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Tracking Islamic State

Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Jarablus, where militant positions were attacked by Turkish forces on August 24.

A new contest is raging in northern Syria. This time, however, it's not a battle but a race.

On August 24, Turkish tanks and soldiers, backed by U.S. coalition air strikes, crossed the Syrian border to attack positions held by the militant group Islamic State (IS) near Jarablus.

This town lies near the frontier with Turkey and is approximately 95 kilometers northeast of the city of Aleppo.

On the same day, the BBC reported the following:

Military sources told Turkish media 70 targets in the Jarablus area had been destroyed by artillery and rocket strikes, and 12 by air strikes.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are accompanying the Turkish advance.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was aimed against both IS and Kurdish fighters.

Despite the fact that Turkey is fighting IS in this area, fighting terrorists may be the mechanism that Ankara is using to engage in northern Syria rather than the primary motivation. Such a scenario envisages Turkey trying to reverse a series of foreign policy defeats it has suffered in recent months, a cycle that has been accelerating in recent weeks.

Aleppo Province is quickly becoming the conflict's most complicated arena. As LiveUAMap illustrates, the region is divided by (at least) six distinct groups of fighters:

Islamic State
Kurdish SDF (northeast)
Kurdish YPG (northwest)
Anti-Assad rebel coalition (in and around Aleppo city)
Free Syrian Army in the Azaz pocket (Turkish border, north of Aleppo)
The coalition supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

The city of Aleppo, once Syria's financial capital, is largely controlled by antigovernment rebel forces and is besieged by a coalition comprising the Syrian military, fighters from Hezbollah, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commandos, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and Russian contract soldiers, with the former two groups representing the bulk of the party.

Lately, however, the tables have turned. In the past two weeks, rebel forces, with the help of Al-Qaeda-linked groups, have broken the siege of the city and are now locked in a desperate and bloody battle for the Syrian government's last real stronghold in the north. If the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lose this fight, the anti-Assad rebels would have a nearly unified front and would be able to push deeper into the regime's heartland.

But the power dynamic in this area is made more complicated by the other competing factions in the region. The westernmost reaches of territory held by IS protrudes north of Aleppo city. To the northeast of the city, the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are now rapidly capturing territory from IS. The SDF is made up mostly of Kurdish YPG fighters, although it also contains Arabs and other non-Kurds, and they have been armed, trained, supplied, and otherwise supported by the United States in an effort to create a ground force in Syria that is capable of taking and holding territory from IS. They have taken control of Manbij, about 70 kilometers east-northeast of Aleppo city, and are pushing farther west and south in the process. Crucially, they are also advancing north of Manbij toward Jarablus, the target of Turkey's invasion.

Kurdish fighters have gained the most in northern Syria in recent months. (file photo)
Kurdish fighters have gained the most in northern Syria in recent months. (file photo)

Making things even more complicated, there is another group of anti-Assad rebels that is also predominantly occupied with the fight against IS. Due north of Aleppo city, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) control a crescent-shaped sliver of territory sometimes called the Azaz pocket, with their backs to the Turkish border, IS controlling the majority of their perimeter, and a separate group of YPG Kurdish fighters to the west. These FSA fighters are said to have received training, equipment, and support from Turkey and the CIA, but they have been fighting a desperate battle for survival for months.

In the spring, Russian air strikes and ground troops reportedly tipped the balance of power in this region and split the rebel lines in two, cutting off the anti-Assad rebels in Aleppo from the Turkish border, and from the rebels in Azaz. IS, smelling blood in the water, struck north and west, capturing huge amounts of territory from the FSA and other rebel groups. The YPG also saw opportunity, and worked to expand its control in the region.

Since then, the SDF -- which the United States says is made up of more than just YPG fighters but which some analysts say is primarily interested in advancing Kurdish interests in the region -- has benefited from strong support from the United States and has flanked IS. Rebels in the Azaz pocket have capitalized on IS's weakness and have pushed west, but at a snail's pace compared to the advances made by the SDF.

Regional Balance

To simplify: What is taking place in northern Aleppo Province at the moment is effectively a race to see who can capture the most territory from IS the fastest. Just like the end of World War II, when the United States and Britain were advancing into German territory from the west and the Soviet Union was gobbling up the Nazi empire from the east, so too are the Kurds and the various non-Kurdish rebel groups fighting to stake their own claims as IS collapses under the combined weight of its enemies. Just like 1945, the outcome of this race could have major implications for the regional balance of power and could set the stage for the next war in the region, whether hot or cold.

So far, the major losers in this race are arguably the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkey, while Kurdish groups have gained the most. Between 2012 and 2014, the FSA led the fighting against the Assad regime in northern Syria and captured the vast majority of this territory. Between 2014 and 2016, IS seized control of vast swaths of northern Syria. In the last year, foreign support for the Assad military, particularly Russian air power, has helped gobble up even more territory from the anti-Assad rebels. Now, with robust U.S. support, the SDF is capturing that territory and controlling it itself.

In mid-August, Syrian activist Omar Sabbour shared a map made by Syrian journalist Hadi Abdullah that clearly illustrates how much territory has shifted. In 2013, most of northern Syria was covered by the dark-green color of the anti-Assad rebels. IS had yet to be formed, Assad had been pushed out, and the light-green color denoting Kurdish territory was relatively small. In 2014, almost the entire map was gray, having been taken over by IS. But since 2016, the light-green of the Kurds has displaced much of the gray, while Assad's forces have once again entered this zone of control.

The perception among many Syrian activists in this area is that U.S. support for moderate rebels has been lacking while U.S. support for the SDF has been robust. Sabbour's opinion of these developments is strongly worded. “The US has essentially stolen vast swathes of Syria liberated by the FSA between 2012-13 and given them to the YPG. Between 2012-13 -- when these areas were liberated -- the US was actively blockading military supplies coming in from neighboring countries,” he wrote. Since this post, the SDF has advanced even farther.

There are those, of course, who would dispute that worldview. But Sabbour's opinion is not uncommon. Reports suggest there is a sense among many Sunnis that the U.S. government's strategy in Syria and Iraq has empowered Shi'ite and Kurdish groups at the expense of Sunnis who once controlled Iraq and who have always been the strong majority in Syria.

Turkey, a major supporter of the anti-Assad rebels and a country that is effectively at war with the Kurdish PKK and, to a lesser extent (for now) the YPG, has watched as its own proxies have struggled while a group it considers to be a terrorist organization gains power just across its border. Kurdish groups have been blamed for a series of terrorist attacks inside Turkey this summer, including several last week. Jarablus appears to have been the last straw.

Earlier in the week, Turkey fired warning shots, with artillery, at SDF positions in northern Syria. On August 22, the SDF commander of the newly-formed Jarablus military council, Abdulsettar Al-Cadiri, was assassinated after announcing the beginning of the fight for the city. There is no proof for the claim, but there are suggestions that Turkish military intelligence was responsible.

Turkey's engagement in Syria could complicate the situation further, since it is entirely possible that the Turkish military or the rebels it supports could go to open war in northern Syria. Such a development could derail the fight against IS and efforts to end the Syrian conflict, and even widen the war. Any conflict of that nature could also exacerbate sectarian tensions at a time when stability and peace are already at a premium in the region. In short, it's an oil barrel, surrounded by powder kegs, surrounded by flame.

The U.S. government is responding. At the time of writing, the breaking news was that visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had told Kurdish forces that they "must move back across the Euphrates River." He said "they cannot -- will not -- under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment," according to the AP news agency.

ALSO READ: Biden Vows Support For Turkey, Demurs On Cleric's Extradition

Now there are new questions: Will Turkey continue to expand its operations in Syria? Does this mark a new, much more robust phase of NATO intervention in the conflict? Will Turkey then turn on Assad? Will the SDF and other Kurdish groups respond, or might they lose U.S. support? And how will Russia and Assad respond to their loss of control in northern Syria, which may very likely be permanent?

The race for northern Syria has just heated up. Who will win?

A Syrian woman flashes the victory sign as she celebrates the news of the breaking of the siege of rebel-held areas of Aleppo on August 6.

Good news should be easy to discern in wartime. War, we assume, makes it easy to separate the good guys from the bad; to separate the oppressor from the oppressed; to separate right from wrong.

Sometimes, though, these questions become muddled, and no more so than in the surreally unstable and violent world of the Middle East. Recently, the rebel forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made great gains in breaking the regime's siege of the strategically vital city of Aleppo.

The problem remains, however, that the unquestionable success that the rebels have made in Aleppo is, to a large extent, partly down to the efforts of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front -- essentially Al-Qaeda in Syria). The ostensible good guys, the Syrian rebels, who are battling an enemy that has barrel-bombed and butchered them ever since they started out as a peaceful movement merely asking for greater civil rights during the Arab Spring five years ago, are now in debt to jihadists.

The debt is a significant one -- and one that is not lost on Syria's population. As Thomas Pierret, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on Syria observes over e-mail: "If they [the rebels] manage to keep open the southern access to Aleppo, which was made possible (among other factors) by Fatah al-Sham's [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices] VBIEDs. If the regime retakes the southern access to Aleppo, things might be different, but Fatah al-Sham would still remain one of the regime's most efficient opponents, which will inevitably reflect positively on its popularity."

Ruthless Bombing

Despite this risk, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo was supposed to bring relief to the citizens who were trapped in the city. That has yet to happen. International aid groups say that it is too dangerous to enter the city without a real cease-fire. While Russia and Assad have nominally accepted those conditions, the Syrian and Russian air forces are ruthlessly bombing the civilian populace in the city, and across much of Syria. The death toll continues to skyrocket.

On August 18, the image of a 5-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, became front-page news. Omran had just been saved by a group called the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense Forces, a collection of local Syrians who have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to help save civilians from the growing pile of rubble and corpses that their country is increasingly becoming. Pictures and video of his tiny face, matted with dried blood and dust, as he and his siblings were loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the hospital, went global. The world was horrified.

Omar Daqneesh sits bloodied in an ambulance after an air strike in Aleppo.
Omar Daqneesh sits bloodied in an ambulance after an air strike in Aleppo.

But Omran was lucky: he and his family survived, and he has since been released from the hospital. Meanwhile, more than 80 people were killed across the country that night, nearly two dozen of whom were children.

There have even been reports that the United States may join with Russia -- which unequivocally backs Assad -- in a joint military effort to stop the rebels' progress in Aleppo. Such a scenario remains unlikely, but it is a testament to how precarious the situation is in Syria -- and how utterly confused it is.

So why has a major responsibility in the war against butchery been handed to butchers?

The answer is depressingly simple: No one country is willing to risk getting involved in a major war in the Middle East to stand up to the Syrian and Russian governments. For five years, Assad has been allowed to kill with impunity -- literally in the vicinity of U.S. jets that looked on helpless to act. Washington is in an admittedly tricky situation. A war-weary American public elected Barack Obama in 2008 partly on his promise to end the U.S. military's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The people were sick of dead Americans, Afghans, and Iraqis. The last thing Obama wanted to do was to get sucked into another Middle East nightmare. And there is a valid logic to that line of thought.

Root Cause Of Insurgency

Obama's decision not to intervene in Syria -- to avoid having to once more expend American life and resources at a time when the country is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis -- is considered by many to be the right move. But not all agree with that assessment. As Pierret once again observes, "critics of Obama generally reproach him for backtracking on his 'red line' with regard to the use of chemical weapons in 2013, but perhaps an even bigger mistake was the decision to intervene alongside the Syrian Air Force in September 2014 while not moving a finger to curtail daily attacks against civilians." Syrians saw more bombs drop from the air, this time from the United States as well as Assad; and yet more civilians, not merely members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, were killed in this process.

"At the time there was no Russian air force around, and it would have been very easy for the overwhelmingly superior USAF [United States Air Force] to make it clear to the decaying Syrian Air Force that it wasn't allowed to bomb the USAF's zone of operations, i.e. the northern half of Syria. This has of course contributed to the perception by many Syrians that the United States is in fact complicit with Assad…hence to anti-Western radicalization," he says.

But this fact does not in any way detract from the root cause of the rebel insurgency, which is Assad's barbarity, which began during the first days of the uprising when the regime arrested, killed, and tortured the then-peaceful protesters. And the more it increased its barbarity, the more radicalized the insurgents became. The more the world ignored their plight, the more they were forced to turn to anyone who would help them.

This month, while Russia bombed Aleppo's hospitals -- and then boasted about it on state media -- the victorious rebel groups, let by jihadists, brought fruit to its starving population. Brutal they may be; jihadist they most certainly are; but they know how to do public relations -- especially in a field where due to the timorousness of the onlooking world they have little competition.

Nonetheless, the jihadists don't have it all their own way. Again Pierret is on point: "The level of distrust towards jihadists among the rest of the opposition (including non-jihadi Islamist insurgents) is frequently understated (if known about at all) in the West," he writes. And he is right. Assad and his acolytes deny that such a thing as a "moderate" opposition exists but the rebels continue to form a kaleidoscopic mix of elements -- from the secular to the extreme. This past week, as U.S.-backed rebels liberated Manbij from IS, videos showed residents celebrating: men cut their beards, while women burned their niqabs and smoked cigarettes, as they celebrated their freedom from their oppressive theological overlords.

"It has long been assumed by many Western observers and decision-makers," Pierret concludes, "that there are no good guys in Syria, or at least that the good guys are irrelevant. Yet, this assumption is proven wrong by the fact that we still see them dying every day after five years of conflict. The problem is, good guys are dying fast, and in such apocalyptic circumstances, [and] are increasingly replaced by radicalized people."

And herein lies the ultimate dilemma of the status quo in Syria. The more the rebels succeed, the more the democrats among them face ultimate defeat. Those fighting Assad are fighting to defeat visceral barbarism; to defeat a tyrant with absolutely no regard for the democratic process; to defeat a man who is responsible for slaughter on a massive scale. And in that endeavor our natural reactions should be to wish them every success.

The inescapable problem is who and what exactly are the Western countries supporting? If Assad goes -- and we must hope that he does -- what comes next? The answer to that question will define the Middle East for generations to come.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war. The views expressed in this piece are the author's own

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"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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