German Economic News presents current Syria sitrep:
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) extremist mercenary group, successor to the Al Nusra Front, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) mercenary forces, plus various other armed groups located in Idlib province, agreed Friday to a truce according to the television station Al Mayadeen.
The ceasefire was proclaimed after a more than two-month feud. According to the report, around 1,000 mercenaries and 3,000 others were injured in the clashes and terrorist attacks. The military actions also hit the neighboring provinces of Aleppo and Hama.
HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani immediately agreed to the ceasefire after 750 HTS mercenaries were killed. The opponents of HTS had previously joined the Syrian Liberation Front, a mercenary force supported by Turkey, reports Tass. This was apparently crucial for the heavy blows against HTS. Turkey is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria alongside Russia and Iran.
However, the truce on Friday was interrupted several times by heavy explosions in the center of Idlib, about 320 km from Damascus.
During these explosions, field commanders from both sides were killed.
The Turkish online newspaper Haber Yirmi reports that HTS would be responsible for the ceasefire violation: after the ceasefire HTS had begun to carry out targeted attacks on commanders of the FSA. leading to the death of 14 FSA commanders.
In the Idlib province, Turkey has so far built nine out of a projected twelve observer posts under the Astana Peace Agreement. While Turkey has isolated the province from the north, the southern border is controlled by Russia and Syria. Russia expects Turkey to expand its operation in Northern Syria to Idlib. Al-Monitor notes, “Now that the Syrian regime and its allies have gained control of East Ghouta and much of Douma, it seems that Idlib is next in line (…). The UN estimates that 2.5 million Syrians (native, plus foreign mercenaries and their families, editor’s note) live in Idlib (…) The statements of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in March show that Ankara intends to start expanding its operation olive branch, which began in Afrin, to idlib. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, confirmed on April 13 that the Syrian regime intends to attack Idlib next (…) Relations between Turkey and Russia in relation to Syria are based on the Ensuring the interests of both parties. Both declared their readiness to preserve the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.”
Basel al-Haj Jasem, a researcher on Russian-Turkish relations, told Al-Monitor, “Today, more than ever, Russia needs Turkey to fend off weapons chaos in many Syrian areas in preparation for future political developments. This is especially true with regard to the political and economic attack of the West on Moscow. In addition, Turkey’s military presence in Syria is the only guarantee to offset Iran’s presence.”
As long as HTS, which is internationally classified as a terrorist group, has a presence in Idlib, the province will be the objective.
Al-Haj Jasem points out that Russia and Turkey both need peace in the region: “This is an important common point between the two. Moscow is aware that there are some regional and international parties that want to gradually turn the Russian military intervention in Syria into a swamp and that the continuation of the war means more casualties in the ranks of Russian soldiers, the spread of terrorism and separatism in the region.”
France has warned that a military operation in the province of Idlib could lead to a “catastrophe”. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on April 15 proposed “self-determination for Syria through a political process that includes the disarmament of militias,” reports Reuters. France wants to prevent Russia, Syria and Turkey from conducting a joint operation in Idlib. Le Drian says the priority must be to fight ISIS in eastern Syria.
The UN Syria Commissioner, Jan Egeland, had also previously warned that a military operation in Idlib would trigger a “humanitarian catastrophe.” The Guardian cites Egeland: ” More than half of the population in Idlib of two million has already been expelled, sometimes multiple times, so that there has to be a negotiated end to the conflict in Idlib. You can not wage war in the middle of the largest group of refugee camps and displaced people in the world (…) My fear is that the Syrian government will say the place is full of ‘terrorists’ and war can be waged as during the sieges in Aleppo and East Ghouta (…) Yes, there are bad guys wearing beards, but there are many more women and children and they deserve protection. You can not wage war as if everyone is a terrorist, otherwise it will be a nightmare.”
His remarks were repeated by UN Special Representative for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. He said he hopes that Idlib will not become a new Aleppo and a new East Ghouta.
Number of mercenaries in Idlib
Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian secret service FSB, estimated the number of foreign mercenaries in Idlib at about 20,000 in October 2017, reports the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC).
According to the Syrian-Turkish analyst Hüsnü Mahalli, Idlib has at least 30,000 extremist mercenaries. About 15,000 are said to be foreign mercenaries. Of these, in turn, there are about 5,000 Chechens and about 7,000 Uighurs from China. The remaining foreign fighters would be from other states. Mahalli made this statement on October 10, 2017 as part of a broadcast on KRT TV.
Due to the evacuation of mercenaries to Idlib, the number of militant mercenaries there is now expected to have risen to 80,000 to 90,000. This is reported by Mahalli in an article by Yurt Gazetesi.
The number of members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), located in the areas controlled by Turkey – Al-Bab, Jabarabulus and Afrin – amounts to about 100,000, Mahalli said in an article in the newspaper Sözcü.
In March 2018, TASS reported that 31,915 mercenaries and family members of the mercenaries were evacuated to Idlib from Arbin in eastern Ghouta.
Al-Monitor reported on April 20, 2018: “According to a UN report, 48,222 of those evacuated from eastern Ghouta went to Idlib and 7,395 to Jarablus (…) Over the past year and a half, tens of thousands of fighters from Aleppo, Homs, Hama, rural Damascus and the Lebanese-Syrian border were evacuated, and settled in different parts of Idlib.” The Jaysh al-Islam mercenaries and their families were evacuated to Jalabulus and the remaining mercenaries and their families to Idlib. The mercenary troops operating in Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jaish al-Islam are enemies. Last year in East Ghouta, there were armed clashes between the two groups.
The White Helmets group work mainly in Idlib province. There they operate as a civil defense group in areas of the extremist organization Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The White Helmets were founded in 2013 by James Le Mesurier, a former British officer, and receive financial support from the UK. The group consists of 3,000 volunteers, as confirmed by the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs some time ago. The White Helmets receive millions from German taxpayers as well as US and UK governments.