Aleppo’s Fall Triggers Odd Bedfellows: Russians with Nusra, Assad with Kurds
Russian and leading Syrian rebel groups’ intelligence officers covertly launched their first ever direct negotiations Monday, Dec. 5, at the western Turkish city of Gaziantep in southeastern Anatolia, some 97 km north of Aleppo. Reporting this exclusively, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say the parley was a direct consequence of the Syrian rebels’ failure to hold that Syrian city.
Represented there were the Ahrar ash-Sham, the Jayshul Fateh, the Free Syrian Army, the Nusra Front and the Turcoman Islamist Current – all radical groups which Moscow hitherto boycotted. Only moderate opposition groups were recognized in past political get-togethers in Moscow and Geneva.
Inside Syria, at a secret venue, Bashar Assad’s representatives sat down with the heads of the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud District of Aleppo for a hatchet-burying session. They discussed staging a large-scale Kurdish assembly in the city as a mark of support for the Syrian president.
However, at Moscow’s insistence, no Syrian government or Turkish officials were allowed to join the Russian rendezvous with Syrian rebel officers at Gaziantep. Although the Russian-backed Syrian army, Iran and Hizballah accomplished the fall of Aleppo, Russia has made it clear that it now holds the reins for the next stages of the Syrian war. Assad is cut out of the decision-making loop and so is Ankara, although a substantial Turkish military invasion remained in northern Syria.
So, after Aleppo, President Vladimir Putin and his commanders in the field will be solely responsible for decisions about future battles, including the rebel-controlled governorate of Idlib which is next in line.
(See a separate article in this issue.)
According to our sources, the Gaziantep encounter focused mainly on the rebel groups’ request for Russian guarantees to spare rebel concentrations in Idlib from Russian air and sea strikes following their final defeat and exit from Aleppo.
This request may not be realistic, depending on whether the Russians decide to go forward with a large-scale operation to drive the rebels out of Idlib – an extensive region of 6,100 sq. km – any more than their hope of gaining a virtually autonomous enclave in northern Syria.
The Russian officers agreed only to a military mechanism of undetermined composition to oversee the disarming of rebel forces. Only then, would their future be discussed, but Moscow had yet to decide which extremist rebel groups would be allowed to survive in their frameworks, and which would have to dissolve.
To give its negotiators muscle, Moscow is revealed by our sources, to have begun this week to transfer to Syria thousands of special operations troops from the autonomous Republic of Chechnya’s Interior Ministry. They are the first ground troops the Russians have so far deployed in the Syrian war.
They are being flown in for a double purpose:
1. To relieve the military coalition fighting with Assad’s army of the task of holding the territory so far captured, especially Aleppo.
2. To provide a tough, special operations spearhead for the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah force in future battles like Idlib.
In view of this spate of events, the talks US Secretary of State John Kerry held with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week on Syria appear to be irrelevant.