Russia: ‘No Offensive’ Planned Against Al-Qaeda in Syria

Israel bombs targets in south Syria, near Damascus: monitor
AFP/VIKTOR DRACHEV
EDWIN MORA

Russia, Turkey, and Iran have not agreed on new military operations against al-Qaeda-linked jihadis gaining ground in Syria’s Idlib province in recent weeks despite a Moscow-Ankara agreement to rein them in, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin reportedly revealed on Thursday.

Despite being on opposite sides of the conflict, dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ally Russia and pro-Syrian opposition Turkey reached a deal to enforce a demilitarized zone in Idlib and clear the region of the jihadis and their heavy weapons to avert an assault by the Syrian regime, but so far they have failed.

Known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the al-Qaeda-linked group has emerged as the most dominant jihadi organization in the country.

In Syria’s northern Idlib province, which borders Turkey, HTS controls the last remaining rebel stronghold, a territory that has been growing in recent weeks.

Conceding that HTS has nearly attained “full control” of Idlib province despite a deal between Moscow and Ankara to push out and disarm the terrorists, Russia accused Turkey of failing to live up to its promise to push the terrorists out.

On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia, Turkey, and Iran had agreed to take unspecified extra steps to clear Idlib region of what the Russian leader described as “a hotbed of terrorists,” Reuters reports.

“We should not put up with the presence of terrorist groups in Idlib,” Putin told President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “That’s why I propose we consider practical, concrete steps that Russia, Turkey, and Iran can take to completely destroy this hotbed of terrorists.”

After a meeting on Thursday between the three leaders, however, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Russian president, revealed that “no new military operation against Idlib had been agreed on,” the news outlet adds.

Russia’s positions echoed comments made by a top Syrian Kurdish leader to Breitbart News that “nobody” is willing to launch airstrikes to quell the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda-linked jihadis in Syria.

“As for countering al-Qaeda [in Syria], I would say not much has been achieved in this regard. Al-Qaeda exists in Idlib [province]. They have expanded their territory recently,” Elham Ahmad, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), recently told Breitbart News.

While Shiite leader Rouhani expressed a willingness to take on the Sunni jihadis in Idlib, “Erdogan was more circumspect,” Reuters noted, adding:

He did not respond to Putin’s suggestion of a joint plan in his opening remarks, and after the summit said that Turkey would continue to do all it could to stabilize Idlib. But he also repeated a warning he has often made about the need not to spark a humanitarian catastrophe there.

Tensions have erupted between Assad’s allies Russia and Iran regarding influence over the regime and its territory. Support from Iran and Russia has allowed Assad to remain in power and capture more territory than any other warring party in Syria, including the U.S.-backed Kurds and Turkey-allied rebels.

Reuters adds:

Tensions between Moscow and Ankara over Syria have [also] risen in recent months, fueled in part by a planned withdrawal of U.S. forces which promises to free up territory controlled by [the] U.S. or U.S.-backed forces, spurring a race to fill the vacuum if and when it opens up.

Thomas Joscelyn from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think-tank, echoing other analysts, argues that HTS, formerly known Jabhat al-Nusra, is not linked to al-Qaeda, noting that the group’s global emir Ayman al-Zawahiri does not recognize the fighters as an official branch.

Hassan Hassan from the Institute for Middle East Policy reportedly says, “Throughout its numerous iterations, HTS has not altered its ideology and is still widely thought to maintain links with Al-Qaeda.”

The U.S. government considers HTS an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group.

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