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Syria Revolution - 2019

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The ambitions of the Assad-Iran forces to forcibly reconquer the whole country remain. The new phase of the war in 2019 had all the trappings of an endgame, but some aspects of it may endure for the foreseeable future. With external powers now dominating spheres of influence from which Assad cannot easily oust them, Syria's unsettled state may be turning into a frozen conflict where intermittent skirmishing and negotiations emerge as a new normal, and cease-fire lines gain permanency even in the absence of formal recognition.

By late 2018 the Turks had been amassing more military hardware along the border, including tanks, howitzers and armored personnel carriers. And inside Syria, Turkish-backed forces have moved closer to the strategic town of Manbij, controlled by Kurdish fighters, who until now have felt protected by the presence of U.S. ground troops. This past week, the Kurds turned to Damascus for protection, calling in Assad's forces into Manbij to deter a Turkish attack. Juggling the interests and demands of both Damascus and Ankara while keeping Tehran satisfied is going to be a challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's also trying to prevent a potential clash between Israel, another Western-allied power he has been courting, and Iran in the south and west of the country.

"Moscow's permission for Ankara to use Syrian airspace enables Russia to set the pace and duration of Turkish military operations inside Syria," according to Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military analyst. Writing for the Al-Monitor news site, he said Moscow was able to control the pace in March of Turkey's assault on Afrin, closing down Turkish air operations for a week to allow Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to withdraw from the border town without being targeted by the Turkish air force.

"Would Turkey dare use airspace in northeast Syria despite opposition by Moscow? No," said Gurcan. Otherwise it would not have sent a high-ranking Turkish delegation to Moscow last month to lobby for permission, he maintained. Being the regional power-broker, as Russia now in effect has become, will test Moscow's juggling skills in a highly volatile corner of the world, say other analysts. Moscow could end up trapped in a quagmire.

Erdogan said 15 January 2019 the US president, in a phone call with him, reaffirmed the US troop pullout from Syria as well as "a 20-mile [32km] security zone along the Syrian border... will be set up by us [Turkey]." Erdogan said that he viewed a proposed 20-mile [32km] safe zone in northern Syria positively and added that its range may be extended further.

With all previous ceasefire agreements, the regime coalition used the calm on some fronts to concentrate resources on anotherand systematically liquidated the de-escalation zones, one after the other, until by late July there was only Idlib left. Idlib was, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a festering abscess that had to be eliminated, and he hoped the West would not obstruct an anti-terror operation.

The dominant military force in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor to Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaedas Syrian branch. HTS has broken from Al Qaedas command structure and Al Qaedas loyalists have regrouped into a faction calling itself Tandheem Hurras al-Deen. Nonetheless, HTS remains jihadist in ideology and is registered as a terrorist group, including now by Turkey.

The fate of Idlib, the last remaining liberated province of Syria, had rested in a 17 September 2018 deal between Turkey and Russia for a de-escalation zone where acts of aggression would be expressly prohibited. Despite its presentation as a peace deal, demilitarisation had always been a means used by Assad and Russia to delay and better prepare their inevitable conquests of liberated areas of Syria. Before the war, Idlib had a population of 1.5 million people [less than one tenth of a total of about 22 million], now it had a population of 4 million [nearly a quarter of a total of possibly 18 million], with it being a beacon for internally displaced civilians.

Moscow was piling pressure on Ankara to start an operation against the opposition-held areas after Turkey could not push rebels to agree to Russian patrols and get all militants out of a buffer zone that underpinned the Turkish-Russian deal. In early May 2019, Russia and Assad began ramping up air attacks on towns like Kfar Nabudah, which is strategically important as a launching post for any large-scale ground assault on Idlib, 150,000 Syrians were cleansed in merely a few days. Most made their way into Idlib proper, often sleeping in the open air, or into the already overcrowded camps along the Turkish border. The airstrikes, using both Russias missiles and Assads barrel bombs, had been the heaviest attacks in 15 months fleeing civilians had been targeted for bombing.

UN Senior Humanitarian Adviser, Najat Rochdi, warned 17 May 2019 that the alarming escalation of hostilities in northern Syrias Idlib province could spiral out of control with disastrous consequences for its three million civilian inhabitants. The recent uptick in violence in Syrias northern Idlib province is causing alarm among U.N. and international observers. Over the first two weeks of May, at least 100 civilians reportedly have been killed or injured in clashes between Russian-backed Syrian forces and al-Qaida associated rebels. Dozens of medical and health facilities, as well as schools have been hit by airstrikes and more than 180,000 people reportedly have fled their homes toward supposedly safer areas.

Speaking at a UN Security Council meeting on Friday, UN humanitarian affairs coordinator Mark Lowcock said there had been concern about the escalating situation in Idlib for months. "Last September, he (UN secretary-general) stressed that it was absolutely essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib, and he warned that would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any we have seen in Syria," said Lowcock. "When I briefed you here on September 18, I said a full-scale military onslaught could result in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century. Despite our warnings, our worst fears are now coming true."

At least 18 hospitals and clinics had been destroyed or damaged by air raids and shelling, several of which were on UN "no target" lists that detail exact locations of the health facilities to the warring sides. "Bombing hospitals carrying out their medical functions is a war crime," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's director of research for the Middle East.

A ceasefire had not been fully secured in Syria's north-western Idlib province, despite an announcement by Moscow, Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said on 13 June 2019. Russian news agencies cited the Russian military as saying that Russia and Turkey brokered a complete ceasefire in Syrias Idlib province between Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad's forces and the opposition. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said regime forces, with the cover of Russian warplanes, targeted areas under de-escalation zones. Regime forces fired shells on Kafr Zita in Hama and the towns of Abdeen and Al Naqir in southern Idlib.

A ceasefire that came into effect on 02 August 2019 brought some respite for people living in southern Idlib and northern Hama in northwest Syria. The ceasefire was brokered by the backers of the opposition and the government, Turkey and Russia. But the truce is conditional and puts pressure on Turkey to create a demilitarised zone around Idlib province, free of weapons and fighters in line with the so-called Sochi Memorandum.

The Syrian regime resumed air strikes on Idlib on 05 August 2019, scrapping a ceasefire for the rebel-controlled bastion. The northwestern region of some three million people is one of the last major centres of resistance to Syrian regime leader Assad after eight years of war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor relying on sources inside Syria, said air strikes resumed on the bastion minutes after the truce was cancelled.

Turkish and US military officials met on 05 August 2019 in the Turkish capital to discuss the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria. Turkey expected the creation of a 32-km safe zone in northern Syria and has stressed that it wants the YPG/PKK group cleared in the region. Washington had proposed a two-tiered safe zone, with a five-kilometre demilitarised strip bolstered by an additional nine kilometres cleared of heavy weapons - stretching in total less than half the distance into Syria that Turkey is seeking. Turkey has also said it must have ultimate authority over the zone, another point of divergence with the US. Turkey and the United States agreed to set up a joint operation center to coordinate a planned safe zone in northern Syria, the Turkish defence ministry has said. The announcement on 07 August 2019 came on the third day of talks between the two NATO allies, who had been stuck in a deadlock for months over the size of the zone and who would command it.

In four months, the regimes offensive has already killed at least 700 people and many more lives are at risk, according to experts. "Between May 1st and August 18 of this year, 576,000 movements by displaced people have been recorded in the north-west of the country," said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, during a press conference on 21 August 2019. The Assad regime was relentlessly pounding Idlib province with air strikes, causing large-scale destruction that is likely to morph into yet another humanitarian crisis. At least a half million people have already been displaced from Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition, and a large number of children are among the casualties. The UN said Assad's offensive could impact the lives of more than three million civilians living in the opposition-held province and trigger a new wave of human suffering.

Turkeys priority was to prevent a new wave of refugees to enter its borders. Turkey will increase its efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis and do more humanitarian aid [in areas close to the border in Syria]. It will do its best to make life standards liveable in those areas. Moscow, the main backer of the regime alongside Tehran, appears to allow the Assad regimes attacks in the province on the pretext that Damascus is going after terrorist groups in Idlib. That pretext has been a common excuse for the regime to attack civilian areas, killing innocent people during the eight-year civil war.

US-Turkish negotiations did not reach a consensus on the depth of the safe zone nor over who controls it. Erdogan, who was under pressure at home to act on the Syrian refugees issue, saw his hope in establishing a safe zone fading when he could not secure a meeting with Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that he learned about the Americans leaving on Twitter, and Turkey did not discuss the military operation with other members of the alliance. Macron recalled: But I, like everyone else, learned from messages on Twitter that the United States decided to withdraw its troops from Syria and free the zone. And I understand that another NATO state decided to attack those who were a regional partner of the international anti-terrorist coalition ... What happened in recent days is a gross mistake of the West and NATO in the region. I think that for a long time weakened our reputation among partners in the area who fought with us. I also think that this calls into question the functioning of NATO ... Therefore, it is important that we can get together and coordinate actions. At least three European countries (France, Germany, Great Britain) and Turkey.

France said it was taking measures to ensure the safety of its military and civilians in northeastern Syria as the United States begins to withdraw forces from the area. France has been one of the main allies in the US-led coalition fighting ISIL. "Measures will be taken in the coming hours to ensure the safety of French military and civilian personnel present in the zone as part of the international coalition fighting Islamic State and humanitarian action," the French presidency said in a statement 14 October 2019 after an emergency defence cabinet meeting.

In a major shift in alliance, Kurdish forces announced 14 October 2019 a deal with Damascus on Syrian troop deployment near Turkey border. Syrian government troops will deploy along the border with Turkey to help Kurdish fighters fend off Ankara's military offensive in northern Syria, the Kurdish-led administration in the region said. The move represented a major shift in alliance for Syria's Kurds and came hours after the United States said it was withdrawing its troops from the area to avoid getting caught in the middle of the fast-escalating conflict. The Kurdish-led administration said it had brokered the agreement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to counter Turkey's ongoing push, which had drawn widespread condemnation. "In order to prevent and confront this aggression, an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government ... so that the Syrian army can deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)," the statement said.

General Ismet Sheikh Hasan, an official in Kurdish-controlled Kobane, said "We did everything we could.... We have called upon the West [and] the Arab League but no one is coming to help, so we have no one other than ourselves to defend [Kobane].

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Page last modified: 23-10-2019 18:31:55 ZULU