The liberation forces encircling the jihadi-infested city of Idlib are showing supreme restraint in, for the moment, suspending the final push to free the city. As was the case with the liberation of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, maximum efforts are being made to minimise civilian casualties so far as this is possible under the conditions imposed by the West’s proxy war. This approach contrasts starkly with the US-led total destruction of both Syria’s Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul, in harmony with the infamous dictum of the US commander in Vietnam who explained that “we had to destroy the village to save it”. This is not just about a difference in tactics; rather it is the difference between a reactionary, genocidal war and a progressive war of national liberation.
Idlib: Life under the jihadi cosh
The decision to postpone the full-scale offensive was not taken lightly. Every hour that the reign of jihadi terror in the city and wider province of Idlib and northern Hama is permitted to rage unchecked, the more scope is there for the brutalisation of the civilian population to continue and intensify. Thanks to the courageous efforts of independent journalists like Eva Bartlett, the horrors inflicted by these armed gangs are being documented with eyewitness accounts like this:
“On September 7, Mhardeh, a small Christian town in northern Hama, was targeted with nine Grad missiles — six of which were fitted with internationally-prohibited cluster sub-munitions — by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists roughly four kilometers away from the town center, occupying the northern Hama countryside areas of Ltamenah and surroundings…
“Reverend Maan Bitar, of Mhardeh’s Presbyterian church, told me:
“’We as Syrians, we don’t accept at all any part of Syria to be divided, or any part of it to be taken. Turkey has some kind of dream to take control of Idlib. We don’t accept that; no matter what whoever says about Syria, we don’t accept this. No matter what is the price, we don’t accept to have Idlib removed from the map of Syria. Syria is our land, home and history, and we don’t want Syria to be divided.
“’Now, a decision has been made, by Russia and Syria: Idlib will be taken back. The gunmen, the terrorists, they are in all the region of Idlib, not just Idlib city. They are also two kilometres from here (in northern Hama). We’ve received more than 7,000 missiles, rockets, and mortars these past eight years. Every time the terrorists feel they are in a critical situation, militarily speaking, from the government, they shell civilians. Nobody spoke about that. For eight years, Mhardeh town is being shelled, and civilians killed, but nobody spoke of that’. Bartlett was told by one inhabitant of Mahrdeh, after he had shown her photos of his family slain by shellfire, ‘What is important for us now, just one thing, is liberating from outside Mhardeh to Idlib. Idlib has become a serious burden to Syria and a burden most of all to Mhardeh. All that has happened here is because of Idlib’.”
By Bartlett’s estimate, there are at least 70,000 terrorists in Idlib, of which many are related to al-Qaeda. As US State Department special envoy Brett McGurk blurted out, “Look, Idlib province is the largest al-Qaeda safe-haven since 9/11. Idlib now is a huge problem, is an al-Qaeda safe-haven right on the border with Turkey” (Eva Bartlett, ‘Faked concern: Haley & corporate media bleating about Idlib civilians, ignore terrorists’ presence’, RT, 8 October 2018).
As well as the al-Qaeda-related al-Nusra (now rebranded as HTS), there are in Idlib remnants of Daesh (Islamic State) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA – now rebranded as the National Front for Liberation). Behind all the shape-shifting self-identifications, though, all have one thing in common: implacable hostility to the legitimate government of Syria and utter contempt for the lives of the civilian populations which hey freely use as human shields.
However, as the liberation forces turn up the heat, the likelihood of these thieves falling out with each other increases, as does also the possibility that wavering elements might be persuaded to throw in the towel. Under such circumstances even at this eleventh hour it might prove possible to neutralise the waverers and isolate and eliminate the diehards. Such considerations must have informed the agreement that was reached at Sochi.
It was a major diplomatic coup that Russia pulled off at Sochi on 17 September. By getting Ankara to sign up to an agreement on the creation of a demilitarised zone in Idlib from which all jihadis must withdraw their heavy weaponry, a DMZ to be jointly enforced by Turkey and Russia, Vladimir Putin effectively challenged Erdogan to rein in the Turkish-backed FSA/NFL and drive a wedge between the supposedly ‘moderate’ FSA and its more ‘extreme’ sometime comrades in arms. A report from the Iranian Press TV on 8 October suggests that some headway is already being made.
“Foreign-sponsored militants have completed the withdrawal of heavy weapons from a planned buffer zone in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, conforming to a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey that has so far held off a government offensive on the last major terrorist stronghold in Syria.
“Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported that Turkish-backed gunmen affiliated with the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) and members of other militant outfits pulled all their heavy military hardware, including rocket launchers, mortars and medium-range missiles, from the frontline in Idlib on Monday.
“The report came only hours after Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin told Sputnik news agency in an interview that Moscow and Ankara had determined the borders of the demilitarized zone in Idlib.
“‘Very good contacts, cooperation, ties have been established between the military of Turkey and Russia. They have already met more than once after signing the document,’ Vershinin said.
“Naci Mustafa, a spokesman for the National Front for the Liberation of Syria affiliated with the FSA, said on Sunday that militant groups had begun removing heavy weapons from the frontline in Idlib in a bid for a 15 to 20-kilometer (9-12 mile) demilitarized zone to be set up.
“Mustafa said the light weapons would remain and that his comrades would continue digging ditches as a measure against Syrian army advances” (‘Militants complete withdrawal of heavy weapons from Idlib buffer zone’, Press TV, 8 October 2018).
Ankara’s rapid apparent conversion from state sponsor of terrorist gangs to state sponsor of peace and reconciliation is clearly more to do with realpolitik than with the awakening of any humanitarian sentiments in President Erdogan’s breast: if you can’t beat them, join them. As the Reverend Bitar noted, Turkey had a dream to take control over Idlib, and perhaps even now Ankara may dream that jointly enforcing the DMZ with Moscow may give it some more clout than it was able to make stick with its phony Free Syrian Police antics. The reality however is that Turkey, estranged from its US NATO ally, nervous about the continued occupation of the oil-rich northeast of Syria by Kurdish forces backed up by at least 2,000 US troops, and seeing the failure of all its regime-change dreams, is content enough for the moment to row in with Russian plans for the war’s endgame – as a visibly junior partner. Turkey was in a hole; Russia invited it to stop digging, climb out and do something useful instead.
Israel in a panic
Meanwhile on the Lebanese border Israel is getting jittery over the success Hezbollah is having in clearing out from the region jihadis who have long received the tacit support from Israel as a useful irritant against Syria. Lashing out, Israel is now claiming perpetual sovereignty over the illegally occupied Golan Heights and increasing its air-strikes on Syria. On 17 September, a Russian reconnaissance plane with fifteen servicemen on board was shot down accidentally by Syrian air defences, mistaking the plane for an Israeli F-16 jet. Moscow placed the blame squarely on Israel: an F-16 jet on a raid had used the slow-moving reconnaissance plane as cover to confuse Syrian air defences. Israel’s glee was short-lived however, when Moscow responded by promptly sending Syria its advanced air defence system S-300, the better to deal with future Zionist aggression. Washington came to its protégé’s assistance by promising to send yet more F-35 jets to Israel. This may prove a mixed blessing for Israel, however, bearing in mind the 2017 Pentagon report that the F-35 had over 270 deficiencies, covering everything from computer glitches to structural problems and including malfunctions of the oxygen-supply system (‘US to send Israel more F-35s after Moscow supplies S-300s to Syria’, RT, 6 October 2018)
Following the DMZ agreement forged between Russia and Turkey in Sochi on 17 September, the German chancellor Angela Merkel announced on 28 September that she would be joining the leaders of France, Turkey and Russia in a summit on the situation in Syria around mid-October. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan has proposed Istanbul for the venue. Whilst diplomatic sources are eager to stress that neither Merkel nor President Macron want the summit to “turn into an anti-Trump event”, the exclusion of Washington from the proposed summit and the way the diplomatic centre of gravity is shifting from Washington and Geneva to Astana, Sochi and Istanbul cannot but add to the sense that US global influence is on the wane. Already the European Union has broken ranks with the US over the unilateral tearing up of the Iran nuclear deal.
Now Europe is fearful that if the US prolongs the proxy war in Syria, new waves of refugees will be clamouring at the gates, a significant minority of whom may be jihadi veterans of imperialism’s proxy war. And there also remains the question of post-war reconstruction. Whereas in the past the lucrative deals were awarded to the likes of Blackwater, with the associated geopolitical clout going to Blackwater’s US imperialist masters, a postwar Syria with the legitimate government standing firm will not be a happy hunting ground for the yankee dollar. If Europe tries to play hardball with Syria over reconstruction, it may run the risk of watching from the sidelines as investment is sought on a fraternal basis from the likes of Russia, China and Iran. It is even reported that some of the Gulf states which only yesterday were busy bankrolling jihadi murder squads in Syria are now cosying up to President Assad in the hopes of finding a profitable field of investment. It seems that everyone loves a winner.
With or without such assistance Syria will rebuild. It is winning the war and will win the peace.
Victory to the Syrian President, Government, Army and People!
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