Publications of experts CACDS - Southern Caucasus

Rauf Radjabov: "Syrian deadlock around Idliba: bets and controversies of players"

The emerging military-political situation in the north of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAD) requires immediate steps from Ankara. In particular, in the west of the SAR, in Aleppo, militants provoke Damascus, Moscow and Tehran to conduct a military operation. In the event of further escalation on the part of the extremist group of Hayat-Tahrir al-Sham (KHTsh), Moscow may cease to extend the deadline for the demilitarization zone, and Idlib will repeat the fate of the Eastern Gut and West Aleppo. As a result, about 1 million refugees will appear on the Turkish-Syrian border with all the ensuing consequences.

In addition, under the control of the pro-American Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), based on Syrian Kurdish detachments (YPGs), now stands at about 27% of the SAR territory, including the Hasek Province and most of the province of Rakka, as well as the Hadjin City to east of Deir Ez-Zora, where one of the last outpost of the "Islamic State" (IG) was located. In these territories there are units of the US military totaling up to 2 thousand people. They provide logistical and military support to the Kurdish militia and place their observation posts along the Syrian-Turkish state border.

Obviously that Today's balance of military forces in the north-east of the SAD is in favor of the SDF forces that have gained military and military experience of both defensive and offensive character. Moreover, SDF has armored vehicles, artillery, and other types of heavy weapons.

Short-term military operation and long-term goals of Turkey

Despite the successful Turkish military operations "Protecting the Euphrates" and "The Olive Branch" in the north of the SAD, which failed YPG plans to create a corridor connecting the Kurdish territories to the east and west of the Euphrates River, the Kurdish problem in Ankara remains unresolved. Moreover, as a result of the above-mentioned military operations, a buffer zone of security was established between the border towns Aazaz and Jarablus, and also the Afrodite region was occupied by the Kurds.

Today's Ankara's goal is to cut the territory of the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Jazeera. Therefore, Ankara plans to establish control over the border stripe from the city of Kobani in the province of Aleppo to El Malikia in the province of Hasek. And the first object of the new Turkish military operation is likely to be the city of Tel-Abyad. It can be assumed that the US will not interfere. In principle, Tel-Abyad is not inhabited by Kurds - there armed clashes between the local Arabs and the representatives of the Kurdish Federation of Northern Syria arise periodically. Although the actions of the Kurdish "Military Council of Manibia" led to the abolition of the civil rights of the Arab population. And unbearable conditions force the Arab population to leave the city. In the provinces of Rakka and Hasek, there are frequent cases of fighting between the Kurds and the Arabs, who have recently joined together fighting against the IG on the eastern coast of the Euphrates. Today, interethnic hostility can spread over the north-west of the SAR, and the struggle between the Kurds and Arabs can cover the entire north of the country with all the ensuing negative consequences..

It can be assumed that the United States will agree to the introduction of the Syrian opposition armed forces in the city of Tel-Abyad in the face of the "Free Syrian Army" (SSA). Washington, like Ankara, opposes the invasion of these areas by government Syrian troops and Shiite military formations.

However, the joint actions of Ankara and Washington, firstlywill not be presented as a solution within the Astana format of negotiations. Secondly, they will disassociate the territory into two enclaves - Kobani and Jazeera, and make the Syrian Kurds more negotiable with Ankara and strengthen the influence of Turkey in the northern provinces of SAD.

President Trend Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly states that he has come to the north of the SAD "seriously and for a long time," these lands will never give the Bashar al-Assad president any time, under any pretext. It is precisely in the northwest of SAD, and also probably in the Kurdish north-eastern regions of the country, a new quasi-state under the control of Ankara will be created. The homes of Kurdish refugees are already populated by families of militants from radical Islamist groups from the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, and on the basis of the SSA, Ankara creates a new Syrian army, forms regional and local authorities, special services, and the police. Thirdly, they do not lead to the complete withdrawal of the US from the SAR, since Washington considers the US military presence in the SAD to be strategically important and will retain it until Tehran has withdrawn its advisers and armed units from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement from the country. Moreover, Tehran does not intend to leave the territory of the SAD as long as there are US troops there. Fourthly, they will force Moscow to support the Turkish military operation, since Ankara has levers of influence on the Kremlin. Recently, it was announced that the laying of a sea section of the Turkish pipeline was announced, and on this background, Moscow will not engage in a military-political confrontation with Ankara in Idlib.

Russian-Turkish contradictions

The positions of Turkey and the Russian Federation regarding the political settlement in the SAD do not coincide not only with the question of the preservation of the power of B. al-Asad in Damascus. The President of the Republic of Turkey, RT T. Erdogan, is actually seeking to annex the northern territories of the SAR to the example of the northern part of Cyprus. Therefore, Ankara is determined to create a "security zone" with a width of 32 km along the entire northern boundary of the SAR. The problem for the RF and the SAD is that the zone includes settlements controlled by both the combined forces of Syrian Arabs and Kurds of the SDS and the Government Army B. al-Assad. And Moscow wants to include these territories in the area of ​​responsibility of Damascus.

However, Ankara, without Russia and Damascus, can not independently create a "security zone" on the Syrian side of the border between Turkey and SAD. Especially since the IRI is not going to abandon the support of B. al-Assad and to withdraw from the APA, since only in this case Tehran will retain its control over the so-called. "Shiite Crescent" (IRI, Iraq, SAR, Lebanon). Israeli missile shots for IRI are minimal. A more serious threat to Tehran's plans in the Middle East region is the US strategy for Iraq. Washington intends to maintain its military-political presence in Iraq, despite the Iranian tactics of squeezing the United States out of Iraq.

Not in favor of Ankara, and the relations of Damascus with the Arab countries are developing. Some warming of Damascus relations with the Arab countries is due to the following reason: the Arab countries involved in the interethnic, inter-confessional civil war in the SAD, (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia / KSA /, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt) consider Bala al-Asada in the quality of an interested ally in confrontation with Ankara. In addition, the aforementioned Arab countries are struggling to get out of the Syrian crisis on account of their involvement in the Yemeni crisis. Indeed, in the APA, Arab political parties did not have military-political allies in the face of extremist movements and organizations. At present, only the Russian Federation, the IRI, the USA and Turkey have real levers of influence on the domestic political situation in the ATS. And Ankara's rigid demand for Bala al-Assad implies a curtailment of both the Arab scenario for Turkey and the minimization of Iranian influence in the APA.

Iranian-Russian contradictions

There are conceptual problems in the Syrian direction between the official authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. Moreover, in the Syrian armed conflict, the IRI and the Russian Federation actively interact in a political, informational and military context, and regularly exchange intelligence. IRI plays an important role in conducting land operations, and the Russian Federation - the planning and coordination of hostilities and their air support. The official Tehran has repeatedly provided the Russian CCS with the possibility of flying through Iranian airspace and temporary deployment on the airfields of the IRI. Military-technical cooperation is taking place between the IRI and the Russian Federation.

At the same time, the problems of Iran-Russia relations on the Syrian issue are as follows: firstly, the official TEHRAN pursues its geostrategic goals, which differ from the plans of the Russian Federation. In particular, we are talking about the famous Iranian project "Dervish", aimed at the formation of the "Shiite belt" - IRI, Iraq, SAR, Lebanon with access to the Mediterranean Sea. Official Tehran is counting on this strategic corridor, which is able to connect all the so-called. "Shiite Crescent". Symbolically, US President Donald Trump 24 April 2018 said in Washington that the US and their allies would not allow the IRI to reach the shores of the Mediterranean.

Secondly, Kurdish question. Official Moscow, unlike the IRI and the TP, does not prevent the Syrian Kurds from defending their right to participate in the definition of the post-war AAP system, and even supports certain issues. For example, the Kremlin emphasizes the need for political representatives of the Syrian Kurds to join the Geneva talks under the auspices of the United Nations. Therefore, the Russian side, in the framework of the Congress of the National Dialogue on the ATS, will give the Syrian Kurds a seat in determining the future of the country.

And official Tehran is not satisfied with the political support of the Syrian Kurds on the part of the Kremlin, which is accompanied by restraint of the RF on the eastern front of the SAD. Thus, the Russian Armed Forces does not attack US-sponsored formation of the SDA Arab-Kurdish alliance in the Syrian province of Deir-ez-Zor. Moreover, the US Air Force is attacking the positions of the government army of the SAR and allied Shiite groups, when there is a risk for the Americans or SDS of the leading breakthroughs of the government troops of the APA or the Shiite groups.

Euphrates Corridor

Iran's military has recently limited coordination with the Russian side in conducting ground operations in SAD. Official Tehran seeks to maintain an effective configuration in its view of hostilities: the Iranian side conducts ground operations, and the Russian Federation - plans and coordinates military operations and provides them with the support of Russian ACS. This factor creates some tension between the IRI and the Russian Federation, taking into account the deployment of key forces in the Deir Ez-Zorah of the Russian Special Operations Forces (SRO) combat groups.

In addition, official Tehran is less likely to consider the presence of Syrian opposition "moderate militants" in the south of the SAR and in the provinces of Suweed and Dera'ah. According to Iranian military advisers at the General Staff of the AU Sun, the presence of "moderate" insurgents south of Damascus, who receive military and technical assistance from the United States and the KSA, is a factor in the constant destabilization of this part of the ATS. Moreover, the Iranian side does not welcome the military activity of Israel in SAD. So, the air defense systems of the RF in the west of the SAR did not create an impassable barrier for the Air Force of Israel. The Israeli air strikes against the objects and positions of the government forces of the SAR and Shiite forces continue, which reinforces Iran-Russia contradictions. Indeed, as a result of the above-mentioned strikes by the Air Forces of Israel, including Iranian military advisers.

It can be stated that a direct military conflict on the one hand, Israel with the IRI is excluded, and on the other, the military-political confrontation between the emerging anti-Iranian coalition in the United States, Israel, the KSA, Jordan and the IRI in the territory of the SAD entered the first phase.

Most likely, the military-political confrontation between the anti-Iranian coalition and the IRI due to Tehran's refusal to withdraw from the SAR of Iranian military advisers, detachments of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, as well as pro-Iranian Shiite armed groups from Iraq, the IRA and Pakistan (totaling about 120 thousand people ) will be accompanied by the military activity of Israel. Indeed, Tehran actively resettles families of pro-Shiite armed militants in the Sunni districts of SIR and Iraq, especially in the area of ​​the Euphrites Corridor, which provides the transfer of weapons, ammunition and manpower from Pakistan, Afghanistan, IRI through Iraq to the SAR via land. It should be noted that the "Euphrates corridor" connects territories under the control of pro-Iranian Shiite armed groups on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi state border. And Tehran, controlling the border areas of the SAR and Iraq, is interested in the further resettlement of the Shiites in the Sunni areas of the SAR and Iraq, since in the long run, this is the only way to preserve the military-political presence of the IRI in the SAR.

Maneuveres of Iran, Russia, USA, SAR, Turkey and the intersection of their interests

The redeployment of the Tigris Force SAR division to the borders captured by the KSH Idlib faction means preparing for the offensive of Damascus forces in that region. At the same time, the offensive of the Syrian government army with the aim of defeating the KTsh can occur simultaneously with the beginning of the Turkish military operation in the direction of Manibzh, and only after the complete withdrawal of the American 2-X000th troop contingent from the northern provinces of SAD.

However, on this background, it increases its military presence on the border with the province of Idlib and Ankara. Ankara thus intends, on the one hand, to begin a military operation against the Syrian Kurds in the direction of the city of Manibzh, and, on the other hand, to prevent the defeat of the KhTsh. This is evidenced by the endorsement by the leader of the KTsh Abu Muhammad Dzhulani of the forthcoming operation of the Turkish Armed Forces in the north of the SAD. By the way, A. Juliani also considers the Kurdish "People's Self-Defense Forces" (ANS) an enemy of the Sunni Arabs. Therefore, A.Julani supported the operation of the Turkish troops "Olive Branch" in the African region.

Obviously, in both cases, Ankara is entering a confrontation with Moscow, Damascus and Tehran. Consequently, the Russian Federation, the IRI and Damascus may agree with Ankara's next military operation, but subject to the defeat of the KTsh and the transition of the province of Idlib to Damascus. The fact is that Damascus can begin to rebuild the SAR only after the defeat of the KTsh, which corresponds to the Sochi agreements. At the same time Ankara's interest will be taken into account, since The Kurdish issue on the Turkish-Syrian border will be finally resolved. Indeed, Ankara will create a "security zone" in the north of the SAD, where all Syrian refugees from Turkey (about 4 million) will be displaced.

Syrian Kurds will once again be losers. Therefore, the Syrian Kurds rejected the US proposal to create a "security zone" under the control of Ankara on the Syrian-Turkish border. Political leader of the Syrian Kurds, Aldar Khalil, said that they would agree with the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces on the line of separation between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops to counter the threat of an offensive. And the Syrian Kurds understand the limited capabilities of the Russian Federation. Moscow can not simultaneously exert pressure on the Kurdish issues on the IRI, SAR, and Turkey.

Against this backdrop, Turkey and the US have a chance to agree on the future of the ATS. At first, The United States, pending the withdrawal of their troops from the SAD, promised to fulfill all the points of the previously agreed Turkish-American "road map", which involves discharging the ANS from the city of Manjib. Secondly, Washington is unlikely to agree with Moscow that Ankara should not interfere in the Syrian conflict and allow the Syrian Kurds to create their autonomy in the north of the SAD. In this case, the United States will create conditions for strengthening the geopolitical positions of the Russian Federation throughout the Middle East, as the countries of the region will turn to Moscow for assistance in resolving the Middle East problems.

Thirdlyto maintain pressure on Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, and Ankara, and Washington will seek to maintain a balance in US-Turkish relations, including on the Syrian issue. It is obvious that Washington will not transfer control over 16 to US military bases and logistics centers located in the north of the SAR, the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Bala al-Asad. This country can only be Turkey as a NATO member.

The first phase of a military confrontation

Within the framework of the first phase of the confrontation between the IRI and the anti-Iranian coalition, the United States and Israel expect Moscow to persuade Tehran to withdraw Pro-Iranian Shiite armed formations from the border area in the south-west of the SAD.

In Damascus, they realize that without the military-political support of the Russian Federation, as well as the political interaction between Moscow and Turkey and coordination with the United States and Israel on the Syrian issue, the regime of B. al-Assad will be overthrown. Tehran, against the backdrop of the US-Israeli strategy of squeezing IRI from SAD and Iraq, is no longer in a position to guarantee the security of the APA government headed by B. Al-Asad, and also to ensure the participation of the Allawite ruling clan and its supporters in the post-war organization of the country.

In this situation, Damascus may refuse military aid to pro-Iranian forces in the south of the SAR. After concentrating large military forces in the south of the SAD to strike on a radical armed Syrian opposition in the Deraa area, B. al-Assad risks since the most combat-capable government forces of the SAD are concentrated on a small territory, and in the case of a massive rocket-bombing strike by the anti-Iranian coalition, the scale of losses for Damascus may be catastrophic. In turn, Moscow will continue to squeeze pro-Iranian forces from the central administrative districts of the SAD, leaving the Iranian side of Aleppo and the eastern part of the Russian-Iranian zone of de-escalation to the Euphrates.

But The Russian strategy leads to an Iranian-Turkish opposition because of Aleppo. The fact is that Aleppo is considered to be the key Sunni city not only of the northern province, but of the whole SAR. And Ankara seeks to place in the Aleppo a pro-Turkish provisional government, a rival of B. al-Assad. Obviously, in the struggle for Aleppo, Shiite Tehran will face Sunni Ankara and Sunnis-Syrians. Moreover, on the side of Turkey will be the United States, signing an agreement with Ankara on Manjibu. Consequently, on the background of the removal of Damascus and thus of Moscow in the struggle for the northern provinces of SAD, Tehran is in a state of confrontation with the anti-Iranian coalition plus Turkey without any chance for us to succeed.

Turkish factor on the eve of the Idlib operation

If the APA government troops take control of Idlib, B. Al-Assad can claim full victory in the years of the war. After all, who will control the province of Idlib, that will control most of the ATS. Ankara, therefore, seeks to prevent the final defeat of the armed opposition in the ATS and addresses this issue for assistance and assistance in the UN, the United States and the EU. Ankara seeks to preserve the occupation by the Turkish troops of the north-western areas of the SAR and to establish in these areas alternative Damascus authorities and a new army of proturatsko-minded Syrians. It should be noted that in the province of Idlib there are checkpoints and patrols of Turkish military personnel. And Ankara expects the friendly Arab government of the Arab-Sunni majority to come to power in Damascus.

In other words Ankara fears losing the chance to influence the situation in the SAR after the end of the Syrian conflict, especially the fate of the Syrian Kurds who are trying to reach an agreement with Damascus to obtain autonomy in exchange for joining the anti-terrorist operation. For now, Idlib is important for Turkey, since Ankara is trying to strengthen its position in the west of the SAR to intensify its influence on the Kurds in SAD and Iraq. It is natural that Ankara condemns Damascus for its intention to apply force against jihadists. However, Ankara will not openly intervene in the fighting in Idlib. The fact is that Ankara is bound by the obligations of the APA with Moscow and Tehran. But Ankara does not want to lose control over the militants in Idliba, since after their defeat the question will be raised about the complete withdrawal of Turkey from the Syrian territory. Therefore, Ankara is actively negotiating with the leadership of the HTSH group, persuading jihadists to move under the command of Turkish-backed Syrian oppositionists.

The rigidity of the statements of the Turkish President, R.T. Erdogan, to Washington does not involve conducting a military operation against the forces of self-defense of the Syrian Kurds (YPG), which is not compatible with the American side, and, moreover, breaking the relationship with the United States. Washington and Ankara are NATO allies and are not equally interested in strengthening the power of B. al-Assad and Tehran in the region of the Middle East. Therefore, it is likely that the separation line between the Turkish Air Force and the YPG in the city of Manibih will be shifted a few kilometers to the east.

It is symbolic that Ibrahim Kalyn, an advisor to the Turkish president, said that Ankara intends to coordinate with the Russian Federation and the United States to avoid any confrontation in the ATS. According to I.Kalyn, Turkey is part of an international coalition against the extremist IG movement. I.Kalyn also recalled the existence of a mechanism for conflict prevention. In early June, the 2018 of Ankara and Washington endorsed a roadmap for stabilizing Manjiba, which was released by Kurdish formations from the IG in June 2016 year. According to I. Kalyn, this mechanism will be implemented.


First, the Moscow intends, using its military-political presence in the SAD (two military bases), to strengthen the geopolitical influence of the Russian Federation in the region of the Middle East, for which the Russian side is interested in a balanced relationship with Israel and the Gulf states, first of all with the KSA. Therefore, Moscow will try to get from Tehran the withdrawal of pro-Iranian Shiite armed formations from the southern districts of SAD. Indeed, it is precisely because of Russia that the anti-Iranian coalition does not begin its large-scale operation against pro-Iranian Shiite armed groups in SAD. Only in this case Moscow will retain its military-political presence in the ACP against the backdrop of Damascus control.

Second, the US President Truman's decision to withdraw American troops from the SAD was directed against the IRI and the Russian Federation. With this maneuver, the United States seeks to initiate a universal process for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from SAD, including Russian, Iranian and pro-Iranian Shiite forces. Turkish troops do not speak. Consequently, the countries of the region and the international community may require the withdrawal of their forces from the APA from the IRI and the Russian Federation. It is natural that the withdrawal of American troops is delayed, since The US and Turkey should reach agreement on the "buffer zone."

Third, Moscow may consider options for the exclusion from the peace process, B. al-Assad, if the Russian Federation, without prejudice to the Russian military-political presence in SAD, will, in the long term, resolve this issue with Teheran and the clan of B. al-Assad. This Russian scenario will find support in Ankara and Israel, since meets their long-term interests.

Fourth, as part of a long-term US strategy, Washington considers it important to prevent the return of the province of Idlib to full control of Damascus, which will in some cases strengthen the negotiating position of B. al-Asad within the framework of the Geneva Process.

Washington's warning to Damascus about the inadmissibility of the escalation of the Syrian military conflict reduces the likelihood of a large-scale military operation by the SAD Air Force in Idlib. Damascus will be considered with the opinion of Turkey, the United States and their allies, and will most likely postpone the attack on Idlib at the time. Especially since the successful completion of the Idlib operation will not lead to the end of the Syrian conflict. Indeed, the locals in the province of Idlib are mostly Sunni Arabs and Turks who are hostile to Damascus and IRI. Placing in Shiite units in Idlib will lead to a lengthy guerrilla warfare and new massive terrorist acts.

After the Idlib operation, most likely, the section of the ATS will begin on the zones of influence. Thus, in the northwest of the SAD, troops are located in Turkey, in the south-east of the Iraqi border, as well as in the Kurdish areas of the country in the northeast, the Americans. It should be borne in mind that oil, gas and agricultural resources are under US control. Obviously, this scenario will lead to a long-term section of the ATS.

Fifth, Ankara will increase its military presence in Idlib. In particular, this concerns the completion of the construction of a Turkish military base in the south of Idliba, which will ensure the security of the pro-Turkish forces in the north of the SAD, to hold back the official Damascus and Tehran. According to the plan of official Ankara, by 2020, the number of SSAs will reach 120 thousands of people. It is planned to relocate most of the camps of Syrian refugees from Turkey to the north of the SAR.

For R.T. Erdogan, the priority is the diplomatic solution on the Idlib and the Kurdish issue in the SAR. For official Ankara, it is important to preserve its de-escalation zone in Idlib (not to the detriment of ties with the Russian Federation) and to expel YPG squads from the north-eastern SAD, which should not lead to confrontation with the United States. Another question is how much it will be possible to maintain such a balance ...

Rauf Radzhabov Orientalist, Head of Analytical Center 3RD VIEW, Baku, Azerbaijan