Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is again bouncing between Moscow and Washington with calming assurances, while secretly pursuing his perpetual scheme to crush the Kurds. Both world powers agree that this must be prevented, yet they continually throw bones which never satisfy the voracious Turkish intriguer.
On Tuesday, Jan. 15, he told reporters that he would be meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Jan. 23, adding, “a trilateral meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Putin is on the agenda.”
That day, he also announced he had held a “quite positive” telephone conversation on Monday with President Donald Trump, during which he had reaffirmed “a 20-mile [32km] security zone along the Syrian border… will be set up by us.” He said that he and Trump had reached a “historic understanding” – but did not elaborate. Trump had proposed a “safe zone” around the border in an earlier tweet.
For Erdogan this is a drop in the bucket. He wants military control of all northern Syrian areas adjoining his border- especially those under Kurdish rule. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comment to reporters on Wednesday that all the territories in the newly proposed safe zone by Turkey “should be returned to the Syrian government” fell on deaf ears. Lavrov spoke in the wake of an assertion by the Turkish president in an article in the Russian daily Kommersant. that Turkey “would not seek anyone’s permission to fight terrorism [namely the Kurds].”
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal that Erdogan has been up to his usual tricks of smoke and mirrors. The Turkish leader had never taken his eye off his Kurdish quarry in northern Syria. While assuring Trump and Putin of his cooperation and informing the US president that his military operation in Syria would be postponed, Erdogan gave out orders to his Syrian jihadist proxy. Abu Muhammad al-Julani, leader of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), entrusting him with a military operation for softening the ground in northern Syria ahead of the main Turkish offensive.
HTS is listed by Washington and Moscow as a terror organization which, in its former guise as the Nusra Front, was Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.
The Turkish president is quite ready to scrap the 10-article memorandum Ankara and Moscow signed last September for preserving the de-escalation area in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. While Turkish observation posts were to be fortified, Russia undertook to ensure that Syrian military operations in Idlib would be stopped and the status quo maintained. But above all, the accord mandated the evacuation of “all radical terrorist groups” especially HTS from the demilitarized zone by October 2019.
Our sources report that, instead of preparing this evacuation, the Turkish army has continued to ramp up the jihadist group’s arsenal and provide logistic aid. And finally, in January, Erdogan ordered the HTS to launch an armed offensive against a Syrian Turkmen militia which had been loyal to Turkey.
On Jan 4, the HTS seized all the areas held by the Sunni Islamist Nureddin Zengi group which had fought in the anti-Assad civil war from 2011. Those areas are located in western Aleppo. The survivors fled to Afrin leaving behind their tanks and heavy weapons. The Russian air force then stepped in to bomb the captured areas in a bid to halt the HTS advance. It failed and the next day, the HTS was at the gates of the independent town of Atarib, which had steadily resisted the HTS’s forerunner, the Nusra Front. Finding their town surrounded, its representatives negotiated a capitulation deal and handed the keys of the city to the jihadists.
From Atarib, the HTS embarked the following day on the next stage of its offensive, to crush its erstwhile ally Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist and Salafist militias which controlled the Ghab Plains – an area that straddles the Idlib and Hama provinces of northwest Syria. In 2015, the two Sunni groups fought together to capture the Ghab Plains in a major victory against Assad government forces. But now, the HTS pushed the Ahrar al-Sham out of Al Abideen, Suth Al Deir, Araniba, Al Naqeer and Termala and drove into the northern part of the Ghab Plains. Here, too, a deal was struck for the defeated group to hand over the region and its heavy weapons to the victorious HTS which allowed the survivors to flee to Afrin.
On Jan. 10, HTS and Ahrar al-Sham – along with Suqour al-Sham – signed a ceasefire agreement that covered an exchange of detainees and unification of the conquered areas under the HTS-backed Salvation Government.
Until that moment, a Turkish army of 80,000 men massed on the Syrian border watched and waited for its jihadist ally to deliver the goods. Erdogan had given them strict orders not to step across the border or take a hand in the Syrian-versus-Syrian battles, although Ankara had promised HTS Turkish military backing. Now, after its jihadist ally, which already controlled most of Idlib, had also seized parts of Aleppo and Hama, Turkish forces were ready to go forward with their rear safely protected for their main offensive to crush the Kurds of northern Syria.
It should not have been a surprise therefore to hear Julani announcing to his officers on Monday, Jan. 14, that, after their successes in recent battles, they should prepare for war against the Kurds.
When last month Trump announced the coming withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, little did anyone in Washington or Moscow imagine it was the signal for the re-emergence of the former Nusra-Al Qaeda Front, now reincarnated as the HTS. Erdogan kept this secret close to his chest.