Afrin and Ghouta: fearful symmetry
Russian-backed Assad regime forces are on the verge of taking the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria's Eastern Ghouta enclave, in the Damascus suburbs. A Russian military commander boasted: "The militants are being evacuated from Douma, their last bastion in Eastern Ghouta, and within a few days the humanitarian operation in Eastern Ghouta must be completed." This "humanitarian operation" has seen the near-total destruction of Ghouta by aerial bombardment over the past weeks, with some 1,500 killed. Thousands of fighters and residents have been allowed to evacuate via buses to Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held province, under what was reported as a "surrender agreement." (Al Jazeera, Syria Direct)
The United Arab Emirates' The National makes this all-too-inevitable prediction in an editorial:
Mr Al Assad has crushed opposition around Damascus and herded his adversaries into one area. An all-out regime assault on Idlib, which is already a site of intense fighting, is not far off. It will follow the same template—isolation, starvation, bombardment—as Eastern Ghouta. The humanitarian disaster the world witnessed outside Damascus is a preview of the humanitarian catastrophe that is about to unfold in Idlib.
But despite the world's obvious desire to look the other way, what happens in Idlib may not stay in Idlib, as both Russian-backed regime forces and Turkish-backed rebel forces have designs on the province:
The implications of the Syrian civil war for the wider world are on display in Idlib. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has vowed to advance to Idlib after his forces took control of Afrin. The tragic lesson of Syria is that military successes do not result in peace but rather prompt the victors to wage yet more war. The horror of the Syrian civil war, far from being over, has just graduated to a new phase of fighting whose implications will not be limited to Syria alone.
Which brings us to Afrin, the Kurdish canton in Syria's northwest which last month fell to Turkish-backed forces after weeks of siege and bombardment. Last week a conference was held in the Turkish city of Gaziantep to organize a "transitional council" to govern Afrin. It is apparently to be led by the Syrian Kurds Independent Association, (KKS), a Turkish-backed opposition group that opposes the rule of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its radical-left allies in Syria's Kurdish north. (Syria Direct, March 26)
Turkish news site ILKHA informs us that the council is to be known as the Afrin Liberation Congress, and will indeed reflect the demographics of the enclave (24 Kurds, eight Arabs, and a handful of Turkmen, Yazidis and Alevis). But a spokesman for the council is quoted saying that the yet-to-be-appointed governor "will be from Turkey." More ominous still, he says "Afrin will be governed as part of Antakya." That's Antioch, the Turkish city just across the border. This is, at least, the beginning of Turkey's long-sought military "buffer zone" in northern Syria—if not outright annexation.
All this comes amid a growing Russo-Turkish rapprochement. This week, Vladimir Putin met in Ankara with Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss a binational gas pipeline project and other cooperation in the energy sector. Putin was on hand at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey’s Mersin province. A Russia-Turkey High-Level Cooperation Council has been established. (Al Monitor, April 5)
So they're all lovey-dovey at the moment. But if the two despots cannot come to terms on their intended carve-up of Syria, they could be going eyeball-to-eyeball over Idlib in the weeks or even days to come. And as Turkey is a NATO member, that's some scary shit. As recently as January, Putin and Erdogan were each warning the other to back off from Idlib, as The National reported at the time.
And as this dangerous game goes on, the US appears (at least) to be preparing to withdraw. It was just reported that Trump has issued a presidential order to freeze over $200 million in "reconstruction aid" to what are being called "US-backed rebels." This is problematic reporting on several points, First, the rebels are now down to controlling Idlib, and the factions there are mostly Islamists that the US has not been backing. We also question how much US aid has actually reached any of the rebel factions. And none of the coverage (e.g. New York Times, NPR) actually bothers to inform us which rebel factions were to receive this aid. Nor is the executive order on the White House website, at least not yet.
For what it's worth, the mercurial Trump also told a rally in Ohio: "We will be coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now." (Al Jazeera, March 30)
This withdrawal talk comes weeks after Russia demanded the US pull its forces out of Syria. At December's Kazakhstan summit of Syrian players (not including the US), Moscow's envoy to Damascus, Alexander Lavrentiev, said: "Any reasons cited by the Americans to justify their further military presence...are just excuses, and we think their presence must end." (Reuters, Dec. 21)
In terms of ground forces, the US only has a handful of Special Forces in Syria. And now that the Rojava Kurds are being sold out to Turkish aggression after having served their purpose of defeating ISIS, there isn't much reason for the troops to stay. But please don't make the mistake of confusing this for "peace."