The main pressures of the various jihadist groups in Syria are now targeted to the North of the Aleppo province.
If Aleppo collapses, also the non-jihadist Syria will collapse. Conversely, if the Salafists hold the city under control, no credible reconquest of Syria will be possible.
On April 13, 2016, negotiations No. 3 for “peace” in Syria have resumed in Geneva but, as Machiavelli used to say, “love peace and know how to wage war” is the first rule for the good Prince.
The goal of the US forces and, only partially, of the Turkish forces, as well as of the Coalition, is still to disrupt the Caliphate’s lines of communication between Ar-Raqqa and the Turkish-Syrian border.
Obviously, for Turkey, the aim of the war is to counter the successes of the YPG Kurds, while the United States support the People’s Protection Units (YPG) against Al Baghdadi.
Currently, however, the Kurds are also approaching and coming closer to Russia, and the YPG loyalty to the line of the Coalition, made up of 59 countries, is being called into question.
Hence it is likely that only Russia will be in a position to successfully ask President Assad for the Kurdish autonomy.
President Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) now operates from the Kuweires air base to penetrate the Caliphate’s area of the Aleppo Province, where also the Jabhat Al Nusra Front is gathering for its ultimate defence.
At strategic level, the many jihadist groups (the major ones are over 25) operating in Syria have these aims in mind: a) to make Assad’s SAA and Russian attacks diverge and make them useless; b) to act as a shield for Isis, the major group; c) to finally lay the conditions for a “Vietnamization” of the Syrian war and, hence, of the long defeat of the Russian and Iranian “invaders” and of the Western “infidel”.
Furthermore, the various jihadists directly serve the interest of their sponsors on a zone-by zone basis: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
This is a function of the Syrian oil communication lines and of resources, the mining ones in particular, as we will see later on.
Moreover, the jihadist war fought by the various gangs is meant to delay as much as possible the reunification of the territory under the Syrian Ba’athist regime, thus forcing it in the future to a “cantonization” making it irrelevant to its Russian, Iranian and Chinese allies.
Hence Syria could become pervious to Saudi Arabia’s oil and political actions, in contrast with the Iranian and Russian designs on Assad’ Syria.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), founded in August 2011 by a group of defected Syrian Armed forces officers hosted in Turkey, has about five open fronts: in the North (Aleppo and Idlib), in the East (Raqqa, Deir al Zour and Hassaka), in the Centre (Homs and Rastan) and finally in the South (Damascus, Deraa and Suwaida).
Supported by the now famous and invisible 59 countries of the anti-Isis Coalition, the FSA cooperates, in various areas, with the jihadists and with several subgroups, such as the Northern Storm Brigade, the Ahrar Souria Brigade, the Martyrs of Syria Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham.
All current FSA positions, however, are at the edges of the areas dominated by Assad’s SAA.
A situation of OPFOR, Opposing FORce.
The two opponents mime the same warfare techniques and the same lines of action so as to equalize their potentials with the hybrid war.
Obviously the FSA and the jihadists must force and close the Russians and the Syrians into their initial areas so as to enable the jihadist groups to cover the Isis positions.
The Islamic Front now has about 45,000 militants and results from the merger of seven jihadist groups.
As stated in its official documents, it is alien both to the Al Nusra Front and to ISIS. It operates mainly in Aleppo and its tactical line is intended to prevent Assad’ Syrian forces from entering and stabilizing in the Northern region between Latakia and Aleppo.
Harakat Ahrar Al Sham al-Islamiyya is a Salafi group established near Idlib and, before the Syrian Islamic Front dissolving in November 2013, it collaborated both with the Al-Nusra Front and the groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
It is the jihadist brigade specialized mainly in cyber attacks, that also works as a network of humanitarian and social support for the peoples.
Jaysh Al Islam is a coalition of about 10,000 units resulting from the merger of 50 previous jihadist groups.
It operates mainly in the Ghouta area around Damascus.
The jihadist group Suqour Al Sham is still supposed to count about 10,000 militants and operates in the provinces of Aleppo and Damascus.
It is worth clarifying that all the data and statistics we report do not consider defections, targeted assassinations, passages from one group to another.
Liwa al Tawheed, another group counting between 8,000 and 10,000 units, is also active in the region of Aleppo and has good relations of cooperation with the Al Nusra Front, even though it theorizes a less radical Islamic government that the other Salafi movements.
Finally the Al Nusra Front is a Salafi group (representing Al Qaeda in Syria) counting approximately 7,000 units and operates, in dispersed ranks, in at least 11 of the 14 Syrian provinces.
Currently it controls especially the Northern parts of the Syrian territory.
Despite being the best known jihadist group in Syria, Isis/Daesh only counts approximately 5,000 men in arms.
It operates mainly in the North and East of Syria,
Isis is the junction point between the various Salafi souls of the Syrian jihad, and plays a role of “clearing house” between the various factions of the fundamentalist insurgency. And this is its strength.
Daesh/Isis is a sort of Komintern of the Syrian jihad, which often uses other Salafi groups as cover or bait for the Russian-Syrian actions.
When, at the beginning of hostilities, President Putin said that Russia would make no difference between the various jihadist movements, he hit the very heart of the political-military organization and activity of Daesh/Isis.
The Iranians sent the Saberin Special Forces Brigade, which in Farsi means “patients.”
Founded in 2000, the IRGC special forces brigade operates primarily as a multi-tasking group specialized in deep penetration into enemy’s territory and in sniping actions.
In February 2015, the Pasdaran and the Saberin Brigade were the largest military groups to launch an offensive against Aleppo so as to stop trade between Isis and Turkey. Currently the 2,500 Iranian military units operate mostly as “advisers” to Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian Arab Army.
Sometimes they even operate as pilots of the Sukhoi-24M aircrafts that Moscow assigned to Bashar al-Assad’s military forces.
As already mentioned, the YPG Kurds are in command of approximately 15,000 fighters.
They came to the fore when, in 2012, the Syrian army left the Kurdish areas and the two national parties (the PKK and the Democratic Union Party, namely the PYD) began to independently manage the Kurdish region in North-Western Syria.
They control various border towns between their region and the rest of Syria, as well as part of the city of Aleppo, which is clearly the strategic centre of the whole Syrian war.
The Russians now operate as instructors of Bashar el Assad’s forces and protect their bases of Tartus, Humaymin and Latakia, while there is much talk about a new Russian base under construction at the Turkish border, in Al-Qamishli, whereas the United States are supposed to be building a base in North-Eastern Syria, together with the Kurdish militants.
Russia, however, has maintained in Syria the Pantzir F and S-400 Triumph weapon systems.
The former is an advanced system of surface-to-air missiles with sensors and automatic fire direction.
The latter is also a particularly advanced anti-missile system, which is said to be even better than the traditional US-made Patriot.
Bashar el Assad’ Syrian Arab Army counts about 14,000 military men who today, after the Russian “tonic treatment” and the Iranian cooperation, have a good level of efficiency on the ground.
The SAA recent victory in Al Qaryatain is pivotal: it ensures the safety and security of pipelines in the region and enables Assad’s forces to disrupt the lines of communication between the desert of Al Badyia and al-Qalamoun, which are essential for Daesh- Isis’ supplies.
However, which is the link between the oil and gas transit and the civil war and jihad in Syria?
If we look at the map, we can see how the major currently operating pipelines have evident points of contact with the various Salafi Islamist groups: each oil or gas transport network is controlled in at least two points by the various jihadist groups.
It is precisely for this reason that the local Salafism, including Isis, never covers the whole territory of reference, but only the contours of the regions it conquered militarily, which intersect an existing pipeline in at least two points.
Nevertheless, let us better analyse the oil and gas issue, which is not Marxistically at the origin of the war in Syria, but certainly explains much of it.
In 1989, Iran and Qatar began to develop the largest natural gas deposit in the world, the South Pars-North Dome.
One third of the South Pars reserves are present in Iranian territorial waters and the rest in Qatar’s marine areas.
Nevertheless there are two competing exploitation projects, which regard the current civil war in Syria.
The former is the Qatari-Turkish pipeline: in 2009, the Emirate offered to Turkey the possibility of a pipeline passing through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria up to Turkey, so as to sell gas to European consumers and to the Turks, in particular.
There is also a second route proposed, stretching from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait up to Iraq and Turkey, but the PKK Kurds at the Iraqi border would prevent any arrival of natural gas along the Turkish coast.
This is the only project for the oil and gas transport which would make the operation of the Russian pipelines a factor of secondary importance, with geopolitical effects that can be easily imagined.
In 2001, however, Iran proposed an alternative route to the Qatari-Turkish one, namely the Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian route.
The gas would come from South Pars via Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon.
If Russia regains its hegemony over Syria, this route could overlap with the Iranian and Syrian pipelines, thus avoiding Turkey and making Russia become the natural gas global leader.
The Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian route could also compete with the TANAP-TAP network, the Southern Corridor which, however, is about to be completed.
The TANAP-TAP pipeline, also created in 2011, stretches from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, crossing the whole of Anatolia.
Hence, if the Russian Federation is still dominant in Syria, it will be in a position to thwart both projects, by controlling only the Damascus area.
On the one hand, it is very likely for Moscow to have regarded the Qatari-Turkish pipeline as a threat to Gazprom’s plans for the European market.
But also the Iranian project of the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline could damage the market share of the Russian gas companies, which are still essential for the Russian Federation’s whole economy.
Conversely, Russia could rather sponsor the Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian route only if it reached the ports of Latakia and Tartus – the old and well-known military headquarters of the Soviet Union, at first, and of Russia, later – on the Mediterranean, outside Turkey’s control.
If this happens, the Russian Federation will be the true pivot of the Middle East geopolitics and economy. On the contrary, if tensions in Syria mount or, worse, if the territory of Damascus falls prey to the jihadists and the powers that protect them, there will be no pipeline .
The projects which will by-pass the Syrian territory will be constantly threatened by the sword jihad, that will have no hesitation in hitting also the networks of the countries which so far have supported it in Syria.
Giancarlo Elia Valori * (@GEliaValori)
* Presidente della merchant bank “La centrale Finanziaria Generale S.p.A.”
– Presidente della “Cattedra sugli studi della pace, la sicurezza e lo sviluppo internazionale presso la Facoltà di relazioni internazionali della Peking University, nonché “professore straordinario” di economia e politica internazionale nello stesso Ateneo
– Honorable dell’Académie des Sciences dell’Institut de France