Proposed ‘Northern Army’ in Syria alienates Kurds
Damascus - The Obama administration leaked details about a plan to form a unified army in northern Syria. Jaish al-Shamal — the Northern Army — would bring together more than 3,000 fighters belonging to a number of moderate rebel groups.
The US objective is to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and not troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The declared aims of the anticipated force are limited to engaging al-Nusra Front and ISIS, according to a source in the Harakat Nour al- Din al-Zenki, the largest opposition group to take part in the proposed army.
The plan was reportedly formulated at a meeting May 9th in Turkey and included intelligence officials from the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in addition to leaders of the rebel groups. Turkish officials bluntly told the insurgents that if they refused to join the proposed alliance they would be branded as terrorists.
The Americans are to provide the new force with advanced weaponry. Saudi Arabia and Qatar would cover financial costs. Military operations could start within two weeks. Air cover would be provided by the coalition countries while Turkey would offer artillery support from across the border.
According to a field commander with al-Zenki, the plan involves three phases, starting with the announcement of the creation of Jaish al-Shamal. The second step includes moving the groups’ fighters and their weapons via Turkish territories to northern Aleppo. The third phase is the fight itself.
He noted that opposition groups had begun on May 13th moving fighters and heavy weaponry through Bab al-Hawa, a border crossing between Syria and Turkey.
Al-Zenki group is to lead the battle, which is meant to fight ISIS, evict al-Nusra Front from Idlib, liberate the town of Al Raii, capture the area to the east of city of Azaz and then the city of Mare’.
The plan was confirmed by US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who declared at a May 13th news conference in Washington that the United States and Turkey share the objective of clearing the area from ISIS.
However, the fact that the plan does not refer to fighting troops loyal to Assad has aroused suspicions among rebel groups of the existence of a prior agreement between the United States and Russia on the formation of the new alliance.
“We fear that the US conditions limit the mission of this (new) army to fighting ISIS,” an al-Zenki commander said. “Is there a US-Russian understanding with the Syrian regime to avoid fighting between the Northern Army and the Syrian regular army as well as the Kurdish fighters who are attempting to control the area?”
It seems opposition groups have no alternative but to go along with the US plan of fighting ISIS out of fear that they will lose land to advancing Assad troops, backed by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters under Russian air cover, and also their only supply route from Turkey, which threatened to consider them terrorists if they fail to comply.
Nonetheless, the US-sponsored plan seems to serve the goals of Turkey, which according to high-ranking Syrian opposition sources, “is facing an embarrassing situation” after the killing of more than 25 people and the injuring of dozens of others by ISIS bombardment from Syria on the Turkish town of Kilis.
Turkey, the sources said, is anxious to remove the ISIS threat from its borders and block the road to advancing Kurdish forces without having to send its own troops into Syrian territory. The plan also frustrates the objectives of the Kurds, who want to extend their control in northern Syria and take an additional 90km area up to Afrin, north-west of Aleppo. They already control a 500km-long area stretching from the north-eastern Al Malkiya on the Syrian-Iraqi border to the Euphrates west of Kobane.
A Kurdish source said the Americans had backed off on a promise to hand over to the Kurds the cities of Jarablus and Manbij, to the west of the Euphrates, following the visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington.
The differences between the two sides surfaced at a meeting May 17th in the Kurdish city of Kobane between US and Kurdish officials. At the meeting, the Americans insisted that the taking of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, must precede liberating areas west of the Euphrates. The Kurds insisted on liberating the two Kurdish towns first.
Idris Naasan, a Kurdish official in charge of foreign relations in Kobane, said he remained confident that the United States would keep its promises, referring to the arrival of more US military advisers into the Kurdish areas and to the increasing cooperation between the two sides.
The Assad regime dismissed the creation of Jaish al-Shamal as an attempt by Turkey to establish safe areas on its borders with Syria. Such a plan, the semi-official Syrian newspaper Al Watan said, is doomed to fail.
The creation of Jaish al-Shamal could well be an attempt by the United States and Russia to exert pressure on all sides involved in the Syrian war to reach an agreement.