– Why Aleppo is still not free from ISIS and remains its only Northern host
[originally posted on January 5]
There’s a reason ISIS has not been kicked out of Aleppo (province) yet, even though its been kicked out of most of North East Syria (Hasaka and large parts of Deir el-Zor). Whilst the US has pummeled ISIS into submission and replaced them with the SDF, the SDF is not present on the frontlines with ISIS around Aleppo – rather it is mainly the FSA. This has to be strongly reiterated: the US is refusing to bomb ISIS around Aleppo because the people who would advance are non-secularist FSA groups (Levant Front, Safwa Movement, etc.). It should be noted that the excuse of Jabhat al-Nusra was taken away a few months ago when they agreed to evacuate these areas to lay the ground for the so-called Turkish safe-zone (which never came). Yet nonetheless the US does not see a difference between these groups, even though they are expressly FSA (i.e. not Islamic Front) and ISIS – it does not matter to them whether ISIS essentially takes Aleppo’s Free Army down and advances on the city.
Meanwhile the YPG is on the offensive in West Aleppo against the FSA (whilst claiming they are Nusra terrorists), resulting in FSA groups such as the Safwa movement coming out and calling them liars and that it was they who were attacked by the YPG following Russian airstrikes on their bases.
Meanwhile the secularist FSA groups of the SDF, notably a mixed Kurdish-Arab group called Jaish al-Thuwar (these have put on hold the fight against the regime whilst working with the Russian-allied YPG, and it is also notable no longer use the term FSA in their statements, instead subsuming themselves under the SDF banner) are also not strong in the areas of Aleppo on the frontline with ISIS.
It should be noted that the “anti-imperialists” of the YPG are coordinating with Russian airstrikes in North West Syria, and US airstrikes in North East Syria. Amazingly they are still never referred to as proxies by those who cited Arab-provided American weaponry to the rebels (and forgot American airstrikes against some of their strongest components) as proof of their puppetism.
[Just to note however I am not versed enough to understand exactly what’s happening in the clashes between the rebels and the SDF. I do not know who the initial aggressor is in these clashes, as there are a lot of claims and counter-claims and it is not clear where the entire truth is. On the one hand the SDF are clearly not telling the full story when they say they’re just attacking Nusra, and a paranoid reading may be that their recent campaigns in Aleppo are not a mere spontaneous defensive reaction to attacks by Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, but rather an attempt to encircle Aleppo’s rebels and start laying the ground for the recent US-Russian understanding of the “political solution” (the SDF’s main “Syrian rebel” component it should be remembered said that they will attack any other rebels who do not accept the “political solution”; and lets also remember that John Kerry subtly praised the Syrian Army a few weeks ago saying that it should be preserved as it contained “good guys” – indeed going further and declaring that the rebels should unite with the Syrian Army against ISIS even before an Assad departure). That being said 3 days ago Jaish al-Thuwar, that is the main opposition component of the otherwise YPG-dominated SDF (composed of a mixture of non-YPG Kurds and Arabs, though still heavily dependent on the YPG for survival) declared a unilateral ceasefire with other rebels as a “gesture of good faith”, sueing for peace, arbitration and an end to the “bloodletting” and declaring that it will only use violence in self-defence. They also made a point of releasing the statement under their name only and “not under any other” (i.e. the SDF, as their statements usually were). Reading the statements they generally put out it is difficult to think that all of what they say represent empty claims.
On the other hand there is an undeniable problem with Arab chauvanism in the Syrian opposition (at least, i.e. leaving aside the potential dynamic of animosity by conservative Islamists to the secularists of the SDF). Furthermore it is noteworthy that the SDF seems to have a large Kurdish component who can argue (not correctly but nonetheless) that it is fair game for them to ally with Russia if the rebels ally so strongly with Turkey. And while the YPG may be widely seen as regime collaborators, I think this goes beyond them, as the SDF also includes non-YPG Kurds who once fought for the Free Syrian Army (as well as some anti-Assad Arabs, all grouped in Jaish al-Thuwar). Whilst these might have put the fight against the regime on hold (a condition undoubtedly to gain ascension into the US-designed SDF) they do have history fighting the regime. Meanwhile that the FSA (even with all its Islamic influence and components) STILL uses the name of the “Syrian Arab Republic” in their letterheads does not particularly inspire confidence amongst Kurds (it is noteworthy that by contrast the use the name “Syrian Republic”). The fact that Arab nationalism still plays such a strong role in the Syrian opposition has not been a good thing.
But in short I cannot be sure of what exactly is going on, safe to say that there are many, many variables at play. Ultimately from my genuinely limited reading what’s happening may be a conflict of coalitions: Nusra backed up by Ahar al-Sham backed up by FSA vs Jaish al-Thuwar (because they are backed up by US and YPG). Generally speaking there are perhaps two big problems in these rebel-YPG clashes: Arab chavanism on the rebel side and secularist chauvanism on the YPG side (though this is not to put equal weighting/responsibility between the two)]
Meanwhile since its supposed anti-ISIS intervention that was meant to relieve the besieged rebels of Aleppo began, Turkey has essentially done nothing whatsoever of the sort. It has ostensibly used the excuse of the US refusing to sanction a northern “safe zone”, when Turkey’s mere presence in Syria’s northern airspace would probably have served enough of a deterrent to ground the regime’s aircraft (as it did for two days or so when it “launched” the operation) – but even if a no-fly zone was not established it would’ve been sufficient and of great help for Aleppo’s squeezed rebels (now squeezed by ISIS, pro-regime militias and the SDF) for Turkey to merely launch airstrikes against ISIS targets in coordination with the rebels on the ground. Merely taking out ISIS in Aleppo’s countryside would’ve provided invaluable breathing space for the rebels, who for the last two years have routinely had to mobilise and demobilise on the ISIS front, dragging rebels from all over the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib away from the regime’s frontlines. There would be no excuse for Turkey not to do so – even if there was a Turkish claim of “US pressure” not to help the rebels in Aleppo this would not have served as a sufficient excuse for anyone, since no one could seriously condemn Turkey launching a serious aerial campaign against ISIS on the global scene (of course, it should also be noted that regardless of US opinion Turkey attacked the Kurds in the midst of their battle with ISIS).
What is the reason for this Turkish inaction? Well at least a big part of it to my mind undoubtedly has to do with the nature of Erdogan and AKP in general, who while big on populist foreign policy rhetoric are relatively spineless in foreign policy action. Indeed after the downing of the Russian pilot, little reported was the military funeral and honours lavished by Turkey on the fallen pilot (who was then returned to Russia) and the accompanied grovelling that went with it, the complete opposite of Turkey’s supposed defiance in public. A more cynical reading would perhaps look at this inaction in another way and find other uncomplimentary reasons.
Turkey’s attitude to Syria thus reflects by and large its attitude to Palestine – strong words and timid action (in military terms – its humanitarian support has of course been unmatched). Whilst serving mainly as a conduit for Arab supplies to the rebels and a (generally) safe shelter and resting base for thousands of rebels and activists, its military backing for the rebels has hardly matched anything like that of Qatar or Saudi, or Iraq and Lebanon on the other side (all four being American allies – meanwhile no one of course has matched Iran’s level of aid). Indeed the closest corollary to Turkey’s rebel support that comes to mind is that of Assad’s Syria’s support for groups such as Hamas: it’s main role was as a conduit rather than procurer of weaponry, the amount of weaponry that was allowed through was controlled and fluctuated (in accordance with US pressures at any specific time), and it allowed refuge for Hamas operatives and political figures (albeit under close surveillance).
Conclusion: The US does not support anyone who fights ISIS, it supports those who *fit its wider regional policy* which fight ISIS – these include the Iraqi government, Iraqi Shia militias (including incidentally ones who fight across the border in Syria for Assad), the YPG and pro-Assad tribal forces (al-Sanadeed). What this means is that despite the complete absence of this reality in the reporting of the media, the *only* regional forces who are fighting ISIS without US help are Syria’s anti-Assad rebels (“anti-Assad” distinction placed here to seperate the overwhelming totality of rebels who have refused to give up the fight against Assad from the handful of proclaimed “Arab rebels” who signed up to programmes demanding so, such as the 54 etc. of the “Train and Equip” programme or its effective successor, the SDF).
ISIS continues to exist and threaten the Syrian rebellion with the complicity of its long-time facilitators (if not necessarily backers), not only the regime and Russia (which emulated the regime and bombed rebels whilst they were fighting ISIS) but also Turkey and the US. ISIS has served a purpose for everyone it seems (Iran, Turkey, US, Russia and Assad) except the Syrian rebellion – the only discernible positive vis a vis the latter was to unify and moderate rebels.