Donald Trump’s “Obama Moments” in Syria and the Gulf: Dr. Jiri and Leni Valenta, BESA, July 12, 2019
What Is the Endgame in Idlib, Syria’s Largest Remaining Rebel Enclave?: Aron Lund, WPR, June 24, 2019
What Remains of al-Qaeda’s Ambitious Vision for Syria?: Yoram Schweitzer, INSS Insight No. 1143, Mar. 5, 2019
Al Qaeda-linked Operations Room Counterattacks as Bombs Fall in Northern Syria: Thomas Joscelyn, FDD Long War Journal, May 6, 2019
Donald Trump’s “Obama Moments” in Syria and the Gulf
Dr. Jiri and Leni Valenta
BESA, July 12, 2019
On June 3, 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are ‘bombing the hell’ out of Idlib province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The world is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you. Stop!”
Fine words, but he has said little else publicly about it since. Nor do we know the content of his conversation with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit (though a US cruise missile strike on rebel positions in Idlib on June 30 might have been connected to that conversation).
In May, the authors were able to perform some on-site research at the Turkish-Syrian border. The following reflects what we saw in Idlib. The beleaguered province has become the last major stronghold for rebel fighters supported by Turkey: about 20,000 Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham [HTS] militants. Some are also former members of an-Nusra, which was formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda.
But the assault on Idlib by Assad, Russia, and Iran has caused hundreds of fatalities and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, more than half of them women and children. According to World Vision, about 6.7 million Syrians are now refugees, and another 6.2 million are displaced within Syria.
They are driven from place to place, and some are now sleeping in open fields. Others crowd toward the Turkish border, which has been closed to them. Turkey has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has no desire for more. Thus, the offensive on Idlib has released the potential for yet another massive migration to Europe.
Particularly horrifying is the report by UN officials that “a total of 22 hospitals and health clinics have been hit by airstrikes or shelling since April 28.” As reported on May 30 by the Daily Sabah, Krem Kimuk, president of the Turkish Red Crescent, believes civilians have been intentionally targeted by the bombings. “This is an obvious war crime,” he said.
Agreeing with Kimuk is UN Undersecretary General for Human Affairs Mark Lowcock, who on June 25 reiterated fears he had expressed a month earlier that geographical coordinates supplied to Russia and the Assad government by the UN to protect medical centers and hospitals in northwest Syria were being used by both Russia and the Assad regime to “deliberately destroy those targets.”
Lowcock said there have been numerous pleas to both the Assad government and the Kremlin to “make [the bombing] stop.” But, as he told the UN Security Council, “It has not stopped or even slowed.”
In its May 9, 2019 article “Only Trump Can Save Idlib, but Time is Running Out,” the Washington Post reported that aide workers often cannot operate because of chemical weapons usage, including white phosphorous bombs.
Trump’s first Obama moment
An “Obama moment” refers to 2013, when the then-president back-pedaled from his plan to punish Assad for crossing Washington’s red line on the use of chemical warfare against insurgents and civilians in Syria. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
What Is the Endgame in Idlib, Syria’s Largest Remaining Rebel Enclave?
WPR, June 24, 2019
Since late April, tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes in the Idlib region in northwestern Syria as President Bashar al-Assad’s air force pummels Islamist-controlled towns. Amid the fighting, Russia and Turkey continue to negotiate for a restoration of a broken cease-fire in Idlib, with each seeking changes that will shore up its own influence over the conflict. As ever in Syria’s civil war, there are key questions about this latest escalation—from the fundamental facts on the ground in Idlib, to the interests of outside powers and the potential endgame.
The region of Idlib, which also includes insurgent-held parts of adjacent provinces, is often described as Syria’s last rebel stronghold. There are, in fact, other areas outside Assad’s control, but none still so fiercely hostile to his government.
Power in Idlib mostly rests with a jihadist faction known as Tahrir al-Sham. It has roots in al-Qaida and is internationally designated as a terrorist group, but Turkey nonetheless maintains ties to it to project influence. Turkish soldiers have set up a dozen military outposts inside the Idlib enclave—one of several Turkish military incursions into this corner of Syria over the past few years—and they also work closely with Tahrir al-Sham’s local rivals.
Most people in Idlib, of course, are not armed rebels. “An estimated 2.5 million people live in the greater Idlib area, half of whom have already been displaced at least once, both within the governorate itself and from elsewhere in Syria,” Mari Mortvedt, a Damascus-based spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told WPR. In other words, the stakes are high. Vulnerable civilians are trapped between the hammer of a pitiless dictatorship and the anvil of jihadist extremists. Were it not for the restraining influence of external powers, tens of thousands could be killed.
In northwestern Syria, a series of deals between Turkey, Russia, and Iran—the latter two are Assad’s main allies—have limited the fighting. The key agreements are a “de-escalation” roadmap signed in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in May 2017; another Astana agreement in September 2017; and a separate Russian-Turkish deal in Sochi in September 2018.
Iran’s influence has diminished since 2018, and other nations are virtually cut out of the action. The United States, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were once influential backers of the rebels in Idlib, but they have had little clout in the area since 2017. (U.S.-backed Kurdish forces dominate northeastern Syria, but that’s a separate issue.) … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
What Remains of al-Qaeda’s Ambitious Vision for Syria?
INSS Insight No. 1143, Mar. 5, 2019
In a rare public statement at the February 2019 Munich Security Conference, MI6 Chief Alex Younger warned of the revival of the al-Qaeda threat in those areas of Syria suffering from a governance vacuum. According to Younger, events in Idlib, dominated by al-Qaeda satellites with many increasingly radical Europeans, should greatly worry the West. His statement touches on a frequent topic of the last few years in intelligence circles and among researchers and analysts, namely: are al-Qaeda and its affiliates throughout the world gaining or losing strength, especially since the rise of the Islamic State? A partial answer may be found in the organization’s situation in Syria, given, according to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Syria’s importance as the central global jihadist arena and global jihad’s stated ambitions to make Syria the key axis in reviving the camp, which reached a nadir early in the decade. In this context, the interrelations and the affinity between al-Qaeda and the Salafist jihadist organization Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham are highly significant.
The elimination of the vast majority of Islamic State strongholds in Syria and the weakening of most opposition organizations in the country left Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, numbering several thousand fighters (estimates vary from 20,000 to 30,000), as the dominant military force in the Idlib province, where it is primarily located. Since starting its operations in 2012 as al-Qaeda’s extension in Iraq, where it was called Jabhat al-Nusra, this organization, which in the past was identified as al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria, underwent a series of transformations in terms of ideological and political alliances during the course of the Syrian civil war.
The Arab Spring upheavals found al-Qaeda at its nadir since the organization’s founding, a result of the global war on terrorism, which focused primarily on al-Qaeda. As a result, most of its commanders – including legendary leader Osama bin Laden – were either arrested or killed. The reverberations of the upheavals in the Arab world, which many thought would sound the organization’s death knell, actually proved to be its lifeline, because they led to regime destabilization and the toppling of national leaders who were among al-Qaeda’s worst enemies. In response to the civil war in Syria, al-Zawahiri identified Syria as the major arena of the next global jihad and set several ambitious strategic objectives: liberating Syria from the heretical Bashar Assad and turning the nation into a state ruled by Islamic religious law; liberating Jerusalem from Israeli occupation; and training thousands of jihadist fighters who volunteered to fight in Syria and molding them into an Islamic army that would continue to wage a war of global jihad. But his far-reaching plans were derailed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, who challenged al-Zawahiri’s leadership and his hegemony as the most senior global jihadist. In 2013, al-Baghdadi broke off from al-Qaeda, founded ISIS, and went on to declare the founding of the Islamic State.
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the founding of ISIS, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, chose to swear allegiance to al-Zawahiri and identify fully with al-Qaeda. But after a few years of fighting, relations cooled between Jabhat al-Nusra, with its local Syrian orientation, and al-Qaeda. The growing distance between the two organizations was made obvious by the former’s 2016 change of name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the Victory Front of Greater Syria) and later, in 2017, to its current name – Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (the Authority for the Liberation of Greater Syria). It was also manifested by public disagreements over strategy and potential allies. While it first seemed that the blurring of the official connection between the two organizations was a decision that al-Julani made with al-Zawahiri’s blessing, it later emerged that the two – and their supporters and spokesmen, including influential religious leaders – had essential differences of opinion. Therefore, it is doubtful if it would be appropriate to include Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham among the global al-Qaeda camp. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed]
Al Qaeda-Linked Operations Room Counterattacks as Bombs Fall in Northern Syria
FDD Long War Journal, May 6, 2019
Bashar al-Assad’s air force and Russia have stepped up their bombing campaign in northern Syria in recent weeks. Sunni jihadists have responded with a series of operations targeting the Assad regime’s forces and its allies across four provinces. The attacks are being carried out by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the “Incite the Believers” operations room, and other parties. HTS has been preparing for the possibility of larger assault on Idlib, the northwest Syrian province it largely controls.
“Incite the Believers” was formed in Oct. 2018 by several jihadi groups that operate somewhat independently from HTS. Its founding groups included Hurras al-Din (“Guardians of the Religion”), Ansar al-Din Front and Ansar al-Islam. Others have likely joined or cooperate with the joint venture as well.
Earlier this year, Hurras al-Din (HAD) and HTS engaged a war of words that became bloody after an incident at a security checkpoint. However, the HAD and HTS reached a new accord, with the two sides agreeing that common Islamic courts would handle their disputes. The jihadists promised to stop criticizing each other in the media and establish committees to adjudicate certain “legal and security” matters, as well as to monitor compliance with the agreement. HAD also said it would coordinate with HTS any time its men wanted to conduct operations in certain areas controlled by HTS.
As FDD’s Long War Journal reported at the time, a veteran al Qaeda member known as Abu ‘Abd al-Karim al-Masri (“Karim”) has played a key role in mediating the disputes between HTS and HAD. Although there are still tensions between the two parties, it appears that the truce has held for now — at least for the most part. HAD is led by al Qaeda veterans who have objected to HTS’s strategy, including its stated disassociation from al Qaeda.
Working through the “Incite the Believers” operations room, HAD and its allies have carried out attacks on the regime’s forces in the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama. In the last week or so of April, the joint venture claimed to have killed 30 of its enemies, while wounding 17 more. The casualty figures were trumpeted on an infographic, with “Incite the Believers” produced in Arabic, English and Turkish. The English version of the infographic can be seen below.
“Incite the Believers” said that these operations were conducted in response to the latest round of peace talks that were held in Astana Kazakhstan last month. The jihadists claim that those talks are part of an international conspiracy to undermine the insurgency against the Assad regime and its allies. HAD and its military partners have claimed additional operations from late April through the first several days of May.
One “Incite the Believers” photo set produced in late April purportedly documents various sniper attacks in Aleppo, Latakia and Hama. Several other pictures document mortar launches. Additional images show the jihadists dropping explosives on their enemies from overhead, and also firing rockets and missiles. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
On Topic Links:
The Best of Bad Options for Syria’s Idlib: Crisis Group: Report 197, Mar. 14, 2019 — What’s new? An agreement between Turkey and Russia that protects Syria’s rebel-held Idlib governorate from a regime offensive is under increasing stress.
Al Qaeda in Syria threatens Europe. @ThomasJoscelyn @FDD: The John Batchelor Show, July 15, 2019, Audio
Syria Group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda Legacy:BBC, May 22, 2019— The ongoing government offensive against the last rebel-held areas in northern Syria has once again put the spotlight on the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant faction in Idlib Province.
Russian Special Forces Train Palestinian Militia In Syria: Caleb Weiss, FDD Long War Journal, Mar. 6, 2019 — In a video released yesterday by the Russian propaganda news channel RT, Russian special forces were shown training members of Liwa al Quds, a pro-regime Palestinian militia group in Syria.