Al-Nusra front – al-Qaeda rebranded as HTS (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) – is expanding its influence and military control over entire Syrian cities and villages in northern and western rural Aleppo. Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, the ex- ISIS (the Islamic State terror group) Emir of Syria and the self proclaimed Emir of al-Qaeda in the Levant, is ordering his forces to move towards Idlib and its rural area, mainly against the cities of Ariha, Jabal al-Zawiya and Maarrat al-No’man. His aim is to complete the control by his jihadists of the entire area defined in the Astana talks – by Russia and Turkey – where a ceasefire was established last year in order to stop the advance of the Syrian army to recover the northern territory. Idlib and its surroundings is today the location where the greatest number of jihadists ever to be united in one single geographic area in the Middle East are gathered. They are fully armed with the most advanced US weapons, notably guided anti-tank TOW missiles and armed drones, together with hundreds of suicide bombers ready to fight and die.
Up to now, Joulani has managed to dissolve over 14 Syrian armed groups, described by the West as “moderate”. These groups were financed and equipped by Turkey, whose forces have not reacted so far and have allowed Joulani’s group to consolidate power. Turkey’s policy may undermine the Astana deal, which aims to eliminate the presence and force of jihadists in the north of Syria.
Meanwhile, the US president Donald Trump – who has claimed that ISIS is already defeated and that in Syria “there is only death and sand” – and his establishment are doubling back on the previously announced schedule of withdrawal from Syria: The President’s national security advisor John Bolton said on Sunday that the US will consider withdrawing when ISIS is defeated and Turkey ensures the safety of US-allied Kurdish fighters. Trump is aware that ISIS is located in only 3 or 4 villages today along the east of the Euphrates river, on the DeirEzzour-al Qaem front. It is clear that the US establishment is exerting pressure on the inexperienced President to slow down withdrawal from Syria. But there are further, undeclared arguments for this sudden change of plan.
Firstly, from the military and geo-political standpoint, the US has a lot to lose in pulling out of the Levant. Its presence is effectively hassling Iran and its allies, and it is disturbing Russia, Syria and Iraq who consider the forces of Washington a continuous source of trouble. The US does not seem willing to see the end of ISIS, a group that Israel has repeatedly said it would rather see in control of Syria. The presence of US occupation forces in Northeast Syria is considered a platform for it to continue exerting US hegemony on the Middle East; the US presence is, from Israel’s point of view, a welcome source of friction between two superpowers operating on the same territory in Syria.
Secondly, the Iraqi parliament is waving in the face of Trump the serious possibility of ordering US forces to pull out of Iraq. Trump triggered the Iraqi reaction by rebuffing protocol and refusing to meet the Iraqi Prime Minister, Speaker and President on Iraqi soil during his recent visit to the Iraqi-US base in Ayn al-Assad in Anbar, Iraq.
If Iraq pushes the US forces out of Mesopotamia, these will be completely out of the Levant as well – if Trump fulfills his promises to withdraw in 30 days to four months – to the detriment of US-Israeli interests in the Middle East.
Thirdly, it cannot be ruled out that the new conquests of al-Qaeda in Syria might offer an additional pretext for the US establishment to slow down or even reject the idea of withdrawal from Syria. The Russia-Turkey-Iran Astana deal had stopped any attack on the city and rural area of Idlib at a time when the US establishment was ready to bomb the Syrian army on the false pretext that Damascus intended to use chemical weapons in the area. The Astana deal took away any possibility for the US to be an active player in Syria. Moreover, the meeting in Moscow last month between Russia and Turkey led to agreement to freeze any Turkish advance towards the area of Manbij, allowing the Syrian army to take up a position in the area and for the YPG Kurds to pull out their forces, to the displeasure of Washington. That also disturbed Washington’s plans to see Ankara’s forces (not Damascus’s) replacing the US occupation forces after their departure. The presence of the US in North-East Syria was fast becoming meaningless.
A new development then forced itself onto Syrian geopolitics. The rebranded Al-Qaeda in the Levant (HTS), along with its foreign fighters, took control of the demarcation line established by Astana between Turkey and Russia. This gives the Russian and Syrian forces the legitimacy to bomb the al-Qaeda controlled area and to disregard the Astana deal. Turkey, meanwhile, is not interfering in the events of the last week and seems unwilling to finish off the jihadists as it had previously agreed to do in discussions with Russia.
Today al-Qaeda is eliminating many of Turkey’s allies and those who were financed, armed and trained by the US. Nevertheless, if Syria and Russia retain their initial plan to attack Idlib, the US will find a new opportunity to bomb the Syrian army and to intervene and disrupt Moscow’s plan to end the Syrian war.
Al-Qaeda’s control of the demarcation line will – no doubt – trigger a confrontation with the Syrian army. Al-Qaeda will likely bomb Aleppo so as to claim it is reviving the Syrian revolution and rejecting any deal with Damascus. Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, the ex-ISIS emir and leader of HTS, claims that president Erdogan of Turkey is “Kafer” (a disbeliever), and that therefore no forces would fight under the Turkish flag even though the Turkish presence in Syria is allowing Joulani’s power to grow as Turkey offers necessary logistics and supply lines to his group.
Among the Joulani commanders, there were (and many still are active) – to name a few – the Libyan Abu Usama (Intel officer in Idlib), the Jordanians Sami al-Aridi (scholar and religious leader), Abu Julayleb (Emir of Lattakia), Abu Hussein (Emir of Idlib), Abu al-Yaman (head of the “army”), Abu Hafas (intel officer), the Egyptians Abu al-Yaqzan (religious affairs), Abu Abdallah (religious affair Lattakia), and the Tunisians Abu Omar (Justice and religious affairs), Abu Haidara (religious affairs Idlib). Thousands of foreign fighters fight among its ranks and others have moved towards Hurras al-Deen (HAD) and Jabhat Ansar al-Deen (JAD), a more radical version of HTS. Today al-Joulani is providing a perfect justification for US occupation forces to stay in Syria, waiting for further developments, and possibly a reshuffle of the power on the ground.
ISIS is no longer a threat to the US. In fact, it holds today Al-Susah, Morashida, Safafina and al-Shajlah, all under the protection of US forces. Therefore, the terror group doesn’t represent a reason for Trump to keep occupying Syrian territory. Moreover, Bolton is asking Turkey to offer guarantee to protect the YPG Kurds, the Syrian branch of the PKK, the sworn enemy of Turkey and a group on the US State Department terrorist list.
Bolton is basically demanding from Turkey the impossible, showing the weakness of a President whose administration forces him to continuously recant on his promises. US intentions towards Syria don’t correspond to the positive response evoked by Trump’s initial promise to pull out US troops, even if Russia, Iran and Syria never believed him. Nevertheless, Damascus considers it is high time for the Kurds to choose their side and drop their protection of the US so as to force their early departure.