Column: After Idlib, it’s now time for al-Bab

A Turkish tank drives east of al-Bab town, Syria March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RTS126RR

Merve Şebnem Oruç BY: Merve Şebnem Oruç*

Ankara turned out to be right, but the statements it made were ignored and turned it into a scapegoat. When the Daesh terror organization began perishing in arid lands in eastern Iraq, it rose from its ashes, dispersed the opposition in Syria and gathered power by seizing their territories and returning to Iraq, and was even able seize Iraq’s second largest city Mosul.

In the midst of a sectarian war, you would expect an al-Qaeda-affiliated structure, which emerged with so-called claims of jihad, state and caliphate, to turn to the regions and cities held by Nusayri/Shiite administrations like Damascus, after seizing mainly Sunni-populated cities like Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Mosul. It did not turn out to be so. When Daesh turned north, to mainly Kurdish-populated areas, a new chapter was opened in the region. It was time for the PKK, whose PR is done exceptionally well by Western media, to take the stage.

Today, confessions of Iraqi soldiers are spreading from Mosul, which is supposedly freed from Daesh: “We killed everybody,” they say, “Daesh members, women and children…” People are thrown from roofs, tied to the stakes and burned; not even because they are Daesh members; they are stabbed in their throats hundreds of times with blunt knives, on the grounds of being ‘Saddam’s supporters’ or ‘Sunnis.’ ” The U.S. does not even need “embedded” journalists to prevent its activities in Iraq from being heard. Unfortunately, while hundreds of people are being killed the “reconstruction of Mosul” is being discussed.

On the other hand, there is a scene in Raqqa that is not different from Mosul at all; hundreds of civilians are dying in intense air bombardments while waiting to be rescued from Daesh, and they have not even made the news. Brett McGurk, the Special U.S. Representative to Syria, or more precisely “The Kurdish Lawrence,” whose name we have never mentioned since George W. Bush, comes and makes a statement: “Forty percent of Raqqa has been cleared from Daesh.” That’s it. The world breathes a sigh of relief.

It is known that Turkey revised its red lines when instability and terror threats on Turkey’s southern border became uncontrollable a while ago, and other plans of those it considered to be its allies became clear. Turkey clearly stated that it would allow neither a PKK state nor another terrorist structure on its border. The Operation Euphrates Shied was a blatant indicator of this. It went as far as al-Bab and cut into the planned PKK corridor like a knife.

On the other hand, Aleppo had also fallen, and a new process had begun in Syria. As Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın also reiterated on my “Karşı Karşıya” program on TVNET on Monday night: “Turkey still argues that changes in Syria must be made in line with the legitimate demands of people,” but the international community treats Syrians, more than half of whom are now refugees, as if they were plague-stricken. They have forgotten that they are human beings, have turned off their conscience and are deaf when it comes to them.

Disappointed by its allies, Turkey sat down with Russia to discuss the Syrian issue last year. The meetings first led to a ceasefire; then to the Astana talks and ultimately to the agreement of no-conflict zones – which was also agreed upon by Iran and also supported by the Trump administration. Here is the result of the meeting held from May 4-5. “During the meeting, Turkey, Russia and Iran, who are the guarantor countries of a ceasefire which covers the whole of Idlib, certain parts of Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces, certain parts of Homs province, and certain parts of Damascus / Eastern Guta, Daraa and al-Kunajtira have established these areas as non-conflict zones.”

These locations characterized as “whole” and “certain parts” were all controlled by the opposition. Today, if you look at almost all of them with the exception of Idlib, you can see that Hezbollah and the regime came and settled in the region escorted by Russian or Iranian soldiers, and that the opposition had to stop fighting Assad. Even the most powerful opposition group in Eastern Guta, Jaysh al-Islam, dissolved itself in recent days; its warriors, who were once labeled as “radicals” just because of their “beards,” joined the U.S.-backed wing of the Free Syrian Army, as did the Allahu Akbar brigade near the Jordan-Iraq border. Simultaneously, the CIA ended its support program for the opposition fighting the Assad regime.

It seems like a joke, but sources with close ties to the regime are saying that the first “safe zone” has been established in Eastern Guta. Another safe zone is declared to have been built on the Lebanese border. The fact that one million refugees in Lebanon who are subjected to Hezbollah’s horrible torture will be forcefully sent here can be deferred from Lebanese sources. Unfortunately, if they return, they will be eliminated by Assad, if not, they will be destroyed by Hezbollah. They will not have graves, nor will the news mention them.

While all this happened, the Idlib city center was recently seized by Tahrir al-Sham as a result of conflicts between the Nusra-dominated Movement Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. As it is well known, Nusra had withdrawn its allegiance from al-Qaeda, but is still a terrorist organization in the eyes of many countries, including Turkey. Do you think that those who destroyed the opposition-held parts of Aleppo on the pretext of Nusra will allow Tahrir al-Sham’s presence in Idlib? On the contrary, the reason why we say “It’s time for Idlib,” though the situation in Aleppo is saddening, the day Aleppo had fallen, is because we knew that they were waiting to seize this opportunity. McGurk’s statements regarding al-Qaeda’s presence in Idlib, accusing Turkey and in return receiving harsh reaction from Ankara, are the announcements of what is already known. The U.S. Special Syria Representative’s statements yesterday: “Idlib only invites foreign military measures” is an indicator of what will soon come to pass.

Well, who will seize Idlib? The U.S.-supported PYD? The Russian-backed regime? It doesn’t seem as if it will be us since we only remain “watching.” After Idlib is seized, what’s next? Is there any need to mention al-Bab? Let’s keep on watching.

*Merve Şebnem Oruç is a Turkish journalist and columnist. She writes for Yeni Şafak Turkish newspaper. (Published in Yeni Şafak on August 3, 2017)