A battle of nerves for the control of Idlib ­­city

YPG rebels head a convoy of US vehicles in the town of Darbasiya. (Reuters)_
Updated 11 January 2019

A battle of nerves for the control of Idlib ­­city

  • A deal was struck between opposition-backer Turkey and Damascus ally Russia in September to stave off a threatened government offensive on Idlib

BEIRUT: The Idlib area in northern Syria is now fully ruled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a militant organization dominated by members of Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate.

Some of the other factions in the region are already allies, the others will either have to leave to other areas or be absorbed into the so-called Salvation Government run by the HTS.

How was this de-facto “emirate” allowed to consolidate and what consequences could it have for the nearly eight-year-old Syrian conflict and its main protagonists?

A deal was struck between opposition-backer Turkey and Damascus ally Russia in September to stave off a threatened government offensive on Idlib.

It has successfully prevented a massive Russian-backed regime assault on an area that is home to around 3 million people but its terms have remained unfulfilled.

Moscow had tasked Turkey, whose proxies fell under an umbrella known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), with disarming hard-line factions in Idlib.

It failed to do so and it was HTS that went on the offensive instead.

They made rapid gains and intense clashes that left more than 130 dead this year, which led to a deal on Thursday that saw the two Turkish-backed remaining factions stand down, capping the militants’ clean sweep.

Turkey, which has troops deployed in parts of Idlib and elsewhere in northern Syria, appeared to do little to stop HTS’ expansion.

“Turkey didn’t prevent HTS’ takeover, but it’s not obvious that it was in a position to do so,” said Sam Heller, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

HTS has an estimated 25,000 seasoned and well-armed fighters in its bastion, and has long been the dominant force in Idlib.

The militants’ lightning advance across Idlib earlier this year mark an unequivocal defeat for several outfits that were directly supported by Turkey.

“For Turkey, it’s the defeat of its allies,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and geographer.

Two factions in the Turkey-backed NLF that had been battling HTS stood down and signed the deal on Thursday which essentially sees them absorbed.

Ahrar Al-Sham and Suqur Al-Sham said they were keeping some of their forces in the Idlib area for now, but they will fall under the newly expanded administration of the Salvation Government.

Just like the forces from the Nureddine Al-Zinki group that HTS defeated last week, the rebels who reject militant rule will most likely relocate to other Turkish-controlled areas such as Afrin.

Turkey has been training and equipping Syrian proxies to use against the Kurdish militia that controls the northeast of the country.

They have threatened a cross-border assault against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), but the main deterrent has been the presence of a US-led coalition.

The troop pullout announced by US President Donald Trump last month, and which the coalition confirmed on Friday was under way, could clear the way for a Turkish offensive.

HTS’ takeover of Idlib means the terms of a deal reached in the Russian resort of Sochi on Sept. 17 have not been respected.

After the agreement with Damascus sponsor Russia, Turkey was tasked with using its proxies in Idlib to rein in militants.

The Sochi deal froze a threatened Russian-backed government offensive which had seemed imminent four months ago.

An onslaught on the area would have caused an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.

Turkey, which already provides shelter to 3.6 million Syria refugees, is keen to avoid a fresh round of violence that could spark another wave of displacement.

The HTS takeover revives the threat of a Syrian offensive but Balanche predicted it might not be the regime’s priority.

“The Russians are ready to attack at any moment but they won’t do it,” he said.

“They are using (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to put pressure on the Americans to leave northeastern Syria,” he said.

Turkey on Thursday reacted angrily to the mixed messages the US administration has been sending about the pace of the troop withdrawal, and warned that any further delay would prompt it to trigger its invasion.

US has ‘no plan’ as Syria pullout proceeds: ex-envoy

Updated 21 January 2019

US has ‘no plan’ as Syria pullout proceeds: ex-envoy

  • Former envoy Brett McGurk says the absence of a plan is increasing the risk to US forces
  • Trump announced the US withdrawal because, he said, Daesh had been defeated

WASHINGTON: The United States has no plan for Syria as it proceeds with President Donald Trump’s order to pull American troops out of the country, a top official who quit in protest at the policy said on Sunday.
Brett McGurk, who was America’s envoy to the US-led global coalition against the Daesh group, said “there’s no plan for what’s coming next” and this is increasing the risk to US forces.
He spoke in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” after a suicide bomber on Wednesday killed four Americans and 15 others in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. It was the deadliest attack to hit US troops since they deployed to Syria in 2014 to assist local forces against the Daesh group.
The bombing came after Trump’s announcement last month that he was ordering a full withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops from Syria, shocking allies and leading to the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as well as McGurk.
Senior US officials have since given contradictory statements about US intentions, but the Pentagon said it had begun the withdrawal, although how long it would take remained uncertain.
“The president has made that clear — we are leaving. And that means our force should be really with one mission: to get out and get out safely,” McGurk told “Face the Nation.”
But he added: “Right now we do not have a plan. It increases a vulnerability of our force... It is increasing the risk to our people on the ground in Syria and will open up space for Daesh,” another acronym for IS.
Most importantly, said McGurk, the US cannot expect “a partner” such as NATO-ally Turkey to take the place of the United States.
“That is not realistic. And if our forces are under order to withdraw, as at the same time they are trying to find some formula for another coalition partner to come in, that is not workable. That is not a viable plan.”
Trump announced the US withdrawal because, he said, IS had been defeated — something McGurk and other experts dispute.
McGurk has previously warned that the US pullout would shore up Syria’s President Bashar Assad and lessen America’s leverage with Russia and Iran.