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Will Erdogan declare war against Syria?

February 20, 2020

The Syrian conflict has been covered prominently on this blog, because it is a geopolitical milestone with consequences beyond Syria and beyond even the Middle East. This conflict is also a prime example of Western media spin.

Presenting an alternative view of this conflict is controversial and every time a blog post discusses new developments, a few subscriptions are cancelled. So please, if you firmly believe into the “butcher Assad” narrative, just ignore this post, you will only get angry if you read it.

A short reminder why the USA and allied nations want to remove Syrian President Dr. Bashar al-Assad:

1) Turkey in the north wants to use the waters of Euphrates and Tigris alone and not share it with Syria and Iraq, while Israel wants to keep the water rich Golan Heights. Israel also wants to conquer the Litani river area in southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah, a close ally of Syria, is in the way.

2) Qatar wants to have a pipeline crossing Syria to transfer gas to Europe.

3) Saudi Arabia, UAE, and fellow Arab monarchies consider any secular and socialist Arab government as a threatening example of an alternative system and want to prevent a Shiite dominated axis consisting of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Iraq.

4) Israel loves the chaos in the surrounding Arab countries. Before 2011 Syria was the biggest supporter of the Palestinian cause.

5) The MIC (military industrial complex) lobbyists need continuous war to boost profits, Pentagon and CIA need war to justify their excessive funding and to increase their influence. Syria buys weapons from Russia and not from the USA.

6) The USA plays the longterm geopolitical game of a destabilization push from Syria to Iran to Central Asia, North Caucasus, Volga region (Russia’s “soft underbelly” with a significant Muslim population). 

Dawn of Idlib 2 offensive

The initial Dawn of Idlib army operation from May to August 2019 resulted in the capture of the southern towns Kafr Nabudah, Qalaat al-Madiq, al-Habit, Kafr Zita, Al-Lataminah, Morek, and Khan Sheykhun. The army tried to outflank and encircle Islamic strongholds. There was heavy resistance and numerous suicide attacks by HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate). Four ceasefires failed and were used by the Islamists to launch counteroffensives.

When the government operation restarted on December 1, spearheaded by the legendary “Tiger Forces,” a slow, grinding progress was expected, but unexpectedly the Islamist’s lines collapsed, the fighters hastily fled, the towns Maarrat al-Numan, Khan Tuman, and Saraqib on the M5 highway fell without much fighting. Turkey had set up several military positions on the M5 to prevent further Syrian advances, but the Syrians simply bypassed the Turkish checkpoints. 

The stunning advance of Syria’s army made it possible to completely secure the Damascus-Aleppo M5 highway, known to Syrians simply as the “International Road.” Connecting Damascus, Homs, Hama, an Aleppo, the motorway is key the countries economy. 

Historically a bustling trade route, it is considered as the most  strategic highway in the Middle East. For the Turkey-backed Islamists, the highway was a cornerstone in holding together their territory and keeping government forces at bay. Its loss marks a mortal blow for the Islamic militias, whose hold on their last patches of ground in northwestern Syria is looking more and more precarious.

As the Syrian troops moved further north, they could attack the heavily fortified enemy positions in some western Aleppo suburbs (Rashidin, Laramun), which were still in Islamist hands, from behind, overwhelming the defenders and clearing the whole of Aleppo province from rebels.

Alleppans were celebrating in the street, as the threat of deadly shelling from Islamist positions at the western outskirts finally has ended and the first civilian airplane has landed in Aleppo airport. Flights were too dangerous until now because of random shelling.

After weeks of capturing territory, the last days though there was no change in frontlines at all. Even bombing and artillery shelling has stopped.

The Syrian troops certainly had the strategic town Darat Izza in their sights, but are probably taking a pause due to prepare for a Turkish assault. Maybe they wait for a result of Russian negotiations with Turkey, maybe logistics got overstretched as they made long distance advances.

At the moment the army moves military reinforcements to Ariha on the M4 highway (two days ago Turkish forces established a new military post in Mataram, a village near Ariha). The army also started ground operations to capture Jabal Zawiya and Deyr Sumbul in the south of Idlib. If these actions are successful, the operation for the town of Jisr al Shugur will begin. Taking Jisr al Shugur would give access to Idlib town. 

Trying to save the Islamic terrorists

Turkey has pulled all stops, showering the Islamists with more weapons than they ever dreamed of, mainly BGM-71 TOW ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles), mortars, APCs (armored personnel carriers), even tanks and MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems). The Islamists already downed two Syrian helicopters, though it is possible that one of them was shot down by Turkey.

As Turkey is flooding Idlib with ATGMs, the Islamic militias carry out an average of 3.15 ATGM strikes per day, the highest average rate for any years since the start of the Syrian war. In every successful strike a few Syrian soldiers die, so this development is a significant threat to the army.

Turkish operatives are also said to help HTS construct drones which regularly target the Hmeimim Air Base.

Erdogan threatens all out war

Erdogan got away with three invasions into Syria: “Euphrates Shield” in 2016, “Olive Branch” in 2018, and “Peace Spring” in 2019. He certainly thinks that the invasion and conquest of Idlib will be evenly successful.

As done before, he announces the invasion with strong words:

We are entering the last days for the [Syrian] regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]. The talks will continue, but it is true that we are far from meeting our demands at the table.” 

Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. I say that we can come at any point. In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time.

We will not leave Idlib to the [Syrian] regime, which does not understand our country’s determination.”

A Turkish Presidency spokesman stated: “There was no satisfactory outcome for Turkey from the meetings with Russia over Syria’s Idlib. We rejected the paper and map offered to us.”

Turkey’s UN representative Ayşe Cihan Sultanoglu: “We give our last warnings to Russia, Assad and Iran. Ankara will not abandon Idlib observation posts. The Assad regime must withdraw from the region.”

An operation in Idlib is imminent,” Erdogan told his party’s legislators in Parliament. “We are counting down, we are making our final warnings.” He said, that Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone “no matter the cost,” even as talks continue with Russia.

These are not empty threats: 15,000 Turkish soldiers are in northwestern Syria and 2460 armored vehicles and trucks have entered in the last weeks. Half of Reyhanli near the Syrian border is full of Turkish Commandos ready to invade Syria. This is the biggest concentration of military forces since the start of the conflict and the troops are apparently preparing for war. 

The Turkish Army has further ordered Turkish funded Islamic militias in the Euphrates Shield areas and Afrin to prepare for entering Idlib. 

Turkey allegedly also gave a notice to NATO about an impending operation and requested interception/prevention flights (meaning the imposition of a no-fly-zone) by NATO over Idlib. It is unlikely that NATO will heed the request but it shows that Erdogan threatens not only Syria but also Russia.

Turkish forces shelled the Salma area in Lattakia countryside, Nubl, Zaraa, and Syrian army positions around Sarawith with artillery rockets. Turkey also attacked the Hama military airport and has allegedly made it unusable.

The Turkish army together with Islamist militias has attacked Neyrab and reportedly is in control of parts of the town. Russian and Syrian jets are bombing Turkish forces and Islamic militias at the axis of Qaminas and Sarmin. Several Turkish tanks have been destroyed, Syria has lost two tank and a BMP, two Russian drones have been shot down.

A Turkish observation post in Qmeinas was bombed by Russian warplanes, MANPADS targeted Russian and Syrian jets but until now missed. Three Turkish F-16 have been sighted over Idlib. If this would really be true,  it would be only a matter of time till the first air “dogfights” are happening.

The situation is chaotic with contradicting reports, but it is clear that Russia is confronting the Turkish army.

Erdogan’s soft spot

Turkey has throughout the Syrian conflict either openly or covertly supported all Islamist radicals. The border was open for jihadists from across the world to cross into Syria and Islamist militias under pressure from the Syrian army simply retreated back into Turkey where they could regroup and resupply in safety. Recruitment centers, headquarters, training facilities, munition depots were on Turkish territory, Turkey provided weapons and paid the salaries of the fighters. 

The Islamists made a fortune selling looted machinery and materials from industrial zones in Aleppo and elsewhere. Ancient artifacts, furniture, appliances, and other movable things were looted and sold in Turkey.

Turkey bought oil from IS (Islamic State), and IS Kalif Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding near the Turkish border. Surely the MIT (Turkey’s spy agency) knew his whereabouts, but the USA got infos about him not from MIT but from Kurds.

Russia’s response

Moscow’s aim has always been to help the government in Damascus achieve control over all of Syria, and the Idlib offensive is a big step to achieving this and finally end the Syrian conflict after nine tortuous years.

In response to Turkish threats the Kremlin simply stated: “Moscow is no longer satisfied with the implementation of the Sochi agreements after the militants attack in Idlib.” And there is indeed not a single point of the agreement that Turkey and the Islamists implemented. There was no action against HTS, the Islamic militias didn’t leave the negotiated 15 km buffer zone, the M5 and M4 highways could not be reopened, and there were constant violations of the ceasefire.

Russia’s UN representative Vasily Nebenzya says, that Russia will continue supporting Syria in its Idlib operation, adding that support for terrorists needs to stop. And: “We will not stop our support for the legitimate Syrian government facing terrorism inside its territory.”

Russian media is fanning the flames: “Turkish forces have begun to deploy the electronic warfare system Koral in Idlib, which poses a real threat to the Russian air force, so it will be a legitimate target of the Russian army.”

This is the defining moment for Russia and Putin. Will Russia sit idly, do nothing against the Turkish invasion, and lose its position as a key player, reliable partner, and power broker in the Middle East, or will it put an end to Erdogan’s “Ottoman-dreams”?

One could argue that Russia achieved its main goals within a year of the intervention in 2015, with subsequent actions just yielding diminishing returns. But if Putin concedes and surrenders Idlib to Erdogan, he will not be taken serious anymore. Erdogan will not stop with Idlib and will be emboldened to pursue his neo-Ottoman conquests.

This is a battle of wills between two very different personalities. One (Erdogan) is a high risk gambler who often acts emotional, erratic, and irrational. The other one (Putin) is a cool calculator, a pragmatist who avoids confrontations, looks for compromise, and tries to avoid risks. 

Will Putin blink?

What about Iran?

Syria is usually regarded as Iran’s closest ally, in spite of the ideological conflict between Syria’s secular Ba’ath Party and Iran’s pan-Islamist policy. Iran and Syria have had a strategic alliance ever since the Iran–Iraq War, when Syria sided with non-Arab Iran against neighboring Ba’ath-ruled Iraq.

In June 2006 the defense ministers of Iran and Syria signed an agreement for military cooperation. Details of the agreement were not specified, however the Iranian defense minister Najjar said “Iran considers Syria’s security its own security, and we consider our defense capabilities to be those of Syria.”

Iranian militias take part in the Dawn of Idlib offensive and they will directly confront the Turkish invaders.

A bleak outlook

An invasion without UN Security Council approval or support by any country except the USA in defense of Al-Qaeda would not look good in world opinion no matter how Western media would spin it. 

The propagandists are already hard at work. Reuters conveniently reported, that government air strikes did hit hospitals and refugee camps in Idlib, killing about 300 civilians.

UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council, that “the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” in northwest Idlib province has overwhelmed efforts to provide aid. “Nearly 900,000 people have been displaced since the government offensive began, more than 500,000 of them children.”

Many are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow,” Lowcock said. “They are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.”

Erdogan argues, that Turkey simply cannot take more refugees and has to act in order to stem the refugee flood. Yet, if the fighting would end, most of the refugees would go back to Syria. A Turkish invasion is counter productive, as it will only prolong the war and cause more death and destruction.

If the USA, NATO allies, Turkey, the Gulf monarchies, and Israel would not have supported the Islamic insurgents, including radicals and terrorists like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, there would not be war in the first place.

What the spin doctors demand is, that Syria accepts a terrorist safe haven on its soil. No nation would accept such a demand. The human suffering of the population in Mosul and Raqqa didn’t deter the USA from relentlessly bombing these cities, the suffering of Yemenis does not deter Saudi Arabia to bomb and kill indiscriminately, the suffering of Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis didn’t deter US forces, the suffering of Tamils didn’t deter Sri Lanka from destroying the Tamil Tigers.

Why should Syria not be allowed to eliminate the terrorist refuge on its soil?

A Turkish invasion would create thousands more refugees and risk a war with Russia and Iran. Where would the invasion stop? At the M5 highway, in Aleppo, or in Damascus (as Devlet Bahceli, chairman of Erdogan’s nationalist partner party suggested)?

Erdogan in a 2016 speech: “Turkey cannot be confined within the 780,000 km2 border. Misrata, Aleppo, Homs, and Hasaka are outside our actual borders, but they are within our emotional and physical limits, we will confront those who limit our history to only the nineties.”

The main border crossings used by Turkey are in striking distance of Syrian and Russian artillery and MLRSs (multiple launch rocket systems). In addition to this Russian Iskander-M missiles and the more than 30 Kalibr cruise missiles on Russian ships in the Mediterranean Sea can easily reach any Turkish targets. Syria also still has Scud and OTR-21 Tochka missiles.

There are reports that Russian SU-24 have been deployed to the T4 airbase. Maybe Russia wants to spread their fighter jets to avoid being completely wiped out by a surprise attack on Hmeimim.

New loads of tanks, MRLSs, anti-tank missiles, bombs, and troop carriers have arrived in Russia’s Hmeimim military base in Latakia. Russia has apparently foreseen the escalation and has recently sent additional supplies through the Bosporus (which could be closed by Turkey in case of war).

This will end badly and there will be for sure another post about the Turkish invasion, I just rush the text out to alert readers about this momentous development.

Further reading:

https://mato48.com/2019/10/20/peace-spring-and-ottoman-dreams/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/26/who-will-stop-erdogan-update-2/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/27/turkish-collaboration-with-is/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/25/who-will-stop-erdogan-update/
https://mato48.com/2015/11/25/who-will-stop-erdogan/
https://mato48.com/2018/03/20/syria-the-war-that-will-not-end/
https://mato48.com/2018/01/02/kurdish-dreams-visions-and-reality/