Posts Tagged ‘Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’

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Idlib – it’s a bit more complicated

March 10, 2020

Dawn of Idlib operation

The initial Syrian army operation “Dawn of Idlib” from May to August 2019 resulted in the capture of the southern towns Kafr Nabudah, Qalaat al-Madiq, al-Habit, Kafr Zita, Al-Lataminah, Morek, and Khan Sheykhun. The army tried to outflank and encircle Islamic strongholds. There was heavy resistance and numerous suicide attacks by HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate). Four ceasefires failed and were used by the Islamists to launch counteroffensives.

When the government operation restarted on December 1, spearheaded by the legendary “Tiger Forces,” a slow, grinding progress was expected, but unexpectedly the Islamist’s lines collapsed, the fighters hastily fled, the towns Maarrat al-Numan, Khan Tuman, and Saraqib on the M5 highway fell without much fighting. Turkey had set up several military positions on the M5 to prevent further Syrian advances, but the Syrians simply bypassed the Turkish posts. 

The stunning advance of Syria’s army made it possible to completely secure the Damascus-Aleppo M5 highway, known to Syrians simply as the “International Road.” Connecting Damascus, Homs, Hama, an Aleppo, the motorway is key to the countries economy. 

As the Syrian troops moved further north, they could attack the heavily fortified enemy positions in some western Aleppo suburbs (Rashidin, Laramun), which were still in Islamist hands, from behind, overwhelming the defenders and clearing the whole of Aleppo province from rebels.

Turkey’s response – Operation Spring Shield

When Erdogan saw his Islamist proxies collapse under the well planned and executed offensive “Dawn of Idlib” of the Syrian army, he sent Turkish armed forces into Syria to stop the Syrian advance. The Turkish military is still strong despite a painful purge of Gulenist and Kemalist officers after the coup in 2016.

Turkish society is nationalistic, the military is the nations pride, and only the most talented students with the best grades are accepted as cadets. Turkish industry is geared towards weapons production even more than US industry, and the population unequivocally accepts the high price of maintaining a 600,000 strong force.

After a never ending stream of Turkish convoys crossed the border into Syria, a strike force the size of a mechanized division with at least 10,000 troops was ready to “enforce the Sochi agreements at any cost.” Erdogan seemingly was hell-bent for war.

After on February 27 36 Turkish soldiers (insiders claim more than 100) were killed  in an airstrike on a Turkish headquarter, Turkey retributed by raining down fire on crucial Syrian army targets, using Turkish-developed armed drones of the Anka and TB2 types, Firtina howitzers, and Kasirga or Bora missiles. 

Turkey could identify the targets because of its vastly improved SIGINT capabilities. SIGINT refers to intercepting and analyzing the enemy’s communications (phones, radios, satellites) and electronic footprint (radars). In 2012 the TSK (Turkish Armed Forces) turned its Electronics Systems Command over to MIT (National Intelligence Organization), which restructured it as Signals Intelligence Directorate, improving and expanding it considerably.

The MIT also used “spy commandos,” either embedded with the Islamist proxies or in civilian disguise, as spotters (forward observers) to identify targets.

Turkish drone war

Turkey inflicted heavy casualties on the Syrians and stopped their offensive. After the Turkish headquarter was bombed, Turkey increased the military pressure, shooting down Syrian planes (2 Su-24 and one L-39) and bombing everything what moved inside Syrian newly conquered areas of Idlib. The Syrians were helpless because their tactics were based on the assumption of Russian and Syrian air supremacy over Idlib.

But the two Syrian Su-24s were shot down by a Turkish air force F-16 from inside Turkey, while the new-generation T-155 self-propelled artillery, high precision TRG-122 satellite-guided rockets, various other multiple-launch rocket systems, and the KORAL land-based jammer operated mostly from Turkish territory. 

Turkey also bombarded the  Nayrab airport near Aleppo, though the damage there was not severe. 

SIGINT gained from Hezbollah’s mobile phone usage helped Turkey identify the location of Hezbollah’s gathering forces at Saraqib and bomb the Radwan Special Force with drones, killing nine and wounding 66 out of a total of 120.

Three army generals (Brig. Gen. Burhan Ramoun, Brig. Gen. Ismael Ali, and Col. Mazar Farwati) were killed by drone strikes in the Jabal al-Zawiya region.

Did Putin blink?

Turkey claims that it has killed more than 3,000 soldiers, which is surely exaggerated, but even pro-government sources concede that more than 1,000 soldiers died, many of them from the elite “Tiger Forces.”

Turkey further claims to have destroyed two Pantsir-S1 and disputes the effectiveness of the Russian anti-aircraft systems. Like all military equipment, its lethality of course depends on how well trained its operators are.

While Erdogan vowed to wipe out the Syrian military and apparently was quite successful in doing it, Russia stood by and only after a few days stepped in to provide anti-aircraft assistance and shoot down Turkish drones.

Then the SAA could show indisputable evidence of two crashed Anka and two TB 1/2 – I.e drones, as they managed to recover and photograph the wreckages. All together about 20 Turkish drones were destroyed and the military pressure on the Syrian troops eased.

Already in February Russia had significantly increased shipments of equipment, ammunition, and personal through the Bosporus, including improved Pantsir-S2 anti-aircraft systems. And yet, it is not likely that Russia only waited till the new capabilities were ready to be employed at the front, it is much more plausible that Russia waited these few days to a) give Erdogan a chance to let off steam and have something to brag about, b) show the Syrian military leadership how dependent they are on Russia, c) study Turkish tactics and the effectiveness of Turkish electronic warfare (SIGINT, drones, jamming). 

An unexpected ceasefire deal

Everybody thought that Russia had sold out Syria to appease Erdogan, but then Erdogan travelled to Moscow and after a six hour meeting (two and a half hours hours of which Erdogan and Putin negotiated face to face with only their interpreters present) a ceasefire and a deal with very favorable conditions for Syria (M5 highway under Syrian control and M4 highway opened with a 6 km buffer Zone on both sides) were announced.

Nobody had expected that Putin could pull that off, but in retrospective it was the only possible outcome, everything else would have been a complete disaster. Erdogan’s position was not as strong as his fiery rhetoric suggested, he had shown that Turkey’s military is strong, but Putin also had shown him the military’s vulnerabilities and limits.

Turkey is in a deep economic crisis and the lira is collapsing. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) is losing regional elections. Former prime minister and party leader Ahmet Davutoglu (who conceptualized neo-Ottomanism)  has left the party and is carving his own political niche. Ali Babacan, a former confidant of Erdogan, is also launching a new political party.

Erdogan’s response has been to go on the offensive by invading Idlib, issuing maritime pretensions around Cyprus, sending Islamist mercenaries to Libya, and blackmailing the EU via the inundation of the Greek island Lesbos with refugees.

On the high of the crisis Erdogan begged US/NATO for assistance (Patriot missiles, intelligence, more ammunition, a NATO no-fly-zone over Idlib), but was rebuffed. The Western public hates Turkey because of the refugees, the Kurds, and Turkish support for Islamic terrorists. No Western politician can afford to provide more than lukewarm expressions of sympathy for Turkey’s case.

So Erdogan was left on his own again. He had pushed in every direction, hoping that at least one of his moves would produce results, though in reality, he just maneuvered himself into a corner. One could also say that he overplayed his hand or he dug himself into a hole.

In this 6 hour meeting with Putin, the only world leader whom he respects and with whom he has some kind of understanding, Putin showed him a way out of the quagmire. Erdogan is not irrational and he is a skilled (though ruthless) politician, but he has not the superior analytical intelligence of Putin. In this six hour meeting, two and a half hours face to face with only the interpreters, Putin was able to wear Erdogan down and make him accept a deal which Erdogan visibly regretted already at the concluding press conference. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu probably also had their part, telling Erdogan that he had gone too far and that Russia would continue to defend Syria at all costs. And telling him that Russia could inflict not only military but also serious economic damage by prohibiting Russian tourism to Turkey and stopping Turkish agrarian exports (tomatoes for instance).

Omissions, fine print, and boilerplate

The outcome of the negotiations was a document entitled “Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-escalation Area”. This comprises an agreement of three paragraphs amounting to ten lines, and a preamble of four paragraphs repeating what professionals call boilerplate, points with which everyone agrees in principle, and no one in practice.

Two sentences in the preamble which the presidents agreed make fresh Turkish arms and additional troops in the Idlib area unlikely. The first is that the Turks accept “their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic”; the second sentence says “there can be no military solution to the Syrian conflict”.

The document guarantees:

1.The commitment of Russia and Turkey to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
2. The fight against terrorists of all kinds.
3. The start of a ceasefire regime in Idlib beginning March 6.
4. Establishment of a security corridor along the M-4 highway in Syria (6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the highway).
5. Introduction of joint Russian-Turkish military patrols along the M4 highway in Idlib (connecting Latakia and Aleppo) starting March 15

Just when everybody thought, that Putin finally found his match in Erdogan, it came out, that Erdogan found his match in Putin.

Turkey has no friends

Talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the European Union over the fate of refugees in his country ended in failure with no clear agreement over what should happen next. Neither side seemed happy with the result of a near two-hour meeting in Brussels, with Erdogan leaving without speaking to the media, and senior EU officials warning there was a lot still to discuss, as they demanded that Turkey continues to implement a 2016 migrant deal.

The head of the Security Committee at the Czech Parliament Radek Koten stressed that what the Turkish regime is doing against Syria is an aggression on a sovereign state, stressing that Erdogan has no right to attack any country. Koten also said that Erdogan is working on destabilizing the region and Europe, in addition to blackmailing the European Union with the issue of immigrants to fund his aggression on Syria.

Everything is temporary

Erdogan had to make substantial concessions to get out of his predicament.

Ankara seems to have abandoned claims over the M5 highway, because the М5 highway, although not explicitly mentioned, remains under Syrian control, and Turkey is obliged to accept this. Turkey undertakes to unlock highway M4 by March 15. This is one of the conditions of the Sochi deal, which Turkey had not fulfilled.

The M4 from Latakia to Saraqip is currently controlled by the Islamists, but Russia and Turkey are said to patrol it from March 15 on and maintain a demilitarized zone 6 kilometer north and 6 kilometer south of the road.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explained, that zone south of the M4 highway will be subject to Russian control, and the zone north of it will be under Turkish control. This means in practice, that the Islamists in the south of Idlib will have to evacuate, because being cut off from the northern part, without supplies, surrounded by Syrian troops, their situation is untenable.

Syrian workers started already opening and resurfacing the M4 from the Latakia side.

This arrangement, if it is really implemented, would indicate, that Erdogan himself is not comfortable with his Idlib adventure and tries to scale back Turkish involvement.

On the other hand, Erdogan has not given specific commitments to separate the terrorists from “moderate militants”, meaning that the presence of jihadi gangs in Idlib retains a high potential for escalation, both with Turkey’s knowledge and simply at the whims of individual field commanders.

And Erdogan announced, while speaking to reporters alongside NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg: “We have asked for additional NATO assistance on Syria – for the defense of the border with Syria, and in connection with the migration challenge.”

While Erdogan seems to have abandoned claims to the M5 highway, the fate of Turkish observation posts east of M5 remains unclear. The observation posts are not mentioned in the agreement. 

HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra) is also not mentioned and therefore excluded from the ceasefire deal. HTS doesn’t want to adhere to it anyway, so fighting will continue and after an appropriate time of abiding by the ceasefire, the SAA will launch a new offensive, citing Turkey’s failure to root out HTS from the area, frequent attacks by HTS on SAA positions, and continuing drone attacks on Russia’s Hmeimim air base. 

It’s still a good thing this ceasefire was signed, since it will cool down the political tensions between Syria/Russia and Turkey.

Who wouldn’t like an armistice? 

Back in October 2019, when Turkey launched an offensive in northern Syria, both the EU and NATO urged Turkey to show restraint and avoid any unilateral action that might lead to further destabilization of the region. But this was about the Kurds.

In February though the NATO alliance condemned the attack on Turkish troops in Syria after Turkey invoked Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 4 is a demonstration of the alliance’s political dimension — an ally can voice an issue of concern to the council whenever its territorial integrity, political independence, or security is threatened.

In its history, NATO countries have used this strong political signaling tool only six times and Turkey initiated five of them. One of these instances was in 2012, after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet. NATO allies agreed to increase air defense systems to help Turkey protect its territory and expressed strong political support for Ankara. 

The United States further blocked the adoption of a UN Security Council statement supporting the between Russia and Turkey agreed ceasefire, although the deal clearly led to a desperately needed de-escalation in Idlib province.

The impossibility to tame HTS 

Turkey may try to rebrand HTS and ask the USA about legitimizing the organization. Turkey could also offer HTS a transfer to northeast Syria (in order to fight the Kurds, though this would not go down well with the US) or maybe to Libya.

HTS is the main fighting force, without them the Idlib pocket will fall within weeks when the “Dawn of Idlib” offensive starts again. Turkey tried to arm the SNA (Syrian National Army) aka TFSA (Turkish Free Syrian Army), Islamist mercenaries payed by Turkey, to give them the upper hand, but everything sent there found its way to HTS through tacit collusion, bribes, or intimidation.

Anyway, the SNA aka TFSA is just an irrelevant side show. HTS rules, and leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani knows that the organizations very existence depends on being in full control, so he won’t hesitate to wipe out other Islamist groups who challenge him. HTS did that before.

Turkey could destroy HTS with a token SNA participation but the SNA Islamists are too weak to hold territory and Turkey would have to control the land north of M4 and M5 directly with all the risks which such a move would entail. It would put more soldiers in harms way, cost more, and would look like a direct invasion rather that an operation in support of “Islamic freedom fighter.” Not to mention the danger of terror attacks by HTS sleeper cells in Idlib as well as in Turkey.

HTS played its cards right, there is no alternative to them in Idlib and anyone who wants to keep the Idlib pocket intact has to protect them. They are desperately trying to get a seat at the peace table in the end, though nobody sane would accept them as party in negotiations.

It is not only HTS, there is also the TIP (Turkistan Islamic Party) of Chinese Uighurs, who have settled in Jisr al-Shughour with their families and have nowhere else to go. They are fierce and fanatical warriors who will fight to the death. The town Jisr al-Shughour lays on the M4 highway near the border of Latakia province and it will be impossible to open the highway without dislodging them.

HTS launched already an attack on Saraqib right after the ceasefire deal was signed.

The coronavirus will change everything

Immediately after the virus outbreak in Wuhan the Syrian authorities ordered all students on Chinese universities back and since then they have temporarily halted travel and transport to China and Iran. This is especially difficult because of the close military cooperation with Iran.

A thermal scanner has been installed on Damascus International Airport to measure the temperature of people who arrive. Everyday samples are taken from suspected cases at public health centers and hospitals in all provinces, and they are sent to a reference laboratory at the Ministry of Health.

The WHO (World Health Organization) assures that there are no infections in Syria but how do they know? If the coronavirus pandemic reaches Syria, the hospitals, already overburdened by a steady influx of severely wounded soldiers, will be unable to treat severe COVID-19 cases and will be running out of hospital beds. There is also a shortage of medicines and medical equipment (especially respirators) because of Western sanctions. 

Iran’s ability to support Syria will equally be restricted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed more than 300 Iranians, inclusive high ranking officials (Mohammad Mirmohammadi, Hossein Sheikholeslam). Eight percent of parliamentarians are infected. 

Just like in Syria, Western sanctions have crippled the health system, and a scarcity of testing kits has been one of the main impediments to a proper handling of the outbreak.

Some Iranian leaders have called for more restrictive measures and even quarantine of highly infected areas in order to stop the spread of the virus that is overwhelming hospitals across the country.

A decline in Chinese oil purchases, collapse of tourism, and diminished exports to immediate neighbors are a severe blow to Iran’s economy, making it more and more difficult to help Syria stand up against Islamists and Turkey.

The rules of the game

All is fair in love and war, the saying goes, and if that holds truth, there are no rules in war, except the one already set out in the Melian Dialog, brought to us by the Athenian historian and general Thucydides. The key sentence of this dialogue: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Today the aphorism “might makes right” is commonly used.

This age old wisdom has also influenced the principle which the tsarina, Empress Catherine the Great, applied during the Turkish-Russian wars of 1768 to 1792. The principle is that nothing the Turks say they agree to or sign can be relied upon; and that everything the Turks cannot achieve right now will be tried again and again, until and unless they are defeated in battle or by a forceful defense of territory which the Turks cannot overcome.

The corollary of the Catherine principle is, that the new agreement between Putin and Erdogan will not last for long.

There will be war again

Turkey has stationed 12,000 soldiers in Syria and set up 24 (so called) observation posts all over Idlib, which are practically military bases. The bases south and east of the M5 highway are surrounded by Syrian troops (in fact by Iranian militias and Hezbollah) and, according to Turkish media reports, are in a precarious state, deprived of fresh ammunition, fuel, and logistical supplies for nearly a month. 

Before Turkey’s offensive convoys with supplies for the besieged outposts had to be agreed with Russia on a case by case basis. Sources in Ankara suggest the outposts might be evacuated in a gradual fashion without stirring much public passion at home, but a huge Turkish convoy of the Air Force has just entered southern Idlib, presumably to install anti aircraft systems in some of these outposts. 

The security corridor along the M4 highway means that Russia is placing itself between Turkish and Syrian forces to ease tensions. Russia has left part of the M4 as a supply route to Turkey, which will be supervised jointly by Turkish and Russian forces. The whole security-corridor arrangement, however, might prove symbolic.

This is a highly volatile situation and it is also costly and completely unsustainable. Russia and Syria apparently hope, that the rising costs will force Erdogan to eventually retreat and leave the defense of the remaining Idlib pocket up to the Islamist proxies.

In the meantime Russia will set up new air defense and electronic warfare systems. Russian SIGINT experts will carefully study the recordings of Turkish electronic signals. The Syrian army will replenish the losses, reorganize, and train on new Pantsir and Buk anti-aircraft missile systems. Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq have sent already 1,000 fighters to Idlib since late February to make up for the casualties of the Syrian army.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and the Islamist mercenaries of Turkey will set up new defense lines, dig trenches, plant IEDs (improvised explosive devices), conduct night time raids with Inghimasi shock troops, and send SVIEDs (suicide vehicle born improvised explosive devices) against Syrian target.

Turkish drones will try to assassinate high profile Syrians.

The Syrian troops will respond with continuing the Dawn of Idlib offensive.

It will be war again.

So, enjoy the breathing space and the quiet while it lasts!

 

Further reading:

https://mato48.com/2019/10/20/peace-spring-and-ottoman-dreams/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/26/who-will-stop-erdogan-update-2/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/27/turkish-collaboration-with-is/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/25/who-will-stop-erdogan-update/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/25/who-will-stop-erdogan/
https://mato48.com/2018/03/20/syria-the-war-that-will-not-end/
https://mato48.com/2018/01/02/kurdish-dreams-visions-and-reality/