Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
This article was released by VPK on June 18, 2018
The Syrian war is ongoing. The weakness of Damascus, the tenacity of its opponents and the caution based on the experience gained in Afghanistan and Chechnya make Russia wary of being drawn into a large-scale guerrilla conflict.
At the same time, the Syrian authorities, with the support of the Russia Aerospace Forces take control of one province after another. The last one was East Ghouta. It is the turn of the Syrian south. The US is balancing between Turkey and the Kurds, trying to keep under control the eastern shore of the Euphrates and part of the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Who to be Friends with, Who to Kill
On June 14, the US State Department expressed concern about reports that the Syrian government troops are conducting operations in one of the de-escalation zones in the south-west of the country. As stated by the Iranian agency Fars, in the province of Deraa in southern Syrian, fighting broke out between the government army and rebel groups. Units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are operating there against Assad’s troops. Earlier, Damascus issued an ultimatum to the militants in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra with the requirement to lay down their arms and transfer the controlled territories to the government army. Some warlords said they did not intend to give up.
The soldiers of the Syrian Army eliminated the threat of a breakthrough of the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists in the south-west of Aleppo. As the news portal Surya Al-An reported, the gangs attacked the government troops positions near the village of Khan Tuman. In the province of Deraa, troops attacked the Jabha al-Nusra bases and its allies in the area of Tell al-Harra. According to the newspaper Al-Watan, the command of the armed forces moved army reinforcements to the south for the operation against terrorists. Soldiers deployed at the request of local residents of the villages of Khan Arnab, al-Chabaria, Deir Maker and Khodr. Al-Watan points out that the operation against the terrorists in Umm Batna area will involve fighters from the Palestinian brigade Liwa al-Quds fighting on the side of Damascus. Until now, the Palestinians, who are members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), were involved in the battles only in Eastern Aleppo and Yarmouk. Here they replaced the Shi’ite pro-Iranian formations. The government forces, with the support of allies, intend to put an end to the irreconcilable militants in the southern de-escalation zone after Ramadan. Relevant consultations with the Americans and Jordanians were conducted during the last month, but ended in nothing.
The talks culminated in the Russian-Israeli agreement on the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their Lebanese Shi’ite allies from the Northern border of the Jewish state in the course of the upcoming operations in exchange of relinquishing air strikes on Syrian territory. For the Israelis this was a necessary step, as the consultations with the Americans and the Jordanians did not bring any results, the government forces operation in southern Syria was approaching, and the best course of action was to involve Moscow as a guarantor of the absence of the Iranians on the border.
Israel has put forward the withdrawal of Shi’ite militias on the Syrian territory as a condition to support the counter-terrorist operation. Consultations will continue. Thus, President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed the situation in Syria in a telephone conversation on June 15. But Israel’s position is constrained, and it would be more willing to have on its border even Islamists, but not Iranians or the Syrian Army, which the Israelis suspect of close cooperation with them.
As recent experience has shown, groups of banned in Russia ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra numbering tens of thousands of people took refuge in the abolished re-escalation zones under the guise of “moderate opposition”. Currently, two de-escalation zones continue to operate in the province of Idlib and in the south of Syria, on the border areas of Jordan and Israel in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra. The last two years have brought militants from all over the country to Idlib, but the situation is southern Syria is not so clear. The southern de-escalation zone was established in May 2017 following the Astana talks. On July 8, its status and operating procedure were clarified during the talks between the representatives of Russia, the USA and Jordan.
The latter two as guarantor countries have committed themselves to ensuring respect for the ceasefire by the armed opposition and to continuing the fight against terrorists inside the southern zone. At the time of its creation, the Syrian Free Army, referred to by the US as “moderate opposition”, controlled the bulk of the territory. Over the past two years, Jordan and Israel have supplied it with money and weapons, ensuring the regular arrival of humanitarian food convoys to areas under the control of the FSA. However, since the summer of 2017, the situation has changed. About 55 percent of the southern de-escalation zone was transferred to ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra control.
It is obvious that already at the stage of its creation, the US had plans for it. It is argued that by supplying militants with money, weapons and turning a blind eye to the spreading influence of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Americans were preparing an offensive on Damascus, less than 100 kilometres from the area. In fact, with such forces, which are still at war with each other, it is impossible to attack Damascus.
The role of the southern de-escalation zone is more strategic: it created a constant hotbed of resistance of the opposition in this part of the country, puling the Damascus forces from the important for the US zone east of the Euphrates, as well as preventing the establishment of a continuous zone of control for Damascus in central and southern Syria. The existence of such a zone facilitates the existence of the American base in al-Tanf. The provinces of Deraa, Quneitra and Suweida are controlled by forces of over fifty armed groups of various affiliations with a total strength of up to 12 thousand fighters.
They include four main groups. The first, the Free Syrian Army, is composed of more than 20 units numbering up to seven thousand fighters. They are supported by Turkey and Israel and are seen as a moderate armed opposition. It controls 35 to 40 percent of the territory of the de-escalation zone. The second, Jabhat al-Nusra, is composed of up to twenty armed units numbering around 3500 fighters. It is supported by Saudi Arabia. This group is recognised as an international terrorist organisation. It controls between 30 and 35 percent of the territory of the de-escalation zone. The third, ISIS, is a radical group that unites four main groups of up to 1500 militants. It is financed by extortion from the local population. It is recognised as an international terrorist organisation and controls up to 15 percent of the territory of the zone. The fourth group, Ahrar al-Sham, has five main groups of up to 800 fighters. They are formed on a territorial basis, associate themselves as independent formations, and do not adjoin to the other groups. They control up to 10 percent of the territory of the zone. There is constant fighting between squads of different groups for the redistribution of spheres of influence within the de-escalation zone, turning into clashes.
The leaders of the SSA and Ahrar al-Sham are ready to reconcile under certain conditions and transfer their territory to the control of the Syrian government. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, controlling more than half the territory, are not agreement capable and put pressure on the more moderate groups disrupting the reconciliation process. The number of “irreconcilables” is relatively small, about five thousand people. It is possible to establish control over the southern de-escalation zone by negotiating with the moderate groups during the military operations against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. This scheme worked in East Ghouta, and Homs. In the south, 60 percent or more are SAA and Ahrar al-Sham. Much depends on Ankara and Amman, which have an impact on their structures. The position of the Turks is of fundamental importance, given the rapprochement between Ankara and Washington regarding the withdrawal of Kurdish troops from Manbij.
How to Buy Erdogan
The US is painfully reacting to Turkey’s cooperation with Russia, including on the issue of the procurement of the S-400 air defence system, but Washington is cautious. Despite attempts to pressure by Congress to block the transfer of the first batch of F-35 to Ankara, the White House did not go for this. The aircraft has already been manufactured and failure to deliver will result in unnecessary losses to Lockheed. The Pentagon has refused to purchase this batch of aircraft for their needs and to find quickly new customers is impossible. The aircraft is expensive and President Trump has repeatedly criticised the corporation for unjustified and inflated costs. So the White House did not go with the Congress’ pretext in relation with considerations of the economy and politics.
The mid-term Congressional elections are approaching and the position of the minitary industrial complex can be crucial for the USPresident. Part of the US administration is convinced that the refusal to supply these aircraft will solve the issue of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400. To obtain as a result of such actions the purchase of the Russian aircraft Sukhoi by the Turkish Air Force, the Turkish arms market is a serious loss for the Americans. Trump’s National Security Adviser J. Bolton is actively using this to advance his plans for Syria.
[SF comment: Erdogan already won in the presidential election]
The US de facto recognises that President Erdogan remains in power for at least another decade as a result of the upcoming early elections on June 24. But the probability of a second round of voting is high. In this situation, it is unwise and short sighted to conduct long-term negotiations with Erdogan. But the situation in northern Syria pushes Washington’s decision, more precisely, Bolton’s ideas, who took to minimising the American military presence in Syria with its substitution with allied forces. The idea of bringing in the KSA, Egypt and the UAE troops failed, which became clear after the start of the military operation of the Arab coalition in Yemen. All their forces are concentrated there.
Bolton is beginning to expand the situation to determine with Turkey the rules in northern Syria. Turkey plans to create a security corridor along its border in northern Syria and Iraq to the border with Iran. Manbij will be the first step in the establishment of this security zone, which will pass through Idlib, al-Bab, Aazaz, the Syrian territory to the east of the Euphrates and will connect with the security corridor in northern Iraq, which will be formed later. The security zone is planned to be 30 to 40 kilometres deep inside Syria. Following the talks, the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Washington on June 4, agreed to a “road map” on Manbij.
The military from Turkey and the United States during the talks on June 12-13 in Stuttgart agreed on an action plan for the withdrawal of Kurdish formations from Manbij, according to the Turkish General Staff statement of June 14. It follows that the Kurds from Manbij have not yet left, and the final decision in the White House has not been made. The withdrawal plan of the Kurds should be agreed with the “political leadership”. If the fate of Manbij is taken in consensus between Bolton and the Pentagon (the military wants to optimise the front line and to transfer additional forces to the priority areas behind the Euphrates), then with regard to Ankara’s plans to create a cordon sanitaire along the entire borderline, opinions will probably diverge.
The creation of such a zone means the beginning of the formation of the Turkish-American alliance in Syria. The Turks will eventually have to replace the US allies there, which they will not be able to involve in Syria. This may negatively affect the effectiveness of the Astana format of negotiations and the entire current alliance between Ankara and Moscow in Syria. At the same time, Bolton’s plan is not meaningless. It solves a serious geopolitical problem in an environment where the need for Kurds against ISIS is becoming irrelevant. They cannot work for US interests on a pan-Syrian scale. The aggravation of the Kurdish-Arab confrontation will slow down the effectiveness of the United States’ actions in Syria. The deterioration of relations between the Kurds and the Arab tribes east of the Euphrates confirms this.
It is becoming optimal for Washington the restoration of the alliance with Ankara. The Kurds will be thrown under the bus by the Americans, as in their time the Sunni tribes of Anbar, who helped destroy al-Qaida in Iraq. The Turks have influence on rebel groups throughout Syria and can keep the stronghold of anti-Assad resistance in Idlib (this topic is becoming relevant for the United States in light of Moscow’s and Tehran’s intentions to eliminate the de-escalation zones). Turkey can form a united opposition front to participate in the negotiations and negotiate with the Sunnis east of the Euphrates. Bolton’s concept minimises the United States efforts with maximum effect for them.
Trump for Moscow and Tehran
Let us consider the relations between Damascus, Tehran and Moscow, which, judging by the bogus stories in the media, are experiencing a crisis. The basis of their differences, according to rumours, is Russia’s dialogue with Israel without taking into account the views of Iran and Syria. However, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani expressed full support for Moscow’s actions in this direction. He stated “Tehran welcomes the transition of control on the southern border of Syria into the hands of the Syrian military”. Especially as part of the pro-Iranian formations has already joined the 4th division, which is fighting in the south, and the Syrians have placed the air defence systems Pantsir-S1 in the Golan. They are standing in Quneitra (40km from Damascus) to support the government forces offensive in southern Syria.
The withdrawal of Shia groups from the northern border of Israel is not of fundamental importance for Iran. The main thing in this case is the creation of a constant threat to Israel by placing medium-range missiles in Syria, which does not depend on its proximity to the border. For the Iranians, it is important to prevent possible Israeli and US aggression. Moscow is a guarantee that these missiles will not fly towards Israel without sufficient grounds.
Experts who assess the relations between Tehran and Moscow in Syria believe that in parallel with the process of interaction between them, a hidden rivalry for influence within the country is unfolding. Iran is actively working with the militia and local groups representing the branches of the Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah, as well as units of local self-defence in Aleppo and forces consisting of Alawites, the local Sunnis and other Syrians under the supervision of Iranian advisers, and partially or fully-funded by Tehran. That is, Iran has attracted foreign Shi’ite groups to Syria and formed paramilitary groups formally loyal to the regime, but in fact being a parallel army that provide Tehran with a long-term presence in Syria, which arouses suspicion in Damascus. Moscow, on the contrary, strengthens the structures of the army and security services by supplying arms and armoured vehicles. The Russian military advisers took part in the formation of the 4th volunteer assault corps for action in Latakia, and later, the 5th assault volunteer corps with all-Syria tasks, but with limited Iranian influence. Thus, the prospect of forming a connection capable of performing tasks without the participation of pro-Iranian militia groups was met without much enthusiasm by Tehran.
The Iranians have tried to rectify the situation and achieve the participation of Hezbollah in the life of the 5th corps. According to sources, the Russian-Iranian struggle for influence is manifested even in East Aleppo, which came under the control of Damascus in December 2016. For example, Moscow seeks to normalise relations with the local population through dialogue with the elders, involving the military from Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria and other North Caucasian republics professing Sunni Islam. Interaction takes place as well with the security forces of Armenia, which operate successfully in the Armenian quarters of the city.
Tehran is trying to expand its influence in East Aleppo through the formation of local forces that do not hide their pro-Iranian orientation. It is going to restore educational institutions and opens cultural educational centres, which exacerbates ethnic and religious contradictions in Syria, which will be used by radical groups. Hence the conclusion of the pro-American domestic experts: it is important for Moscow to maintain a dialogue with Washington on the Syrian conflict not only as a reason for a conversation on equal terms, but also to make Iran feel the threat of concluding agreements behind its back and be more ready towards Russia’s concessions on various issues.
It is a very questionable message. It is more reasonable to leave the possibility of dialogue with the US military. So far President Trump is doing more to preserve Moscow’s alliance with Tehran than diplomats, we just need not to interfere. As for the creation of structures by the Iranians, let them create. This is a question for Damascus, not Moscow. Russia’s interests are not threatened, because without its support, the Iranians will not be able to keep the situation in Syria under control, and even more so to develop the offensive. They demonstrated this at the beginning of the crisis, which led to the introduction of the Russian Aerospace Forces.
The article is based on materials from the Middle East Institute expert Yu.B. Schelegovin.