From September 14 to September 15, Astana held its sixth round of talks on Syria, in which the delegations of the guarantor countries Russia, Turkey and Iran, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian opposition, as well as the UN Secretary General Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, took part. The United States and Jordan were present as observers.
Following the outcome of the meeting, Russia, Turkey and Iran adopted a Joint Statement and four documents on deescalation zones: the mandate on deployment in the deescalation zones, rules of engagement of military forces, the procedure for managing checkpoints, and the provision for a joint coordinating center. The guarantor countries announced the establishment of four deescalation zones in Syria: in eastern Ghouta near Damascus, in the northern part of the Homs province, in the province of Idlib and in certain parts of the neighboring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, as well as in some areas in southern Syria. These are intended to be a temporary measure with an initial validity of six months. A joint Iran-Russian-Turkish coordination centre is being established to coordinate the activities of the control forces in the deescalation zones.
Three of the four zones are currently operational: in the south-west of Syria, in eastern Ghouta and in the Homs area. The participants of the Astana talks stated that “the establishment of deescalation zones shall not undermine the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity” of the Syrian Arab Republic. At the same time, the guarantor countries have not yet agreed on the distribution of control forces in the deescalation zone in Idlib.
The Syrian government and the opposition are in favor of the establishment of four deescalation zones. President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has noted that Ankara and Moscow have no quarrel over the situation in Syria, nor did they have any disagreements in Astana during the meeting with Iran. However, since September 18, Turkey has been concentrating its forces on the border with the SAR in the Idlib region, sending military contingents that already amount to close to 8,000 service-persons. This included the support of artillery, armored vehicles and helicopters.
According to the Russian and Turkish parts of the representative office of the Russian-Turkish joint commission on the review of issues related to violations of the Single Ceasefire Agreement, 59 violations of the ceasefire were registered during the past week. The most frequent bombardments occurred in the provinces of Aleppo and Damascus.
Russia continues maintaining its previous stance with regard to Damascus. On September 12, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu embarked on a working trip to Damascus, where, on instructions from Russian President, Vladimir Putin, he held talks with Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. In addition to the current issues of military and military-technical cooperation, the meeting also addressed issues relating to the stabilization of the situation in Syria and the provision of humanitarian assistance to the population. In the case of the situation in the SAR, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, stated that the United States military presence in Syria violates international law, noting, “From the very beginning, we have consistently been putting forward very clear positions. Any party that is on Syrian soil or in Syrian airspace without the consent of the Syrian government is doing so in violation of international law.” United States Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, also voiced the same sentiments at a meeting in New York on September 19 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, calling the US troops in the SAR “uninvited guests.”
Doha still continues on its deconstruction course. On September 13, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, spoke in favor of continuing support for the opposition party Free Syrian Army.
With regard to the military aspects of the development of the situation in Syria, overall, the success of the pro-government forces, with the support of parts of the Iranian IRGC and Hezbollah as well as the active participation of the Russian Federation Air Force, is well apparent. They have achieved their most notable results in the Deir-ez-Zor area. Several areas north and south of the city have been liberated from jihadists. On September 14, two submarines “Velikiy Novgorod” and “Kolpino” of the Black Sea Fleet attacked the facilities of the DAESH in the terrorist-controlled areas south-east of Deir ez-Zor with the “Caliber” cruise missiles from underwater in the Mediterranean Sea. The SAR Armed Forces cut off the main supply route of the DAESH terrorists in the city. In view of the fact that this city had virtually completely passed under the control of Damascus, a Russian engineering combat unit from the International Mine Action Centre of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation was immediately redeployed to the Khmeimim airbase to take part in the demining of the liberated areas.
Moreover, the advanced units of the Syrian army managed to forcibly cross the Euphrates River and settled on its eastern bank to the southeast of Deir ez-Zor. At the same time, detachments of the predominantly Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Force” (SDF), which are supported by the United States, are approaching the Euphrates from the northeast. On the other hand, the Kurds claim that they will not allow the Syrian army to relocate its front beyond the Euphrates. In response, Damascus has stated that it is “ready to fight against any forces that might want to impede the restoration of constitutional order throughout the territory of the SAR, including the forces supported by the United States.”
Over the past few days, Russian military aircraft have attacked targets of the terrorist groups Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (DAESH) and Jabhat al-Nusra / Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham / Tahrir al-Sham (both banned in Russia) in the province of Deir ez-Zor. On September 16, first Kurdish formations, followed by an international coalition led by the United States, reported that aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Air Force had allegedly mistakenly launched an attack on the forces of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), which are conducting an offensive against DAESH formations in the eastern part of the province of Deir ez-Zor. This was related to the air strike on the industrial zone in the north-east of the provincial administrative center. However, the Russian side refuted this report.
With that, everything is not so simple in this area. In light of this, near Deir ez-Zor, DAESH rebels launched a counter offensive on Jafra, Havidja Sakr (islands on the Euphrates River and the coastal area on its western bank), the Mariah farm and the air defense battalion base, which is located directly at the Deir ez-Zor airfield. The Syrians were driven back directly to the airfield, and the fighting took place right at its main entrance. Unfortunately, many of the successes of last week have been nullified. It is reported that more than 100 Syrians have died in just 24 hours of fighting.
In general, all the statements on the major victories there in reality have been achieved by concentrating those scarce resources that, with great difficulty and only under the guise of sometimes fictitious armistice in the “deescalation zones”, have managed to be transferred to Deir az-Zor. According to some estimates, what is happening there today is very much reminiscent of South Raqqa, where several hundred Syrian military personnel slowly moved along the riverbed, after which they were driven back in one blow and then they were stuck.
Similar pullbacks of government forces are being observed in the Hama area. Thus, upon arriving unnoticed from the Idlib deescalation zone, the militants of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the north of Hama unexpectedly attacked the positions of the Syrian military, occupying several villages, including Al-Sha’ath and Talisia. The important thing here is to understand that any truce is just a respite, and the adversary, if not beaten, always starts first. Therefore, the aforementioned group carried out an operation to crush and clean up a large part of the territory of Idlib from the rival factions of the “moderate” forces, waited until Damascus concentrated all the most combat-ready reinforcements around Deir ez-Zor, leaving the hastily assembled militia throughout the rest of the territory, and launched an attack. Now, much depends on the forces, which its militants launched their attack with. If this is serious, then it will be necessary to remove some government troops from Deir az-Zor and deploy them to stabilize the situation in northern Hama.
During the second decade of September, active fighting continued against the jihadists and their allies in several other provinces of the country. In the south of the province of Aleppo on September 12, the Tahrir al-Sham militants tried to attack the positions of government forces in the Jarra al-Jahash area. This attack was repulsed with big losses for the militants. In the same province, on September 13, the formation of the Tahrir al-Sham group attempted to attack the positions of government forces in the southern districts of the city. That attack was also repulsed. In the south-eastern part of the province of Damascus, on September 11, control of the areas bordering with Jordan between border posts numbered 154-160 was established. On September 12, control over the terrorist base in Al Khandalat was established. Building on the offensive in the east of the province of Homs, on September 11, government forces took possession of a number of heights in the mountains of Shumaria, the village of Ar-Rabia and the agricultural complex of As-Sayyad. There, by September 13, government forces had taken control of the five small towns of Zakrutiya, Dervisia, Loybd, Kaniman and Umm Sadj. In the province of Raqqa, during the fighting for the homonymous city, by September 14, the SDF had occupied the At-Takan district in the central part of the city. The SDF, with massive air support from the Western coalition, led by the United States, fought in the town of Raqqa. Detachments of the SDF, with the massive support of aviation from the western coalition led by the United States, fought in the city of Rakka. This made it possible to bring the territory of the city controlled by the SDF up to 70%.
Government troops continue the operation of clearing the terrain from the gangs of the DAESH in the areas to the west and north of Akerbat in the central part of the country. In the south of the province of Hama, on September 10, a massive attack of the Tahrir al-Sham militants on the position of government forces near the settlement of Hirbnafs was reported. In the province of Al Qunaytirah, on the same day, an attack of the militants of the Tahrir al-Sham group on the position of the Syrian troops at the height of Al-Khora near the town of Khadkhar was reported.
As a result of the defeats inflicted on DAESH, there is now a dramatically increased outflow of militants from Syria. It has been reported that in the last few days, several hundred former DAESH fighters have crossed the border into Turkey to then go to their countries of origin and to Europe. In addition, as a result of the split in the Tahrir al-Sham group in the province of Idlib, the group Jaysh Al-Ahrar, led by Field Commander Abu Salekh Sahan (pseudonym), came out of its structure.
Apparently, the successes of the pro-government forces prompted the adviser to the president of the SAR, Bouthaina Shaaban, to make a statement on September 16, where she reiterated the readiness of Damascus to fight against all armed enemy groups, including those supported by the United States. “Whether it is the formation of the SDF, DAESH, or some other illegal foreign armed force, we will fight against them until our country is freed from any aggressor,” she said in an interview with the Lebanese TV channel Al-Manar. Apparently, it may be too early to celebrate the victory, especially since a significant part of the SAR still remains under the control of the SDF, which, although they are fighting against DAESH, are ready to break away from Damascus at any time should Iraqi Kurdistan, following the outcome of the September 25 referendum, declare the creation of an independent Kurdish state.
Alexander Orlov, Political Scientist and Expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”