Syria Sitrep - Afrin, Idlib and East-Ghouta
3 March, 2018
After a slow start the Turkish and Jihadi attack on the Afrin canton in north-west Syria is making some progress. Despite intimate knowledge of the terrain and years of preparation the local Kurdish forces of the YPK have little chance to withstand.
Turkish air and artillery support for the attacking force opponents is overwhelming the Kurds. The ground troops Turkey is using are mostly Islamist Free Syrian Army fighters directed by Turkish officers. A few Turkish special forces are acting as forward observers to call in artillery and airstrikes. Only yesterday the Turkish air force flew more than 30 bombing missions on a rather small front. Today some 36 fighters were killed by Turkish air strikes.
Last week the local Kurdish forces were reinforced by other Kurdish forces and Syrian government paramilitaries. Some of the Kurdish groups had split off from the U.S. supported SDF in east Syria, crossed through Syrian government held land and reached Afrin. Kurdish groups in Aleppo city gave control of two of the three districts they held to the Syrian government to join their brethren in Afrin. A contingent of 500 Syrian paramilitary fighters from two Shiite towns near Afrin also joined the fight. The Turkish army tried to interdict the convoys reinforcing Afrin but most of the fighters reached the front lines. The Syrian Red Cross sent a convoy with humanitarian goods for the about one million inhabitants of the canton.
The Kurdish YPG forces in control of Afrin have a choice. The Russian and the Syrian government have offered their full support if the Kurds submit to Syrian government control just like any citizen of Syria is supposed to do. If they agree, the Turkish planes will immediately vanish from the skies over Afrin. But the Kurds insist on keeping their own military and police forces as well as their unelected local administration. If they keep doing so the Turkish forces will role them up and all will be lost. It is a simple and obvious choice to make.
Idleb governorate and Idleb city are held by various groups aligned with Turkey. The biggest of these groups are al-Qaeda (aka Nusra Front aka HTS), Ahrar al Sham and Zinki. All of these are Islamist extremists but only al-Qaeda/Nusra is designated as an international terrorist group. A Russian-Turkish agreement marks Idleb as a deescalation zone which will no longer be attacked by the Syrian government forces if Turkey can get the groups there under control and if it eliminates the al-Qaeda/HTS terrorists. Regular Turkish troops set up a few observer posts in the area.
But Turkey had supported al-Qaeda/HTS all along and the group, if attacked by regular Turkish forces, is likely to hit back within Turkey itself. After much prodding by Russia Turkey finally pressed the other groups it controls to evict al-Qaeda/HTS from the various towns it held.
The operation started a week ago. Ahrar al Sham and Zinki united with some smaller groups under the common label JTS. They attacked HTS positions and were able to immediately capture a number of them. HTS simply retreated. For three days it looked as if the Turkish ordered operation would be successful. Some 30 towns and villages fell to JTS. Then came the counterattack. Ahrar al-Sham's main weapon depot, with several tanks and artillery guns, fell to HTS. JTS was attacked from the rear and town after town fell back to HTS. Just a week after the whole operation against HTS started it is in better position than ever before.
HTS has kept control of the city of Idleb. It is now in complete control of the border with Turkey. All Turkish observer posts in Idleb governorate are now surrounded by HTS forces. The Turkish soldiers have become hostages. Will Erdogan have to call on the Syrian government to bail them out?
The large Syrian government operation against the east-Ghouta enclave east of the capital Damascus is progressing well. The area is held by various Salafist and Wahabbi groups including an al-Qaeda contingent of several hundred fighters. The defense line of Jaish al-Islam on the eastern border of the 10 square kilometer area have been breached. Wide ditches dug to prevent any Syrian army attack were crossed with the help of military bridges. The area is rural and flat and can be easily captured by a mechanized force. One third of east-Ghouta is already back in government hands. The western side of the enclave is upbuild city terrain and will be much more difficult to take.
In east-Syria north of the Euphrates and along the Syrian-Iraqi border there is still a significant ISIS enclave with several thousand ISIS fighters which the U.S. supported SDF seems uninterested in. The Syrian and Russian governments believe that the U.S. is protecting these terrorists and will eventually use them against the Syrian government. The Russian defense ministry claims that the U.S. has build some 20 garrisons in north-east Syria for several thousands of its troops. Another U.S. contingent holds the Syrian-Iraqi border station al-Tanf in south-east Syria. It has recently been reinforced with additional U.S. soldiers. Nearby is a large refugee camp controlled by ISIS aligned fighters. This again seems to be an area where the U.S. is coddling ISIS to later reuse it as a "rebel" force against the Syrian government.