Afrin and Idlib offensives signal Syrian endgame?
As Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies continue their advance on Kurdish-held Afrin, Russia and its Syrian regime allies continue their advance on rebel-held Iblib. Both offensives are taking a horrific toll in civilian casualties, but the parallels don't end there. Even as they ostensibly oppose each other, both Turkey and Assad are accused of conniving with ISIS forces to weaken the defenders of the respective enclaves. And the twin aggressions in Afrin and Idlib come amid a sudden and rapid internationalization of the Syrian war.
In Afrin, Turkish forces shelled a primary school and a water plant, Kurdish defenders of the enclave told Reuters Feb. 7. Turkey of course denied it, and has launched an aggressive campaign of counter-claims against the Kurds. Rebel news source Aleppo24 charges the Kurdish YPG militia with relocating its prisoners in Afrin to Manbij, "in a move to conceal its human rights abuses." It seems not to have occurred to Aleppo24 that the YPG could be removing the prisoners from the Afrin frontline to prevent them from beeing killed by Turkish bombardment! A Turkish attack on Manbij would certainly be more problematic, as the US has a troop presence there. Not surprisingly, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has called on US forces to leave Manbij, Al-Monitor notes.
The New York Times on Jan 28 reported: "A female Kurdish fighter carried out what appeared to be a suicide bombing attack on the Turkish military in Syria, destroying a tank and killing several Turkish soldiers with a grenade, Kurdish forces in the area said on Sunday. If confirmed, it would be the first case of a suicide attack by the Kurds against Turkey's forces in Syria since its ground troops crossed the border earlier this month." A completely misleading lede: the YPG only said the fighter threw a grenade down the turret of the tank—hardly what's implied by the phrase "suicide bombing." The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is cited specifically denying that it was a deliberate suicide attack.
To an alarming deficit of international outrage, the BBC News reports that Turkish air-strikes have seriously damaged an ancient archeological site in Afrin. Photos appeared to show a crater and rubble in the center of the Ain Dara site, a neo-Hittite temple built by the Arameans in the first millennium BC.
In the latest charges of collaboration between Turkey and ISIS, Afrin's defenders are accusing the Turkish intervention force of recruiting and retraining ISIS fighters for their offensive against the Kurds. (Kurdistan24, Feb. 8)
In inevitable if dispiriting news, the Kurdish defenders of Afrin have called on the Bashar Assad regime to intervene and protect the area's borders from the Turkish intervention. "While we insist that we will continue to defend Afrin against rabid external attacks and will confront the Turkish attempts at occupying Afrin, we invite the Syrian state to carry out its sovereign duties towards Afrin and to protect its borders with Turkey from attack," the autonomous authority governing Afrin said in a statement. (The Guardian, Jan. 25) This will of course provide convenient propaganda for the enemies of the Rojava Kurds, who they have repeatedly accused of collaborating with Bashar Assad.
In Idlib, the last significant rebel-held area, fighters succeeded in bringing down a Russian Sukhoi-25 warplane last week. The Russian defense ministry said the pilot had ejected into an area believed to be controlled by the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. (BBC News, Feb. 3)
In the latest charges of collaboration between Assad and ISIS, the regime is reported to have opened a corridor to allow ISIS fighters to advance into Idlib and thereby weaken the defenders. (MEM, Feb. 9)
Further internationalization of the war
Damascus has accused the US of carrying out a "brutal massacre" of its troops with a bombing raid in Deir ez-Zor governorate. The US countered that its own forces had come under attack, and that Russian mercenaries were also involved. The strikes happened in the Middle Euphrates Valley, which serves as an informal demarcation line in eastern Syria, between regime-controlled areas to the west and territory controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (including the YPG) to the east. (BBC News Feb 8) This would appear to be the latest of just a handful of times that regime forces have been targeted by the US.
And Israel, which has sporadically bombed targets in Syria over the past two years, has now launched its largest air campaign in Syria since the 1982 Lebanon war, striking regime air defenses. This comes after an Israeli F-16 jet was brought down by fire from Syria during a mission that followed an Iranian drone launch into Israeli territory. The two pilots parachuted to safety before the crash in northern Israel. (BBC News, Feb. 10)
Relentless chemical terror
And reports of chemical attacks by the Assad regime continue to mount. Regime forces last week attacked a rebel-held suburb of Damascus with chlorine gas, according to the White Helmets, calling it the third such strike in less than a month. Numerous civilians, including children, were injured in the attack, which targeted the opposition-held town of Duma in the Eastern Ghouta district. (Daily Sabah, Feb. 2)