Syria: reprieve for Idlib; flashpoint at al-Tanf?
The long-feared Assad regime offensive on Idlib province appears to have been called off—for now. After meeting in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly agreed to a "buffer zone" in Idlib—a strip some 25 kilometers wide to separate regime forces in the south from rebel and opposition forces in the north. Although it is being called a "demilitarized" zone, it will in fact be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops. There are numerous unanswered questions. Reports indicated the deal stipulates that "all heavy weapons be withdrawn from the zone"—but does that apply to the Russian and Turkish patrols? It is also mandated that what Putin called "radically-minded" rebel fighters would have to pull out of the zone entirely, which is presumably a reference to the Nusra-affiliated jihadist factions. These factions control parts of Idlib city, and it is not clear if the provincial capital will be included in the zone. (BBC News, Haaretz)
Russia and Assad have repeatedly used the propaganda trick of declaring that their "de-escalation zones" and ceasefires do not apply to jihadists, and then simply labeling anyone they bomb jihadists. The presence of Turkish forces in the zone may this time preclude such subterfuge, but at best this is either a temporary reprieve for Idlib—or else part of a permanent imperial carve-up of Syria. It may also provide the opportunity for the frightening specter of Russian and Turkish troops fighting each other in the zone.
In any event, however ambiguous this development may be, it is a victory for those who have stood for Idlib around the world, and protested the impending Assad-Putin invasion—which would have meant a humanitarian disaster and likelty massacre, as seen in all other territories re-conquered by the regime.
Meanwhile, a secondary small pocket of rebel control in Syria's south, where US forces have established a position, is shaping up as a potential flashpoint. This is al-Tanf, in Homs governorate near the Iraq border. (See map.) The US base there is apparently coordinating with the Maghawir al-Thawra rebel militia to combat remnant ISIS forces in the area. Reuters reports that US Marines last week held "unprecedented military exercises" with rebel forces in the area. Col. Sean Ryan is quoted describing the exercises as "a show of force," saying that the Pentagon had notified Russia through "deconfliction" channels to prevent "miscommunication or escalate tension" (sic). But CNN reports that Russia has repeatedly threatened to attack the enclave—despite the fact that al-Tanf is one of the so-called "de-escalation zones" declared last year.
There are other grim potentialities for international escalation. Israeli air-strikes on Syrian territory continue to become more frequent. Israeli missiles reportedly taregted "state technical industry institutions" in the northwestern city of Latakia, according to Syrian state media Sept. 17. (Al Jazeera) In the midst of the Latakia air-strikes, a Russian maritime patrol aircraft with multiple personnel on board was inadvertently shot down by Assad regime anti-aircraft artillery, a US official said. (CNN)