In Kabul, the Islamic State claimed responsibility
for the attack at the Supreme Court in Kabul. It posted a statement to the web.
“Thanks to God and His favor, the martyrdom-seeking brother Abu-Bakr al-Tajiki [the Tajikistani] — may God accept him — set off yesterday wearing his vest of explosives toward the tyrannical Court of ‘Appeal’ in the city of Kabul. He detonated his vest in the middle of a gathering of judges and workers of the court. This led to the killing and wounding of approximately 60 apostates. The apostates, and at their head the tyrant judges, will understand that their infidel rulings that are issued against the mujahideen monotheists in the service of the Crusaders will not pass without a harsh penalty, God willing. The worst is yet to come….”
The Russians have invited India and Afghanistan to join them, Pakistan and China to a meeting in Moscow on 15 February on the security situation in Afghanistan. India has agreed to participate at a sub-ministerial level on condition that Afghanistan attends. The Iranians also received an invitation for the first time.
The Russians blundered badly in trying to expand their influence. They have held three prior “trilateral meetings” on Afghanistan in which only Russia, China and Pakistan participated. The Afghans were incensed by the Russian actions, which led to the expanded list of invitations.
The main concern of the original trilateral members was the spillover effects of Islamic State inroads in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s refusal to arrest the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, plus its poor management of its own Pakistani Taliban threat, directly contributed to the Islamic State’s expansion into Afghanistan and, reportedly, into some districts of northwestern Pakistan.
The Russians and Chinese are encroaching on the domain of the US-led coalition that has fought in Afghanistan since 2001. They and the Chinese hope to find ways to contain any ripple effects from the instability in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s involvement probably stems from its role as a Chinese client that must provide security to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. As yet, the only results of this Russian initiative have been bad feelings. All the invitees can agree on the need to prevent the spread of the Islamic State’s franchises into central Asia, but that is close to the limit of their agreement. Information sharing and general cooperation are likely to be the main results of these meetings, and a boost for Russia’s self-image as a consequential power.
ISIS in Syria
Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, backed by Turkish military forces in northern Syria, have captured the outskirts of the Islamic State-held city of Al-Bab, the Turkish government and rebel sources said on 8 February. The FSA forces reportedly have Al-Bab blocked from the north and east.
Syrian government and allied militia forces also have advanced on Al-Bab from the south and west. One report said their forward positions were only 4 kilometers from Al Bab on the 7th.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that it could not confirm reports that Islamic State resistance in Al Bab was collapsing.
An FSA fighter said he could see the forward positions of some pro-Syrian government forces. The two anti-Islamic State forces have not fired on each other, as yet, probably because of Russian-facilitated communications.
Al Bab is the focus of three anti-Islamic State fighting groups that have widely different reasons for controlling the town. The Turks want it to ensure that the Syrian Kurds don’t get it. They also have no intention of surrendering it to the Syrian government forces.
With the approach of the pro-Syrian government fighters, the Kurds appear to have lost the competition to control Al Bab. That means that prospects for a contiguous Syrian Kurdish autonomous region along the Turkish border probably will not be realized. However, a pro-Kurd civil administration is operating in Manbij.
The Syrian government-backed forces want Al Bab so that the Turks don’t stay and use Al Bab as an anchor for their “safe zone” scheme. The Syrians, backed by the Russians, want the Turks out of Syria.
The problem with having a common enemy with no other reasons for cooperation is that the reasons for not cooperating become dominant after the enemy is defeated. One of the most basic reasons is that Syrian President Asad and Turkish President Erdogan hold each other in contempt.
The liberation of Al Bab would start a new chapter in the multi-tiered confrontations and rivalry for control of northern Syria. The fight for Al Bab will soon end, but the struggle to control northern Syria is far from ended.
A spokesman for Turkish President Erdogan said Turkey has presented a detailed plan to drive the Islamic State out of Raqqa (Ar Raqqah) and discussions on the issue were under way.
Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told NTV there had been better coordination with the US-led coalition on air strikes in the last 10 days and the Turkish government’s priority was to establish a safe zone between the Syrian towns of Azaz and Jarabulus.
Turkish sources said Erdogan and US President Trump agreed in a phone call overnight to act jointly against the Islamic State in Al-Bab and Raqqa.
Erdogan appears to have changed his mind for the third time about Turkey’s operations in northern Syria. Last August, Turkey sent forces into northern Syria to stop the Kurds and drive the Islamic State from Raqqa. Last week, Erdogan announced that Turkey would not send its forces into Syria beyond Al Bab. Turkey appeared to withdraw its support for an operation to liberate Raqqa. Turkey still intended to establish a safe zone, but the less ambitious offensive plan seemed to reflect Russian influence, acting on behalf of the Syrian government.
As the defeat of the Islamic State approaches almost all the impulses for unity are weakening. The Russians have achieved their primary objective, of preserving the Syrian government from defeat, but appear to be overreaching. The Turks, the Syrians and the Iranians do not want the Syrian Kurds to have a voice in a peace settlement.
The Iranians have let the Russians grab the headlines in the Syrian crisis, but their role in preserving the Syrian government is as great as, or greater than, that of the Russians. Their views have not been heard, but some experts judge that there is serious tension between the Russians and the Iranians over the future of Syria after the shooting stops.
The status of the Syrian Kurds is one of the issues that could cause the entire pro-Syrian government coalition to fall apart, but probably not before the defeat of the Islamic State. At this point a comprehensive settlement is a distant objective that might not be attainable.