Navvar Saban a Military expert at Omran for Strategic studies talked to TRT WORLD about the dire humanitarian situation in Idlib and possible refugee influx to Turkey. Where Russian and Syrian regime forces seized dozens of towns and villages from northwestern Syria, with the latter vowing to recapture Idlib. That caused mass displacement with more than 235,000 civilians fleeing their homes.
Nawar Oliver, Omran Center military expert and the Information Unit manager on 2nd of Aug 2019, gave his remarks to the AFP about Russian Truce in Idlib and Hama and the initial reaction of some Opposition factions.
Oliver added, “Russia will continue to bomb civilians locations and carry out massacres, and keep on supporting the Regime ground attack during this ceasefire , The Russian has a long bad history when it comes to ceasefires with the oppositions faction, such as in Eastern Ghouta, Northern Homs, and Daraa.
As the Syrian regime intensifies its bombing campaign in the country’s last rebel stronghold of Idlib, the UN sounds the alarm of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Mr. Yaser Tabbara a board member of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies participated on 7 June 2019, in TRT world in "Strait Talk" discussing the updated situation in Syria, mainly discussing Idlib and the Russian escalation in the region despite the Turkish/Russian DMZ agreement, also Yasser talked about post "ISIS" phase and the security situation in SDF-held areas.
On 7 Sep 2018, when the Tehran talks ended between Turkey, Russia, and Iran it was obvious that there was no final agreement or disagreement amongst the Astana international players. Everything became more vague except for the postponement of any ground operation by the Regime and it’s allies against Idlib and its surrounding. The Russians decided to postpone any ground attack for the following reasons:
Prior to the DMZ agreement, both Turkey and Russia committed to taking several steps in Idlib, which formed the solid base for the initial step of the DMZ. Following are the most significant actions done by Turkey and Russia during the first two weeks of Sep 2018:
On 17 Sep 2018, Putin and Erdoğan held a meeting regarding Idlib and agreed to establish a DMZ in Idlib, Northern Hama, and Western Aleppo with the following specifications:
The agreement was at the time of the announcement the best case scenario for both Turkey and Russia, but mostly it is important for 3.5 million civilians living inside Idlib – on paper the agreement is solid but implementing will not be an easy task.
The agreement faced many challenges even before it started, several point needed to be addressed by the Russians and the Turks before October 2018. Following are the most threats that directly or indirectly affected the DMZ in OCT and NOV 2018:
Al-Jabha al-Watnia are not the only ones who control Idlib and its surrounding, several factions have large presence in the area, and some of them are considered extremists (HTS, Huras al-Dien, Ansar al-Islam – the region also has independent FSA factions, independent jihadist factions, ISIS cells).
The Salvation Government which is affiliated with HTS, administratively controls 75 locations (Cities and Villages) in Idlib and it’s surrounding.
The Turkish borderline with Syria is totally controlled by HTS including Bab al-Hawa – also HTS controls 2 out of 3 internal border crossings with the Regime areas inside Idlib. Controlling the crossing gate means sizable Income.
The Iranian-backed militias have a large presence in Aleppo province and in Northern Hama which the Russians had to insure that their presence would not cause future problem, which as expected didn’t happen, the Russian couldn’t reduce the amount of the Regime and Iranian-backed militias artillery attacks on the DMZ and couldn’t even prevent several ground attacks by them
On the 14th of October, HTS published a statement clarifying their position regarding the DMZ. () The statement was vague and didn’t include direct decisions. HTS mainly tried to achieve the following from this statement:
HTS extremists, partly led by the Egyptian "Abu al-Yaqzan", refused to accept the DMZ agreement especially because of regime violations and continuous attacks in Hama northern countryside and Western Aleppo countryside where HTS clashed with al-Jabha al-Watnia and captured 25 fighters (majority from Ahrar al-Sham).
Below is a graph of the violations from the regime and Iranian-backed militias as well as the opposition forces and other groups inside Idlib and its surrounding:
The Sochi agreement regarding the situation in Idlib between Turkey and Russia should be considered as an interim agreement imposed by considerations of the situation on the ground and the western / American refusal of any large-scale Russian operation in Idlib. From the Russian point of view, the agreement is a tool for managing the Russian-Turkish relationship on the one hand, as well as to test the western / American position on the other hand. For Turkey, the agreement serves as a tool to contain risks and minimize losses and to a lesser extent a bargaining tool with Russia and America. The Sochi agreement is under extreme pressure, as Iran is actively working to be part of this agreement by exerting pressure on the ground through its militias, like the Zalaqiyat, in north Hama. The internal situation in Idlib has contradictions that seem to be fairly under control so far but this does not eliminate the possibility of exploding at any time via the external stimulation or the result of conflicting calculations (gain and loss) of local forces.
Despite the foregoing, the Sochi agreement is not expected to collapse in the short term, although it may have changed in terms of its parties and field actions, and the foregoing does not eliminate the possibility of limited changes in field control in specific areas, or may alter the field arrangements in those areas; nor will it eliminate the persistence of mutual violations, which reinforce the above-mentioned Russian-Turkish coordination following the recent targeting of Aleppo.
The Turkish-American relationship is not in harmony with regard to the East Euphrates and Manbij, which leads Turkey to resort to the Russians and push Moscow to maintain this agreement.
() 18 September 2018 – The Guardian - https://goo.gl/LC8YeU
()Daily News – 15 Oct 2018 - https://goo.gl/yBu41X
Omran Center for Strategic Studies collaboration with The Syracusa International Institute, held a workshop on “Emerging Security Dynamics and the Political Settlement in Syria” in Syracusa, Italy, on 18-19 October.
The workshop brought together experts from UN, EU, France, Germany, Switzerland, US and many regional countries. The vibrant discussion tackled various issues including: future of the DMZ agreement in the north, the logic of the Iranian presence in Syria, the political economy of militias, and local security imperatives impact on peacebuilding.
This workshop is the one of many workshops hold under "The Syria and Global Security Project" who is co-run by Omran Center for Strategic Studies and Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). It aims to offer a platform to build common ground and bridge the gap between the main stakeholders in the Syrian conflict.
Navvar Saban "Oliver", the Information Unit manager at Omran Center, recent interview entitled "Battle for Syria's last major rebel bastion on hold as Putin and Erdogan meet to discuss next moves" by Borzou Daragahi, published in the Independent
“There are 12 observation points were equipped with limited military equipment and their main role was to monitor the agreement done in Astana. at the moment when the regime started to mobilise its forces around Idlib, Turkey started to send reinforcements to some of these points.”
he also added the follwing , for the second week in a row, thousands of Syrians in the province took to the streets in peaceful, colourful demonstrations that recalled the first months of the 2011 uprising against the Assad family’s decades-long dictatorship. “For the time being, everything is postponed,” at the end he said. (There is no final agreement and no final disagreement.)
Map 1: Updated situation map of Idlib, western Aleppo and northern Hama
- M4 and M5 highways are considered one of the main strategic targets for any possible attacks from the Regime and his Iranian allies.
- Internal border crossings are trading hubs between areas under regime control and areas under opposition control. Currently these borders are closed by the regime for different reasons, except "Qalat Al-Madiq" in Sahel Al-Ghab was partially opened in the last few days to allow the last IDPs convoy from the south to enter Idlib.
- On 13 August, Russian Military Police took over both "Qalat Al-Madiq and Mourek" corresponding internal border crossing sites in regime areas replacing the Syrian Army’s 4th Division (Affiliated with Iran).
This report presents a brief account of latest developments in southern Syria, covering the Daraa and Qunaitera fronts with a specific focus on Iranian involvement from late May until July 17. Prior to the latest escalation along the southern border of Syria, there were reports of an initial agreement between Israel and Russia to push back Iranian and Iranian-backed forces along Syria’s border with Israel. The Iranians reacted by incorporating many of its militias and forces into the Syrian army to continue fighting in the area. Photographs and videos posted on pro-regime media as well as accounts belonging to some of the Iranian-backed militias confirm their involvement. In the final agreement between opposition forces and Russia involving parts of Eastern Daraa and Daraa city, green buses headed to the area to prepare the transportation of a small number of the opposition members to Idlib, while other areas concluded reconciliation agreements. Other areas to the west of Daraa are still going through negotiations to finalize the terms of their agreements. The Russians are pushing for an agreement where minimum number of residents are displaced to Idlib, as a deal to receive them was not concluded with Turkey. At the same time, Iranian forces are pushing for the escalation of attacks to take full control of all southern regions.
In late May 2018, Israel and Russia agreed that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces would vacate areas in southwestern Syria near the Israeli border(). Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that due to the Syrian army’s recent advances, foreign forces should withdraw from Syria and mentioned Turkish, American, Iranian and Hezbollah soldiers specifically when asked to clarify. Iranian Foreign Ministry representative Bahram Qassemi responded that Iran would remain in Syria while terrorism exists and for as long as the Syrian government wants Iranian forces there(). Nevertheless, in order to reduce pressure from Israel, Iranian-backed forces – including some of Hezbollah members – withdrew from areas in southern Syria only to return as integrated units within the Syrian Army structure. Examples of Iranian-backed forces within the Army include the following:
In early June, Russia began deploying troops near territories occupied by Israel, indicating Moscow’s preference for decreased Iranian presence in Syria and despite the dominant presence of Hezbollah in the area. Sources confirmed that Hezbollah was not happy with Russian moves and would demand Russian withdrawal, similar to what happened in Al-Qusir, Homs in the first week of June. Conveying Iranian opinion, Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri told Lebanon’s al-Manar, “Iran and Syria enjoy deep relations that would not be influenced by the propaganda measures of anyone,” adding also that Lebanese militias would not leave Syria().
The following is a list of top Iranian-backed militias and forces involved in the escalation of violence in the southern front:
|Militia Name||Origin||Situation in Syria|
|Imam al Baqir Brigade||Syria||Part of LDF|
|Lebanese Hezbollah||Lebanon||Special Forces|
|Saryaa Al-Arin||Syria||Military Security Branch|
|Zu Al-Fiqar Brigade||Iraq||Republican Guard|
|Imam Hussein Brigade||Iraq||Militia|
|Al Quds Brigade||Palestine||Militia|
|Abu Fadl Al-Abba||Iraq||Republican Guard|
|A Taha Regiment||Syria||Tiger Forces|
|Arab National Guard||Mix||Militia|
|Salah Al-Assi groups||Syria||Tiger Forces|
At the end of June, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces – with the support of the Russian Air Force – began the attack on Daraa, quickly capturing a number of cities in a matter of days. Following this rapid advance, various towns throughout Daraa accepted reconciliation agreements with the Syrian regime, including the towns of Um Oualad, Saida, Um Mayazin, Taybah, Nassib, Jabib, Ibta, and Da’il. By the first week of July, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces along with the Russian military police had surrounded Nasib border crossing after capturing the city itself. According to Information Unit Source, the presence of Russian military police is part of an undeclared agreement between Russia and Jordan to ensure that Iranian-backed militias do not enter through the Nasib Crossing. However, as these militias integrated themselves into different Syrian army groups, it is difficult to monitor their presence in Daraa.
Map (1): Updated Southern Front Control Map - 19 July 2018
Iranian-backed forces suffered a number of casualties during the attack on Daraa, losing more than 50 top-level fighters – among these fighters were those from Hezbollah, as well as Khalil Takhti Nejad, a fighter for the IRGC. Nejad was deployed to Syria as a member of the Imam Sajjad IRGC Hormozgan Provincial Unit and commanded an operation from an unnamed base in a southwestern Syrian city of Daraa, approximately 32 km from Israel’s northern border.
Note: chart only indicates the number of dead among top Iranian-backed militias who participated directly in the recent Daraa battle; information obtained from monitoring pro-regime websites and official militia accounts.
By the second week of July, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias announced that they had captured 520 km2 in Daraa province; 290 km2 from military operations and the remaining 230 km2 following a deal between Russia and the opposition factions. Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias continued to advance along the Syrian-Jordanian border and reached the town of Khrab al-Shahm, facing no resistance from the opposition as most opposition forces had withdrawn from the borderline earlier.
Footage from Daraa battle of Iranian participation
The images below were taken from official media accounts of the participating militias and from pro-regime accounts.
Eastern Daraa Agreement and Western Daraa ongoing Negotiation
The situation in Daraa remains unclear. Four major events that are underway include:
About 20 buses are expected to depart with hundreds of civilians and fighters of Islamic factions with their families. There were about 1400 people expected to depart but the committees which are close to Russia are trying to persuade people to stay instead of evacuating to the north for the following reasons:
Note: In regards to Quneitra, there is no agreement until now and no initial negotiation between the Russian and any faction of the opposition forces. Russian negotiators want HTS to leave its post before starting any kind of negotiations.
The situation is being continually monitored in order to maintain an eye on what changes occur. The opposition’s divided actions will continue to leave it exposed to manipulation by outside forces. The Syrian regime will further its presence in the south by playing off the Israel-Russia-Iran trio; and Jordan will observe silently without exerting much effort in terms of actual fighting with or against any of the parties involved. With Russian forces gaining more ground in Syria whether at the behest of the Syrian regime or by making unilateral moves, it will be crucial – albeit difficult – to observe how Iran proceeds to protect itself and its assets in Syria.
() 29 May 2018 – Telegraph - https://goo.gl/Z5jFUh
() 8 July 2018 – Fares News - https://goo.gl/3KdLpU
() 10 June 2018 – Daily Sabah - https://goo.gl/noyzPV
() 16 July 2018 – Al Masder News - https://goo.gl/zyKA28
Mr. Yaser Tabbara talked about the Syrian regime troops, and their allies, had made major gains in Idlib province. Forces loyal to Bashar al Assad say they're targeting terrorists. But tens of thousands of people are fleeing towards the Turkish border, in what could create a new humanitarian disaster.
Turkey said last week that its campaign in Idlib was nearly complete, but recent talk over further expansion in Aleppo’s countryside signal that its operations in northern Syria may be far from over.
A map of control in northeast Syria, showing front lines between the opposition, Kurdish forces and the Syrian government. By Omran Center -Nawar Oliver
After establishing a presence in northern Idlib and western Aleppo over the past month, Turkish troops and Turkey-backed rebels are now looking to expand their area of control along the border by moving further east into Aleppo’s countryside, a rebel spokesman told Syria Deeply.
Although Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country’s operation in northeast Syria was nearly complete, Ankara recently dispatched reconnaissance teams to new areas, and some rebels reported being in talks to hand over their positions to Turkish forces, according to a military spokesman for the Syrian opposition faction Nour al-Din al-Zenki.
Ankara began its cross-border operation with the purported aim of enforcing a de-escalation zone in Idlib, which was agreed upon by Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana in September. So far, its troops have deployed only in areas separating the opposition and Kurdish forces. The Turks have not moved into front-line areas between rebels and the Syrian regime.
According to Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq, Turkey is looking to replicate this strategy further east. He told Syria Deeply that Nour al-Din al-Zenki had already agreed to hand over its positions in rural Aleppo to Turkish forces.
He added that although it had not been determined exactly where the Turkish troops would be stationed, Ankara was looking to establish observation posts in the Sheikh Aqil Mountains, located in the al-Bab district, which Turkey liberated from the so-called Islamic State last year.
Ankara has also dispatched reconnaissance teams to Nour al-Din al-Zenki positions in the adjacent districts of al-Tamoura and Anadan, northwest of Aleppo city, but had not yet taken them over, Abdul Razzaq said. The military spokesman also cautioned the agreement could fall through if Aleppo residents objected to the Turkish presence.
It was not immediately clear what Nour al-Din al-Zenki stands to gain from the agreement. “Turkey’s deployment in Idlib is part of the de-escalation zone agreement reached in Astana, and Zenki is a signatory to this deal,” Abdul Razzaq simply said.
When asked about the significance of these positions, Abdul Razzaq said they were a clear indicator of Turkey’s attempts to encircle the Kurdish-held region of Afrin. “If the Turkish army’s priority was ensuring de-escalation, then Ankara should have first deployed on the front lines between the opposition and the regime, instead of on the front lines with Kurdish separationists,” he said. “Everyone knows that Kurdish forces are Ankara’s greatest concern when it comes to its southern borders.”
Speaking to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last month, Erdogan said that although Turkey’s Idlib operation was nearly complete, “the Afrin issue is ahead of us … We can come suddenly at night. We can suddenly hit at night.”
A map showing Turkish positions in Idlib province as well as front lines between Turkish forces and Kurdish groups based in the adjacent Kurdish-held region of Afrin. By Omran Center-(Nawar Oliver)
Turkey’s planned expansion comes after weeks of operations in northern Idlib and western Aleppo that have resulted in the establishment of at least three Turkish posts in areas adjacent to the Kurdish-held region of Afrin.
Omar Khattab, a military spokesman for the Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, said that Turkish deployment in Idlib has been carried out in coordination with the al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which withdrew from areas of Turkish operations.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Syria Deeply last month that HTS agreed to surrender positions to the Turkish army to prevent a costly all-out war with Turkish troops.
Ahrar al-Sham’s military spokesman said he was not authorized to disclose the exact coordinates of these positions, but Ahmad Saoud of the Free Idlib Army’s Division 13 Brigade said Turkey has built a launching-pad base in the Sheikh Barakat Mountain in Dar Simeon.
The position is only a few miles from Kurdish militia forces based in Jendaris and is located roughly 7 miles (12km) from the Turkish borders. A video posted by the activist-run Smart News Agency on October 24 shows Turkish bulldozers and armored vehicles operating in the area.
Turkish troops have also dispatched forces to the village of Salwa, which is near the border of Afrin, according to Abdul Razzaq. The activist-run Thiqa News Agency has posted a video on social media networks showing Turkish armored vehicles moving in the area.
Rebel sources said that Turkish troops have also purportedly deployed in the village of Fadrah near the Sheikh Barakat Mountain.
Turkey’s operations in northern Syria are laying the groundwork for the establishment of a border buffer zone that stretches from the Atmeh border crossing as far east as Jarablus. Following the Euphrates Shield Operation last year, Turkish-backed forces gained control over the Jarablus, Azaz and al-Bab in Aleppo’s countryside. Current expansion in Anadan, Tammoura and Sheikh Aqil will help Turkey connect its positions in Northern Idlib with Euphrates Shield territory in Aleppo’s countryside.
In another indication of Ankara seeking to entrench itself along this stretch of the border, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported last week that Turkey has reportedly trained some 5,632 Syrian volunteers to work as police officers in the area. Some volunteers have already been dispatched to the areas of al-Bab, Azaz and Jarablus, Anadolu said.