It was only 10 days ago, following the fall of Jinderes, that we discussed the possibility of YPG withdrawal from Afrin. “The YPG cannot in good conscience wage a prolonged battle in the city if civilians refuse to leave their homes as it seems to be the case,” I argued here on this page.
That day arrived on Sunday, as the YPG pulled out of the city in the dark of the night along with 150 thousand civilians who also chose to leave. Two days earlier the Turks had launched an indiscriminate artillery barrage into civilian areas, a day earlier Turkish jets struck Avrin hospital. So the invaders did mean to level the city and to kill as many civilians as it took to capture the city. The YPG had to withdraw.
So what happened to the 10 thousand lightly-armed men and women of the YPG/YPJ and allied Arab forces under the SDF umbrella? The YPG statement released hours ago says “our forces are everywhere in Afrin” and that they would launch an insurgency. This suggests some fighters have gone underground. Other reports suggest the YPG ‘melted away’ among the civilians leaving Afrin.
However the YPG left Afrin, theirs was not a chaotic withdrawal under enemy fire a la Dunkirk. Kudos to the YPG for an orderly pullout under no reported enemy attack and with no reported casualties. If the YPG succeeded in saving 2/3 of its fighting force in Afrin, if 2/3 of the 10 thousand made it to safety, then that is a good outcome for they lived to fight for another day.
Associated Press report on the recent events in Deir Ezzour.
For the US the endgame is clear: to prevent re-emergence of ISIS in Syria. What is murky, however, is the “shadowy attacker” in the Deir Ezzour area that apparently neither Russia nor the Assad regime has control over.
The US killed 100 of this allegedly unkown force 2 days ago as they approached the gas field controlled by its local allies, namely the SDF. Russia and the regime condemned the bombing but not so much as to suggest that the attackers were Syrian soldiers advised and assisted by Russian special forces.
Hassan Hassan suggested that the attackers were local Arab tribesmen unhappy about the SDF’s control of the area. They could also be ex-ISIS jihadis who were turned and re-armed by the Syrian government.
There are also fresh sporadic reports that US and SDF have launched a counterattack on this shadowy group in a strip of regime-controlled territory in the east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzour. The pontoon bridge built by Russia last year has been destroyed, presumably by the Americans, to prevent reinforcements from reaching to the east bank.
It seems US and SDF want all regime-backed forces to go back to the west of the Euphrates river, which is the demarcation line between the US and Russia-backed forces.
Several days ago, following a brilliant surprise air and water borne raid, US-backed Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) landed to the south of Tabqa Dam, securing it before Islamic State (ISIS) jihadis could cause any damage to the structure. Now SDF has taken Tabqa airbase too.
Long-term observers of the war in Syria will agree that the fall of Tabqa airbase to ISIS in August of 2014 was one of the more infamous episodes of the war. The Assad regime had just lost Raqqa city and had withdrawn to the surrounded airbase—their last holding in the entire province. There were over a thousand soldiers trapped in the base with dozens of aircraft, tanks and artillery—not enough to stop the ISIS juggernaut.
Continue reading “On Tabqa and Raqqa”
Evolving realities on the ground in Syria for the last 3 years. Syria would have been lost to radical Islamism, had it not been for the Kurdish resurgence beginning with the US support in the liberation of Kobani in late 2014.
Remember the jihadi selfie at the gate of Kobani? How times have changed! This is me writing on 16 November 2014 when the battle was raging on inside Kobani:
“There is still a long way to go in this battle. Once the Kurdish Stalingrad is completely liberated, the YPG and allied forces will begin to expel ISIS from nearby villages and the country side until the entire Kobani canton is also freed from medieval barbarian invaders. This war will not end until the forces representing life, liberty and modernity march into Raqqa, and destroy the forces representing medievalism, death and darkness in their place of origin.”
The chief of US Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel visited Kobani and Raqqa front lines in Syria yesterday to reassure Kurdish and Arab allies in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that the US is still with them. While he urged the SDF to continue the offensive against ISIS-held city, SDF commanders warned him in no uncertain terms that should the Turkey-backed jihadis attack Manbij, the Raqqa offensive will be over and their forces will withdraw to defend their territory in the north.
Taking pressure off Raqqa is precisely the outcome both Turkey and ISIS sought when they agreed to a deal to surrender al-Bab to FSA jihadis in secret talks with Turkish chief of staff in the United Arab Emirates last week. ISIS fighters will retreat and consolidate their forces around Raqqa while Turkey, having caused the failure of the Raqqa offensive by attacking Manbij, can re-portray itself as the only force capable of taking on ISIS. Thus the western efforts to destroy ISIS can be hampered, delayed or otherwise abandoned.
Is the US too blind to see this ploy? On the contrary, Turkey has long signaled that it considers the SDF as greater threat to its interests than ISIS. Turkey only started its campaign to drive ISIS from border areas with Syria when they realised that, after Manbij, the US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance were going to liberate al-Bab. The US is too wrapped up in its formal NATO alliance with Turkey to acknowledge Turkish president Erdogan’s destabilising duplicity for what it is.
Following General Votel’s visit CENTCOM twitter account published several photographs showing SDF fighters fresh out of their training and getting their uniforms and AKs. An image of a US-made anti-IED mine vehicle being delivered to the SDF also circulated. These are not necessarily positive developments for Kurds. In the photo captions, the Arab part of the SDF, Syrian Arab Coalition, was specifically mentioned several times, while Kurds and their Peoples’ Protection Force (YPG) went distinctly unnamed.
Kurds and their Arab allies have every reason to be wary of the strength of the US commitment for the SDF. The so-called real-politik may yet cause the Americans to abandon the only trusted pro-western secular force in Syria in favour of a motley crew of jihadis backed by an unreliable NATO ally.
The battle for al-Bab, in Syria, rages on. In an increasingly crowded combat zone around the ISIS-held town, Turkish forces and their jihadist Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxies are in a race with Syrian Army and allied militia to be the first to capture the town. Russian air strike killed 3 Turkish servicemen and wounded 11 others yesterday in what Kremlin called a “friendly fire” incident. Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) can only watch from sidelines as their resources, along with American support, are diverted further south towards ISIS capital Raqqa.
It is now a matter of when al-Bab falls and what happens afterwards.
Continue reading “The Battle for al-Bab”