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Out With ISIS, In With Ahrar ash-Sham – Erdogan's Plan to Keep the Syrian Border Revealed

Erdogan is installing Al Nusra and Ahrar ars-Sham in place of ISIS on the Syrian side of his border

ISIS is finished in Syria and Iraq. Nobody know exactly when or how, but it's clear the world's most enthusiastic head-choppers are on the way out.

Since the Russians turned the tide in Syria and put regime change in Damascus off the table the US seems a lot more serious about going after ISIS instead, up to the point it may now actually be willing to coordinate with the Russians (and by extension Iranians, Hezbollah and Assad):

<figcaption>Can you tell they're moderate?</figcaption>
Can you tell they're moderate?

Russia and the US are discussing “concrete” military coordination to liberate the Isis stronghold of Raqqa, Interfax news agency cited the Russian deputy foreign minister, Oleg Syromolotov, as saying on Wednesday.

The revelation follows visits to Moscow this month by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and CIA head John Brennan.

The tone of the Putin-Kerry meeting was warm enough to suggest that Putin believed America had come to recognise the legitimacy of the Russian position in Syria, and closer coordination between the two countries was likely.

In February when a Syrian-Russian operation pushed back ISIS in Aleppo it was at least able to launch a counter-attack against their supply routes that was temporarily successful.

In March, however, ISIS was helpless to respond in any way after Russian-backed government forces retook Palmyra in the central part of the country and the US-backed Kurdish-dominated 'Syrian Democratic Forces' pushed southward towards Deir Ezzor in the east.

Aside from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the leader losing the most sleep over this has to be Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

No matter which way you cut it one thing is clear: Erdogan's Turkey regards ISIS as a welcome and essential bulwark against the Kurdish YPG. 

Yet it's clear the days of that bulwark are numbered.

He needs a replacement and he needs it fast.

So far the US has kept the Kurds from crossing the Euphrates against ISIS in strength. However, Erdogan must fear that can change any time now.

After Obama told the world that he considered him a "failure and an authoritarian" he know his wishes don't count as much in DC as they used to.

In fact US planes wrecked havoc against ISIS in Jarabulus on the Turkish border just days ago which directly benefits the Kurds parked just miles across on the other side of the Euphrates. 

Should the Kurds move against weakened ISIS, even without a US greenlight, it would be extremely difficult for him to intervene against them. Even without US support they still enjoy the goodwill of almost the entire world public opinion.

No, pushing back the Kurdish advance would be too late. He needs to to preempt it instead. 

That is exactly what he is doing.

He may have traded with ISIS and possibly supplied it before, but now he's shelling the hell out of it and dislodging it from the Syrian-Turkish border before the Kurds can do so themselves. Al Masdar:

Rebels make huge gains along the Turkish-Syrian border

A few hours ago, combined rebel forces of the Free Syrian Army, Fatah coalition (Islamist rebel groups) and Jabhat al-Nusra (Syrian al-Qaeda group) captured al-Rai town in northern Aleppo from ISIS troops.

Thus, Islamist rebels have now captured more than a dozen villages in less than a week along the Turkish border.

Today’s battle was reportedly heavily reinforced and aided by Turkish artillery pieces that pounded ISIS positions in and around al-Rai throughout the day.

Meanwhile, other reports indicate that ISIS fighters have been gradually withdrawing their forces from the region, as to reinforce other vulnerable frontlines. 

If Erdogan is successful by the time Kurds turn westwards to take the Syrian-Turkish border between Jarabulus and Azaz the area will have been fully under the control of Syrian rebels that he can then back against the Kurds with overt military force  ie in a way that he can not back ISIS.

Rebels (green) racing east along the border
Rebels (green) racing east along the border

Ostensibly this drive against ISIS was led by the 'moderate' salafist Ahrar ash-Sham. However, there are two things you need to understand about the group and the operation.

Firstly, Ahrar ash-Sham is adjoined to Al Qaeda in Syria at the hip. Al Nusra units frequently conceal their markings and pose as units of the brotherly Ahrar ash-Sham instead. There is literally no way to tell where the salafist, jihadist, pro-theocracy Ahrar ash-Sham ends and Al Nusra begins.

Secondly, the rebels advanced against ISIS from the tiny and isolated Azaz pocket that was created by Syrian-Russian and Kurdish advances earlier this year. This is a surprise since the rebels there were thought to be weak and, even with Turkish artillery support, militarily insignificant. So how did they do it?

Well easily. Turkey organized a major transfer of rebel fighting forces from the main part of rebel-held Syria across its territory. Specifically its favorite group, the Ahrar ash-Sham:

Now you know why Turkey struck down Al Nusra from its terror list. – It's knee deep in it.

Welcome to the new Syrian reality. Government army backed by Russian aircraft in the west. Kurdish militia backed by American aircraft in the east. And now also Al Qaeda backed by Turkish long-range artillery in the north. Bliss.

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