Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
Reputational risks are passed onto Britain and France
Contradictory statements from the US leadership on the situation of “defeated” Islamists in Syria and Iraq compel experts to question the real state of ISIS, al Qaida and other not so well known groups. It is also interesting what the termination of US funding of the White Helmets means after the failure of the East Ghouta provocation with Damascus being accused of chemical weapons use.
With the return of Islamists on the battlefield of the SAR, the Kurds in Syria returned to the Euphrates valley. The situation in the de-escalation zones in the south of the country and in Idlib merits special attention, as well as the financial position of the Islamist groups. Y. Schelgovin of the Middle East Institute provided materials for this article.
Movements of the Kurds
Kurdish forces of the Forces of the Democratic Syria (FDS) began to return from the north-west of the SAR to the Euphrates valley for the continuation of the struggle against ISIS. Colonel Ryan Dillon of the US Army, spokesperson for the “Unwavering Determination” command centre, made the announcement, which is carried out in Iraq and Syria by the coalition headed by the United States. At the beginning of March the Pentagon admitted that ground operations against ISIS were stopped in February, since a part of Kurdish forces from the FDS were directed to the Euphrates valley to fight Turkish forces in the north-west, in Afrin.
The general staff of the Turkish forces announced on January 20 the beginning of the operation “Olive Branch” against Kurdish units of the “People’s Self-Defence Forces” (member of the FDS) and the “Democratic Union Party” in Afrin, where around 1.5 million Kurds and refugees from other parts of Syria lived. Ankara considers these organisations as terrorists. The Turkish troops entered Afrin on March 18 ousted Kurdish units from there, and on March 24 the General Staff announced the control over the entire area. Washington has repeatedly expressed “concern” about Turkey’s actions in Afrin, stressing that they divert attention from the fight against ISIS.
The Turks did not dare to continue squeezing the Kurds from northern Syria. They did not dig in Manbij, where American and French militaries were deployed, but in Tell Rifft. The latter refers to government forces and their allies, Russia and Iran. President Erdogan completed the military operation in Afrin with concessions to Moscow and Tehran in facilitating the evacuation of militants from East Ghouta. “Olive Branch” started on the background of the early parliamentary and presidential elections announcement. He decided to play the nationalists, having carried out in Afrin “a small victorious war”, but it began to stall.
Apart from Moscow, the Americans won this one. The outflow of Kurds to Manbij and before that to Afrin, created a power vacuum in the east of the Euphrates. The United States did not have time to form a Sunni power structure there, and the return of the Kurds to the area is due to the fact that they need to restrain the possible expansion of Damascus into the region, and not the fight against ISIS. Moreover it was noted in Washington that on the border with Iraq, the Iraqi Air Force and the pro-Iranian units “al Hashd al Shaabi” began to work. Fortunately, the Kurds also left the border areas, which was used by pro-Iranian groups from the Iraqi direction.
Iraq will continue to pursue ISIS militants and carry out air strikes against them in Syria, but is not going to interfere in its internal affairs. This was stated by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at a press conference in Baghdad. On April 19 the Air Force carried out a series of strikes on militants’ targets on the Syrian-Iraqi border on his orders. The operation was carried out in coordination with Damascus in turn, in coordination with Iran and Russia. The targets were terrorists in the vicinity of the Iraqi border, the city of Abu Kamal. The strengthening of cooperation on cleaning up the border areas of Syria and Iraq from ISIS supporters worries the United States. Hence, the intensification of efforts to return the Kurdish troops to the region. This may revive the Sunni-Kurdish confrontation, but in Syria, the Americans do not have an alternative to the Kurds as “boots on the ground”. This dictates the need for renewed efforts by Moscow and Tehran after the elections in Turkey to encourage Erdogan to move to the Manbij or other Kurdish-controlled areas in Northern Syria.
Reconciliation in idlib
Banned in Russia Jabhat al-Nusra and Syrian opposition armed groups reached an agreement on the ceasefire on the territory of the province of Idlib. As the television channel al Mayadeen reported, the truce was declared after the internecine strife, which lasted more than two months. According to the TV channel, during the clashes and attacks, there were about a thousand militants killed and about three thousand wounded. The military operations covered a number of areas in Aleppo and Hama provinces. The head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, agreed to the ceasefire, as his fighters suffered the greatest losses, more than 750 people. Jabhat al-Nusra’s opponents, united in the coalition Jabhat Tahrir Surya, provided military support to Turkey. The truce was violated several times through explosions in Idlib (320 kilometers from Damascus). Field commanders were lost in these diversions.
UN agencies helping civilians are alarmed by the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the province. This region borders with Turkey in the north-west of the SAR and has been in the hands of armed groups since 2014 and remains their main foothold. On April 25, the assistant to the UN Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller said at a meeting of the Security Council that since December 2017, almost 400 thousand people from other parts of Syria, who had come under the control of the government, has moved to Idlib along with the militants. In March-April, tens of thousands of migrants from East Ghouta and East Calamun joined them.
The current flare up of infighting characterises the intensification of the confrontation between pro-Turkish and pro-Saudi groups in Idlib. It takes place against the backdrop of the actions that the Saudis have been carrying out in the last two years to take over the entire segment of the resistance there. The split in the largest pro-Turkish group “Ahrar al-Sham” before the first round of talks in Astana testified to that. This was caused by personnel confusion among Turkish security forces after the attempted military coup and the weakening of funding from the Syrian opposition from their part. After the coup, the whole system of curators in Turkey’s security agencies, which specialised in this, was eliminated.
This topic has been on the central themes of discussions in recent months of the “troika”. The essence of the issue is Ankara’s desire to monopolise the right to control this region while preserving the dominance of pro-Turkish opposition groups and the de-escalation zone. Moscow and Tehran’s conditions are that the strongholds of Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliated groups must be neutralised. It is not only about the elimination of the not-capable-of-agreement-with militants of the jihadist character as well as the aligning of the Saudi factor in the Syrian conflict, both militarily and politically, taking into account Riyadh’s attempts to unite all the armed opposition under its command for full participation of the Geneva negotiating format.
Moscow and Tehran are trying to narrow the circle of really influential forces in the Syrian peace settlement, which makes this process viable. Ankara had to be pushed to solve the problem of pro-Saudi jihadists in Idlib, including military operations against pro-Turkish groups that formed an alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra. Interaction with the Turks in the evacuation of fighters from East Ghouta has become a point of reference. Ankara began to build up its combat potential in Idlib by evacuating over there forces loyal to them from East Ghouta. The Saudis do the same, who preferred to preserve the combat potential of Jabhat al-Nusra in East Ghouta, East Calamun, and now in Homs, agreeing to evacuate them to Idlib.
The main confrontation centre is concentrated there, and the current truce should be regarded as a respite for the sides to accumulate forces and means before the decisive confrontation. Moscow’s challenge is to stimulate this process in all possible ways and, if necessary, to help with purely military tools. In case of the establishment of Turkish dominance in Idlib, one should expect a burst from the Islamists of groups under their control to the north in the area of Kurdish activity, which hits the US efforts. In the meantime, it is necessary to achieve the elimination of pro-Saudi strongholds in Syria.
The Jordanians carry out consultations with Damascus on the situation in the south of Syria since March. There were direct meetings between the head of Syrian intelligence services Ali Mamluk and his Jordanian counterpart Adnan al-Jundi in early April. At the time of events taking place in East Ghouta, at the end of which, Amman understood that the issue of the southern zone of de-escalation will be next. The transfer of the military centre of the government forces and their allies to the southern suburbs of Damascus and Homs, where, according to some data, General Suhail’s Tigers were transferred, pays attention to the final cleansing of the capital region and to the consultation results with the Jordanians.
Amman is concerned about the displacement of militants into Jordanian territory and the deterioration of relations with local tribes on both sides of the Syrian-Jordanian border. The Americans are concerned about saving their zone in Al-Tanf. The Jordanians in consultations with Russia received guarantees in coordination with Amman with the bilateral contracts about the Syrian government forces’ actions in the south of the country. As for the United States, they tried to push their issue to Russia through the Jordanians and it is unlikely that they will remain soothed. The Americans’ stay in Al-Tanf for Moscow is a matter of principle, and it is not ready to compromise.
Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the Rai al-Youm newspaper, writes that during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the Middle East, he urged King Adbullah II to bring a military contingent to the south of Syria, in the province of Deraa and Quneitra to counter Assad’s return to control of these territories. In his opinion, Amman is not interested in carrying out such an operation in order not to enter into confrontation with Damascus and Tehran. So far, the Jordanian government is silent about John Bolton’s initiative to create an Arab peacekeeping force in Syria. There is no great activity on this subject and other “invitations”.
At the same time, Amman is completely dependent for electric power generation on the KSA, which on the eve of the hot season removes all questions regarding the dissatisfaction with Riyadh’s position in one way or another. It is impossible to speak negatively about the willingness of the Jordanians to enter the military contingent in Syria. Such plans were worked out a year ago after receiving approval during Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh on May 21. At that time, there was a question about the participation of Jordanians in the arrangement aimed at creating security zones on the Syrian side of the border. They were especially important for Americans, as they should prevent the creation of a Shi’ite Crescent from Tehran to Beirut.
The army’s Chief of Staff, Mahmoud Frehat and Adnan al-Jundi drew up the Jordanian participation plan. It was supposed to strengthen the Jordanian forces on the border by two battalions of Special Forces, who together with operatives of the Kingdom’s General Intelligence Directorate were to train the resistance forces and later enter the Syrian border territories. It was about the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the “Omari” and “Revolutionary Commando Army” (RCA) brigades, with their subsequent transfer to the Syrian border. Some of these forces are now present in the de-escalation zone in the south. According to those plans, the Jordanians also intended to arm the Druze militia on both sides of the border, which was partially done.
The question of direct Jordanian military intervention in the south of Syria can be considered exhausted. This past year, Amman was convinced of the unreliability of the United States guarantees and it does not want to face alone the pro-Iranian militias and the Russian Air Force. The Americans are not ready to participate directly in such a plan. Now we are talking about dividing the pro-Jordanian and non-permanent resistance groups in the course of the upcoming operation by the government forces in southern Syria, and not about the preparation of the intervention. A plan of interaction with Amman is planned, following the example of Ankara, which will imply the voluntary evacuation of pro-Jordanian groups from the combat zones and the use of local truces.
The Economy of Banditry
The NGO “White Helmets” is an instrument of influence of intelligence services on the situation. According to CBS, the US State Department has stopped allocating funds to them. The “White Helmets” have repeatedly made statements that the SAR Air Force strikes civilians areas. The NGO disseminated reports of chemical weapons use in the Syrian city of Duma on April 7. Representatives of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Warring Parties on April 9 conducted a survey of Duma, but found no trace of a chemical attack. It can, however, be assumed that the conclusions of the OPCW will be ambiguous for the Russian Federation. We are talking about exhuming the “victims”, which means that international experts know who and where to exhume. They got a lead on the target.
The OPCW experts’ trip to the event’s site was a predictable demand of the Russian Federation, and in this case the necessary preparations were made prudently. The alternate version of events has been prepared: “victims”, in which doses of homemade sarin have been introduced in advance, will “confirm” the accusations of Western countries. When the exhumation will take place it is planned to take samples for research, and not to conduct a medical examination of causes of death. This will make it possible to talk about their death from “chemical weapons”.
The termination of the US funding of the “While Helmets” is not caused by the abundance of fraud in their communications from Syria, which are directed by the Americans and the British to secure the propaganda of operations in Syria. In the near future, the same schemes will be played out in the south of the country. Samples of biomaterials of “victims” from there, collected in March-April by Jordanian “experts” and transferred to Amman, will coincide with the results of the examination of similar samples of the OPCW mission in East Ghouta.
As for the appropriations for the “White Helmets”, it is a change of their main sponsor. Their subsidy will be transferred to the British and the French, including the British MI6. That is, the financing of the “White Helmets” will go to the special services, not the State Department, which was risky for their reputation.
Dark Day of Al Qaida
It is impossible to give reliable figures to describe the economy of ISIS, but from 80 to 90 percent of the budget, this quasi-state collected from the control of hydrocarbon exports, taxes on the use of roads, water and irrigation systems. Looting of cultural and banking assets is a one-time factor.
ISIS spent up to 90 percent of its budget, according to the minimum estimates, about 700 to 800 million dollars annually during the heyday in 2014-2016 to maintain the combat potential and attract foreign fighters. The total budget of payments to the local Islamists in this case was 15 to 20 million per month. Now ordinary ISIS militants are paid about 100 to 150 dollars a month. Commanders receive slightly more. The total number of ISIS supporters in Syria and Iraq is estimated by experts at about 3000 active bayonets, which gives spending on the maintenance of these units of about half a million dollars a month.
If we roughly take other related monthly expenses and strongly inflate them, we will get, with a reserve, one million dollars. Most likely, these figures are less, because ISIS has no permanent sources of income in Iraq and Syria. It does not control oil fields, pipelines, logistics routes or irrigation facilities. They will not extort money from the Sunni tribes, on whose territory ISIS is deployed along the perimeter of the Syrian-Iraqi border to the East of the Euphrates and in the provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, so as to not risk losing the trust of the local population, without whom the physical existence of ISIS will not last more than a month or two. Rather, the Islamist command pays the sheikhs for their loyalty and food supplies. Talking about donations to fully preserve the combat potential of ISIS is pointless. This amount is so small that it is not worth mentioning. Fortunately, with the defeat of ISIS, donations have decreased.
The same applies to al Qaida. Its leadership refused to centrally fund the branches a decade ago, when Osama bin Laden was alive. This was due to a number of factors, the main being, the understanding in Riyadh that for such spending, the KSA budget will not allow. Private donations also began to decline, and the size of the theft of funds on the way from the Gulf to the branches reached one-third. As a consequence, the KSA’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID) was forced to focus its efforts on Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The financing of Chechnya, Bosnia, Yemen and the Maghred has stopped. This was evident in Chechnya, where al Qaida has ceased to receive volunteers and money since about 2006-2007.
After the failure in Iraq, where local Sunnis and Baathists pushed out Al Qaida, the focus shifted to Syria. There a different algorithm was used. The group Jabhat al-Nusra was created, which was staffed not by political commissars of al Qaida (where they distributed the money earlier and led the fighting in various points of application of these efforts), but staff officers of the GID and Special Forces of the KSA. There is no central assignation for al Qaida at this time. We have not heard of Pakistan’s (by location) leadership led by Ayman al-Zawahiri for a long time. Only branches working on essential areas for Riyadh are funded. These are Syria and Yemen. The GID are in charge of their operations. Al Qaida in the Maghreb as a centralised structure has not existed for about 10 years. There is a conglomerate of groups with an Islamist topping and distribution of roles in the criminal business, from drug smuggling to illegal migration. This is where their total budget exceeds one hundred million dollars.