Bashar al-Assad, when he arrived in Sochi on 20 November for a meeting with President V. Putin, was evidently premature in his declaration that ISIS had been completely defeated in Syria: in one day, on 27 November, ISIS carried out a counter-attack in the area between Abu Kamal and Mayadin. The Syrians suffered serious losses in their attempts to advance in this territory.
To tell the truth, ISIS’ situation, from an operational point of view, is still critical.
The Syrians have clearly decided not to attempt to liberate Abu Kamal and are now trying to form up together with the column that is extending from Mayadin and is unable to cross the Euphrates. There is some logic in this: Abu Kamal is considered to be liberated territory and so it is possible to focus on more pressing dangers. There are not many militants in the city and along the river, but it is also true that the Syrians and their Shi’ite allies do not have enough troops in this region.
ISIS’ strengthening of its position here is clearly connected with the fact that almost a thousand of its militants (and maybe more) who were engaged in fighting the SDF on the left bank of the Euphrates have now been freed up. And something entirely predictable has happened there. Now ISIS has entered into a “cease-fire” with the Kurds and it is now able to regroup its forces – something the ISIS terrorists can do better than anyone else in this war.
On 29 November ISIS and the Kurds from the SDF signed a cease-fire agreement for a month, renewable, and declared that they intend it to stay in effect for approximately six months. The text of the agreement is available, and it has been confirmed as accurate by the most neutral parties in the region. Under the agreement ISIS will receive a corridor through the Kurdish zone and the ability to regroup its forces and concentrate them against a smaller number of opponents: Shi’ites, the Free Syrian Army, and Russian forces. Half a year will be plenty of time for ISIS to get its breath back and complete its evacuation without rushing things. The cease-fire could not have been concluded without the USA, of course. Given the escalation of the power struggle within the White House, only the CIA are in a position to “look after” the agreement between the Kurds and ISIS. The goal of these ‘curators’ is to be able to exert more pressure on Iran, Turkey and, indirectly, on Russia.
It is entirely possible that the “curators” are among those who are preparing a future confrontation with Iran that Saudi Arabia, without even trying to hide the fact, is seeking. That is why it is impossible to exclude Saudi interests (and, thus, Israeli interests) when considering this “cease-fire”. The Turks also are losing out as a result of the cease-fire. The Kurds are being enabled to transfer their forces from the South to the North and make Turkish expansion into Kurdish regions practically impossible. The “cease-fire” is thus a blow against the interests of all the members of the “Astana” coalition.
Let us take a look at the text of the agreement we are discussing (it is in in Arabic, and is available on a number of web sites) , so that we can better understand its purpose:
1.Both sides will cease all fire until the end of the negotiations.
2. The cease-fire will start on 28 November 2017 and will last for one month, until 28 December 2017
3.The truce will apply to the borders from the moment of the cease of fire.
4. The truce applies only to ISIS and does not apply to other groups.
5. All military operations against ISIS, including air strikes and artillery strikes, will cease.
6. ISIS shall cease all military operations against the parties signing this agreement.
7. ISIS shall cease all operations in the areas where military operations are currently under way in the Barak region (Hasakah province).
8. Military coordinators shall be appointed on both sides to resolve problems that may arise, A “hotline” shall be set up between the parties to this agreement.
9. In the event of any unforseen problems (force majeure situations) involving the unsanctioned opening of fire on front-line fortifications (outposts) the injured party will be notified of the event as soon as possible.
10. Military coordinators will be appointed by each party to provide information on any military convoys present at the adjacent fronts, and on their movements and goals it such movement is close to the front, and to pass on coordinates to prevent misunderstandings and guarantee stability at the front.
1. ISIS soldiers taken captive before the signing of this agreement will not be transferred to another party, and negotiations concerning them will be held only with ISIS.
2. Special representatives of each side will be appointed to deal with questions concerning prisoners.
3. The regions and parties affected by this agreement will be determined [by discussion].
4. Foreigners in the service of ISIS, and local residents, will not be prevented from travelling through territory controlled by ISIS.
5. All breaches of this agreement at fronts will be recorded and will be discussed by the appointed persons (that is, the persons appointed to monitor parties’ compliance with the cease-fire).
6. All problems between the parties will be resolved directly, without any intermediaries.
1. Crossing territory controlled by ISIS without obstruction. Civilians and trade-related traffic will not be obstructed from crossing the border. This applies to both sides.
2. Oil fields currently controlled by ISIS will be left intact.
3. The safety of ISIS soldiers from the “Department of Health” (i.e. military doctors) is guaranteed.
Note: the cease-fire may continue once this agreement expires. The agreement will not be invalidated by military action on the part of ISIS supporters who are not official ISIS soldiers.”
As is clear, the cease-fire is quite broad. It is looking more and more likely that the USA is behind it: the Kurds are required to discontinue manned and unmanned air strikes against ISIS, even though they (unlike the coalition) have neither aircraft or drones. All militants and their families are allowed an entry and exit corridor through Kurdish territory, nor are there any restrictions on foreigner’ movements. ISIS reserves the rights to keep the oilfields it currently controls- which means it has its own ‘home-made’ fuel.
The cease-fire between the SDF and ISIS, by the look of things, is already in effect. ISIS has unexpectedly increased its activities in those places where it should have no presence. We have received confirmation that it has taken the small town of Madan, which the militants could only have reached by crossing Kurdish territory. Information is also coming in about major clashes between Syrian and Kurdish forces near Tabqa, with casualties on both sides.
It is worth pointing out that the cease-fire, if it really does last, even for six months, may radically change the whole situation in Syria (and, indirectly, in the neighbouring provinces of Iraq). Of course there is some room for scepticism about whether the Kurds and ISIS will keep the cease-fire – all parties are seeking to achieve their own goals, and it is unlikely they will give up those goals when the cease-fire expires.
Nevertheless both the Kurds and ISIS may benefit a lot from the cease-fire.
The situation in the north of Syria is particularly important for the Kurds- they need to stop their cantons being ‘dismantled’: the situation in Afrina is particularly complex. They need to make sure that their territory is protected from Turkey and its proxies, and also from Al-Qaeda jihadists, who are present in Idlib and who openly collaborate with Turkey.
ISIS’s goals are also clear. It needs to survive. In 2007-2009 after its defeat in Iraq, ISIS was an order of magnitude smaller and so it was much easier for it to disperse and go underground. Now the militants have at least 10-12 thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria who have nowhere to go. Then there are their families and civilian administrative staff. Including a fair number of foreigners. Evacuation from Syria and Iraq is still continuing but the peak has already passed- now the goal is to ensure the survival of those who remain. those who remain just want to survive.
The Americans have also attained their goal: ISIS has at least lost structure and territory, and now it is necessary to focus on more important goals, the main one, of course, being Iran. In order to defeat ISIS America doggedly assembled and held together two coalitions threatening and persuading both allies and rivals to act , if not together, at least with a measure of coordination. Now it is necessary to form a new coalition and , just as before, by threats and pressure, direct their strength against the new enemy. That is the classic Anglo-Saxon policy, followed by Britain in the past, and now, with great success by America. Even ISIS could become a de-facto ally to further that policy, although of course no-one would ever say that aloud.
And on top of everything else, a new player has appeared in the Syrian theatre of war: China. ‘Night Tigers’- Chinese anti-terrorism divisions – have arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus, as the Turkish journalist Mete Sohtaoğlu informs us. According to him these Chinese troops are already in the Syrian port of Tartus. Earlier there were reports that the Chinese Minister of Defence plans to send Chinese special forces to Syria (two well-known forces- the “Siberian Tigers” and the “Night Tigers”) to fight against terrorists from the East Turkestan Islamist movement. If that is true then it is now clear who may get the lion’s share of contracts in connection with the rebuilding of Syria.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”