لشهر كامل بلا شروط. أما الخبر الرابع فهو الدعوة الأميركية العاجلة لاجتماع لجنة الارتباط الروسية الأميركية الأردنية لمناطق خفض التصعيد التي ترعى التهدئة جنوب سورية، بعد غارات للجيش السوري على مواقع لجبهة النصرة في جنوب غرب سورية.

– الواضح أن المساعي الغربية والعربية لشدّ عصب الجماعات المسلحة بالخطابات والضغوط الدبلوماسية لحثها على المزيد من الصمود، فقد قدرته على التأثير في ضوء حجم التغيير العسكري الحاصل ميدانياً، وأن المعطيات لدى قادة الغرب وحلفائهم تقول بانهيارات دراماتيكية عسكرية وسياسية في وضع هذه الجماعات بات في الأفق ما لم يحدث شيء كبير يغيّر مجرى الأحداث. والواضح ثالثاً أن ثبات روسيا وراء سورية وحلفائها في الخيار العسكري لم تضعفه التهديدات الأميركية والفرنسية، لا في هذه الجلسة لمجلس الأمن ولا في ما سبقها، وأن السيناريوات التي سبق وتم تداولها صارت أمام الاختبار العملي أو حسم الأمر لصالح سورية وروسيا وحلفائهما، وما لذلك من تداعيات على توازنات تتخطّى الغوطة وربما سورية، بعدما وصل عرض القوة المتبادل بين موسكو وواشنطن ذروته مع الخطاب النووي للرئيس الروسي فلاديمير بوتين.

– تبدو الجلسة العاجلة التي دعت إليها واشنطن للجنة الارتباط محاولة أخيرة لوقف التقدم السوري بالتوازي مع سيناريو ميداني تعتبره موسكو ودمشق آخر خرطوشة أميركية فرنسية، وعنوانها استخدام سلاح كيميائي من الجماعات المسلحة لتبرير تدخل عسكري غربي سبق الحديث عنه، في ظل قرار روسي سوري يضم الحلفاء جميعاً بالتصدّي لأي عمل عسكري غربي بهذه الذريعة، سواء جاء على طريقة قصف مطار الشعيرات قبل عام، أو على نمط سيناريو متداول لقصف صاروخي بالستي لعشرات الأهداف السورية العسكرية والاستراتيجية، كان حذّر بوتين في خطابه قبل عشرة أيام من أنه سيستدرج رداً روسياً من العيار الثقيل.

– الأسئلة الصعبة تواجه القرار الأميركي في ساعات حاسمة، بين تسليم باليد العليا لروسيا في المنطقة والتراجع عن أي عمل تضمنته التهديدات الأميركية والفرنسية، وبالتالي تسليم بانتصارات سورية متدحرجة من الغوطة إلى ما بعدها جنوباً وشمالاً، وإلا فدخول الميدان بمخاطرة قد تبدأ بعمل تقول واشنطن وباريس أنه محدود، معرّض للتحوّل إلى مواجهة تخرج عن السيطرة، وتتجاوز بمفاعيلها الصراع الدائر في سورية والمنطقة، لتصير مواجهة عالمية. والواضح أن الدعوة الأميركية لاجتماع عمان، لا يهدف فقط لبحث حلول تحفظ ماء الوجه وتجد مخارج لا تبدو سهلة، بل أيضاً لجس النبض الروسي حول حجم الرد في حال القيام بعمل عسكري محدود، والسعي لتسويقه كما حاولت واشنطن بعد أحداث خان شيخون وضربة الشعيرات، أو كما حدث في عهد الرئيس السابق باراك أوباما يوم جاءت الأساطيل الأميركية إلى البحر المتوسط بنيّة الحرب، بعد تصنيع ملف كيميائي في الغوطة عام 2013، وما بين المستويين في الخيارات الأميركية، التي تبدو جميعها موضع تحذير روسي من التبعات والتداعيات.

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Syria UN Envoy: US Uses Chemical Attack Claims to Protect Terrorists

Local Editor

10-03-2018 | 12:02

Syria's UN envoy Bashar al-Jaafari

Damascus said the accusations leveled by the US and its allies against the Syrian government regarding the use of chemical weapons in the Eastern Ghouta region are meant to protect the terrorist groups and block the army’s advance against foreign-backed militants.

In an interview with Russia’s Sputnik news agency released on Friday, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari said the parties supporting terrorism in Syria have “consistently” used the “false” allegations of chemical weapons use as a pretext to increase political pressure on the Syrian government.

In over 140 letters addressed to the UN Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Damascus has documented information on the possession of chemical materials by the countries that support terrorists, but the data was deliberately ignored, he pointed out.

Recently, the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed a suspected chlorine attack had taken place in the militant-occupied al-Shifuniyah village of Eastern Ghouta on February 25.

Prior to the report, the Russian Defense Ministry had warned that militant groups in Eastern Ghouta were preparing a false flag attack in a bid to blame the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against civilians.

Russia rejected the allegations against the Syrian government as “unfounded,” stressing that only an international body can rule on the issue based on an “impartial” probe.

On March 5, The Washington Post quoted US officials as saying that the government was considering new military action against the Syrian government in response to reports of suspected chemical weapons use.

Britain and France have also said they would attack Syria if such claims are proven.

This is while Syria turned over its entire chemical stockpile under a deal negotiated by Russia and the US back in 2013.

Elsewhere in his interview, Jaafari accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as a number of Gulf regimes of having worked to finance terrorist organizations in Syria and fuel the crisis in the Arab country.

He also said that the Turkish government has facilitated the entry of tens of thousands of terrorists via its border to Syria and armed and financed them.

Turkey also set up training camps on its territory for terrorists and facilitated their access to toxic chemicals, he added.

Referring to Turkey’s military campaign on the Syrian district of Afrin, Jaafari said, “Syria will not hesitate in defending every inch of its territory, whether against armed terrorist groups or the invading Turkish, US or Israeli forces.”

Ankara launched the Afrin operation on January 20 to eliminate Kurdish militants. Syria condemned the Turkish campaign as an act of aggression, which is meant to support terror outfits operating inside the conflict-plagued country.

Source: News Agencies, Edited by website team

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Terrorists in Syria’s Gouta Besieged in Three Separate Pockets

Map Update: Military Situation In Eastern Ghouta On March 12, 2018

Syrian government forces have divided the militant-held area in Eastern Ghouta into three separate parts and are developing momentum further. The US has reacted threatening to strike government troops if they continue their advance. MORE DETAILS

Terrorists in Syria’s Gouta Besieged in Three Separate Pockets

Syrian army in Eastern Gouta

The terrorists in Syria’s Eastern Gouta are now besieged in three separate pockets: Doma, Harasta and Arbin as well as the surrounding villages of each area.

Units of the Syrian Arab army on Monday regained full control over the village of Aftris after the eradication of the last hotbeds of al-Nusra Front terrorists and the affiliated groups, SANA reporter said.

The army units managed to secure the exit of a number of families, who were detained by the terrorist organizations on Madyra direction in eastern Gouta.

Source: Al-Manar Website and SANA

 

Syrian Army Scores New Achievements: Eastern Ghouta Split into two

Local Editor

In a new Syrian achievement and in a major setback to terrorists, the Syria Army divided the Eastern Ghouta enclave outside Damascus into two.

Syrian Army Liberates 52% of East Ghouta Areas


Hezbollah’s War Media Center said pro-government forces broke through militants’ lines to establish a corridor through the besieged Eastern Ghouta region after capturing the town of Mudeira.

The advance cuts off the towns of Douma and Harasta from the rest of the enclave, according to the outlet.

Douma is Eastern Ghouta’s largest settlement.

Residents and local authorities in Douma are now considering evacuating the town, local council member Iyad Abdel-Aziz said.

Syrian state media also reported army advances near Jisreen and Aftaris in the southeastern part of the terrorist-held territory.

The Syrian military announced the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to leave Eastern Ghouta.

Now split in two, one side of the enclave measures 27 square kilometers and the other 22. Russia’s military said 52 civilians were able to flee the enclave for safety in government-held territory outside.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Syria’s warring parties said the evacuees would receive “all necessary assistance” within two days, according to Russian news agencies.

There were 26 children among the evacuees, according to their reports.

Source: News Agencies, Edited by website team 

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SYRIAN WAR REPORT – MARCH 10, 2018: MILITANTS’ DEFENSE COLLAPSED IN EASTERN GHOUTA

South Front

12.03.2018

Last weekend a defense of militant groups operating in Eastern Ghouta collapsed under pressure of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies and the militant-held pocket was cut off into two separate parts.

Government forces liberated the town of Madiera, almost isolated the neighborhood of Harasta, captured farms near Jisrin and attacked Atfris.

The area of Douma is controlled by Jaish al-Islam with help of some units of Ahrar al-Sham, while the southern pocket is jointly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham.

On the same day, some pro-militant sources and mainstream media outlets released reports about a new chemical attack allegedly conducted by the Syrian government. The chlorine gas attack allegedly hit people in the neighborhood of Irbin. No evidence confirming these claims were provided.

It’s interesting to note these media reports came just few hours following the collapse of the militants’ defense in Madiera.

On March 12, the SAA continued its advance aiming to isolate Harasta from Douma. According to pro-government sources, SAA units already achieved this goal. However, they still have to secure the recent gains.

Reports are circulating that US and Israeli-backed militant groups are preparing for an attack against the SAA in the city of Daraa in southern Syria. The alleged attack would exploit the SAA involvement in Eastern Ghouta operation and aimed at indirectly assisting militants there.

Over the last 3 days, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have captured more villages from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northwestern Syria. Despite YPG counter-attacks, the TAF and the FSA have reached the vicinity of the YPG-held stronghold of Afrin from the northeastern direction and have almost done this from the southwestern direction. Should Turkish forces isolate Afrin, main clashes will be moved to this urban area.

On March 11, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the TAF and the FSA had seized 950km2 since the start of the operation in Afrin.

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MEDIA ACCUSES SYRIAN ARMY OF USING CHEMICAL WEAPONS AFTER MILITANTS’ DEFENSE COLLAPSES IN EASTERN GHOUTA (MAP, VIDEO)

11.03.2018

South Front

Media Accuses Syrian Army Of Using Chemical Weapons After Militants' Defense Collapses In Eastern Ghouta (Map, Video)

On March 11, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Tiger Forces supported by the Russian Aerospace Forces split the East Ghouta pocket into two parts and fully isolated the Duma district after they had captured the strategic district of Mudayrah, according to the Hezbollah media wing in Syria. Following the liberation of Mudayrah, SAA and Tiger Forces units reached the SAA positions around the Armored Vehicles Base.

Currently, the Jaysh al-Islam militant group is besieged in the Duma district, while Faylaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) are besieged in the rest of the East Ghouta pocket.

According to Syrian pro-government sources, this major breakthrough will allow the SAA to negotiate with Jaysh al-Islam face to face. This means that a peaceful solution in Douma is more possible now as Faylaq al-Rahman and its allies have sabotaged all the previous peaceful efforts.

Only minutes after the SAA advance, the Qatari al-Jazeera TV claimed that the SAA had attacked civilians in the Irbin district in the western East Ghouta pocket with “chlorine gas”. As usual, the Qatari channel didn’t provide any evidence what so ever to support its claims. Moreover, several Syrian opposition sources didn’t release any reports about the supposed “chemical attack”.

عاجل | مصادر طبية: النظام السوري يستهدف مدينة عربين في الغوطة الشرقية بغاز الكلور السام

 Over the last three months, militants in the East Ghouta and the mainstream media have claimed that the SAA have used chemical weapons against civilians dozens of times. However, they have never presented any real evidence. Even the US acknowledged on one occasion that it got no evidence to support these claims.

The recent Al-Jazeera report is likely nothing more than a propaganda stunt aimed at providing a media cover for militants. Some opposition figures believe that only a US military action could save the besieged the militants in East Ghouta.

Breaking map: Syrian Army slices apart militant pocket in east Damascus

East Ghouta pocket after Syrian Army seizes Mudayrah town (Credit: Islamic World News).

BEIRUT, LEBANON (5:14 P.M.) – Hours ago, the Syrian Army’s elite Tiger Forces Division seized the militant-controlled district town of Mudayrah in Damascus’ East Ghouta region.

The battle to capture the rebel stronghold lasted several hours and saw elite Syrian troops combat insurgents of Jaysh al-Islam and Al-Qaeda affiliate militia Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham (better known by its former name, Jabhat al-Nusra).

By taking Mudayrah, assault units of the Tiger Forces Division linked up with the Syrian troops holding out in the now famous Vehicle Management Base in Arbeen district and officially split the East Ghouta pocket into two.

Now it stands that the militant stronghold city of Douma and jihadist-controlled town of Harasta have been isolated from all other rebel-held areas of East Ghouta further south.

It appears that the Syrian Army’s job of slicing up the East Ghouta pocket is not yet over. To this end, all military developments indicate that the jihadist stronghold of Harasta is yet to be physically separated from Douma city.

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SYRIAN WAR REPORT – MARCH 7, 2018: EASTERN GHOUTA BATTLE AND “CHEMICAL ATTACKS”

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The administration of US President Donald Trump is once again considering new “military action” against the Syrian government, the Washington Post reported on March 5 citing unnamed officials.

According to the newspaper, President Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met last week to discuss new strikes in response to what they call chemical weapons attacks by government forces in Eastern Ghouta.

On February 25, activists and media linked to militant groups operating in Eastern Ghouta claimed that Damascus had used chlorine gas in the militant-held area. These reports allegedly triggered the White House to consider new military action in Syria. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the Pentagon denied that such a meeting had taken place.

On March 6, the White Helments, a notorious organization operating in areas controlled by al-Qaeda-linked militants, reported that government forces had conducted a new chlorine gas attack in Eastern Ghouta allegedly injuring 30 people.

It’s interesting to note that reports about alleged chemical attacks started appearing during a rapid advance by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman.

By March 7, SAA troops had liberated a large area, including farms near the towns of Misraba and Beit Sawa. The town of Hammouriyah had reportedly surrendered to the SAA and government troops had started entering it. The town of Rayhan, which had been a key militant stronghold in the northeastern part of the pocket, had also been liberated by the SAA.

The militants’ defense is rapidly collapsing. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its counterparts can only be be rescued by some stroke of luck. For example, US missile strikes on Damascus triggered by alleged chemical attacks by the SAA. HTS-linked media are doing all they can to achieve this goal.

On March 6, the Russian Ministry of Defense offered militants a safe passage out of the besieged area via an open corridor.

“The Russian Reconciliation Center guarantees the immunity of all rebel fighters who take the decision to leave Eastern Ghouta with personal weapons and together with their families,” the ministry said adding that vehicles would “be provided, and the entire route will be guarded.”

However, a spokesman for Faylaq al-Rahman publicly rejected the proposal saying that Aleppo will not be repeated. Militants still prevent locals from using the safe corridor to leave the besieged area.

According to Major-General Yuri Yevtushenko, Head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Warring Parties, by March 6 only 17 people had managed to leave Eastern Ghouta via the Al-Wafideen humanitarian corridor.

On the same day, an An-26 military transport plane crashed near the Russian Hmeimim airbase. According to the defense ministry, 39 people died in the crash. Six crew members and 33 people were on board, all of them military personnel. The incident could have been caused by a technical malfunction.

In the area of Afrin, the Turkish Army and the Free Syrian Army captured 7 villages, including Tall Hamu, Shirkan, Metinli and Qatma, from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Considering the recent advances, Turkish forces are now attempting to isolate the YPG-held city of Afrin from the northeastern and western directions.

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SYRIAN WAR REPORT – MARCH 6, 2018: MILITANTS RETREAT UNDER SYRIAN ARMY PRESSURE IN EASTERN GHOUTA

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The Syrian Arab Army, the Tiger Forces and their allies have advanced on positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and other militant groups in the areas of Harasta, Hawsh Ashari, Bayt Siwwa in the Eastern Ghouta region. Government forces have also entered the area of Rayhan, but have not been able to secure it yet.

Meanwhile, the US-led block, the mainstream media and pro-militant sources are developing their propaganda campaign in an attempt to save militants operating in Eastern Ghouta from defeat accusing government forces of civilian casualties and chemical attacks.

On March 5, the Pentagon announced that Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the area of Afrin had led to an “operational pause” in US-led efforts against ISIS in eastern Syria.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning added that the operational pause had not affected US strikes on ISIS and the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces still control territory it had seized.

Another Pentagon spokesman, Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, said that “Some fighters operating within the SDF have decided to leave operations in the middle Euphrates river valley to fight elsewhere, possibly in Afrin.”

Thus, Washington at least admitted that the YPG was the main if not only ground striking force of the SDF. Various US officials had repeatedly claimed that the SDF consisted of some mysterious Arab-dominated forces with some YPG presence.

On the other hand, the US will be able to justify their further military presence in eastern Syria with “we are fighting ISIS” mantra now as long as its operation is on “pause”.

On March 5 and March 6, the Turkish Armed Forces and the Free Syrian Army advanced further in Afrin and captured the villages of Qurayriyah, Qatirah, Karakih and entered the Sharan district center. Clashes are ongoing.

Syrian Army readies for urban warfare operation after seizing all rebel-held farmland areas in east Damascus

 Syrian Army progress in East Ghouta since start of ground offensive (Credit: Syrian Digital Media).

BEIRUT, LEBANON (11:10 A.M.) – Just two weeks since kicking off its ground offensive against armed rebel groups in Damascus’ East Ghouta region, the Syrian Army has seized virtually all of the farmland areas that once made up the insurgent pocket.

By this advance, the Syrian Army has cornered militant groups within a number of district towns and cities on Damascus’ eastern periphery as several suburbs belonging to the easternmost parts of the capital itself (i.e. Jobar).

 Hitherto, the Syrian Army has mostly only engaged Jaysh al-Islam militants due to the main focus of the operations being in the eastern half of the rebel bastion where the insurgent groups predominates.

In taking the main urban regions of East Ghouta itself, the Syrian Army will now encounter a multitude of other rebel factions simultaneously including Al-Qaeda affiliate Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham (better known by its former name Jabhat al-Nusra), Syrian Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Ahrar al-Sham and Free Syrian Army affiliate Faylaq al-Rahman.

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SYRIAN WAR REPORT – FEBRUARY 26, 2018: TIGER FORCES START GROUND OPERATION IN EASTERN GHOUTA

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On February 25, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies started a ground phase of their operation against militants in the Eastern Ghouta region, near Damascus. Since the start of the operation, government forces had liberated the locations of Nashabiyah, Hazrama, Tal Farzat and Salehiya and repelled an attack by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) in the northern part of the pocket.

Militants destroyed at least one armored bulldozer and claimed that they had killed 25 pro-government fighters in the recent clashes. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam will be the main opponents of the SAA if it seeks to capture entire Eastern Ghouta.

On February 24, the UN Security Council passed a resolution seeking to establish a comprehensive ceasefire throughout Syria. However, the ceasefire excludes ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist groups. Despite this, the mainstream media has already started pushing an idea that the SAA’s operations against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Eastern Ghouta violate the resolution.

ISIS attacked positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the western part of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. The terrorist group will likely make an attempt to use the violence in the Damascus countryside to expand own influence in the area.

Meanwhile, in northern Syria, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) captured over 8 locations expanding their control north and northwest of the city of Afrin.

According to pro-Turkish sources, the TAF and the FSA have recently neutralized over 50 members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In turn, pro-Kurdish sources claimed that over 35 TAF soldiers and FSA members had been killed by the YPG.

A limited deployment of government forces in the Afrin area has not been able to stop the Turkish operation against the YPG. If Damascus and the YPG really want to limit the Turkish expansion in the area, they will have to reach a broad deal over Afrin.

On the other hand, Ankara describes the YPG as a terrorist group and claims that any side assisting it will become a target of the TAF.

TIGER FORCES DEVELOPING MOMENTUM IN EASTERN GHOUTA (MAP, VIDEO)

The Tiger Forces, the Republican Guard and the Syrian Arab Army are developing momentum against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham and their allies.

The main clashes are taking place in the southeastern and northwestern parts of Eastern Ghotua. Government forces are pressuring militants in the areas of Harasta, Hawsh ad Dawahirah.

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Syrian Army resumes offensive in large East Ghouta suburb

BEIRUT, LEBANON (11:55 A.M.) – The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) resumed their offensive in the East Ghouta suburb of Harasta this morning after a successful start on Sunday.

Led by their 4th Mechanized Division, the Syrian Arab Army stormed the defenses of Faylaq Al-Rahman and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in Harasta, attacking the last buildings under their control in the Al-Ajami District.

According to a report from Damascus, the Syrian Arab Army is currently on the move in the Al-Ajami District, while they receive close air support from the SyAAF.

If the Syrian Army can take control of the Al-Ajami District from the jihadist rebels of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and Faylaq Al-Rahman, they will be in control of Harasta’s western sector.

SYRIAN GOVERNMENT FORCES OPEN FRONT AGAINST MILITANTS IN HARASTA AREA IN EASTERN GHOUTA (MAP)

On February 26, Syrian government forces, led by the Republican Guard, opened a new front against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham and their allies in the Harasta area in the Eastern Ghouta region, near Damascus, according to pro-government sources.

Governemnt troops advanced on the militants’ positions in the district of Ajami where fighting erupted. The advance is reportedly supported by warplanes of the Syrian Arab Air Force.

On February 25, the Syrian Army and its allies started a ground phase of their counter-terrorism operation in Eastern Ghouta and already achieved first gains in the eastern part of the pocket.

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The Battle for Eastern Ghouta

24-02-2018 | 11:08

Last month, militant groups operating in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta refused an invitation to the Russian-sponsored peace conference in the resort town of Sochi.

Syria map

That decision demonstrated their unwillingness to engage in any form of dialogue with the government in Damascus, and rendered the de-escalation zone in the area, which ensures a temporary cessation of hostilities, fairly futile.

Of course, the decision to skip Sochi, much like their now entirely ineffectual – although still bloody – war against the Syrian army, is not the result of autonomous decision-making within militant ranks. It is the product of western and Arab foreign policy agendas that appear determined to prolong the Syrian conflict and the suffering of its people.

In line with those foreign objectives, armed groups abandoned talks with Damascus, opting instead to pursue a fantasy about a military victory in Syria.

The result has been a spike in militant attacks across Syria’s four de-escalation zones situated in Idlib province, in the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave, in northern Homs province, in parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces, and in Eastern Ghouta in the northern Damascus countryside.

From the shooting-down of a Russian fighter jet in Idlib, to clashes along the fringes of the zones in Homs, Deraa and, of course, Ghouta, the upsurge in violence has led to scores of civilian casualties.

In Damascus alone, over 30 people have been killed and hundreds injured as a result of mortar fire coming from Eastern Ghouta in the last two weeks.

And earlier this week, a total of 114 projectiles fired on the Syrian capital in a single day killed 13 people and wounded 77 others.

These developments point to a renewed and concerted effort to undermine the Syrian government and its allies, at a time when its military formations have successfully eliminated the Daesh [Arabic acronym for “ISIS” / “ISIL’] terror group and its affiliates.

But more importantly, the campaign is designed to destroy the Russian-Iranian-Turkish co-sponsored peace negotiations, which aim to lay the groundwork for serious political dialogue in the war-torn country.

The dangerous escalations have prompted Damascus to launch a renewed anti-terrorist operation in Eastern Ghouta, in hope of clearing it from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front), Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Failaq al-Rahman.

According to a researcher with the International Crisis Group, Sam Heller, the campaign is aimed at “resolving the issue of Eastern Ghouta permanently, either through a purely military victory or through a negotiated solution under enormous military pressure.”

Aleppo 2.0

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the present-day battle for Eastern Ghouta and operations conducted by the Syrian military and its allies to recapture Eastern Aleppo a little over a year ago.

In both cases, the densely populated urban areas were occupied by terrorist factions that used the civilian population as virtual hostages and human shields. And also in both cases, the Syrians and their allies acted with a great deal of restraint in the hope of minimizing casualties.

In spite of the facts on the ground, Damascus was bombarded by calls for an immediate ceasefire, allegations of ‘war crimes’, and reports of chemical weapons being used.

But the liberation of Aleppo unveiled a completely different reality. There were no atrocities or reprisals carried out against the local population by the Syrian forces, and the liberated civilians are not exactly yearning for the return of the ‘rebels’ that the west holds in such high regard.

Tens of thousands quickly returned to their homes, where the state provides security, as well as essential communal and social services.

Of course, none of this will ever be circulated in the mainstream media. There will be no images or stories about residents in Aleppo returning to normal life, resurrecting schools, markets, mosques and churches.

In much the same way, there is no global attention directed at the thousands of well-trained and heavily armed militants in Eastern Ghouta, who perpetrate near-daily atrocities against both the civilians in the areas under their control and beyond.

Instead, the spotlight is placed squarely on Damascus and its allies, whose officials are made to look like they enjoy bombing hospitals for the fun of it.

“I am afraid that a lot of this human cry coming from the western media is really designed to save those terrorist forces,” said former US diplomat Jim Jatras.

“We know there are civilians suffering there. Efforts should be made to try to alleviate that just like we saw in Aleppo when Syrian and Russian forces liberated that city. But the same suffering happens when US forces push Daesh out of Mosul or out of Raqqa and we don’t hear about it so much in the mainstream media,” Jatras added.

In sharp contrast to the coverage of Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo, condemnation of America’s scorched earth policy in both Iraq and Syria, which has reduced countless cities to ghost towns, is virtually nonexistent.

That’s because civilian casualties are only relevant when they can be used as pawns for western geostrategic objectives. And in the case of Eastern Ghouta, the west is hoping to not only prolong the Syrian conflict by shielding the militants, but also extract concessions from the Damascus government.

Source: Al-Ahed News

EASTERN GHOUTA: BRIEF LOOK AT UPCOMING OPERATION DAMASCUS STEEL

 South Front

24.02.2018

Eastern Ghouta: Brief Look At Upcoming Operation Damascus Steel

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Submited by 24 Resistance Axis

The Syrian Arab Army is preparing to launch its long-awaited Operation Damascus Steel in the Eastern Ghouta. The operation’s goal is to capture entire militant-held pocket (+100 km²) and to secure the Syrian capital and the Damascus-Homs highway (M5).

Right now, Damascus is under a constrant threat of shelling by Tahrir Al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, the Free Syrian Army and other militant groups.

A success in Eastern Ghouta will also allow to free a large number of SAA troops for further operations against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the province of Idlib.

Forces

The advance in Eastern Ghouta will be spearheaded by the SAA’s Tiger Forces, the Republican Guard, the 14th Division (SF) and the 4th Armoured Division (Ghiath Forces – 42nd Brigade).

These  units will be backed by the National Defense Forces, Tribal Forces and Galilee Forces. According to reports these factions will be mainly involved in defensive operations and fortification tasks. The 1st Armored Division, the 7th Mechanized Division and the 9th Armoured Division have also sent reinforcements to the area.

In total, the operation will involve 10,000 – 15,000 pro-government fighters, backed by the Syrian Air Force and the Russian Aeroosapce Forces.

On the other hand, Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar Al-Sham, Tahrir Al-Sham and Faylaq Al-Rahman have been involved in a series of internal tensions since the middle of 2017. The new SAA operation in Eastern Ghouta will likely force them to unite efforts against the Syrian government and its allies.

Possible scenario

There are a high urban density, a large number of underground tunnels and many fortified sites of militants in the western part of Eastern Ghouta. On the other hand, the eastern part of the pocket is mostly a farm land.

Most likely, the SAA and its allies will make an attempt to isolate the urban area from Jobar to Duma. If government forces seek to do this, they will have to capture the farm lands controlled by Jash al-Islam.

However, this does not exclude possible attacks on the western front, especially if militants send reinforcements to the eastern part of the pocket. The SAA may use its advantage in manpower and firepower to open a new front against militants and to use their lack of the coordination.

According to reports, government forces will attempt to divide the militant-held area into few spearated parts and to force local groups of militants to reconcile with the government one by one. The similar strategy was used during the Battle of Qaboun in 2017.

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SYRIAN WAR REPORT – FEBRUARY 19, 2018: SYRIAN ARMY AND YPG WORKING TO REACH DEAL OVER AFRIN

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The Syrian military has deployed a large force, including the Tiger Forces, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the Republican Guard and other pro-government factions, near the militant-held pocket in Damascus’ Eastern Ghouta. The force is led by the Tiger Forces’ commander, Gen. Suheil al-Hassan.

Late on February 18, artillery pieces and rocket launchers of the SAA started shelling positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), Ahrar al-Sham and other militant groups in the neighborhoods of Nashabiyah, Tel Ferzat, Mesraba, Hawsh Ashari, Autaya, Eyen Tarma, Irbin, Harasta and Jobar. Warplanes of the Syrian Air Force also carried out airstrikes on identified ammo depots and HQs belonging to the militant groups.

Early on February 19, sporadic clashes were reported in few areas of the pocket. However, a large-scale SAA advance has not yet started.

On February 18, Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki released an official statement announcing that they had merged and formed a new militant group entitled “the Syrian Liberation Front”. The declared goal of the new militant group is to fight the SAA, its allies as well as other enemies of the so-called “Syrian revolution”.

According to reports, the group will be led by Jaber Ali Basha, a senior commander of Ahrar al-Sham. Syrian experts believe that the groups are trying to use the merger to hide a trace of beheadings and terrorist attacks associated with the brands of Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki as well as to use it as a card in competition for the power in Idlib with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Considering that the both groups have some ties with Ankara, the merger may be conducted within the wider Turkish plan aimed at expanding its influence in the area.

The story with Damascus-YPG negotiations over a possible SAA deployment in the Afrin area is still developing as Kurdish sources provide conflicting reports and statements on the issue.

While the Kurdish political leadership are bargaining, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and the Free Syrian Army continued their advance and captured the villages of Hecika Fuqani, Hecika Tahtani and Dervish Ubashi.

Meanwhile, the YPG media claimed that YPG members had conducted an attack on a TAF HQ in the village of Qiri Xane in the southern Turkish province of Hatay and killed 7 TAF service members there. The reports are not confirmed by the Turkish side.

On February 18, the Hezbollah media wing in Syria released a video threatening to strike Israeli offshore oil and gas operations in case of Israeli aggression.

The video quotes remarks of the movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah over the recent Israeli-Lebanese oil dispute issue over the Block 9 the Block 9 oil and gas field.

“If you prevent us, we prevent you; if you open fire at us, we will open fire; if you hit us, we will hit you;”

The video shows the facilities of Karish, Tamar and Lavthan as targets of possible missile attacks.

In December, Lebanon approved a bid from a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two of the five blocks put up for tender in Lebanon’s first oil and gas offshore licensing round. However, Israel pretends that Block 9 is at least partly located in its waters. On January 31, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman even threatened the companies that will develop the oil field and said that they are “making a grave error.”

JABHAT AL-NUSRA: HISTORY, CAPABILITIES, ROLE IN SYRIAN WAR

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History

Jabhat al-Nusra, originally Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-ahli ash-Sham min Mujahideen ash-Shām fi Sahat al-Jihad or “Victory Front for the People of the Levant by the Mujahideen of the Levant on the Fields of Jihad”, was founded in January 2012, when military operations between the government forces and groups of armed Syrian opposition were in full force. Jabhat al-Nusra arose with the direct support of the Iraqi cell of al-Qaeda, the “Islamic State in Iraq”, which was at that time led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At the outset, the leaders of al-Qaeda tried, with the help of their Iraqi ally, to strengthen friendly Jihadist groups in Syria and to unite them into one militant organization.

Abu Muhammad al-Julani, a member of the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq – “the Islamic State in Iraq”, was chosen by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to establish an al-Qaeda branch in Syria under the name of the “Al-Nusra Front for the People of Al-Sham.” Abu Muhammed al-Julani entered Syria from Iraq and began a series of meetings in Homs, Ghouta of Damascus, and Deir-ez-Zor. The first cells of Jabhat al-Nusra were established in the northern Homs countryside, western Ghouta of Damascus, and in al-Bukamal on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

On January 23, 2012, Abu Muhammad al-Julani officially announced the establishment of the “Al-Nusra Front for the People of Al-Sham” and small groups began to carry out terrorist acts against civilians, attacked the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and later began conducting clashes along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ISIS.

In a short time, Jabhat al-Nusra under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Julani achieved a number of military successes and gained fame as one of the most efficient units in the north, north-west and northeast of Syria. A pivotal moment occurred at the end of 2012, when Jabhat al-Nusra seized many military facilities, arms and military equipment in western part of Aleppo. After the movement’s detachments were thus strengthened in the western and eastern parts of the province, the main routes of communication between the economic capital of Syria and the Syrian-Turkish border fell under Jabhat al-Nusra’s control, which forced other detachments fighting in opposition to Bashar Assad to establish relations and coordinate their actions with the organization.

Main operations and spheres of influence

In the Homs province, Jabhat al-Nusra, along with the al-Qaeda branch in Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam, was one of the most powerful fighting factions alongside the Al-Farouq battalion of the FSA, most of whose militants publicly or secretly joined al-Nusra or Fatah al-Islam.

Jabhat al-Nusra led many attacks in the old Homs area, Khalidiya and Baba Amro between 2011 and 2012, and led a large-scale attack on January 29, 2012 to capture the towns of Rastan and Talbisah in the northern Homs and succeeded in that operation.

In the south of Syria, especially in the Daraa province, Al-Nusra managed to form large forces rapidly, and led the attack on Daraa city on March 14, 2012. Within months, it managed to capture most areas within the city of Daraa.

On July 15, 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra participated in their first attack on the capital city of Damascus along with the FSA and Jaish al-Islam. Within days, they managed to capture most areas of eastern and Western Ghouta along with several districts close to the center of the capital Damascus, such as the districts of Jubar and Al-Maydan. Later the SAA managed to recapture most of these areas.

On July 19, 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra participated in the attack on Aleppo city along with groups of the FSA, the most important of which was the “Northern Storm Regiment”. Within days they managed to capture the eastern area of Aleppo. Later, Jabhat Al-Nusra’s influence expanded. At one point al-Nusra became the sole ruler of opposition-controlled Aleppo, especially after large numbers of the FSA jointed its ranks by the end of 2012 and after it took ISIS out of the city in 2014.

Since 2013, Idlib has become the main center of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and the headquarters of its leadership. Jabhat al-Nusra managed to strengthen its influence further in the beginning of 2014 after the departure of ISIS from the province as a result of a number of disagreements between the groups.

Jabhat al-Nusra participated alongside Ahrar al-Sham in the attack on Raqqa city and managed to capture it on March 6, 2013, 3 days after the attack began. Later, in July 2014, ISIS took over control of Raqqa city. Some members of Jabhat al-Nusra decided to join ISIS while the rest refused to fight it. As a result, al-Nusra withdrew from the city.

From the beginning, Jabhat al-Nusra lead battles against the SAA in the Deir-ez-Zor countryside and in Deir-ez-Zor city. By 2013 al-Nusra seized most of the oil fields in the city’s countryside and along with the FSA, started an illegal oil trade with Turkey.

At the beginning of 2014 with the escalation of ISIS influence in Iraq, al-Nusra began to reduce its presence in Deir-ez-Zor city. After some minor clashes, most of al-Nusra’s fighters withdrew from Deir-Ez-Zour to Aleppo and Idlib, while large numbers of al-Nusra foreign militants joined ISIS.

It is believed that on April 6, 2014, the remnants of the FSA detonated a VBIED in the old Homs area with the aim of killing the commanders of Jabhat al-Nusra. The suicide attack was a success, and after the death of the commanders of Jabhat al-Nusra, an evacuation agreement was reached on 2 May 2014.

On March 24, 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra led an attack alongside the US-backed Free Syrian Army factions to capture Idlib city and were able to do so within 4 days. This operation was successful largely due to US support through intelligence and advanced weapons such as the TOW missiles, which reached the hands of al-Nusra militants.

By 14 June 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies from the FSA had managed to capture the entire western Idlib countryside, including the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour, and carried out a series of massacres against the pro-government population, expelled even the pro-opposition population from the city, and blew up and demolished most of its buildings.

With Russian military intervention in Syria and the bombing of the positions of Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo, Idlib and the northern Homs countryside, both the “moderate” and radical Islamist opposition began to lose strategic initiative in the civil war in Syria. There was a lot of pressure from supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra, Turkey and Qatar, on the leadership of the movement, to disengage from and disavow Al-Qaeda.

After the great advance of the SAA in Aleppo and its success in besieging the eastern districts, Abu Muhammad al-Julani announced on July 28, 2016, the official disengagement of al-Nusra from al-Qaeda and announced the formation of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. He stressed that the objectives of the al-Sham Front are the same as those of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Syria. In an ironic twist, al-Qaeda leader “Ayman al-Zawahiri” praised al-Julani’s decision and declared his support for the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, prompting everyone, including the United States, to consider the move as a formality. The Jabhat Fatah al-Sham maintained its terrorist classification in all countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

On October 28, 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra with its allies from the Free Syrian Army launched a large counterattack south and west of Aleppo city to break the siege of the SAA in the eastern districts; however, the attack failed two weeks later when Jabhat Fatah al-Sham could not hold the points it had taken over.

On 28 January 2017, Jabhat al-Nusra changed its name once again, this time to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). On March 21, 2017, it launched the offensive of the northern Hama countryside along with the FSA factions supported by the CIA, most notably are Jaish al-Izza, Jaish al-Nasr and the Idlib Free Army. These were considered the most important allies of Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib and a major source of its weapons. The aim of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s advance was to recapture the settlements it lost in 2016. The active phase of fighting continued until the end of April 2017. For more than a month, neither side had a decisive advantage, and in fact, prolonged fights began, during which a number of settlements repeatedly changed hands.

Having accumulated enough reserves in the area and with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the SAA launched a counter-offensive against the positions of the Islamists in mid-April and recaptured the territories it had lost at the beginning of the month.

On September 19, 2017 HTS, along with the units of the Turkestan Islamic Party and the FSA, once again made an attempt to advance on the position of the SAA in the northern part of the province of Hama.. The aim of HTS was to take revenge for their defeat in the April 2017 offensive. While fighting went back and forth, with settlements being occupied by both sides several times, the struggle continued until the end of September and ended in a stalemate, with neither side able of winning a convincing victory, with each side remaining in their original positions. As time went on, the situation in the province was further complicated by the appearance of the IS militants in early October 2017, as a result of which armed conflict erupted between all opposition groups in the region, which continues at varying degrees of intensity to this day.

In late November and early December, the SAA carried out a number of operations against HTS in northern Hama and southern Aleppo and achieved some success creating the prerequisites for a push towards the Abu al-Duhur air base. Taking the air base under control will allow government troops to expand the buffer zone adjacent to the road going to Aleppo and cut the front line to the west of Khanaser.

The intensification of the activities of the Russian Air Force in the region in the first half of December 2017 gives grounds to conclude that the preparation of the SAA for an attack on the position of radical Islamists is underway. This offensive is likely to have the goal of delivering a decisive blow to HTS, since it currently presents a greater threat than the IS.

In January 2018, the SAA liberated a large area from HTS in southern Idlib advancing towards the Abu al-Duhur air base.

At the present time (January 2018) the main area of ​​deployment of the armed units of HTS is in the province of Idlib. In addition, the units of Jabhat al-Nusra partially occupy the north-eastern part of the province of Hama, and the western and south-western part of the province of Aleppo. After al-Nusra finally broke off relations with Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most battle-worthy movements in Syria, they gained control of practically the entirety of the province of Idlib.

Structure

The movement avoids publications concerning the structure of the organization, the real names of commanders of its large units and the work of its main bodies. It is known that the advisory body Majlis al-Shura, consisting of 12 people, is at the head of the movement. Based on information surveyed and interviews, HTS operates through eight divisions, namely military, security, services, religious law, courts, media, finances, and politics. For each of these divisions, there is an office for the Shura Council.

In fact, since its inception, Jabhat al-Nusra / HTS was a coalition of armed formations.As a result of the rebranding conducted in January 2017, HTS includes such groups as “Jabhat Ansar al-Din”, “Nur al-Din al-Zenki”, “Liwa al-Haqq”, and “Jaysh al-Sunna” . According to information from the organization’s website, the new formation also includes groups: Tawhid Wal-Jihad, Ar-Rashid, Ibn Taimiyya, Liva Abbas, Sukur al-Izz, Al-Sahabat, Kuwafal Shuhada, Usud al-Harb, Liva Ahrar al-Jabal and others. Several large groups withdrew from the Ahrar al-Sham and swore allegiance to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham : Surya al-Aqsa, Liva Ahrar al-Jabal, Ansar Homs, and Kurdish paramilitary groups which together comprised of more than five thousand soldiers. The process of breaking and mending relations is constant and there is an alternate structure of the movement as of April 2017.

The auxiliary functions are performed by Qism al-Ighatha (Department of Relief), Idarat al-Khidarat al-Ammah (Public Services Administration), Idarat al-Manateq and al-Muharara (Liberated Districts Administration). In the so-called “liberated areas” where Jabhat al-Nusra has filled the power vacuum, it has created, along with other jihadist organizations, a system of justice and law enforcement called the Shari’ah Authority (Al-Hay’ah al-Shar’iyyah). The Shari’ah Authority operates its own police force called the Shari’ah Authority Police (Shurtat al-Hay’ah al-Shar’iyyah).

The military structure of the groups varies depending on the geographical location of the fighters in Syria. In Damascus, where the partisan tactics of fighting were employed, the divisions were divided into separate detachments, while in Aleppo, military operations were conducted by full-fledged military formations, consolidated into brigades, regiments and battalions.

The movement actively recruits groups of militants, formed on the basis of national and religious grounds.  There are units of militants from Ajnadal-Kavkaz, Caucasus Emirate (natives of Chechnya), and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria (Uyghurs and natives of the Central Asian countries of the former USSR). From a military point of view, this is convenient for management and interaction, since there is no language barrier between the fighters and the commanders. Upon returning to their host country, such a detachment is practically a ready-made cell with combat experience, in which each member knows one another, trusts his commander and is ready to act in the interests of the parent organization. Western experts estimate that in less than 2 years of its existence, there were almost 5,000 people from 60 countries who fought for the movement.

The core military formations varied in their numbers and at times amounted to up to 30,000 people. Together with the added paramilitary groups of like-minded people, the total number reached 70,000. At present, the number of formations is smaller and the core of the grouping, according to the estimates of the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces as of August 2017, consists of up to 15,000 men. Together with units of radical Islamists from other groups, it amounts to a total of 25,000.

The armament of the movement consists of small arms, artillery and tanks seized from the SAA, from various anti-Assad forces, and equipment received from foreign sponsors from the Gulf countries through the jihadist movements with direct or indirect US assistance. In addition, according to reports, the movement has chemical weapon reserves. In December 2012, at the SYSACCO chemical production plant (30 km east of Aleppo), the al-Nusra units captured about 200 tons of chlorine. In May 2013, Turkish special services arrested insurgents of al-Nusra on the border with Syria for attempting to acquire sarin components.

An indicative example of direct or indirect U.S. support is the use of the American ATGM BGM-71 TOW by the al-Nusra forces. These units were transferred to the armed formations by the “moderate” opposition, for example, FSA units (Harakat Hazzm). Subsequently, the ATGM systems were either voluntarily supplied, or forcibly taken from other groups by HTS. At the end of September 2015, the “30th division” of the opposition, supported by the US government, surrendered to the units of al-Nusra and handed over a large number of ammunition, small arms and artillery weapons and a number of light vehicles. The same happened with the FSA’s “13 Division” in March 2016, which directly received American weapons.

Rebranding

At the end of June 2016, the leaders of the Syrian opposition (primarily from Ahrar al-Sham) conducted negotiations and consultations in light of Russia’s actions against al-Nusra, which also threatened other groups. As a result of such meetings in the western part of the province of Aleppo and in Idlib, it proposed to either dissolve al-Nusra into a new association, which would be headed by Ahram al-Sham or to tear it away from al-Qaeda. The situation was such that a third of al-Nusra, first of all the ethnic Syrians, were ready to break with al-Qaeda and join a new group.

Then the leadership of al-Nusra undertook a rebranding, which, on the one hand, was to save it from a split, and on the other, in the eyes of the Syrians, to root it in the Syrian revolutionary movement. As a result, al-Nusra became known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Front of the Conquest of Syria) and proclaimed its formal departure from al-Qaeda. After this, the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham attempted to unite with Ahrar al- Sham and other factions; however, this would have led to the inclusion of all participants of this union on the list of internationally recognized terrorist groups. As a result, the attempt to create a “Syrian Islamic Commission” at the end of 2016, in which A. Giulani wanted to play a key role, failed.

There are other reasons why al-Nusra began to act under a new name.

First, it allows sponsors and leaders of the movement to avoid sanctions, since al-Nusra periodically gets on the “Consolidated List of Legal Entities Affiliated with or Associated with al-Qaeda Organization”, compiled by the UN Security Council. Updating the list, in light of objective reasons, is not keeping up with the evolution and expansion of al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries.

Second, it is more convenient for Western special services to deal with groups not listed on the list of the UN Security Council and/or on the American or European list of terrorist organizations. Instead, they prefer to deal with “rebels” who declared their secession from al-Qaeda.

On January 28, 2017, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham conducted another rebranding and was named Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant). This coincided with increased pressure on opposition groups in Syria and with a turning point in the Syrian war – the liberation of Aleppo. The military defeat near Aleppo, where Jabhat al-Nusra lost the bulk of its most trained fighters and much of its technology, was a turning point in reducing its influence.

Relations and relationships with other groups

Military successes in the first years of the civil war declined to the point where, starting from 2014, the movement started to systematically weaken and accept “moderate” groups, which represented secular and national opposition.

In November 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the “Syrian Revolutionary Front”, a large association that fought under the banner of the FSA and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and received assistance from the United States and its allies. Its leader, Jamal Ma’ruf, was forced to flee to Turkey. Then the jihadists attacked the camps of the movement “Harakat Hazzm”, which the US planned to thoroughly train and supply with weapons and which many American analysts viewed as the most acceptable variant of the moderate opposition.

As a result, Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of October 2014, seized the base of the Hazzm Movement in Idlib, and in January 2015 displaced it from Aleppo, effectively forcing it to dissolve and merge with other militant groups. At the end of September 2015, al-Nusra attacked the 30th division of the FSA, forcing some of the fighters along with their arms to cross over to their side. The jihadists particularly intensified the fighting against the “moderate opposition” after the US and its allies began to conduct air strikes at the end of September 2014, not only directed against the positions of the IS, but also targeting “Jabhat al-Nusra.” Thus, the movement played an important role in the failure of the US project to create a “secular military opposition” in Syria.

Since 2012, the FSA’s relations with Jabhat al-Nusra have been excellent. The FSA and the US-backed factions supported Jabhat al-Nusra financially and most importantly with the weapons supplied to them by the CIA and Turkey. However, al-Nusra did not hesitate to turn its weapons against the FSA or hesitate to eliminate any group that opposed its will, especially in the province of Idlib and in Aleppo countryside.

As for the relationship of Jabhat al-Nusra with Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest groups in the north of Syria, while Ahrar al-Sham obey the orders of Jabhat al-Nusra and treat its leadership with respect, Jabhat al-Nusra takes firm action with Ahrar al-Sham and has not hesitated to use its weapons against it in 2017. It has even issued a statement calling the militants of the Ahrar al-Sham “infidels” after clashes with the 46th regiment in the northwest Aleppo countryside. However, the militants of Ahrar al-Sham, despite a number of them being killed or wounded by al-Nusra tanks, refused to return fire on the al-Nusra militants.

It is also believed that Jabhat al-Nusra pushed Ahrar al-Sham into a losing battle in Aleppo in order to weaken it. The final gulf between the two-armed movements formed in July 2017. The reason for the conflict, in addition to purely ideological differences, was the fact that the Ahrar al-Sham group controlled the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, which was an important transport corridor, as well as a source of finance and the replenishment of the military formations of the “moderate” opposition. Perhaps the most important reason for the conflict was the issue of control over the “civil administration” of the province of Idlib.

The disagreement of Jabhat al-Nusra with ISIS began at the end of 2013, when al-Nusra separated its link to the Islamic State in Iraq – now ISIS – and the controversy increased in 2014 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the separation from al-Qaeda and the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. Al-Julani rejected Abu Bakr’s allegiance to the Caliphate. The basis of the controversy is that Jabhat al-Nusra believes that the Caliphate should be established after capturing the whole of Syria and Iraq, while ISIS believes that the Caliphate should be established in any area under its control. Although there was a great deal of talk about clashes between the two parties, clashes were rare, short-lived. Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew from Deir-Ez-zour and Raqqa, while ISIS withdrew from Aleppo and Idlib, with large numbers of militants from Al-Nusra changing their allegiance to ISIS.

Al-Nusra developed a difficult relationship with the movement of Nour al-Din al-Zenki (numbering 7,000 militants in 2017). In 2015 and 2016, both sides participated in clashes against each other; however, in January 2017, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki group in Idlib joined with al-Nusra. In the second half of July 2017, there was a conflict between the leadership of Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham  because of a statement, made by an authority figure from Nour al-Din al-Zenki, saying that there is no Sharia rule in the territory controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Since HTS strategy is aimed at cooperating with local Islamist organizations that recognize the main goal of establishing an Islamic state and Sharia in Syria, such an approach does not allow Syrian Islamist groups, including Jaysh al-Islam, to oppose Al Qaeda in Syria in the face of Jabhat al-Nusrah / HTS. Both groups profess Salafi Islam and both groups raise the issue of overthrowing the existing power.

According to a former leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Muhammad Zahran Allush, there was a fraternal relationship between his organization and Jabhat al-Nusra, and the existing insignificant ideological differences could be resolved through the discussion and application of Shariah norms. In his interview, Zahran Allush said that he personally met with one of the leaders of “Jabhat al-Nusra” Abu al-Qahtani, and found no difference between the Shari’ah of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Shari’ah of “Jash al-Islam”.

In 2013, Jaysh al-Islam, together with Jabhat al- Nusra, organized a bloody massacre in the city of Adra, directed mainly against minorities, most notably the Alawites. After the death of Muhammad Zahran Allush as the result of an airstrike conducted on December 25, 2015, the new leadership of Jaysh al-Islam soon began to disagree with the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra. This took place in light of the fact that the Islam Army has taken a strong stance in favor of negotiations, with Zahran Alloush’s cousin and close companion, Mohammed Alloush, heading the opposition diplomats in Geneva.

Participation of various groups of “moderate opposition” in the Syrian settlement under the patronage of Turkey, Iran and Russia led to a “split” in the ranks of these groups, which significantly weakened their position in the country.  In this respect, the case of the Jaysh al-Islam movement can serve as a prime example. Since the movement formally participates as a group and represents the “moderate opposition”, it had to sever its ties with HTS. In practice, the situation is quite different.

Jaysh al-Islam has several regional branches: Eastern Ghouta, Eastern Qalamoun, Daraa, and Idlib.

Eastern Ghouta – Jaysh al-Islam, HTS, Ahrar al-Sham and al-Rahman Corps are the most influential groups in this area near Damascus. All of them, in spite of some tensions, actively cooperate against the SAA. The peak of Jaysh al-Islam’s participation in the fight against HTS was when the group allegedly did not come to the aid of HTS during the battles in the area of ​​Jobar (Guta district). However, the truce in the region is very controversial. Not long ago, Ahrar al-Sham conducted a series of major attacks against the army in the area south of the Duma – the area of the Army Armored Vehicles Base.

Eastern Qalamoun – the militants did not show much activity here and before negotiations in Astana, there was a truce.  In fact, Jaysh al-Islam is forced to share resources and interact with HTS in this region.

As a result, it turns out that the leaders of this “moderate” opposition did not actually do anything of substance in constructively participating in the Astana process and limited themselves exclusively to vague formal gestures (such as sending delegations and making loud statements in the media).

Therefore, one can make the disappointing conclusion that the real influence of the Astana format on the situation in Syria is of much significance than originally thought, and the format is not very effective. Statements of the high-ranking officials of the Russian Foreign Ministry about successful negotiations are not accurate. To date, the moderate opposition does not want peace. It continues fighting, repeatedly delays negotiations, and awaits the intervention of other countries.

The Idlib de-escalation zone

Separately, it is necessary to focus on 4 zones of de-escalation in Syria, the boundaries of which were determined by the agreements in Astana on September 16, 2017. The agreement established the boundaries of de-escalation zones, where, as agreed, military operations between government forces and forces of the armed opposition groups which have already joined the truce or will join it in the future, are to be halted. To prevent incidents and clashes between various sides along the borders of zones, security bands were created. They include observation posts and checkpoints for the movement of unarmed civilians, delivery of humanitarian aid and facilitation of economic activities. The work of the checkpoints and observation posts, as well as the management of the security zones, is carried out by personnel from Russia, Turkey and Iran. This begs many questions, chief among them: Why is there is no mention of withdrawal of heavy weaponry nor the surrender of weapons inside the zones?

The most extensive zone of de-escalation is located in northern Syria. It contains the province of Idlib, as well as the bordering northeastern parts of the province of Latakia, the western provinces of Aleppo and the northern regions of the province of Hama. It is worth noting that the province of Idlib is one of the most problematic. It is here that the main forces of the terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra / HTS are based, and it was here that the Syrian authorities brought militants and members of their families from Aleppo.

According to Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Russia will provide security outside of Idlib while Turkey will ensure security inside of Idlib. Turkey had the right to deploy in Idlib, via a small group of troops, whose task is to organize observation posts, but they are not to form a full-fledged army group. However, by October 13, 2017, about 50 units of armored vehicles and 200 servicemen crossed the Turkish-Syrian border. The pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak claimed that 25,000 Turkish soldiers were mobilized to carry out military operations in Syria.

Thus, in the northern part of the Idlib province, the so-called free zone from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham  is created under the auspices of Turkish forces. The area will host the forces of the “moderate” opposition and Turkish troops. In the south, the province of Hama will host Russian observers. The forces of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will be moved to a zone located in the middle. This way HTS will be deprived of any possibility of reaching the border.

Meanwhile, in the zones controlled by radical Islamists, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham  blames the “moderate” opposition, for abandoning the war against the Assad government and entering into peace agreements. At the same time, the movement, aside from fighting battles against the SAA, is actively engaged in attacks against factions of the “moderate” opposition.

Financing and communication with external sponsors

“Jabhat al-Nusra” is considered to be one of the most well-equipped and well-armed formations fighting against government troops. According to some estimates, before the conflict with the Islamic State (January 2012-April 2013), half of ISIS’ budget was sent to Jabhat al-Nusra. At the same time, the group received significant funds from Syrians with sympathies for radical Islam. From April, 2013 to the end of 2014, the budget of the movement was largely replenished by the illegal trade of oil acquired from the east and northeast of Syria. When the oil prices dropped, IS exerted control over these oil fields, and the movement lost this source of financing.

From the end of 2014 until the present, al-Nusra’s main source of financing comes from external sources. Most of the funding comes from the charitable Salafi foundations in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and from high-ranking clerics and wealthy businessmen who sympathize with the ideas of Salafi Islam of Jordan and Turkey. Hamid bin Abdallah al-Ali is an example of a person who sympathizes with the ideas of the movement. He is an influential Salafi cleric in Kuwait. He has facilitated the transfer of funds, weapons, supplies and fighters to and from Syria for Jabhat al-Nusra,

Shafi Sultan Mohammed al-Ajmi is a native of Kuwait. He is included by the UN Security Council in the list of persons sponsoring al-Qaeda and related organizations. Together with his assistants, he raised funds and gathered weapons under the pretext of charity. He personally delivered the collected funds to various groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra.

Abd al-Rahman al-Nuaimi is a Qatar-based terrorist financier and a facilitator who has provided money, material support and conveyed communications to al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria. In 2013, Naimi ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al-Qaeda via al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria, Abu-Khalid al-Suri.

Ali bin Abdallah al-Suwaidi is the general manager of Mu’assasat ‘Eid bin Muhammad Aal Thani al-Khayriyya (the Eid bin Muhammad al Thani Charitable Society). In this role, Ali al-Suwaidi manages the budget and directs the activities of the charity, including its work with organizations that have been tied to al-Qaeda. According to media reports, Ali al-Suwaidi worked with US sanctioned al-Qaeda financier Abd al-Rahman al-Nuaimi to transfer funds to jihadist militants in Syria, including al-Nusra.

Social networks are another important source of financing. Recruiters in social networks are urging a transfer of money for the aid of militants fighting in Syria. Given that financing terrorism is prosecuted in many countries, the fee is made in disguise to a bank account of an intermediary. The sponsors transfer sums not large enough to attract the attention of bank employees and law enforcement officials. The intermediary then sends money to a foreign bank – to the owner of a money transfer office in Turkey or Jordan for example. He informs his colleague in Syria that the money has come, provides the name of the recipient and gives a password. Money is given from a cash register. Such transactions leave no traces and are hidden from those who are fighting to interdict and disrupt the funding of terrorism.

In addition, the group continues to actively engage in kidnapping, extortion, and collection of taxes from citizens and businesses in controlled areas.

The group also developed a scheme to collect funds from small and medium-sized businesses in territories which are not directly controlled by HTS, but territories that host enough HTS emissaries and combat groups to the extent that those groups can facilitate racketeering.

Al-Qaeda, as the lead organization which promotes the idea of ​​ultra-radical Islam, is in financial crisis. It receives less and less financing from sympathetic individuals and from so called charitable foundations, to carry out its terrorist activities. This necessitated some optimization of costs. The movement had to change its tactics and constructed a new model, aimed at interacting with self-sufficient extremist organizations which do not require support from the lead organization. In this format, al-Qaeda plays a dual rule. First, it acts as a military adviser and mediator for radical Islamist groups. Secondly, it sends authoritative clergymen to various war zones. Al-Qaeda also provides local groups with their own schemes for the transfer of funds, facilitates the creation of enterprises, and provides information to support local organizations.

Loss of influence after the battle for Aleppo and the role in Syria after ISIS

When Aleppo was captured by government troops in late 2016, the appearance of HTS signaled a new phase of restructuring of the radical opposition in Syria. Yet another attempt to rebrand was nothing more than a formal effort by al-Qaeda to dissociate itself from its supporters in Syria, as well as its desire to withdraw moderate Islamists from the negotiation process on the future of Syria in Astana. The leadership of HST wanted to overpower and if that failed, to destroy the entities that are part of Ahrar al-Sham. They sought to become the single center of Sunni militarism in Syria. This caused a split among the opposition, and the most radical of its representatives moved to the newly created Hayat Tahrir al Sham, which marked the beginning of a conflict between the two largest groups in Idlib.

To support its strategy, HTS operates through four main bureaus: General Administration of Services; Military and security operations wing; Dawah and Guidance Office; and Sharia courts.

There are 156 Local Councils operating in the Idlib province with the following administrative divisions: 9% City Councils, 30% Town Councils, and 61% Municipal Councils. Of these Local Councils, 86 operate in HTS-controlled areas—14% City Councils, 39% Town Councils, and 47% Municipal Councils.

In August 2017 a conflict arose between the local city council of Idlib and the General Administration for Services, which is connected with HTS. The latter began the process of making unilateral decisions. The General Administration for Services issued circulars for local councils, informing them that it was the only body with the authority to monitor their work and required the transfer of the relevant council departments to the specialized agencies of the movement. In particular, this affected services which supply water and bread as well as transport. The city council rejected the request and on August 28, 2017, HTS units stormed the city council building of Idlib and ordered all those who disagreed with the policy to leave the building. In this way radical Islamists gained control over administrative services of the city.

The process where smaller formations join or leave the grouping is not static. On November 14, 2017, representatives of the group “Ajnad al-Sham” announced through twitter that they are joining Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Ajnad al-Sham militants participated in earlier clashes with the Syrian Arab Army in western Aleppo, in the north part of the province of Ham and in the province of Idlib. In late October, there was information that the central division of the FSA, Faylaq al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Izza also joined Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham also conducted operations against smaller militant groups, who then sought support from Ahrar al-Sham. For instance, the group “Jash Mujahideen” was attacked by terrorists of Hayat Tahrir al- Sham in January 2017. At this time the radical Islamists seized warehouses with weapons. After that, part of Jash Mujahideen’s forces were forced to join Ahrar al-Sham, while the other part joined HTS.

Be that as it may, year after year HTS leadership adamantly follows its goal – the unification of all jihadist organizations in Syria under its leadership and the construction of the emirate. Radical Islamists are strongly established in the province of Idlib, and will do all they can to prevent the creation of a de-escalation zone.

Conclusion

The following conclusions and analysis can be drawn from all the information presented thus far. After the defeat of the IS in Iraq and Syria, the most effective group that stands to oppose Assad’s regime remains Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This movement has the necessary number of trained militants in its ranks to confront the government army, it has a rather positive image when compared with the IS, and advocates the idea of opposing “the betrayal of the interests of the people of Syria.” Meanwhile, the conflict between the factions within the movement itself, the conflicts with other armed groups, the reduction of logistical support, and problems with financing, all lead to a gradual degradation of HTS. We can conclude that to overcome these problems, the leadership of the movement may hold another re-branding. This conclusion is based on the fact that, at a turning point in its existence, al-Nusra / HTS is able, in words, to abandon the ideas of radical Islam in order to preserve their ability for an armed struggle, and to establish itself as a legitimate and independent force in the ongoing war . It seems that there is a desire on the part of HTS to become a Sunni version of Hezbollah. In this effort, the group could receive support from some concerned foreign parties.

The clashes and reluctance to compromise with the moderate opposition, continued conflict with the increasingly capable government army, and the never ending struggle for resources – have all reaped poor results for the group, and highlight the poor choice of strategies adopted by HTS thus far. Without external help, HTS will not be able to confront, for any extended periods of time, the SAA and the Russian Aerospace Forces.

OVER 100 MEMBERS OF AHRAR AL-SHAM SURRENDER TO SYRIAN ARMY IN HOMS

Over 100 Members Of Ahrar al-Sham Surrender To Syrian Army In Homs

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OVER 100 MEMBERS OF AHRAR AL-SHAM SURRENDER TO SYRIAN ARMY IN HOMS

On December 22, 121 fighters of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement from the town of Daar al-Kabira the northern Homs countryside laid down their arms and surrendered to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), according to the Russian Reconciliation Centre in Syria.

The Reconciliation Centre said that the fighters agreed to surrender after a joint work between its officers and the Syrian National Reconciliation Committee. The center added that its field commanders continue to negotiate with commanders of different Syrian oppositions groups in the provinces of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama and al-Quneitra to extend the ceasefire agreement in Syria.

The northern Homs countryside is one of the de-escalation zones that has been established in Syria. However, the de-escalation agreement there has been breached many times by a coalition of the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and several US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups.

Ahrar al-Sham fighters likely surrendered because they refuse the hostile acts of Ahrar al-Sham and its allies in the northern Homs countryside. Many pro-government activists believe that these hostile acts may force the SAA and its allies to launch a military operation to secure the northern Homs countryside, that has been besieged for the last 3 years.

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