Khan Shaikoun – Igor grabs a balaclava, puts it on his head and goes down to the ruins. He was born in Siberia 34 years ago. For at least eight years, he served as a paratrooper. He is now a faceless Russian among the rubble of Khan Shaikoun, the citadel south of Idlib, that the Syrian army won back thanks to key support from Moscow. The Americans would call him “contractor.”
Igor doesn’t like this word. “No No… we are private security” – he protests as he accompanies us through the rubble of the city. In his arms, he holds an Ak12, the latest version of the old Kalashnikov. With the barrel of the weapon he shows us where not to put our feet “Mine tovarsih taliansky… mine achtung” – he explains in his rudimentary but effective language. Faceless men like Igor, former soldiers recruited and paid by private agencies in the service of the Moscow Ministry of Defense, are everywhere. They accompany journalists, monitor access routes, discuss with officers of the Syrian army and have become silent and confused scene extras. The battle of Khan Shaikoun, which ended only three days ago, seems to be the prelude to the reconquest of Idlib, the last Syrian province still under the control of Tahrir al Sham, the Syrian branch of Al Qaida, and of the other jihadist groups on Turkey’s payroll.
In the battle, Russia once again changed the rules of the game by imposing its own law with the force of weapons and political strategy. Last September, Moscow made an agreement with the Iranians and Turks. According to the agreements signed in Astana in September 2018, Turkey’s army was authorized to create observation centers within the Syrian province in order to contribute, in agreement with the Russians, to disarming the rebels, guaranteeing their evacuation. But that’s not what happened.
Despite the Turkish presence, the 12,000 alqaidist militants of Tahrir Al Sham, including over 4,000 foreign fighters from all over the Islamist world, including China, have taken over, forcing even the armed jihadist groups funded by Ankara to follow their orders. And Turkey has been playing along. “In truth, Erdogan never intended to uphold the pacts because – after having disarmed Al Qaida fighters, he would have had to take them to Turkey – Mohammed Fadhi Sadoun, the recently returned deputy mayor of Khan Shaikoun, explains to Il Giornale. “For this reason – the deputy mayor continues – the Turkish secret services have left Al Qaida free on one side while on the other they have continued to arm the jihadist militias under their control.
The plan was simple. They hoped that the Syrian army and Russians would take out Al Qaida, and control of the province would be left with their fighters. But they were wrong because the Syrian army drove away both.” In reality, Moscow blew up Turkey’s plans. In the Kremlin’s strategy, Idlib is the fundamental piece with which to play the strategic and political future of Syria. While Erdogan was playing with Al Qaida and the other jihadist groups, Moscow re-trained, rearmed and reorganized the most efficient units of the Syrian army, guaranteeing full control. With its substantial restructuring of the Syrian military system, the Russians have achieved a double objective.
On the one hand, they have made the involvement of Hezbollah and all those Iraqi and Afghan militias controlled by the fundamental Iranian pasdarans superfluous, in the past, to guarantee the success of the Damascus offensives. By knocking out the Iranians, as promised by Vladimir Putin to the Israelis, the Kremlin has in fact taken full control of operations on the ground. The taking of Khan Shaikoun has thus become the test run of an offensive aimed at not only knocking out the rebel forces, but also drawing the political future of Syria. Among the rubble of a free Khan Shaikoun, the plan is very clear. In the space where the city mosque used to be, Russian general Ravil Moughinov, the 54 year-old commander of a task force responsible for reconstruction, has already taken full control of the situation.
Three days after the retreat of Tahrir Al Sham, the general began rebuilding the school and distributing food parcels bearing the symbol of the Russian republic. “Our goal – he explains persuasively – is no longer to fight, but to rebuild. Russia wants to show that it is possible to return to peace. We were the first to intervene when no one moved a finger to stop ISIS and other terrorist groups. Now we want to help Syria rise from the ashes.” All around, a few hundred civilians, who have returned from neighboring villages and towns after four years of forced exile, praise not only Bashar Assad but also Vladimir Putin and Russian aid. “My poor son was only 24 years old, and the rebels killed him. But Bashar Assad alone could not protect us. Without the Russians, they would have killed us all. This is why Russia – says Ruba Hazlim, an elderly Sunni in a veil – has become our second mother.” And Moscow – as you can start to see here in Khan Shaikoun – will not likely be backing out. The new front is only three kilometers north of the city. There, Tahrir al Sham still stands. There, jihadist militia friends of Ankara still stand. From there, the new phase of the offensive destined to stop only at the Turkish border will begin. Only then will the Kremlin be able to play the full board and pursue its most ambitious goal. That is, to redesign the future political and institutional structures of an exhausted and destroyed nation.
Translation by Alexa Ahern