Syria Sitrep – The Build Up for the Idlib Campaign
The long awaited Syrian army campaign to liberate Idlib governorate in Syria’s northwest is supposed to start shortly after September 7, the date when the Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents will meet. Strong forces have been put into place and are ready to strike. The Russian fleet in the Mediterranean has been strengthened, new air defense positions were established.
There are signs that al-Qaeda in Syria and similar groups will try to preempt the upcoming attack on them by an offense of their own. The U.S., UK and France prepare for another chemical incident in support of the Jihadi attack. They would strike Syrian government forces and institutions after a new fake incident would be attributed to the Syrian government.
Turkey was given until the summit to remove al-Qaeda and similar Jihadi groups from Idlib governorate. It so far failed to do so and its chance of achieving that is practically zero. Al-Qaeda in the form of Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and in coalition with other foreign Jihadis from all over the world rules about 70% of Idlib governorate:
“Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” says Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the international coalition fighting Isis.
Idlib is a cesspool in which various Jihadi factions continuously fight each other. At least 290 members and leaders of such groups have been assassinated during the last four months. Hundreds of locals who talked with the Syrian government to negotiate rehabilitation were arrested by HTS. The Syrian army and Russian military police opened corridors to allow civilians to flee the area.
The Inspector General of the U.S. aid agency shut down an aid program through which al-Qaeda in Idlib was fed:
US charity Catholic Relief Services wouldn’t directly confirm it was the NGO involved but left little doubt, saying it had “closed” its operations in northwest Syria following reports of aid diversion, and had dismissed staff as it works to “further enhance” anti-fraud measures. CRS has received $147 million from USAID for projects in Syria over the last three financial years, according to the USAID website.
USAID’s inspector general, reporting to Congress, first in March and with more details released in July, said that staff of an unnamed non-profit added “fighters” of armed group Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham to lists of civilians eligible for food packages and then covered up the records. The US government regards HTS as a successor to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
First reports of this scheme through which the U.S. supplied al-Qaeda were already published in 2012. It was widely known that al-Qaeda systematically “taxed” up to 50% of all food and weapon supplies U.S. supported “moderate rebels” received.
On August 24 the Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu met with his Russian colleague Lavrov in Moscow. The meeting came just ten days after Lavrov visited Ankara. The Turkish Defense Minister and the head of the Turkish secret services also met their counterparts to discuss the upcoming campaign. Turkey agrees that HTS is a legitimate target and must be removed, but it fears that they, and their families, will in the end flee to Turkey. Turkey would also like to annex Idlib and other areas. Lavrov said that the final decision about an attack will be handled by the upcoming summit:
[W]hen the de-escalation zone was created in Idlib, no one suggested to use it to ensure that terrorists, primarily from Jabhat al-Nusra, could use civilians as a human shield. Moreover, they are not just sitting there. They use it to carry out raids and shell the positions of the Syrian army. Several dozen drones (about 50) that were launched from this area to attack the Russian airbase in Khmeimim have been shot down. Today, we spoke about this in great detail. We need to do our best to ensure that this disengagement effectively takes place, and to minimise risks for the civilians. I am confident that the presidents will discuss this matter in detail.
In preparation for the general attack on Idlib the Russian Navy is building up a strong force in the eastern Mediterranean which includes several frigates with Calibr cruise missiles:
#Syria campaign deployment continues. 4 RussianNavy ships transited today & 13 ships during the last week. #ВМФ Project 266M #ЧФ BSF Natya 1 class minesweeper Valentin Pikul 770, transited Bosphorus towards Med together with ВМФ Project 22870 ЧФ BSF rescue tug Prof Nikolay Muru pic.twitter.com/84L4e4xZeS
— Yörük Işık (@YorukIsik) August 25, 2018
There are some 20 Russian units at sea near the Syrian coast.
Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami is currently in Damascus to renew an agreement on bilateral defense and military cooperation. Damascus also asked Hizbullah, which will be the next target of the “west”, to keep some of its forces in Syria. Some Iranian advisors will support the Idlib operation as well as some Hizbullah special forces. No Iranian troops will be involved.
On Tuesday the U.S., the UK and France published a statement to warn against a chemical attack:
As we have demonstrated, we will respond appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, …
On Wednesday the 22nd a new speech of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was published. A new video of HTS chief Abu Mohammad al-Jolani showed him rallying his forces. Joining the Islamists chorus of the day Abu Jihad John Bolton warned that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be responded to with force:
“We are obviously concerned about the possibility that Assad may use chemical weapons again.
“Just so there’s no confusion here, if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time,” [Bolton] added.
This was obviously an invitation to the terrorists to stage a fake chemical weapon attack as they had done earlier in east-Ghouta and other places. Those incidences were blamed on the Syrian government without any evidence and led to U.S. strikes on Syrian forces.
Yesterday the Russia Defense Ministry warned of a similar scheme:
A provocation with an alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, which terrorists are plotting to stage with the assistance of UK special services, will serve as a pretext for missile strikes by the West and the United States against the Arab country, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Saturday.
“The staging of this provocation with the active participation of the UK special services is set to serve as a new pretext for missile and bomb strikes by the United States, Great Britain and France against Syria’s government and economic facilities,” the spokesman said.
For this purpose, “the US Navy’s destroyer Sullivans with 56 cruise missiles on its board arrived in the Persian Gulf several days ago while a B-1B strategic bomber of the US Air Force armed with AGM-158 JASSM air-to-surface missiles was redeployed to the Al Udeid air base in Qatar,” the Russian general said.
There is an obvious build up on all sides for a large battle over Idlib province. No plans on how the battle will proceed have been published. The number of forces assembled will make sure that it will be the biggest battle the war on Syria has seen so far. A first phase will likely avoid the city of Idlib itself. Jish al-Shigur in the north-west and the areas south and east of the M4 and M5 highway will be the primary targets. The battle will proceed from there. It is likely that the U.S., in one way or another, will try to hamper any Syrian army progress.
Six month from now, after the Idlib operation is over, the Syrian army is likely to move further north to retake the Syrian areas Turkey is currently holding and attempting to annex. After that the U.S. occupation force in north-east Syria will come into sight.
Additional U.S. operations against Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian forces might soon come on the Syian-Iraq border where U.S. forces are building up for new operations. It is claimed that the U.S. deploys radar systems to north-east Syria which it keeps occupying. These would be useful in establishing a no-fly zone over the territory of its Kurdish proxy forces. The U:S. is likely underestimating the local hostility against this development. The 2-5,000 U.S. troops there may soon find themselves in a hopeless fight with local guerilla forces.