The Syrian army is conducting its southern campaign with the pacification of the last two percent of the Qunietra province that remains under the control of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) terrorist group. That will free tens of thousands of troops of the Syrian army and its allies from the burden of fighting in the south of the country and will mark a turning point in the seven years of war imposed on the Levant. The whole of Syria will be liberated from the territorial control of militias and jihadists. What remains of occupied Syria is under the control of two countries: territories held by the US and Turkey in the north. However, these occupations do not seem tenable, particularly now that the Kurds, in control of 23% of Syria, have decided to respond positively to the Syrian President’s call to engage in dialogue or face war. The US cannot stay for much longer in Syria; it will find a face-saving way to leave very soon.
The US presence in Syria had several aims:
- To divide Syria and establish a Kurdish state in the north under the name of Rojava, under the US military “protection”, like Iraqi Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein era. The US was not against a Kurdish state to include Syria and Iraq. However, Iraqi Kurdistan, under Masood Barzani, dashed its hopes of independence when he refused to follow US advice to postpone a move to break away for 18 months. Barzani’s premature decision to separate from Iraq was confronted with a strong reaction from Baghdad troops who took control of Kurdistan’s borders and resources.
- Leave the rest of Syria in an endless bloody war between Salafi-Takfiri jihadists and other groups. This war was meant to advance the cause of ISIS, whose enemies were not the distance US (notwithstanding the proximity of US troops) but closer to hand (ISIS set his objective to fight and eliminate the “nearer enemy” — mainly Shia, secular and Sunni who disagree with its “state” versus al-Qaeda traditional goal of prioritising the “far enemy” although this objective was not prioritised in the Levant): Lebanon, Jordan, and the rest of the Middle East. ISIS advances would have been detrimental to the “Axis of Resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah) or at least would have interrupted the flow of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon (from Iran through Syria). Hezbollah would have been cornered into the south of Lebanon, a Shia enclave surrounded by Israel on one side and a hostile government to the north with Takfiri ruling in the other parts of the country.
The US came to Syria not exclusively for oil but also to serve Israel by eliminating an enemy state or several enemies altogether. However, the war in Syria did not go as planned and today the Damascus government is in control of all Syrian territory except for the north. This notwithstanding any ISIS insurgency that may continue to be operational not only in Syria but also in any other parts of the Middle East and North Africa (Egypt is the best example– the state is on solid ground but suffers continuous terrorist attacks).
Moreover, the Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki boosted the confidence of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a settlement — Moscow promised to protect Israel’s borders with Israel (1974 line). The Russian President argued that Assad’s government had maintained its borders with the occupied Golan heights for over 40 years without any incident.
Therefore, Israel has concluded that its security needs can be met with the continued presence of Assad in power, and by the presence of Russian military police on its borders in addition to the UNDOF (UN Disengagement Forces established by the UNSC resolution 350 in May 1974 to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria). When this condition is met, there will be no reason for US forces to continue to occupy the al-Tanf Iraq-Syria crossing and al-Hasaka province where Kurdish forces are based.
Meanwhile, Assad confidently delivered an ultimatum to the Kurds: “either negotiate, or you will be faced with war”. The Syrian president said this because he is aware that Idlib, the north-western city under Turkish control, will not capitulate without fighting.
A military operation has started in rural Latakia to remove dangers to the coastal province, where jihadists sporadically attack Syrian positions and other villages in the area. Several armed drones were recently launched from this area against the Russian military base in Hmeymim and were shot down by the Russian base defences system before reaching their target.
Jan Egeland, the head of the UN’s humanitarian task force for Syria says that in Idlib “there are two million people including the Internally Displaced Refugees”. There are more than 40,000 jihadists and their allies (Jabhat al-Nusra aka Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Hurras el-Deen, Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham and many others) who won’t put down their weapons without a fight.
Sources in Damascus confirmed the battle of Idlib will most probably happen in September. “When the air force and artillery start pounding jihadists positions, Idlib will be under fire. The Syrian army has studied and established several safe corridors for civilians to leave Idlib either north or south of the city and its rural area to avoid civilian casualties”.
Turkey is aware that the Syrian government can no longer be stopped. Turkey will have to withdraw and will have to let go of the jihadists in the north because Assad is determined to liberate all of Syria by all means.
Turkey’s primary concern is to stop the Kurds from having a state. This coincides with Assad’s goal of preventing the partition of Syria. In keeping this goal, a Kurdish delegation has visited Damascus to initiate dialogue with the central government, with the consent of the US leadership.
In all three Kurdish enclaves (Afrin, Kobani, and Jazeera), there was a “Democratic Autonomous administration” under the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). With the loss of Afrin to Turkey, the remaining two enclaves become connected one to another; they now host several US military bases and airports.
The central Kurdish city is Qamishli (in al-Jazeera canton); it still hosts a large Syrian Army force. The Kurds never clashed with the Syrian army (a few small incidents were registered years ago) and do not seek to separate from Syria but are aiming for a decentralised canton. The Kurdish delegation asked Damascus to take up its responsibility as a central government and thus be responsible for the upkeep and restoration of the Euphrates Dam and its upkeep and restoration (following severe damage inflicted during the battle with ISIS), the distribution of potable water, electricity supply, and the reconstruction of houses, schools, and hospitals.
The Syrian government responded by citing amendments to the Constitution in 2012: articles 130 and 131 called for “decentralisation and financial and administrative independence of local governance structures”, in keeping with the legislative Decree 107 of October 2011.
The Kurds agreed on Decree 107 but contested the way it was implemented and the lack of authority given to local representatives and the appointed governor. They have also contested the power given to the government minister in charge of overseeing the administration of all provinces.
The interpretation of the existing laws, their implementation and force were one of the main subjects of discussion between the two delegations. The distribution of wealth (mainly gas and oil) was discussed, and it was agreed to resume discussion of all unresolved points in future meetings.
Damascus considers that the meeting was successful, indicating the will of the Kurds to remain under the umbrella of the central government in one country. They also accept Russia as a guarantor for the deal as well as for a wider political solution in the country.
The Kurds offered to place substantial forces under the command of the Syrian Army to help and assist any war against terrorists and jihadists, in particular against the remains of ISIS and al-Qaeda and their allies in the north of the country. Damascus welcomes this initiative and will undoubtedly benefit from the offer.
It is too early to talk about a final deal between Damascus and Qamishli. However, it is clear that discussions have begun well and are on the right track. The Kurds have accepted that the US will not be around forever to protect them, and therefore they need to protect themselves by returning to the arms of the central government, where they belong.
With the end of the war in the south and the Kurdish initiative, it is only a matter of time and circumstances before the US finds a quiet way out of Syria, ending their occupation and accepting that their “regime change” operation has failed miserably.
It could well be that the US would like to see from close at hand how Syria and Russia will deal with Idlib. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about the outcome of the battle: Syria is walking towards the end of its long and bloody war.