The military and political dynamic in and around Syria continued to escalate since late in the week ending September 14, 2013, and more so in the days after that (September 15/16, 2013) with the Syrian military clearly having the initiative and the opposition forces either getting out of the war or venting their frustration and wrath on the civilian population.
Meanwhile, Tehran continues to dominate the political exploitation of the crisis. Not to be left out, Ankara initiated on September 16, 2013, a major escalation in the fighting along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Syrian military has been intensifying its offensive-sweeps against predominantly jihadist strongholds in the northern and western parts of the country. This escalation evolves as ever larger segments of the nationalist and traditionalist opposition forces are focusing on the self-defense of their home communities rather than confronting the Syrian security forces. For their part, once contact is made with local leaders at the village and township levels, the Syrian Army avoids entering these communities and confronting their self-defense forces. On the contrary, the Syrian security forces are delivering both military and humanitarian aid to help the local self-defense forces withstand the jihadists. Consequently, the Syrian military can focus almost solely on jihadist enclaves: storm and clear them.
The most intense fighting has taken place in the Idlib area and the greater Aleppo area. In the north-west, the military focused on clearing jihadist strongholds, cells and networks in the al-Arbaeen mountain area and surrounding villages in the Idlib region. The military reported the destruction of several storage sites of weapons and ammunition. The most intense fighting was against Jabhat al-Nusra units. However, the Syrian Army also destroyed bases and arsenals of the locally-based jihadist forces of the Dra’a al-Jabal Brigade, the Squr al-Sham Brigade, the Ahrar al-Thawra Brigade, the Suyuf al-Haq Brigade, the Asar al-Sham Brigade, the al-Abbas Brigade, the Fursan al-Quds Battalion, the Ablin Battalion, the Omar al-Faruq Battalion, and the Maghawir Aryha Battalion.
An interesting phenomenon reported by the Syrian security forces since the weekend of September 14-15, 2013, is that the food, supplies, and clothes of virtually all the jihadist fighters encountered in the northern and north-western parts of Syria were from Turkey. This means that the opposition’s fighting forces can no longer rely on local villages for food and basic supplies, and that the majority of the jihadist fighters encountered were recent infiltrators who had to bring everything with them.
In the greater Aleppo area, the Syrian security forces have mainly further expanded the secure zone surrounding the city and eliminated pockets of resistance inside the city. The scope and pace of these operations keep escalating growing. Meanwhile, the jihadists’ abuse of civilian population — mainly the more affluent Sunni Arab — has intensified in the greater Aleppo area. The jihadists are committing crimes, murders, and overall abuse in the name of resisting the government encroachment. Significantly, there has been discernible upsurge in crimes and abuses in the areas where the influx of jihadist foreign fighters were most pronounced. The jihadists — both local and foreign — accuse the population of betraying them and their sacred cause. They then rob and pillage in the name of jihad and for the needs of jihad. Since late in the week ending September 14, 2013, several thousand people have been evicted from houses and apartments and forced into exile while leaving their entire property behind.
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Meanwhile, the jihadist forces in the rural areas in northern and western Syria are increasingly focusing on taking their revenge against the civilian population who they are convinced has betrayed them and their cause. Thus, the abuse of the Christian-Aramaic city of Maaloula, and particularly the effort to force the population to convert to Islam under the threat of death, was a trend setter. The main objectives of the jihadists’ wrath are the ‘Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and all those defined as “Nusairis”. The forces of Jabhat al-Nusra received a fatwa by a very senior Islamist jurist ordering them “to kill the Nusairis, the enemies of God”. Late in the week, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters entered ‘Alawite villages in the Homs area and massacred civilians. The jihadists consider these atrocities to be more important than confronting the Syrian Army. “The people’s wall of fear has been broken, as this was the first time these villages were entered and such a high number was killed,” the Jabhat al-Nusra communiqué reads. These attacks were “in revenge for the killing in cold blood of Muslims and their women in Eastern Ghouta” by chemical weapons.
Not to be ignored, Ankara is definitely making strenuous efforts to ignite the Turkish-Syrian border.
On September 16, 2013, during the afternoon (local time), fighting between the Syrian army and jihadist forces attempting to withdraw back from the Idlib area across the Turkish border into the Hatay province escalated. The Syrian forces, backed and guided by one or two Mi-17 helicopters, were in hot pursuit after the jihadists. Several Turkish F-16s were scrambled from the Malatya air base to patrol over the area. According to the Turkish military, around 16:00 (local time), one Mi-17 strayed about 2 km across the Turkish border in the Yayladagi district of Hatay province. The Syrian military insists the Mi-17 was on the border line if it crossed the border at all, and if so then it was by a few meters only. Two F-16s immediately closed in and fired a few air-to-air missiles at the Mi-17 and shot it down.
According to the Turkish military, the helicopter exploded in mid-air. According to the Syrians, the Mi-17 made an emergency landing on the border line. (There are disputes whether it came down on the Turkish or Syrian side.) According to the Syrian military, two of the aircrew were seen emerging from the helicopter alive. The Turkish military insists the two jumped by parachute and landed safely on the ground. Both the Turkish and the Syrian military agree that the two aircrew were immediately surrounded and summarily killed by jihadist fighters. Meanwhile, the jihadist forces withdrew safely across the border into Turkish territory.
Meanwhile, in the early morning of September 16, 2013, the Turkish military committed the newly-formed jihadist brigade called Katibat al-Taliban to saving the Jabhat al-Nusra forces just across the border. In recent days, the Jabhat al-Nusra forces attempted once again to retake the town of Ras al-Ain on the Syrian border, just across from Turkey’s Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa, from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces holding it since July 2013. Although Turkish artillery provided fire support to the Jabhat al-Nusra forces, they failed to push the PYD defenders. Fighting was heavy, and large numbers of jihadist casualties were transported in Turkish ambulances to hospitals in Urfa, Turkey. Hence, the Katibat al-Taliban was committed to battle in a desperate effort to save the Jabhat al-Nusra from defeat. The Katibat al-Taliban is comprised almost exclusively of Kurdish jihadists, including ex-PKK fighters who became Islamists in Turkish jails and were offered amnesty and $1,000 if they joined the new unit. The Katiba is controlled by Turkish Military Intelligence and is commanded by Turkish jihadists (both Turks and Kurds).
In the early afternoon (local time), the PYD forces defeated both the Jabhat al-Nusra and Katibat al-Taliban forces. The PYD launched a major counterattack from inside Ras al-Ain and pushed the jihadists toward the Turkish border. The PYD’s thrust continued despite heavy fire from Turkish artillery just across the border. Hence, three F-16s were scrambled from Diyarbakir airbase. The F-16s were fully loaded with air-to-ground ordnance. According to the Turkish military, the F-16s were dispatched to conduct reconnaissance flights over the Turkish-Syrian border in order to ensure that “the intensified clashes between PYD militants and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters” did not “stray across our border”. According to the Syrian-Kurdish leadership, the F-16s bombed the PYD’s forces and positions in order to compel the PYD to not only stop the pushing back of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Katibat al-Taliban forces, but withdraw from the border area and the town of Ras al-Ain.
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After the Turkish bombing, the PYD forces stopped their counterattack and withdrew back into their fortified positions inside Ras al-Ain. Fire ended by nightfall but both sides described the situation in the entire border area as very tense.
On the political front, Iran was setting the agenda for exploiting the ramification of the US-RF agreement1 both regionally and globally. The Iranian campaign intensified markedly on September 16, 2013, during a closed conference of top commanders of the Pásdárán (the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps: IRGC). Virtually all the key leaders of Iran addressed the conference.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani set the tone. He stressed that the ongoing crisis in Syria is “merely part of a wider conspiracy plan” the West was pursuing all over the Middle East. “We are well aware that the disputes are not over one person or one president or the coming to power of a particular faction in Syria; it goes beyond that and it is obvious that the West has plans for the whole region,” Rouhani explained. “What has happened in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain are rings of a single chain of events which aims to impact the region and weaken the Resistance Front.” Rouhani asserted that Iran was not seeking to control the region. “Our discourse is one of fighting terrorism in the whole region,” he said. Regarding Syria, Rouhani emphasized, all of Iran’s “efforts are directed at restoring peace and stability to Syria, and [Tehran] will accept whomever the Syrian citizens choose to run their country”.
The next address was by the IRGC Commander in Chief Maj.-Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari. He declared that “the world powers suffered their latest defeat against the Resistance Front when their conspiracy to launch a military strike against Syria failed”. However, Iran could not afford to rest of its laurels. “So far, the enemies’ plot for military intervention in Syria has failed,” Jafari warned, but that did not mean Iran’s enemies would not attempt to avenge their defeat elsewhere. It was because of Iran’s continued vigilance and military might, Jafari stated, “that almost all the schemes drawn up by the enemies against the Resistance Front have failed”. This development had profound ramifications for Iran’s own vital interests and strategic posture. “Given the fact that enemies cannot overcome the Resistance Front in Syria, they definitely cannot take any action against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Jafari concluded.
Meanwhile, US Pres. Barack Obama was intensifying his campaign to meet Rouhani in New York during the forthcoming UN General Assembly session, and there to reach a “grand rapprochement” virtually at any cost.
By. Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs