Aleppo prepares for a major battle

Aleppo prepares for a major battle and the Kurds in Syria are attracting everybody’s animosity

Thousands of Hezbollah, Iraqis and Iranians have gathered in what it seems to be the biggest northern battle so far against thousands of Jihadists and rebels. The aim to re-close the circle around Aleppo and secure both the northern and the southern fronts. Main targets are thought to be the surrounding of apartments 1070, the various military Academies and Ramouseh. These are the principal objectives occupying the Jihadists and rebels at the moment.

According to commanders on the ground in Aleppo “the allies of Damascus have been assembling new forces for more than two weeks now, waiting for the final general assault on different fronts around Aleppo. These forces expect the Russian Air Force to destroy the Academies and discourage Jihadists and rebels from staying in the area or even demoralize these before any infantry assault”.

Jihadists and rebels have fortified the military Academies and their positions inside barricading themselves to avoid hundreds of bombs fired at them by air, artilleries, and anti-tank guided missiles targeted on their spots, maintaining their entrenchments in the expectation of a counter-attack. Damascus’s allies, knowing that jihadists don’t surrender easily, refrained from starting the attack last week, waiting for the Russian Mediterranean live ammunition (sending bombers and launching long range missiles) enabling them to manoeuvre against the jihadist positions and to gather forces in order to reduce casualties and ensure a fast victory.

Jihadists and rebels were able, two weeks ago, to reopen the closed circle imposed by Damascus and its allies around Aleppo. Since that time, Russia is using its Air force power to dislodge them, but without major success. Jihadists and rebels confirm receiving “massive military support from Ankara”, who allowed these groups – mainly Ahrar al-Sham, Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani, Nureddine Zinki with some others – to use its territory and inject military capability for their forces to break the siege around Aleppo.

But Turkey is taking a politically volatile stand toward Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can remain temporarily during a transition period as he is one of the actors today whether we like it or not” and “Turkey will be more active in trying to stop the danger [situation in Syria] getting worse over the next six months”. Despite the differences between Turkey, Russia and Iran over Assad’s fate as a future President, that particular issue is irrelevant as far as serious collaboration between these three influential countries in Syria is concerned, and is not an obstacle.

But Ankara is seriously concerned about the expansion of the Syrian Kurd position on the Syrian – Turkish border. Kurds in al-Hasaka north-eastern Syrian region asked the Syrian National Defence Forces (NDF) to leave Hasaka and hand over their headquarters, triggering internecine strife between the allies of yesterday.

Fierce battles between NDF and Syrian regime forces on one side, and Kurdish forces on the other have continued for three days in the city. The Kurds have the upper hand, are superior in number, and are well armed in their own Kurdish area. Overwhelming Damascus forces won’t be a difficult task. The unexpected development was the use by Damascus of its Air Force for the first time against the Kurds in Hasaka, where US Special Forces are positioned in the city. The Americans ordered the Syrian Air Force to pull out of the area, but its warning was disregarded. The US has no jurisdiction to engage in a combat against Damascus despite its presence in Syria without a UN mandate or a request by the central government, since no direct threat was posed against its personnel.

The Syrian Air Force would never intervene without Russia consent in the north of Syria because of the joint military operation run by all main forces on the ground, that is Damascus, Tehran and the Kremlin. The strike coincides with mutual contacts of Turkey, Iran and Russian leaders to coordinate efforts over Syria and find common ground on the main issues. Damascus was pleased to send a message to Turkey that it is the only force capable of stopping the establishment of a “Rojavayê Kurdistanê” – west Kurdish state or federation on its border, encouraged and supported by the US and its European allies. These maintain elite forces and even businessmen on the ground to construct a federation similar to Kurdistan Iraq and build a strong military and economical presence and long term base.

The irony in Syria is the fact that the US forces use Turkish Incirlik military base to offer air protection to Kurds in their advances against the “ISIS” group, whilst simultaneously, gaining ground following a pattern which will ensure the creation of Rojava, a Kurdish independent state (strongly rejected by Turkey as we have said).

Ankara is looking for partners who share the same concern, i.e. Russia, Damascus and Iran, and is determined to prevent the birth of Rojava. Meanwhile, Turkey has armed and prepared hundreds of Syrian rebels to enter Syria to fight the “Islamic State” group, ISIS, in Jarablus, an essential city for the Kurds to link the northeast and the northwest in Afrin. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the most powerful and influential player in the north of Syria among numerous groups of jihadists and rebels, but the oddity of this war in Syria is that it turns allies into enemies and enemies into allies on certain issues (and not on others), keeping alliance at a strategic level even as their proxies fight to death on the ground.

Syrian Kurds are not fighting alone in northern Syria. There are Kurds from Iraq and Turkey who joined them to materialise their dream and their independence. However, dangers lie in wait for them from different angles:

  • Afrin Kurdish region, which lies north of Arab occupancy cities in Aleppo, and most importantly borders Shia cities Nubbl and Zahra. The Kurdish area of Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo, is even more surrounded than Afrin.
  • Iran strongly rejects the independence of a Kurdish minority that divides Syria and offers a foothold for the United States in the heart of the “axis of resistance”.
  • Turkey won’t allow the presence of a Kurdish state or Federation on its border, and is determined to fight it through its proxies in Syria.
  • Russia refuses the presence of America through its proxy the Kurds in a country where it is expanding its air force and navy, and owns the only naval base in the Middle East.
  • The expansion of the Kurds in the northern Kurdish and Arab areas will push the Syrian Kurds to displace local Arabs or to place them under federal rule. They will want to fight back and will be supported by the central government.

Damascus would not have sent its Air Force to bomb the Kurdish area of Hasaka without the consent of Russia. However, this didn’t prevent a Russian General, based in Hmaymeem, travelling to Hasaka, attempting to find a solution in the same city where the US forces are positioned. Kurds are in the middle of the storm, facing enemies all over the places and it won’t be an easy task. Hasakah Kurdish residents are already beginning to leave their homes. This is the beginning of the displacement of Kurds in Syria, even though if they have the upper hand in Hasaka. Kurds are not confined to the northeast of Syria.

It is a race against time for the Kurds, from al-Malkiya, on the north-eastern Syrian border, through Hasaka, Kobani, Manbij and Jarablus, to reach the far north-western town of Afrin where they must achieve control in order to declare an independent state: a road full of dangers and battles.

Here is Turkey sending Syrian troops to al-Halouaniyah to be close to Jarablus – City (which is under “Islamic State” at the moment, the weakest force in Syria) to cut the road for the Kurds and prevent the completion of Rojava. Turkey that was pushing for a “safe zone” or “no-fly-zone” of 110 per 40 kilometres to secure a foothold in Syria, is now against it since the Kurds stepped in, and destroyed the dream of Erdogan who now finds that casting his lot with Assad is less painful than having a Kurdish state on his borders. If this indicates anything, it is that – if it were possible – the war in Syria is becoming increasingly complex. This requires an impossibly quick solution or a indeed preparation for a long war with alliances shifting from one camp to another and where in the future the allies of yesterday will fight among themselves.

This article was originally published by Al-Raï on August 22, 2016 (Elijah J. Magnier, Al Rai Chief International war Correspondent) and is reprinted here with permission.

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