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Syria - 2018

Daily News Updates

Both the US and Russia have personnel on the ground in Syria - the US supporting the Syrian “Democratic” Forces, while Russia was backing the government. Turkey, a member of NATO, had troops occupying areas of northern Syria and was fighting the Kurds in Afrin. Meanwhile, Iran had advisers and large militia forces on the ground assisting the Syrian government against Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. In February 2018, a Turkish helicopter was shot down by the US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria, a Russian plane was downed by Jihadists in Idlib, an Iranian drone was blown up by Israel, an Israeli F-16 was destroyed by Syria, and the US claimed it killed upwards of 100 pro-government forces in airstrikes near Deir Ezzor.

The campaign to liberate Idlib is likely to be the Syrian Army's flagship operation of 2018, with a large chunk of Syria's offensive forces expected to be allocated to north-western Syria. Infighting between the alliance of Islamist militants in Idlib has regularly erupted, weakening and fragmenting opposition forces in the area.

The Syrian army and Iranian-backed forces including Afghan fighters backed by Russian air power launched a new offensive in late December 2017 against Syrian regime opposition's strongholds in Idlib province. Idlib province in northwestern Syria is considered to be the last major stronghold controlled by opposition groups after they lost Aleppo to the Syrian regime last December. With intense Russian airstrikes and Iranian support on the ground, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces recaptured most of rebel-held peripheral sections of Aleppo.

The deal to end the battle of Aleppo reportedly involved relocating the majority of opposition fighters and their families to neighboring Idlib. Idlib province was under the full control of opposition since 2015 when the rebels seized the capital city of the province, also called Idlib.

Given Idlib's close proximity to Turkey — a key backer of Islamist opposition forces in Syria — the Syrian Army is likely to target this front first, to stem the flow of weapons, especially anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), from Turkey to terrorist groups which had plagued the country for several years.

Ground forces will benefit greatly from Russian air support, as Idlib is close to the Khmeimim airbase. Therefore, warplanes and attack helicopters will have less distance to fly to replenish their payloads and armaments, and can react quickly to developments on the ground.

Liberating the east Ghouta pocket in Damascus is another strategic objective for the Syrian Army in the near future, as it would further cement the Syrian Army's control over the capital, while also inhibiting mortar attacks on the city. Islamist militants intensified their attacks on Damascus, targeting the Russian Embassy, governmental buildings, cafes, restaurants, gyms and schools. Dozens have been killed or injured as a result of these attacks, including two members of Syria's national judo team.

Although this pocket had been used as a launch-pad for such attacks, wreaking havoc on government-held areas in Damascus for years, it's likely to be deemed less of a priority than Idlib by the Syrian Army's General Command, as the area is surrounded and contained.

As an estimate, some expected militants to be ousted from Damascus by some point in the second half of 2018. Wide-scale clashes between pro-government forces and the Kurdish-led SDF were unlikely to occur in the near future, as the SDF, and its governing forces in northern Syria, were reliant on the Syrian government to survive, as their territory is landlocked by hostile countries. Instead, they might yield to the Syrian government's demands, and strike a deal.

The Free Syrian Army rebels were emboldened by the Turkish support and amassed forces in northwest Manbij. The Turkish pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper Tuesday reported that a force of 12,000 militants from the Free Syrian Army “are waiting for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to initiate the operation.”

France was to “very quickly” send troops to Manbij in northern Syria to block the advance of Turkish forces, French media reported a Syrian delegation who met the president as saying 29 March 2018, as Donald Trump said the US would be coming out of Syria “very soon.” French President Emmanuel Macron received the delegation of Arabs, Christians and Kurds from northern Syria at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Thursday, 29 March and spoke with them for an hour.

Macron met for the first time with a delegation that included the YPG, which Turkey is trying to sweep away from its border, its political arm the PYD, and Christian and Arab officials. "The president ... paid tribute to the sacrifices and the determining role of the SDF in the fight against Daesh," Macron's office said in a statement on Thursday. "He assured the SDF of France's support for the stabilization of the security zone in the north-east of Syria, within the framework of an inclusive and balanced governance, to prevent any resurgence of Islamic State." Former president François Hollande, who originally approved French support for the Kurds, bemoaned on March 23 Macron's Syria policy, in particular his attitude to the YPG, accusing him of abandoning them.

France does not anticipate launching any military operations in northern Syria that fall outside the international coalition’s fight against Islamic State, a French presidency source said on 30 March 2018. The official’s remarks came a day after the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces said President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge of support to stabilise the region against Islamic State would include more troops. Shortly before the Elysée official spoke, Turkey’s deputy prime minister said France’s offer of support for the Kurdish YPG militants, who form the largest contingent within the Syrian Democratic Forces, amounted to support for terrorists.

As part of the global coalition against Islamic State, in late March 2018 the United States increased its special operations troops in the flashpoint town of Manbij in northern Syria. The recent deployment was a protection measure to ensure the safety of coalition troops in the area. Officials of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say a Turkish-led attack on Manbij could encourage thousands of fighters, especially those recruited from the town, to leave battlefields against Islamic State remnants in eastern Syria and move to the west to push back against the Turkish army and its allied rebels military offensive.

By early 2018 there were about 2,000 U.S. troops working with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to re-capture territory from ISIS. Trump told a cheering crowd in Richfield, Ohio 29 March 2018 that US troops will soon be pulled out. “By the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” Trump said. “We’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now, very soon. Very soon, we’re coming out.”

Trump’s comments were a departure from the previously stated positions of senior Pentagon and State Department officials, who had said the US will keep troops inside the country to stamp out the last remaining fighters and prevent a new group from forming. In January 2018, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined a plan that envisioned extended US presence in Syria to ensure a peaceful transfer of power to a “post-Assad leadership.” In December 2017, the Pentagon said US troops would remain in Syria for “as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the US appeared to be aiming at dividing Syria, as US troops still linger in the country even after its promise to end the mission after driving out Islamic State fighters. “It’s very likely that the Americans have taken a course of dividing the country. They just gave up their assurances, given to us, that the only goal of their presence in Syria – without an invitation of the legitimate government – was to defeat Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and the terrorists,” Lavrov said 07 February 2018. Regarding pledges to keep a limited military contingent in the war-town state, Lavrov said the US was not being open about their true objectives. “Now [the Americans] are saying that they will keep their presence till they make sure a steady process of a political settlement in Syria starts, which will result in regime change,” the minister said during a conference in Sochi.

The U.S. troops in Manbij came under direct attack by Turkish-backed rebels in August 2017. The Pentagon then said the U.S. troops returned fire but there were no casualties on either side.

At least 1,600 people had been killed following the launch of an aerial and ground offensive by Syrian forces and their ally, Russia, on February 18, to recapture what was once known as Damascus' breadbasket. The Syrian General Command of the Army and Armed Forces said in a statement 31 March 2018 that Eastern Ghouta, with the exception of Douma, was now under their control again. "The armed forces' formations, aided by allied forces, wrapped up military operations in Damascus Countryside's Eastern Ghouta, with full control established all over its cities and towns," said the statement.

Al-Assad continued to tighten his grip over Syria as more opposition-held cities fell to the government and its allies. Since joining the war in 2015, Russia's military helped al-Assad's government reclaim approximately 85 percent of territories held by opposition groups.

In August 2018, the Russian General Staff reported that the Syrian government had successfully restored its control over the southern provinces of Al-Suwayda, Daara and Quneitra. International focus has since shifted from south Syria to Idlib province in the country's north. Idlib was now the last major stronghold for anti-government forces, which was dominated by a motley collection of jihadist militants, including units from the Nusra Front.

Northwestern Idlib province and surrounding areas were home to about 3 million people - nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaeda-linked militants. For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian government, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in Syria's civil war after Syrian troops recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad.

A bloody offensive that created a massive wave of death and displacement, would, run counter to the narrative that the situation in Syria is normalizing, and could hurt Russia's longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria's postwar reconstruction.

The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance controlled more than half of the Idlib region. In August 2018, HTS leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani warned opposition factions in Idlib against handing over their weapons.

The outcomes of Sochi summit regarding Syria’s Idlib on 17 September 2018 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, created a demilitarized zone instead of launching a military offensive. This took Iran by surprise, destroying hopes it built during an earlier summit held in Tehran with the participation of both Moscow and Ankara. The Iranian government reluctantly declared its support for the Sochi deal despite its previous insistence on inciting the completion of military operations in Idlib and supporting the forces of the Syrian regime, the Revolutionary Guards and its militias.

Erdogan opposed any attack against Idlib, saying that Turkey could move the groups that Russia and Iran oppose from the areas that it controls so that Idlib will be under the control of “moderate forces”. The agreement provided for a U-shaped buffer zone 15 to 20 kilometres (9 to 12 miles) wide to be set up around Idlib. Under the deal, all factions in the planned demilitarized zone must hand over their heavy weapons by October 10, and radical groups must withdraw by October 15.

Pro-Turkey rebels cautiously accepted a Moscow-Ankara deal to prevent a Russia-backed regime attack on Syria’s last major opposition bastion of Idlib, while a small militants group rejected it. The National Liberation Front (NLF) rebel alliance in a statement accepted the deal. The dominant force in the northwestern region bordering Turkey, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance led by militants of Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, had not responded. The al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Deen rejected the agreement.

Idlib demilitarized zone Idlib demilitarized zone

Turkey said 05 October 2018 a planned buffer zone in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib had been cleared of heavy weapons as part of a deal reached between Moscow and Ankara, but experts say Ankara still has more challenges ahead. The National Liberation Front (NLF), an umbrella organisation of Turkey-backed rebels that includes the Free Syrian Army, confirmed that it had completed the process of withdrawing its heavy weapons from Idlib, the last rebel-held bastion in Syria.

The United Nations warned that a government-led attack on Idlib would create a humanitarian disaster in the region, home to nearly three million people, half of whom are internally displaced from previous offensives. While previous operations ended with negotiated transfers of fighters and their families to the north, an offensive in Idlib would leave residents with an ultimatum; either to cross over to Turkish-controlled territory or to live [and die] under the control of Bashar al-Assad's government once again.

Turkish forces will enter the Syrian town Manbij if the United States does not remove the YPG Kurdish militia from the area, President Tayyip Erdogan said on 14 December 2018, after Ankara said it would launch a new operation to target the fighters. Erdogan, in a speech in Istanbul, said Turkey was determined to bring peace to the area east of the Euphrates river in Syria.

The Kurds and their allies in the de facto autonomous region in northern Syria announced general mobilization in preparation for any attacks that Ankara may launch against their areas soon. Co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Riyad Derar said: “The international coalition led by Washington must be fully aware that this area did not attack (anyone) or pose any threat. Not a single bullet was fired from here towards Turkey."

Iran wanted to keep its foothold in the Mediterranean nation neighboring Israel and Lebanon. Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar Assad, feared a flood of refugees fleeing a military offensive and destabilizing areas it now holds in Syria. And Russia wanted to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by America's long uncertainty about what it wanted in the conflict.

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Page last modified: 10-10-2019 11:06:52 ZULU