Russian military police (MP) has been deployed to Eastern Ghouta on the edge of the capital Damascus, and to an area in the southwest of Syria. Colonel General (three stars) Sergei Rudskoi, Chief of Main Operational Directorate, the General Staff, told reporters on July 24 that the units had been deployed on July 21-22 in the southwestern de-escalation zone near the border with Israel and Jordan. The area was demarcated earlier this month. On July 24, Russian military police also set up two checkpoints and four observation posts around the key rebel-held area of Eastern Ghouta.
Consultations are underway on the exact borders of the northern zone in Idlib, close to Aleppo, which is the biggest of the proposed zones. Idlib is the only province in Syria that remains entirely beyond regime control after having been captured in 2015 by an alliance of jihadists and rebels named the Army of Conquest.
This is the first time foreign personnel have been dispatched to establish safe or de-escalation zones. The two areas are part of a broader plan to create four de-escalation zones in rebel-held parts of Syria. An agreement was reached by Russia and Iran, and Turkey two months ago in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The US and Jordan are involved in the process. On July 7, Russian, the US and Jordan struck a deal to fix the boundaries of this zone and impose a ceasefire in the area. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on July 24 praised the creation of the safe zones, saying it showed that Russia can work together with the current US administration. Looks like the two countries will have to work closer in the coming days, whether they want it or not. There is no choice.
The Russian ground forces coming to set up de-escalation zones is a new phase and a hallmark event in the history of the conflict. But as the deployment went on, the situation took an unexpected turn for the worse. Now the actors involved face a new problem, which needs to be urgently addressed.
Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), an alliance led by al Qaeda’s former Syria branch, consolidated its grip over large parts of the northwestern province of Idlib after their main rival, the Kuwait-backed Ahrar al Sham, was ousted from the province’s main towns and villages. The terrorist group is dominated by the Fateh al-Sham faction previously known as al-Nusra Front before renouncing its ties to al-Qaeda. It was reported on July 23 to evacuate key border crossings with Turkey.
Today it exercises control over the border region that is extended from the town of Atmah in the northern countryside of Idlib until the region of Jisr al-Shughur in the western countryside of the city, in addition to the eastern countryside and vast areas of Jabal al-Zawiya mountain in the southern countryside of Idlib. Ahrar al-Sham rebels had been greatly diminished in Idlib staying only in Ariha town and part of Jabal al-Zawiya in the southeast.
Hundreds of its fighters defected to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Several units have handed over ammunition and weapons depots. The province with the population of two million is left without humanitarian supplies. The group is even more cruel than Islamic State (IS). It not only achieved fast and spectacular victory over Ahrar al-Sham fighters but also drove away IS militants from the province in two-three days – something the CIA and Pentagon have failed to do for years.
Hayat Tahrir al Sham intends to prevent the entry into Idlib of Turkish forces or rival rebel groups. Unlike Ahrar al-Sham, which was a party to the Astana talks, HTS jihadists reject the very idea of any dialogue with anyone. The group is not covered by either Astana or Geneva talks. It rejects any mediation offers, even from Saudi Arabia.
No ceasefire is possible till HTS militants control big chunks of Syrian territory. Their rule in Idlib will likely make people move to other provinces, including Deir ez-Zor, the eastern part of Ghouta and Daraa. The HTS group is a great spoiler, which carefully chose the time to strike and undermine the ongoing international crisis management efforts. It’s an enemy not to be underestimated.
Peace has no chance in Syria as long as the Al-Qaeda affiliate controls the province and its border with Turkey. There is no doubt that Idlib has become the next target of an anti-jihadist offensive. None of the actors involved can reconcile with jihadists ruling this territory.
Just a few days ago, the scenarios to involve the province into the de-escalation process was an acute issue on the agenda. Now, the discussions are doomed to be focused only on one issue – how to join forces and rout the jihadists in Idlib. There is no other option and the efforts cannot be effective without coordination. Russia, Syria, Turkey, the pro-US coalition and other actors involved have to interact.
We’re in for a big fight which is unavoidable. Over and over again, the events in Syria show how important it is to unite against the terrorist evil. This the time when US Congress is busy pushing through the «Russia bill» to spoil the bilateral relationship for many years while the two countries urgently need to coordinate actions to engage the common enemy.