Syrian endgame is nigh as rival factions look to cut deals
Three cities – Deir ez-Zour, al-Raqqa, and Idlib – will define how the country shapes up post-ISIS, as key players edge towards under-the-table agreements
Over the weekend, Moscow hosted Sipan Hamo, commander of the powerful all-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the last standing US-backed militia on the Syrian battlefield. It was the most senior visit by a Kurdish military official to Moscow since the Russian Army joined the Syrian War in 2015.
Hamo met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Chief-of-Staff Valeria Gerasimov to discuss the future of Deir ez-Zour and al-Raqqa, two cities along the Euphrates River which – at time of writing – appear to be in their final hours of control by Islamic State (ISIS).
At the same time, Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria, with the blessing of Russia and Iran, deploying in the northwest city of Idlib, which remains, for now, in the hands of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization previously known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or Jabhat al-Nusra.
These three cities –Deir ez-Zour, al-Raqqa, and Idlib – will define what the Syrian endgame looks like. Invisible borders are being created around them, outlining each stakeholder’s share of the Syrian patchwork. Contrary to what many presume, very little fighting is now taking place on the streets of Syria, as under-the-table deals are being cut between traditional enemies who, until very recently, were at daggers drawn with each other.
Deir ez-Zour, the largest of these three contested cities, has been under brutal ISIS control since 2014. Government troops have been advancing on the oil-rich city, which lies east of the Euphrates, marching deep into territory once believed to be part of the country’s US/Kurdish fiefdom.
Opposition sources say government troops, with Russian air cover, will only be taking Deir ez-Zour City and not the entire province, arguing that everything around it, including farmland and oil wells, has been earmarked for the SDF. The exact parameters of these borders is what Hamo wanted to discuss in Moscow.
Contrary to what many presume, very little fighting is now taking place on the streets of Syria, as under-the-table deals are being cut between traditional enemies who, until very recently, were at daggers drawn with each other
Reportedly, he pressed for a commitment from the Russians not to confront his troops in the Deir ez-Zour countryside, while promising to top short of al-Sukhna, the last ISIS stronghold in the Homs Governorate, and leave the honors of its liberation to the Syrian and Russian Armies. On October 7, he and his men had stood by and watched government troops overrun ISIS strongholds in the city of al-Mayadeen, in the countryside of Deir ez-Zour — a job that until recently, would have been left to the SDF.
In exchange for such cooperation, the SDF is seeking Russian guarantees that the Turkish Army will not march on the Kurdish city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River. Kurdish leaders are panicking after Turkish troops plunged into Idlib over the weekend, seemingly to implement part of the de-conflict zone agreement reached at the Astana ceasefire talks in May. Afrin lies within the Russian pocket of influence in Syria, and the Turks are trying to win control of the summit of Sheikh Mount Barakat, which overlooks it. A former radar post for the Syrian Army, it would give Erdogan’s forces a birds-eye view of Afrin. Moscow agreed to give Hamo the specific guarantee he asked for.
Meanwhile, the Turks are cutting their own deals in Idlib – with the militant jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Instead of bankrolling a new proxy army of Syrian recruits, or sending its own troops to battle, Ankara is trying to reach a political understanding with HTS, calling for its silent evacuation from Idlib and safe passage to the countryside of Deir ez-Zour.
On October 8, HTS militants escorted a Turkish reconnaissance unit into Idlib. This was followed by no fewer than three meetings between Turkish officials and HTS commanders, raising eyebrows among the Syrian Opposition. This is the very same group that the Turks have been mandated to crush, but which many believe they helped to create early in the Syrian conflict five years ago.
In exchange for safe exodus, Turkey wants HTS to withdraw quietly from Atme, north of Idlib and east of the Turkish border, through Darat Izzat (30 km northwest of Aleppo), all the way to Anadan, on the Aleppo-Gazientap International Highway. This would further secure the Turkish border from any Kurdish advancements, and create a new buffer zone in which to relocate Syrian refugees living in Turkey since 2011. It would also enlarge Turkey’s zone of influence in Syria, which already includes the two border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, and that of al-Bab, 40km northeast of Aleppo.
Similar secret deals are also being cut between the SDF and ISIS in al-Raqqa, where the jihadists have been on the defensive since the Kurdish campaign started last June.
The city has been subjected to a horrific aerial bombardment by the US-led Coalition, believed to be one of the worst in modern history. Within days, however, al-Raqqa will be liberated fully from ISIS control, bringing an end, once and for all, to the myth of the “capital” of the Islamic State.
Only 120 fighters are left in al-Raqqa, stranded in a pass of just 1.5 km, and all of them are foreign fighters. All local Syrian ISIS fighters were evacuated through secret agreement with the SDF on the night of October 6-7, disguised as ordinary civilians. The agreement with ISIS basically allows local Syrians to jump ship, distancing themselves from the terror group that captured their hearts and minds back in 2014. In exchange for handing back al-Raqqa, these Syrian fighters might even get a free pass to return to ordinary life, if they help eliminate what remains of foreign fighters inside still inside the city.