Syria’s Idlib clashes kill at least 60 fighters

1 / 2
Syrian government forces are in possession of the critically strategic town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province. (AFP)
2 / 2
Firefighters from the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the ‘White Helmets’, extinguish a fire after a government forces’ airstrike at Maar Shurin, in Idlib province. (AFP)
Updated 27 August 2019

Syria’s Idlib clashes kill at least 60 fighters

  • Russia-backed regime fighters have for weeks been chipping away at the edges of the extremist stronghold of Idlib, which borders Turkey
  • Regime forces recaptured Khan Sheikhun last week, and have been massing north of the town in recent days

BEIRUT: Clashes between anti-government fighters and regime forces killed more than 50 combattants on both sides in northwestern Syria on Tuesday, a war monitor said.
At a meeting in Moscow, the presidents of Turkey and Russia expressed “serious concern” over the violence in Idlib province.
Russia-backed regime fighters have for weeks been chipping away at the edges of the extremist stronghold, which borders Turkey, after bombarding it for months.
But hard-line rebels and extremists on Tuesday attacked loyalist positions in the south of the bastion, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Violent clashes east of the town of Khan Sheikhun broke out at dawn after extremist and opposition groups attacked regime positions,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The attack was led by the Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras Al-Deen group and another extremist faction, Ansar Al-Deen, he said.
The clashes killed at least 29 regime forces and 31 rebels and extremists, the Observatory said in an updated death toll, before government troops repelled the extremists.
In the southeast of the bastion, eight rebels were killed trying to sneak through frontlines toward regime positions near the Abu Duhur military airport, the monitor added.
Elsewhere in southern Idlib, 10 civilians, among them a child, were killed in regime air strikes, the Observatory said.
Regime forces recaptured Khan Sheikhun last week, and have been massing north of the town in recent days.
The town lies on a key highway running through Idlib province, and fully recapturing the artery would allow the government to reconnect Damascus to second city Aleppo.
Heavy regime and Russian bombardment has hit areas north of Khan Sheikhun in recent days, in the vicinity of the town of Maaret Al-Noman, the next stop north on the highway.
On Monday, regime and Russian air strikes killed 12 civilians in the extremist stronghold, the Observatory reported.
“The situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone is of serious concern to us and our Turkish partners,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He said Turkey had “legitimate interests” to protect on its southern borders and supported the creation of a security zone in the area.
Putin said he and Erdogan had agreed “additional joint steps” to “normalize” the situation in Idlib, but did not provide details.
The Idlib offensive comes despite a deal signed in September last year by Moscow and rebel backer Ankara to avert a full-blown assault on the Idlib region which hosts some three million people.
The presidents of both countries were set to meet in Moscow on Tuesday.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham — a group led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate — extended its administrative control over the whole of Idlib in January, but other rebel factions remain present.
A spike in bombardment since late April has killed more than 920 civilians, the Observatory says. The United Nations says it has caused more than 400,000 people to flee their homes.
The Syrian civil war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.


Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

Updated 15 October 2019

Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

  • Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades

ANKARA: As Ankara pressed on with its offensive in northeastern Syria amid international criticism, Washington announced some 1,000 soldiers were withdrawn from the zone.

With the US departure, the attention turns to how the regional actors, especially Turkey and Syria, will operate in their zones of influence in the war-torn country where the possible escape of Daesh fighters from prisons could result in more chaos.

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades. The PKK is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the EU and the US.

But, whether some 50,000 YPG fighters will be integrated into the Syrian Army or will try to maintain their autonomy is still a matter of concern.

Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF, recently wrote for Foreign Policy that the Kurds are finally ready to partner with Assad and Putin.

Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said: “Damascus and the SDF struck a deal at the Russian base in Hmeymim to let the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) enter the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast and deploy at the Syrian-Turkish border. The SAA is set to take control over Manbij, Kobane and Qamishli.”

However, Barmin told Arab News that a deal between Damascus and the SDF would greatly contribute to a buffer zone that Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan intends to create in northern Syria, allowing Kurds to take some areas along the border without directly antagonizing Ankara. This policy, Barmin added, would be unacceptable to Moscow.

“There are now lots of moving targets and the goal of the Syrian Army — whether it will take some strategic cities or control the whole border along Turkey — is unclear for now. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is on his official visit to Saudi Arabia, his decision for Syria will be clearer when he returns home,” he said.

HIGHLIGHT

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Barmin also noted that Russia let Erdogan operate the Adana agreement to a certain extent, under which Turkey has the right to conduct cross-border operations.

“But now, Russia would like to show Turkey its own red lines in the region,” he said.

However, Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that the Syrian regime is not capable of striking a deal without being backed by Russians, and that Moscow would not want to lose its relationship with Ankara.

“Russians always talk about the Adana agreement. We are now talking about a renewal and reactivation of the agreement with new specifications to allow Turkey to go deeper into Syrian territories. In this way, the Russians will have a bigger chance to allow the Syrian regime and Turkey to communicate. It is something that will open the diplomatic channels,” Saban said.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said that if the US is completely out of the way, Russia and Turkey will have to either agree or contest each other to take over the US territorial control in northeast Syria. He added that this might be the most crucial race in the coming weeks.

Concerning the diplomatic channels between Damascus and Ankara, Macaron thinks that the channels were and will remain open between Moscow and Ankara since they have common interests beyond Syria.

“If Turkey had no other option, it might have to settle for controlling a few border towns, but this means Erdogan can no longer effectively implement his plan to return Syrian refugees, most notably without funding from the international community. Ankara is more likely to succeed in striking such a deal with Moscow than with Washington,” Macaron told Arab News.

Many experts agree that the Syrian chessboard will be determined predominantly by Russian moves.

“Assad has no say in what will happen next, Russia is the decision maker and there is little the Syrian regime can do unless Iran forcefully intervenes to impact the Russian-Turkish dynamics in the northeast,” Macaron said.