The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura and his Special Advisor, Jan Egeland, held a press conference (vid) today. They appealed to the Russian President Putin and President Erdogan of Turkey to find a solution for Idleb province that would avoid the upcoming Syrian army attack on the province ruled by al-Qaeda.
De Mistura claimed that there are 2.9 million civilians in the area. That number is nonsense. In 2011 Idleb governorate had a population of 1.5 million. Several hundred thousands of those, Christians, Alawites, government employees, soldiers and their families, fled when in 2015 al-Qaeda and its Free Syrian Army allies attacked and occupied it. Some new people, 10-20,000 Chinese Uyghurs as well as other foreign Jihadis, arrived. But their total numbers were in the ten thousands, not in the hundred thousands. When in 2017 the Syrian army liberated Aleppo and then east-Ghouta and other areas, about 50,000 people in total asked to be put on buses and to be shipped off to Idleb. The total number of people in the province and the attached areas held by the Jihadis must be well under 2 million.
As for the number of terrorists in Idleb de Mistura only spoke of some 10,000 of the al-Qaeda aligned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former Jabhat Al-Nusra Front. But the total number of radical Jihadists in the governorate is much larger. There are two large groups of “rebels” in Idleb.
Turkey’s favourite is the NLF, which is led by Fadlallah al-Hajji, a Muslim Brotherhood ally. The NLF includes Turkey-friendly Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham, the Noureddine al-Zengi Brigades, Failaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Ahrar, and groups that fought under the Free Syrian Army banner, like the Victory Army and the 2nd Coastal Division.
Big but brittle, the NLF is held together by Turkish sponsorship and shared enemies: al-Assad’s government, Syrian Kurdish groups, and hardline jihadists.
These ain’t your friendly neighbors but brutal Islamists. Ahrar al Sham is a recognized terrorist group founded by a senior al-Qaeda veteran. The al-Zengi brigades became famous when they published a video which showed them beheading a wounded 12 year old boy.
The second, larger, and even more brutal group is the alliance around HTS under its leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani. It includes several thousand Uyghur and Chechen fighters:
Some of al-Golani’s jihadist critics, many of whom are Jordanians and Palestinians, have gathered in a pro-al-Qaeda splinter faction known as Hurras al-Deen.
Hurras al-Deen is accompanied by a number of small foreign-led factions close to Tahrir al-Sham, including the Chechens of Junoud al-Sham. The so-called Islamic State also operates clandestine cells in the area, hunted by both the NLF and Tahrir al-Sham.
Jaish al-Ezzah, a Free Syrian Army-flagged faction based near Hama, has not joined the Turkish-backed NLF like many of its former comrades. Some see the group as a covert Tahrir al-Sham ally ..
In the western part of the enclave, Jisr al-Shughour has emerged as a stronghold of the Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP, a group of Uyghur Chinese jihadists.
HTS and other Jihadis have rejected Turkish requests to dissolve themselves. When the liberation of Idleb starts the Turkish influenced NLF will join HTS and other Jihadis in the fight:
[T]o the Syrian government, Idlib’s rebels are all terrorists pure and simple – and the Idlib fighters themselves also see al-Assad as their primary enemy, transcending factional divides. Aba-Zeid insisted that if Russia green-lights a Syrian government offensive on Idlib, no matter how the various groups view Turkey or each other, they would all “prioritise repelling the attack”.
Mustafa Sejari, a leader in the Ankara-backed Moutassem Brigade, agreed. “This is the last fortress of the Syrian opposition and preserving it is everyone’s obligation,” he said.
HTS and its allies must have some 15-25,000 fighters, the groups aligned with Turkey may have a slightly lower number, some are locals and they are probably less willing to fight. In total the Syrian army is likely to face a force of some 30-45,000 capable and willing fighters.
What these groups currently lack is the supply of weapons and ammunition. In August 2018 not one anti-tank guided missiles was used against the Syrian army. The US officially ended its supplies for the “rebels”. The Gulf states have washed their hands over Idelb. It is no longer their fight. Turkey also seems to have stopped weapon supplies. Without constant resupply of anti-tank weapons and especially artillery ammunition the “rebel” groups will soon run out of the basic necessities for waging war.
But their are still voiced who call for further arming the Jihadis. The “eminent scholar” and warmonger Anthony Cordesman of CSIS just advised to re-up such supplies:
If anything, the US should begin now to evaluate the kind of aid it might give any renewed Sunni or other rebels faction both now in Idlib or later.
This is in line with the idea of US administration officials who want to “create quagmires” for Syria and Russia.
The New York Times did its best to push for that with an op-ed of some “democratic” Jihadi fan-girl and a propagandistic “news” piece on Idleb that took the reader to the 21st paragraphs to learn that the province is ruled by al-Qaeda:
H.T.S. has controlled much of Idlib since 2015, acting as de facto governmental authority, facilitating trade across the long border with Turkey and organizing aid deliveries.
The “de-facto governmental authority” HTS is known to publicly execute women accused of adultery. It “facilitates trade” by taxing it to finance its terrorist activities. It “organizing aid deliveries” by talking half of any aid that is brought in. That is the reason why the Inspector General of USAID recently shut down its aid program in Idleb.
If the US wants to “create a quagmire” in Idleb it will need Turkish support to restart its arming of the terrorists. Today US emissaries arrived in Ankara likely to offer a deal:
United States Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey held talks with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal in the Turkish capital on Sept. 4.
Jeffrey had served as the US Ambassador to Ankara between the years of 2008 and 2010 and thus have great knowledge on the importance of Turkish-American ties.
The top three issues in regards to the current situation on Syrian soil that Turkish officials discussed with Jeffrey were the looming Idlib operation by Syria-Russia, delays in the implementation of the Manbij deal and efforts to speed up political settlement in Syria.
On Idlib, Turkey and the US are on the same page and have expressed that a massive operation into the overpopulated province would create an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy if civilians are not separated from terrorists. Both countries think al-Nusra and affiliated groups should be eliminated but this should be done carefully and without civilian casualties.
The de Mistura press conference today made the same point and was likely coordinated with these talks.
But neither de Mistura nor James Jeffrey nor any Turkish official have presented an idea of how to achieve that. Turkey was given several months to solve the Jihadist problem in Idleb by talks. It tried and failed.
The current situation can not continue. It is unconscionable to leave the 1-2 million civilians in Syria under the rule of al-Qaeda. Two UN Security Council resolutions demand to fight the “Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups” and “to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Syria …”.
How is that supposed to be done without fighting them? Will the US offer to resettle HTS and the other Jihadis in Wyoming? Will Turkey give them apartments in Antalya? No? Then what?
US President Trump added another warning against the Idelb operation:
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump – 22:20 utc – 3 Sep 2018
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!
(Note: Instead of the “animal Assad” Trump used in an earlier tweet he now properly addressed the Syria’s president.)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dunford, also chipped in:
“We don’t see any way that significant military operations are going to be beneficial to the people of Syria,” Dunford told reporters during a trip to Athens. “If major military operations take place we can expect humanitarian catastrophe and I think we would all want to see that be avoided,” …
Pressed about the best course, Dunford said: “More of a discussion between the Turks, the Syrians and the Russians at more precise counterterrorism operations — as opposed to large scale conventional operations — would be the right approach.”
The US is not a friend of the people of Syria. If it gives advice the Syrian government and its allies should do the opposite. Any delay of the liberation of Idleb will strengthen their enemy. They should launch the operation as soon as possible.
Today the Syrian army began to prepare the battlefield for the upcoming fight. Some 30 bombing attacks were flown by the Syrian and Russian air force. The targets were depots and headquarters of the Jihadis. Removing their supplies is the easiest way to shorten the fight and to thereby prevent unnecessary civilian casualties.
Reprinted with permission from MoonOfAlabama.