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Syria update: Syrian army advances in East Ghouta; Turkish army advances in Afrin

Syrian and Turkish army advances strengthen the positions in the conflict of both Damascus and Ankara

In the last few days the pattern the Syrian conflict has been taking is one of continuing advances by the Syrian army against the Jihadi fighters in East Ghouta, and by the Turkish army against the Kurdish militia in Afrin.

Reports from East Ghouta suggest that 40% of the former Jihadi enclave has now been recaptured by the Syrian army, up from the 30% of the enclave which the Syrian controlled just two days ago.

It seems that Jihadi resistance in the enclave is crumbling even faster than most expected, with the Jihadi fighters in the enclave unable despite their desperate resistance to stop or slow down the advance of the Syrian army.

Latest reports from the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency speak of further planned advances by the Syrian army in the enclave, with the Syrian army now preparing to storm the strategically important Jihadi controlled town of Mesraba within the enclave.

These rapid Syrian army advances in East Ghouta are taking place despite the daily five hour bombing halts which have been insisted on – much I suspect to the Syrian leadership’s frustration – by Russian President Putin.

This is despite the fact that the daily bombing halts are failing to achieve their stated purpose, as the Jihadi fighters refuse to leave and refuse to allow the civilians trapped in the enclave to leave.

The main effect of the bombing halts is therefore to give the Jihadi fighters in East Ghouta a daily respite from the bombing, and to force the Syrian army to carry out many of its operations at night.

Nonetheless, despite these obstacles, the Syrian army continues its advance, and as I said previously there appears to be nothing that the Jihadi fighters can do to slow it down or stop it.

Simultaneously with the advance of the Syrian army in East Ghouta, the Turkish army has been pressing ahead with its offensive against the Kurdish controlled enclave of Afrin.

Despite the Kurdish militia sending strong reinforcements to Afrin, and despite the arrival of pro-Syrian government militia there, latest reports speak of the Turkish army and its Jihadi allies advancing to within seven kilometres of the town of Afrin.

The Kurdish militia’s response to this Turkish advance in Afrin appears however to be to double down.  Instead of withdrawing from Afrin and handing over what remains of the canton to the Syrian government, it seems that the Kurdish militia is redeploying 1,700 Kurdish fighters from the Euphrates river valley to Afrin, and is also redeploying other fighters from Raqqa province to Afrin.

That risks creating a vacuum in the Euphrates river valley, which if it is not filled quickly by the Syrian army risks being filled by ISIS instead, which Al-Masdar already reports is preparing to launch a major offensive in the area.

In fact reports that a pro Syrian government militia unit is being formed for operations in Raqqa province may suggest that the Syrian government is already preparing to fill the gaps caused by Kurdish withdrawals from the Euphrates river valley and Raqqa.

As I have discussed previously, neither the Syrian government nor the Russians welcome the Turkish operation in Afrin.

President Erdogan’s barely concealed plan to link up Afrin, the Jarablus corridor which he already controls, and Jihadi controlled Idlib province, in a large zone of Turkish controlled territory, taken together with the Turkish military’s ongoing work to build up a 25,000 strong Turkish trained Jihadi force in this zone, represents a major ongoing threat to the Syrian government.

The advance of pro-Syrian government militia fighters into Afrin was intended to forestall that move, and President Putin’s repeated conversations with Turkish President Erdogan (another took place yesterday) are at least in part intended to dissuade Erdogan from continuing with it.

However the reality is that with President Erdogan seemingly determined to press ahead, and with the Kurds showing no willingness to retreat or to make concessions even as their military position deteriorates, there is little that Russian diplomacy can for the moment do.

Needless to say the option of a direct clash between the Syrian and Turkish militaries, with the Russians providing air support to the Syrian military, is one which the Russians are extremely anxious to avoid, and they will be acting to prevent it taking place.  Here is how I discussed Russian thinking about that two weeks ago

The Russians will however be anxious to prevent an open clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries from taking place in Afrin.

The Russians and the Syrian government are of course fully aware that in any one to one clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries the advantage lies with the Turkish army.  The Russians would be loathe to see such a clash happen not just because it is likely that the Syrian military would be defeated, but because were it to happen they would come under immense pressure from Syria and Iran to come to the Syrian army’s aid.

Were they to do so their relationship with President Erdogan and Turkey would however be damaged probably beyond repair, thereby ending any prospect of their securing President Erdogan’s help to end the conflict in Syria.

This explains the understated nature of Russia’s moves.

It is known that the Russians tried to preempt Turkey’s Afrin operation by trying to persuade the Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government.  The Kurds however refused, so when the Turks attacked the Russians gave them the green light.

Now that the Kurds in Afrin are coming under pressure they have been forced to turn to the Syrian government.  The Russians have therefore given the Syrian government the green light to deploy its forces there.  At the same time they have almost certainly brokered an agreement whereby the Kurds in return for Syrian help will surrender districts they control in Aleppo and the town of Manbij to the Syrian government.

At the same time the Russians – anxious to maintain a dialogue with President Erdogan and to help him save face – have ensured that the Syrian deployment to Afrin is of a limited nature, being made up exclusively of pro-government militia forces, with no involvement by the Syrian army

The Al-Masdar news agency has confirmed that no Syrian troops are actually present in Afrin, showing that the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin is intended first and foremost as a piece of positioning in advance of negotiations

If the Russians cannot for the moment broker a deal between the Turks, the Syrian government and the Kurds to end the fighting in Afrin – which is undoubtedly their preferred course – they can nonetheless use the crisis in Afrin to improve the position of the Syrian government in other ways.

The Kremlin’s summary of the latest conversation between Putin and Erdogan shows that the Russians are using Turkey’s focus on Afrin to get Turkey to accept the Syrian army’s ongoing offensive in East Ghouta, and to get the Turks to persuade their Jihadi allies to quit East Ghouta

The situation in Eastern Ghouta in the context of implementation of UN Security Council’s resolution 2401 was discussed. The importance of settling the humanitarian problems and the necessity of further uncompromising fight against the terrorist groups in this region was underlined.

The Russians have made it repeatedly clear that they see the removal of “terrorist groups” (ie. the Jihadi fighters fighting the Syrian army in East Ghouta) as the precondition for the imposition of the 30 day ceasefire that UN Security Council Resolution 2401/18 requires.

The Kremlin’s summary of Putin’s latest conversation with Erdogan suggests that this is what Putin told Erdogan, and that Erdogan accepted this logic.

The fact that once the Jihadi fighters had left East Ghouta there would be no one there for the Syrian government to agree a ceasefire with – enabling the Syrian government to take over complete control of the whole enclave – is of course something that all the parties to the conflict – the Syrians, the Russians, the US and the Turks – are fully aware.

That of course is precisely what happened in December 2016 in Aleppo, and as I predicted previously, we are now seeing a rerun of it now in East Ghouta.

Moreover just as happened during the final stages of the fighting in Aleppo, so now in East Ghouta it is becoming increasingly clear that some at least of the civilians trapped in East Ghouta actually want to see the Syrian government return there (see these two reports from Al-Masdar; here and here).

In all this diplomacy with the Turks the Russians have been handed a gift by the West in the form of Western insistence to the Turks that UN Security Council Resolution 2401/18 covers the fighting in Afrin as well as the fighting in East Ghouta, and that the Turks must therefore cease fighting the Kurds in Afrin and observe a 30 day ceasefire in Afrin, just as the Syrian army should cease fighting and observe a 30 day ceasefire in East Ghouta.

Here is how the US based Al-Monitor describes this

Turkey may have to pay a steep diplomatic price for ignoring a UN-ordered cease-fire in Syria. UN Security Council Resolution 2401, passed Feb. 24, calls on parties in Syria to observe a 30-day cease-fire. Ankara initially supported the decision, until realizing the resolution applies to it as well.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said, “All the actors in Syria must comply with the 30-day cease-fire call of the UN all over the country.” But now Ankara is pretending the call wasn’t meant for Turkey.

The cease-fire aims to permit humanitarian aid to reach civilians. However, the resolution does allow for continued combat against the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and their affiliates. Turkey is seeking to drive out of Afrin the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it considers a terrorist-affiliated group.

But the United States, France and Germany soon made it clear that the cease-fire indeed includes Afrin. As the disagreement with its Western partners continued, Turkey deployed its special operations teams for the second phase of the operation.

On Feb. 26, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a statement from Macron, he told Erdogan that the “humanitarian agreement covers all of Syria, including Afrin, and has to be implemented all over without delay.”

The next day, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also said the resolution applies to all of Syria and called on Turkey to read the text again. This was followed by the German Foreign Ministry calling on Turkey to respect the resolution. Statements from the European Union also called on Turkey to stop its Afrin operations.

The Western claim that Resolution 2401/18 covers Afrin as well as East Ghouta is strictly speaking true based on a narrow reading of its text.  However it is difficult to imagine saying anything more likely to infuriate President Erdogan than saying this.  Not surprisingly, as Al-Monitor says, his response has been harsh

Turkey’s response to all these warnings was equally harsh: Its Foreign Ministry said Afrin was not mentioned in the conversation with Macron and accused France of lying. Ankara also said Nauert’s remarks had no basis and that she either didn’t understand the resolution or was being intentionally misleading in her interpretation.

Erdogan said Turkey will struggle against anyone confronting it. He pointed out that cement-mixing machinery from Paris-based company Lafarge can be seen in Afrin — insinuating that France supports the YPG. France has investigated Lafarge’s role in financing IS and other extremist groups in Syria.

As it happens President Erdogan has a right to be angry.  In the run up to the vote in the UN Security Council for Resolution 2401/18 nothing at all was said about Afrin, with the all the discussion being about East Ghouta.

President Erdogan – who supported the Resolution – therefore has a right to feel that the Western powers tricked him, getting him to support a Resolution which he thought was about East Ghouta whereas the way it was drafted has made it possible for the Western powers to argue that it is also about Afrin.

The Western powers are of course acting in this way because in accordance with the US’s Plan C the US wants to keep the Kurdish militia intact in order to further its objective of undermining the Syrian government.

However President Erdogan cannot fail to contrast this further example of Western duplicity (as he is bound to see it) with the careful respect and consideration he always gets from the Russians.

That inevitably is going to predispose him to listen more carefully to what the Russians are telling him, not just about Afrin but about East Ghouta.

That presumably explains his muted response to the fighting in East Ghouta and – according to the Kremlin’s summary of their conversation – his agreement with Putin as to “the necessity of further uncompromising fight against the terrorist groups in this region”.

In summary, it seems that over the next few days or weeks both the Syrian government and the Turkish government will achieve their immediate objectives in Syria.

It is now only a question of time before the Syrian government achieves total control over East Ghouta, and it is likely though still not absolutely certain that the Turkish government will also shortly achieve total control over Afrin.

Both the Syrian and the Turkish governments will have moved closer to fulfilment of their medium term objectives in Syria.

The Syrian government will have finally secured the countryside around the Syrian capital of Damascus and will have increased its leverage over the Kurds.

The Turkish government will have prevented the continued growth of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and will have strengthened the zone under its control, in which it is continuing to build up a Jihadi force loyal to itself.

The struggle for Syria continues, with the two strongest players in the game – Turkey and the Syrian government backed by Russia – having improved their positions.

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