20 December 2018

The “IDLIB OPERATION”- point of no return

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Is the “IDLIB OPERATION” the last large operation of Damascus’ regime to take the control over Syria’s entire territory? Why does Turkey balks on it? Why does Russia insist for the operation to go on? And, after all, how will this be fought? What are the consequences, for Romania, of a military operation, already postponed, somewhere 2000 km away?

Image source: Mediafax

The “Idlib Operation”, which is already a headliner for the analysts who are specialized on Middle East’s evolutions it is announced as the end of Syria’s rebellion, but president’s Assad regime must pay a significant, human, political, military price, for this operation to succeed. This is how the potential evolution in the last enclave, which is still under the control of the Syrian army opposition (the Syrian Kurdish are not included here) would look like.

If it is so simple, why the next questions are still asked:

Is the “IDLIB OPERATION” the last big fight of the Damascus’ regime to take the control over Syria’s entire territory?

Not at all. In the most optimistic prognosis, a successful operation of the Syrian armed forced, allied with some internal and external militias, supported by the Russian aviation and counsellors sent by Moscow, would bring, at its end, under Damascus’ control, 4/5 of Syria’s territory, as well as 9/10 from country’s population. It is not a bit, but yet not everything. Important territories would remain under the control of other entities, not only just internal. At least three of them:

  • the Afrin Canton and the belt which ties it to the Euphrates river, where the law is made by the pro-Turkish militias and, of course, Turkey;
  •  the Syrian Kurdistan, Rojava, where the authority is represented by the Kurdish militias and, partially, Arab groups from the Syrian Defence Forces, supported by American and French contingents;
  • the restricted area of 55km around the frontier line point from the border with Iraq, Al Tanf, where it is installed an US advanced base and where five Syrian rebel groups- the Lions of the East Army, the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, the Army of the Free Tribes, the Commando Army of the Revolution, Martyrs Brigade Al-Qaratayn, each probably counting tens of volunteers, but it does not matter the number when someone else’s is backing you - continue to believe that the revolution is still on and that Asaad can still be overthrown.

In these conditions, a successful “Idlib Operation” (and we are far from this moment) should be followed by:

  • an agreement with Turkey for withdrawing the forces from North of Syria, reintegrating the rebel militias. The price will be, for Damascus, in the form of clear guarantees that in North of Syria, the Syrian Kurdish will not be able to create  something (autonomy, federation, confederation) which would represent a threat for the internal order in Turkey’s south-east;
  • an agreement with the politic leadership of the Syrian Kurds, the Democratic Unionist Party, to accommodate Damascus’ centralizing options with the local autonomy demands, which should not go against Ankara’s exigences. Solutions for the integration of the Kurdish forces, already trained to fight, in the Syrian FA structure;
  • an agreement, probably at a superior level than Damascus, for US to retire its forces from the Al Tanf zone, with security guarantees for the remained rebel forces.

These scenarios do not seem feasible not even on paper, in the near future. Turkey is forcing, conditioning the “Idlib Operation”, because it knows that, sooner or later, the other phases will be next. The Kurdish payed with blood the control over the territory from North-East Syria, and they have some kind of external support, not at all negligible if we name the two sponsor states, US and Israel. Politically will be hard for Kurds to come back to the situation before 2011. For the US, the presence in North-East and East Syria has a strategic meaning. Practically, it is a base in the center of Middle East’s instability, being able to at least monitorize, if not action, in four interested direction: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey. Why would they leave? Maybe forced at some point (but who can force the US, right in the Arab deserts?), when the rest of Syria will be pacified, and the desert base will be alone in front of a Syrian governmental guerilla. Yet, that moment is so far away.

Why is Turkey against it?  Why does Russia insist for the operation to go on?

Enclave’s capital, Idlib, is ten times closer to the Turkish border than the Damascus. This is why, Ankara’s concerns regarding a potential refugees group seem right. To be more obvious, Turks are raising the number of civilians which are on enclave’s territory, or the massive migration which will result from an coming offensive. We are talking about 3, 5 million refugees, practically enclave’s entire population, already over-evaluated, which would go on exile, despite the protection fence from the Turkish-Syrian border, in Turley and, further, in Europe. A little blackmail: watch out because it can happen again! Actually, Idlib is an ace  card in president’s Erdogan negotiations for finding satisfying solutions for Ankara in Syria’s north zones. Turkey can pressure Russia only to some point. There are military contracts in process, economic interests, undeclared strategic partnerships. As it happened in the Russian Su-24  incident, in 2015, Ankara proved that it does not have Moscow’s resources, either military, nor economic or diplomatic.

It could have these if it would be truly oriented towards NATO and EU. But it is only circumstantial. And then, the partnerships are partially working, and the support comes also, episodic. In Ankara it is known that Idlib will be attacked. The Damascus regime has no alternative options because it permanently claimed the national territory reunion. With these postpones of the Syrian offensive, Turkey is trying to get profits for the other files: making permanent the military presence in North of Syria, avoiding the creation of a Kurdish autonomy. Guarantees from Damascus in this direction and the way to Idlib is open!

Regarding Russia, it had, in the last period, 55 drones’ attacks, all officially knocked down, over the Khmeimim Air Base, Latakia. All of these were launched from Idlib’s enclave territory. According to the treaty from 26th of August, 2015, Russia will unlimitedly use this base. This is why, Moscow wants the security of this base to be assured on long term, because it is not dedicated only to Syria. With the presence of the S-400 systems, a good part from the East Mediterranean, South of Turkey, Syria and Israel are like in a glass globe wherein you can see the air dislocations, all the missiles which enter Lebanon’s air space. Beyond this tactical need, Russia is in Syria because, through Damascus, it came back in the Arab world. And, after all the appearances, it wants to stay, because this is how it can manage, partially, the terrorism issue from north of Caucasus, because it can regain a market for its military equipment and because it can train its forces, tactical or strategical ones, in the sand ranges of Middle East, without ecological restrictions.

And, after all, how will this happen?

Probably, it will not even be one. A classic military operation, with a T zero moment of starting the attack, with front lines, attack direction, alignments to reach, objectives to conquer. These are not in fashion anymore. The modern war has other coordinates. And the one in Syria tries some of them. Actually, the operation started with intensifying the air attacks, with launching the manifests with surrender calls for enclave’s inhabitants, with the media campaign dedicated to the supposed “chemical attack”. We are in the period when the hits and targets are adjusted. If the politic leaders, in this case we are talking about the presidents of Russia and Turkey, partially Iran’s, partially Syria’s, will get to an agreement, everything will be simple. There are no local rebel forces to impede its implementation. For now, after the meeting in Sochi, on 10.09, between presidents Erdogan and Putin, it was decided a postponment. It will be created a strip of 15-20 km, wherefrom the large caliber weapons, tanks and artillery will be withdrawn, and the extremist formations, like Hy’at Tahrir al-Sham/HTS, the Al-Qaida franchise, will be evacuated. Until 10th of October. The zone will be inspected by Russian and Turkish units. Until the end of the year, the main roads of the area, which connect Alep to Hama and Latakia, will be reopened for traffic. The agreement is supported by the Syrian government, added president Putin, at the end of the press conference in Soci, without saying if Damascus was previously informed, during or at the end of the discussions between the two presidents.

For now, the evolutions are the ones expected by the ex British ambassador in Damascus, Peter Ford:

  • Turkey’s involvement in extremist groups’ destruction from the Idlib enclave. Creating an exclusion zone for the heavy weapons and radical formation has this objective;
  • Preparing the international public opinion for a gradual solution of the issue and not one based on reactions to supposed chemical attacks;
  • Preparing the withdrawal of the “uninvited” forces by the Damascus regime and stopping Syria’s partition tendencies;
  • Preparing Syria’s reconstruction.

The opinions are expressed by a former Western diplomat, pretty critic with his country’s position regarding the Syria conflict.

But the postponment does not exclude the military operation. This, when it will happen, will have some objective, already suggested:

  • assuring the security of the Russian Air Base from Khmeimim, Latakia;
  • taking the control over the rural zone of the Idlib enclave, like the Rif Dimashq, Damascus’ agricultural suburb;
  • attacking the cities which are outside enclave’s hard nucleus, centered on Idlib. We are talking about Jisr al-Shoughur, Khan Shaikhoon, Saraqeb and Sahl al-Ghab.

At that moment, after taking the control over the city of Jisr al-Shoughur, it should have been identified also a solution for the 10-15.000 members of the group Hay’at Tahrir al Shan, which will not have the option of a safe haven in Syria, as in other similar cases, without existing other areas under the control of the opposition neither in Turkey, which just declared this organization as being terrorist, nor somewhere else.

What are the consequences, for Romania, of a military operation, already postponed, somewhere 2000 km away?

Not too many, apparently. Our dual approach of the conflict in Syria, with a decreased diplomatic representation, but still present, and with some reserves regarding the Damascus regime in line with our strategic partnership with the US, left some opened doors in the region, but not too opened. For reasons which are connected with important international actors, Syria, even victorious in the internal conflict, will not benefit of the credit that the winners have, still having to carry the burden of a privileged relation with Iran, a missing treaty with Israel, a quasi-exclusion of Damascus’s leadership from the ”good” Sunni world and a quite secular regime character. And, of course, neither EU/NATO will be interested to communicate with the dictator Assad.

So, our connections regarding Damask are limited to:

  • our local Romanian community, generally formed by Romanian women married with Syrians, around 10-15.000 persons, unorganized but, the majority, well placed in the Syrian social hierarchy;
  • the Syrian community from Romania, several thousands of persons, generally well-integrated in the local economic life;
  • some accidental economic connections, individuals;
  • a concern regarding EU’s potential demands to integrate Syrian refugees.

Syria’s tragedy does not involve us but tangentially. We do not have a clear policy regarding the Romanian citizens who have Syrian origin, still being on the Syrian territory. Although the institutions can say something different. We do not have a clear policy regarding the refugees. Although the institutions can say something different. Will we be able to participate at an eventual reconstruction effort?

What meaning can have a military operation of retaking the control over a rebel province, where there are some tens of thousands of terrorist group members, for us? An “Arab Spring” which never ends and which is still sending some shocks to Europe?

An there are still other questions around.