Syria: The looming battle of the Azaz corridor

Friday 15/01/2016
Ahrar al-Sham preparing to fire mortar shell at ISIS group positions

BEIRUT - Northern Syria has be­come a key battle­ground in several con­flicts within the civil war, now approaching its sixth year, and the epicentre is increasingly a strategic strip of land known as the Azaz corridor.

Whoever controls this narrow belt of land west of the Euphrates that runs south from the Turk­ish border to the embattled city of Aleppo, where rebels hold the east­ern sector, should be able to dictate how the multisided Syrian conflict will unfold.

It could also trigger the entry of Turkey into the war, further wid­ening the conflict at a time when a major international diplomatic ef­fort is under way to convene peace talks between the beleaguered re­gime of Syrian President Bashar As­sad and rebel forces.

“What happens in the Azaz cor­ridor may determine who will win Aleppo and thus the war,” observed Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endow­ment for International Peace and editor of its Syria in Crisis reports.

“Incremental changes continue to reshape the political landscape in the north, where a complex four-sided war rages between the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a powerful Kurdish militia, President Bashar Assad’s central government and a variety of Sunni Arabs backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States,” Lund noted in a De­cember 28th analysis.

Rebel forces led by the alliance dominated by the Jaish al-Fatah al­liance hold the corridor that is their most important supply lifeline from Turkey, which seeks to topple Assad’s regime.

But the rebels are under growing threat from three directions: from the west by advancing Kurdish fighters backed by Russian air pow­er, from the east by Islamic State (ISIS) forces and from the south by the Syrian Army and its Iranian and Russian allies.

“Meanwhile,” observed Fabrice Balanche of the University of Lyon 2 and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “the prospect of direct Turk­ish intervention looms over the fighting, especially if the corridor should fall.”

Russia’s growing dispute with Turkey, triggered by the Novem­ber 24th Turkish shooting down of a Sukhoi fighter jet along the bor­der after it reportedly strayed into Turkish airspace, has added anoth­er layer of complexity to a multifac­eted war.

This could well intensify because of the Azaz fighting as Moscow sup­ports the main Kurdish force in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara bitterly op­poses.

With the Russians now backing the Kurds — and finding themselves in a bizarre alliance of convenience with the Americans — the prospect of a direct clash between these two powers becomes a possibility.

If the Damascus regime, aided by Russian air power, takes over the Azaz corridor, rebel forces backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia would be cut off from their supply lifeline and unable to resist Assad’s army and its allies, leaving Turkey’s Syr­ia strategy in ruins. This prospect would leave Ankara little choice but to help the rebels hold the cor­ridor.

The rebels’ loss of the supply route via Turkey would undoubt­edly mean rebel forces currently holding part of Aleppo would be cut off, allowing Assad’s forces to triumph in what is left of the his­toric, war-ravaged city, which is the key to northern Syria.

The Azaz corridor is 5km-15km wide and runs south from the strategic city of Azaz on the Turk­ish border to Aleppo, which was Syria’s commercial heart before the war began in March 2011. The vital border crossing of Bab al-Salam, the gateway for rebel arms and hu­manitarian aid to Syrian displaced, lies on the northern edge of the passage.

At the western edge of the north­ern end of the corridor lies Afrin, which is controlled by the anti-regime YPG. This is the Syrian arm of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting Ankara for an au­tonomous Kurdish zone in south-eastern Turkey since 1984.

The 30,000-strong YPG, which includes small Arab and Assyrian militias, is a key US ally in Syria but reviled by Turkey, the mainstream Sunni groups, the jihadists and the regime.

The YPG’s primary objective is to capture a 96km stretch of territory between Azaz and Jarablus to link Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria, including Kobane on the Turkish border, into one contiguous Kurd­ish zone on Turkey’s flank.

Ankara has warned it will not tol­erate Kurdish groups operating on its southern border and has public­ly stated its objective of establish­ing a “safe zone” to prevent Kurd­ish forces expanding control west of the Euphrates along the frontier.

“Turkey’s Syria policy now aims to secure Ankara a seat at the ta­ble when negotiations are held on Syria’s future,” said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute and author of The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Mus­lim Power.

“This gives further significance to the recent Russian air strikes against the [Sunni Arab] rebels [in the north]. Such attacks threaten to debilitate these rebel groups and simultaneously undermine Tur­key’s… Syria policy.”