The fall of eastern Aleppo was a devastating blow to the jihadists who want to eradicate the Syrian secular state and replace it with an Islamic feudal system similar to Saudi Arabia or Qatar. But the jihadists have not given up yet and the two biggest groups, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham staged a number of clashes in their stronghold Idlib province to force smaller Islamist groups into mergers with either of them.
In addition to this ploy Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, who calls itself now Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, raided a few headquarters and ammunition depots of so called “moderate rebels,” exterminating these groups as their leaders fled to Turkey and their fighters were incorporated into the renamed entity.
With the repeated name changes Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, alias Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, alias Jabhat al-Nusra wants to further obscure its personal and ideological ties to al-Qaeda.
After the staged fights died down, most jihadists joined Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, including Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Liwa al-Haqq, Jaish al-Sunna, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, and Fatah Haleb. The former al-Qaeda affiliate is seen as more effective and ideologically sound than Turkey controlled Ahrar al-Sham.
Idlib is comparatively quiet at the moment, but a steady stream of weapons transports via Turkey fills up depleted depots and it will not take too long till Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham has reorganized itself, incorporated the new fighters, and is able to start a new offensive.
Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham’s logo refers to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, thus illustrating the paramount goal, which is to conquer Damascus and with it the whole of Syria.
The USA only will attack Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham to kill some leaders with known links to al-Qaeda. All Islamists, even the most dangerous and despicable ones, are seen as allies in the fight against the secular Syrian government. Even under US President Trump Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham will not be attacked in the same way as the Islamic State, while the support of hardline Islamists by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, UAE will be tolerated or even facilitated by the CIA.
Trump may be open to a detente with Russia but the people he surrounded himself with, like Michael Flynn and James N. Mattis, are rather inclined to continue using Islamists as proxy forces to further destabilize the Middle East.
Western NGOs are focussing on Idlib to keep basic services up and create the illusion that Islamist rule would enable the population a normal life. Aleppo city meanwhile is shunned, the 1.6 million Aleppans who choose to stay are obviously regarded as government supporters, not worthy of any Western help. Syrian and Russian organizations are distributing food and vouchers. There is still fear that the Islamists one day may come back.
While government forces were tied up driving rebels from the eastern districts of Aleppo city, Turkey in November invaded Syria along the border between Jarabulus and Azaz. The operation, called Euphrates Shield, was launched under the pretext of fighting IS (Islamic State), but had the ultimate goal of creating a safe haven for Islamic fighters and prevent the Kurds to link up their cantons Afrin and Kobane.
IS retreated amicably from Jarabulus and Dabiq, but makes a stand now in al-Bab. The Turkish offensive has stalled, proving that Turkeys Islamic rebels are utterly incompetent. Turkey has sent more and more regular troops into Syria, which do now all of the fighting while the Islamic rebels are relegated to supporting activities. Turkeys losses are considerable. At least 10 Leopard 2A4 tanks and various other armored vehicles have been destroyed, more that 40 soldiers died. These are official numbers, real casualties are likely much higher.
Turkeys ally Massoud Barzani has sent a few thousand Rojava Peshmerga to enter northern Syria and secure safe zones in coordination with the USA. The Rojava Peshmerga are formed out of Syrian Kurdish refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan and may replace the useless FSA-Islamists in securing the area along the border once Turkish soldiers retreat.
This could be risky, because Kurds will not fight against Kurds and the Peshmerga could easily change sides to join the YPG/YPJ.
Syrian army units (led by the legendary Tiger forces) have taken advantage of the Turkish troubles in al-Bab and grabbed a lot of land from IS, approaching al-Bab from the south. No one knows what will happen, when Syrian and Turkish soldiers meet, but one thing is clear: The Turkish army is severely weakened after the coup and the subsequent purge, it is a paper tiger and Erdogan has to be careful not to overplay his hand and be humiliated by a crushing defeat of his forces.
The Syrian government has sent letters to the UN Security Council Syria, protesting the Turkish invasion and accusing Ankara of providing military, material, logistic support to terrorist organizations, facilitating the entry of foreign militants into Syria, and setting up training camps for militants on Turkish soil.
Western permanent members of the Security Council will prevent a discussions of these protests (might makes right).
The jihadist enclaves around Damascus shrink and are eliminated one by one. After Islamists poisoned Damascus’ water supply with diesel and damaged the pumping station, the army conquered the Wadi Barada valley near the Lebanese border. With 400 square kilometers this is a big area and another significant defeat of the Islamists. 2,000 of them were allowed to go to Idlib despite the fact, that they killed the chief negotiator of the government during talks.
Repairs of the pumping station have started and 5 million inhabitants of Damascus can hope that the water shortage will finally end after one month.
The biggest remaining Islamist enclaves around Damascus are East Ghouta and Yarmouk/Beit Saham and there will soon be heavy fighting to eliminate them. In the other enclaves (Madaya and Zabadani, Bayt Jinn, Dumayr, Ruhayba/Jayrud/Nasiria) are truces in place and they will eventually give up without a fight.
Jordan since one year apparently is out of the Syrian proxy game and the “Southern Front” effectively doesn’t exist anymore aside from local militias. Salaries for fighters have been cut in half by the MOC (Military Operation Center) in Amman.
Southern Front rebels were not able to launch a successful military operation for almost a year. In December they announced a large-scale offensive to clear out IS from Daraa and Quneitra, yet nothing happened other than an ambush where IS affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn Walid captured lots of military supplies from the rebels.
IS is still dangerous and able to wreak havoc. While the Kurdish dominated SDF took huge areas of Raqqa western countryside, Turkey took the area south of the Turkish border, the Syrian army took a sizable junk of eastern Aleppo countryside, IS has reconquered Palmyra and is busy destroying what is left of the world-famous ancient monuments.
IS has also launched its most ambitious and intense operation since month, amassing forces around the besieged town Deir ez-Zor and trying to overrun it. The Islamists were able to cut the airport from the main city and though Syrian troops have taken back many lost points the supply road is still unusable because IS has fire control over the road.
94,000 Inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor are besieged and in danger of being slaughtered by the IS monsters. This is the number according to the UN World Food Program, who halted air drops on January 15 after IS overran the drop zone.
There are rumors that the Kurdish dominated SDF and the Syrian army will cooperate to relief Deir ez-Zor, because the SDF is in a better position and nearer the city.
The siege of eastern Aleppo affected, as came out after the Syrian victory, some 120,000 people, and they were not in danger of being massacred by the army. After they surrendered, 34,000 militants and their families could leave Aleppo unharmed and go to Idlib.
Yet, while the siege of eastern Aleppo was reported around the clock across all news channels, called a mass slaughter, a crime against humanity, a genocide, the siege of Deir ez-Zor is pretty much ignored by Western mass media. The 94,000 people in Deir ez-Zor are deemed as regime supporters, not worthy Western compassion and empathy.
Most of the more densely populated areas in Syria are now under control of the government, but on military maps the situation still doesn’t look good. The Islamic belligerents are preparing for a new rounds of violence despite the ceasefire which was negotiated by Syria, Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the Astana-Kazakhstan peace talks.
IS and Fateh al-Sham (now Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham) were excluded from the ceasefire anyway, the Islamists who attended the talks didn’t sign the final agreement.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar Kuwait, the UAE were not involved in the Astana peace talks and also did not delegate their wishes to Turkey to negotiate on their behalf. These countries enjoy significant influence over tens of thousands of militants fighting in Syria and can keep the war going on for a long, long time.
Russia, fearful to become trapped in the Syrian quagmire, tries to reach a political compromise but will find out that a few more victories like eastern Aleppo will be necessary to make peace a realistic option. Furthermore, Russian proposals for limited autonomy of the Kurds in a federal state are rejected by the Syrian Baath government. The Kurds and the Baath party, both secular and with socialist roots, would be the most logical allies to guarantee a stable secular state and keep the Islamists in check, yet at the moment mutual mistrust and resentments are still too big to make a cooperation possible.
The Russian announcement to pull out its forces from Syria is irrelevant because 4,500 officers and soldiers will be still spread all over Syria, operating on the ground. That the group of ships around the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier has left leaves not a void, they were not essential and rather part of a training mission.
While the battles are expected to regain their former intensity and the Astana ceasefire will fail just like the previous ones, the process is still a necessary step in the long journey towards a political solution.
This situation report closes with an interview of 78 years old Flemish Father Daniel Maes, who lives in Syria in the sixth-century-old Mar Yakub monastery in the city of Qara, 90 kilometers north of the capital Damascus.
Father Daniel has been a witness to the “civil war” right from the start and according to him, Western reports on the conflict in Syria are very misleading. His assessment in short: “The Americans and their allies want to completely ruin the country.”
Interviewer: You are very critical of the media coverage on Syria. What is bothering you?
Father Daniel: The idea that a popular uprising took place against President Assad is completely false. I’ve been in Qara since 2010 and I have seen with my own eyes how agitators from outside Syria organized protests against the government and recruited young people. That was filmed and aired by Al Jazeera to give the impression that a rebellion was taking place. Murders were committed by foreign terrorists, against the Sunni and Christian communities, in an effort to sow religious and ethnic discord among the Syrian people. While in my experience, the Syrian people were actually very united.
Before the war, this was a harmonious country: a secular state in which different religious communities lived side by side peacefully. There was hardly any poverty, education was free, and health care was good. It was only not possible to freely express your political views. But most people did not care about that.
Interviewer: Mother Agnes-Mariam, of your Mar Yakub (“Saint Jacob”) monastery, is accused of siding with the regime. She has friends at the highest level.
Father Daniel: Mother Agnes-Mariam helps the population: She has recently opened a soup kitchen in Aleppo, where 25,000 meals are prepared five times a week. Look, it is miraculous that we are still alive. We owe that to the army of Assad’s government and to Vladimir Putin, because he decided to intervene when the rebels threatened to take power.
When thousands of terrorists settled in Qara, we became afraid for our lives. They came from the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Europe, Turkey, Libya, there were many Chechens. They formed a foreign occupation force, all allied to al-Qaeda and other terrorists. Armed to the teeth by the West and their allies with the intention to act against us, they literally said: “This country belongs to us now.” Often, they were drugged, they fought each other, in the evening they fired randomly. We had to hide in the crypts of the monastery for a long time. When the Syrian army chased them away, everybody was happy: The Syrian citizens because they hate the foreign rebels, and we because peace had returned.
Interviewer: You say that the Syrian Army protects civilians, yet there are all sorts of reports about war crimes committed by Assad’s forces, such as the bombardments with barrel bombs.
Father Daniel: Do you not know that the media coverage on Syria is the biggest media lie of our time? They have sold pure nonsense about Assad: It was actually the rebels who plundered and killed. Do you think that the Syrian people are stupid? Do you think those people were forced to cheer for Assad and Putin? It is the Americans who have a hand in all of this, for pipelines and natural resources in this region and to thwart Putin.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to establish a Sunni state in Syria, without religious freedom. Therefore, Assad must go. You know, when the Syrian army was preparing for the battle in Aleppo, Muslim soldiers came to me to be blessed. Between ordinary Muslims and Christians, there is no problem. It is those radical Islamic, Western-backed rebels who want to massacre us. They are all al-Qaeda and IS. There are not any moderate fighters anymore.
Interviewer: You once mentioned Hillary Clinton to be a “devil in holy water”, because as foreign minister, she deliberately worsened the conflict.
Father Daniel: I am happy with Trump. He sees what every normal person understands: That the United States should stop undermining countries which possess natural resources. The Americans’ attempt to impose a unipolar world is the biggest problem. Trump understands that radical Islam is a bigger threat than Russia.
What do I care whether he occasionally takes off his pants? If Trump practices geopolitics the way he has promised to do so, then the future looks bright. Then it will become similar to Putin’s approach. And hopefully then, there will be a solution for Syria, and peace will return.
Interviewer: You understand that your analysis is controversial and will encounter much criticism?
Father Daniel: I speak from personal observation. And no one has to believe me, right? But I know one thing: The media can either contribute to the massacre of the Syrian people or help the Syrian people, with their media coverage. Unfortunately, there are too many followers and cowards among journalists.