Recent events indicate that the terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq are gradually weakening and continuing to give up new ground. Armed groups from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), 70% of which consist of units from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), bolstered by US special forces, are advancing toward the Syrian capital of the Islamic State (IS), the city of Raqqa. At the same time, Kurdish militias have surrounded the strategically important city of Manbij, through which IS militants are fed supplies from Turkey. Damascus meanwhile, fearing that the entire country might collapse if the US helps the Kurds liberate Raqqa, for the first time since 2014 has launched an offensive of government troops toward the former air base in al-Tabqa, where IS militants massacred Syrian soldiers and officers in August of that year.
The decision by Syrian commanders to open up two fronts simultaneously – in both Aleppo and Raqqa – is understandable, given the presence of 250 US military «instructors» amidst the ranks of the Kurdish militia. The Americans are now rushing to build a military base in Syria’s Kurdish cantons. There have also been reports from the northern regions of the country of French soldiers who are also assisting the SDF in the fight against Daesh (IS).
Of course it is the French government that bears much of the responsibility for sparking the flames in Syria. Paris’s work to destabilize that country began back in 2005. In October 2004, the UN adopted Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. US-French relations in the Middle East were somewhat complicated at that time. Paris, along with Berlin and Moscow, had opposed the American intervention in Iraq in 2003. Jacques Chirac’s administration assumed that the Americans would be confronted with resistance from the Iraqi army and find themselves bogged down in that country for a long time, but instead Iraq was under occupation in a matter of weeks. Wishing to beef up its presence in the Middle East, Paris began to assist Washington in regard to Lebanon. The goal was to force President Bashar al-Assad out of his strategic alliance with Iran, so that in return the US would sanction the restoration of French influence in Syria and Lebanon. But that’s not what happened.
In October 2011, with the help of French intelligence in İskenderun (Turkey), a military base was established where instructors from NATO member countries began to train «moderate» insurgents from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). We all know what ensued: some «freedom fighters» then shifted their allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, while others began to sell the weapons they had obtained from the West to terrorists.
During the fighting against IS troops near Aleppo, the Syrian army and the Kurdish militias continued to fiercely battle armed factions from Jabhat al-Nusra and its allied group, Ahrar ash-Sham, which purports to be a «moderate force» and was thus permitted to take part in the negotiations in Geneva. The first leader of this group was Hassan Aboud (also known as Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi), who was born in the province of Hama. The group’s base consists of Sunnis from the provinces of Hama and Idlib, and especially from their border region (the al-Ghab Plain). On Sept. 9, 2014, 20 Ahrar ash-Sham field commanders (the majority of the group’s military leaders) were killed in an explosion that occurred during a meeting of the military council in the town of Ram Hamdan in the Idlib province, prompting an influx of Ahrar ash-Sham militants into Jabhat al-Nusra. But in any event, those two groups had strong connections to each other from the onset.
Eventually a new generation of Ahrar ash-Sham field commanders managed to regroup and regain their strength. Two factors contributed to this. First of all, there are no foreigners in Ahrar ash-Sham and the group does not take orders from al-Qaeda, making it popular with much of the rural population. Second, the group’s leaders have been able to sock away a significant amount of money. Ahrar ash-Sham has three important sources of income: assistance from Turkey and Qatar (to be specific, Qatari intelligence services are suspected of having created this organization), bank robberies, and its control of the Turkish-Syrian border. Their expropriations from several branches of the Central Bank of Syria have netted the militants between four to six billion Syrian pounds, and their control of the border with Turkey gives them the opportunity to shake down merchants and truck drivers and to oversee the influx of contraband. A number of Salafi foundations from the Gulf nations also render certain types of assistance to the organization, in particular a foundation run by Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajmi.
It is interesting to see how Ahrar ash-Sham is now casting itself as the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood movement (formerly its leaders had not been known to have ties with the «Brothers»). In the Middle East the Muslim Brotherhood is a power that has traditionally been allied with Turkey and Qatar, but hostile to Saudi Arabia. But nonetheless, for once Ankara and Riyadh have united in support of Ahrar ash-Sham.
As it loses ground, Daesh is increasingly resorting to countermeasures such as bombings and other terror attacks in cities, in order to intimidate the local population and the authorities. On May 11 there was a huge explosion in Baghdad, which killed 110 and injured 165. Major terrorist attacks occurred in the Syrian cities of Jableh and Tartus, killing 150 and injuring 225. To reiterate: the attacks have taken place in cities with a predominantly Alawite population. Until recently Tartus was the only Syrian city virtually untouched by the war (although fighting had periodically erupted in the neighboring province of Latakia). In June, 12 people were killed by a bombing in the Damascus suburb of Sayyidah Zaynab and 55 were injured. There is a Shiite shrine in that town – the tomb of the daughter of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. It was under the pretext of protecting this monument that armed groups of Iraqi Shiites – the Brigade of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas – entered Syria in 2013.
It is not possible to do battle against the evil of terrorism by weakening some groups and strengthening others. The Syrian political system can and should be reformed, but only after the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad has snuffed out the hotbeds of terrorism and put an end to the «war of all against all» in his northern regions. This was announced on June 13 at the conference between the defense ministers of Russia, Iran, and Syria in Tehran. There is a growing perception that the NATO coalition may be setting a new trap for Syria by trying to internationalize the Syrian conflict as much as possible, while introducing «peacekeeping» forces into the country with the goal of forcing Damascus to accept a partition of the country.