Greater Middle East
Assad regime artillery struck areas of Syria's opposition-held Idlib province Jan. 12 after militants allegedly tried to infiltrate regime-held areas, according to state news agency SANA. The shelling was reportedly focused on the town of Tamanaa near Maaret al-Numan, which was seized from Turkish-backed rebels by jihadist forces earlier in the week. The was apparently part of a ceasefire agreement ending an internal conflict between rival opposition forces in Idlib. Much of the governorate's territory was reportedly turned over to the so-called "Salvation Government"—administrative arm of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor organization to disbanded al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. Constituent militias of the rival Turkish-backed National Liberation Front have reportedly retreated to the Turkish-held enclave of Afrin across the border in Aleppo governorate. (Rudaw, AFP) These ominous developments may spell an end to Idlib's reprieve from the threatened Assad offensiive on the province since establishment of a joint Turkish-Russian buffer zone there.
Talk about strange bedfellows! This week witnessed the surreal spectacle of US National Security Adviser John Bolton, the most bellicose neoconservative in the Trump administration, visiting Turkey to try to forestall an Ankara attack on radical-left, anarchist-leaning Kurdish fighters that the Pentagon has been backing to fight ISIS in Syria. "We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States," Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem before leaving for Ankara. Refering to the Kurdish YPG militia, a Turkish presidential spokesman responded: "That a terror organization cannot be allied with the US is self-evident." Bolton left Turkey without meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then publicly dissed the National Security Adviser's stance as a "serious mistake." (Al Jazeera, Politico)
US officials say the timetable for Donald Trump's withdrawal of all 2,000 troops from Syria has been extended from 30 days to four months. The statements came a day after Trump met with his ally Sen. Lindsay Graham, a critic of the withdrawal order, who was apparently instrumental in getting the president to blink—amid the predictable irruption of blustering and face-saving tweets. The New York Times, in reporting the policy shift, states: "Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest over Mr. Trump's decision, said that leaving Syria in 30 days would jeopardize the fight against the Islamic State, betray its Syrian Kurdish-Arab allies on the ground, and cede the eastern part of the country to the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies." But the leadership of the Kurdish autonmous zone of Rojava in Syria's east see a more imminent threat from Turkey, which is preparing to cross the border to expunge the revolutionary Kurdish forces. Residents of the Rojava town of Kobane, near the border, have launched a "human shield" encampment to block any incursion by Turkish forces. At the border village of Qeremox, the unarmed encampment was organized by Kobane's autonomous administration, and has been joined by international supporters. (EA Worldview, ANF)
Following the announcement of a US withdrawal of its troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria, the Kurds are again making overtures for a separate peace with the Assad regime. Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) are reported to have turned over the flashpoint town of Manbij to regime forces—marking the first time that the Assad regime's flag has flown over the northern town for more than six years. "The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive," Ilham Ahmed, an official of the Kurdish autonomous administration, told The Telegraph. "If the Turks' excuse is the [YPG], they will leave their posts to the government." A statement released by the YPG said they had invited regime forces to the town, as they are "obliged to protect the same country, nation and borders."
Days after Trump's announced imminent withdrawal of US troops from Syria, Turkey has started massing tanks and troop carriers on its southern border, preparing to move into the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava once American soldiers have left. Turkish forces are reported arriving in the border towns of Kilis and al-Rai, after Ankara's foreign minister said they will push into Syria as soon as possible. Mevlut Çavusoglu told reporters Dec. 25 that "if Turkey says it will enter, it will." He said the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is "determined" to move against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that is the central pillar of the (heretofore) US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
In Episode 23 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg notes the assassination of Raed Fares, a courageous voice of the civil resistance in besieged Idlib province, last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution. The resistance in Idlib, which liberated the territory from the Bashar Assad regime in popular uprisings seven years ago, is now also resisting the jihadist forces in the province, expelling them from their self-governing towns and villages. Their hard-won zones of popular democracy face extermination if this last stronghold is invaded by Assad and his Russian backers. As Assad and Putin threaten Idlib, Trump's announced withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast is a "green light" to Turkey to attack Rojava, the anarchist-inspired Kurdish autonomous zone. The two last pockets of democratic self-rule in Syria are each now gravely threatened. Yet with Turkey posing as protector of Idlib, the Arab revolutionary forces there have been pitted against the Kurds. The Free Syrian Army and Rojava Kurds were briefly allied against ISIS and Assad alike four years ago, before they were played against each other by imperial intrigues. Can this alliance be rebuilt, in repudiation of the foreign powers now seeking to carve up Syria? Or will the US withdrawal merely spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war in northern Syria? Weinberg calls for activists in the West to repudiate imperial divide-and-rule stratagems, and demand the survival of liberated Idlib and Rojava alike. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
The New York Times reports Dec. 19 that President Trump has ordered a "rapid withdrawal of all 2,000 United States ground troops from Syria within 30 days." Trump tweeted the announcement: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." Hardly coincidentally, this comes just as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Pentagon's main partner on the ground, are on the brink of capturing the last town in Syria still under ISIS—Hajin, on the banks of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate. The Independent reports that SDF fighters have now entered the town aft6er a three-month siege. Also not coincidentally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just days earlier warned of an imminent offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that makes up the core of the SDF. Erdogan said Dec. 12 that Turkey will launch an operation against the YPG "in a few days," adding that it is "time to realize our decision to wipe out terror groups east of the Euphrates." The Euphrates River has until now served as a border between Turkey's "buffer zone" in northern Syria and areas still under Kurdish control. Turkey is now preparing to cross it—with evident US connivance.
Well, this is all too telling. Seeking to legitimize his regime now that he's reconquered most of Syria (with massive Russian military help), Bashar Assad has just welcomed the first Arab League leader to Damascus since the war began in 2011—and it is none other than President Omar Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. As BashirWatch recalls, Bashir has been evading justice for 11 years. The Assad regime's official news agency SANA said the two dictators discussed the "situations and crises faced by many Arab countries," stressing the need to build "new principles for inter-Arab relations based on the respect of the sovereignty of countries and non-interference in internal affairs." (Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye)