Syria – Erdogan Is Afraid Of Entering Idleb
By Moon Of Alabama
The Turkish President Erdogan announced the start of a Turkish operation in Idleb province of Syria. Idelb has been for years under the control of al-Qaeda in Syria, currently under the label Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
In the talks in Astana, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed on a deescalation zone in Idelb to be supervised by all three of them. But the fight against al-Qaeda, aka HTS, would continue. Turkey is supposed to control the western part of the province including the city of Idleb. But the Turkish government is afraid to go there.
During the last days there have been many reports and lots of pictures of Turkish force movements along the north-western Syrian border. But Turkey made no attempt to enter the country and it is doubtful that it will.
Erdogan’s announcement needs some parsing:
“There’s a serious operation in Syria’s Idlib today and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party, adding that Turkey would not allow a “terror corridor” on its border with Syria.
“For now Free Syria Army is carrying out the operation there,” Erdogan said. “Russia will be protecting outside the borders (of the Idlib region) and we will handle inside,” he said.
“Russia is supporting the operation from the air, and our armed forces from inside Turkey’s borders,” he added.
“[F]rom inside Turkey’s borders” means of course that the Turkish army will not (again) enter Syria. At least not now.
Turkey has transferred some 800 of its “Turkmen” mercenaries from the “Euphrates Shield” area north-east of Aleppo [green] to the western border next to Idleb. “Euphrates Shield” was a fight against the Islamic State with the aim of interrupting a potential Kurdish “terrorist” corridor from north-east Syria to the north-western Kurdish enclave Afrin [beige]. Turkey lost a bunch of heavy battle tanks and some 70 soldiers in that fight. Erdogan was criticized in Turkey for the somewhat botched operation.
The Turkish proxy fighters now sent into Idleb belong to the Hamza Brigade, Liwa al-Mutasem and other Turkish “Free Syrian Army” outfits. They will have to go in without tanks and heavy weapons. Some Turkish special forces with them might be able to call up artillery support from within Turkey. But no Turkish air support will be available as Syria and Russia insist of staying in control of the airspace.
A recent video shows a group of HTS maniacs attacking an outpost like professional soldiers. They are equipped with AT-4 anti-tank missiles, 60mmm mortars, light machine guns and Milkor grenade launcher. They have good uniforms, fairly new boots and ammo carrier belts. This is not equipment captured from the Syrian army or second hand stuff from some former eastern-block country. It is modern “western” stuff. These folks still have some rich sponsor and excellent equipment sources.
Russia has in recent weeks extensively bombed al-Qaeda positions in Idleb. Turkish intelligence may have helped with that. But AQ still has a very decent fighting force. The Turkish supported forces are likely no match for well equipped and battle hardened al-Qaeda fighters.
Turkey had for nearly six years supplied and pampered al-Qaeda in Syria. The group has many relations and personal within Turkey. The Astana agreement now obligates Turkey to fight HTS. Erdogan sits in a trap he set up himself. Should it come to a conflict between HTS and Turkish forces in Syria, the fight would soon cause casualties in Ankara and Istanbul.
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Erdogan might still believe that he can somehow domesticate HTS. The government controlled Anadolu agency does not even mention the al-Qaeda origin of the group nor its long control of the area. It is trying to paint a somewhat rosy picture of HTS as an anti-American outfit:
Tahrir al-Sham, an anti-regime group, has come to the forefront with increasing activity in Idlib recently. Tahrir al-Sham has not made a direct statement against the deployment of Turkish troops to the region.
On the other hand, the group and some opponents oppose the entry of various Free Syrian Army groups to Idlib, which are prepared to come from the Euphrates Shield Operation Area.
The group justifies the opposition, saying that other groups expected to arrive in the region get support from the United States.
The Turkish paper Hurriyet is less sensible with Erdogan’s needs:
Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), spearheaded by a former al-Qaeda affiliate that changed its name last year from the Nusra Front.
HTS is not party to a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran for the safe zone in the province, one of four such “de-escalation” zones nationwide.
Ousting HTS forces from the area will be needed to allow the arrival of Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces to implement a de-escalation zone.
In Astana Erdogan was given the task to clean up the mess he earlier created in Idleb by supporting the Jihadis. Erdogan does not like the job but has no choice.
If the de-escalation fails because HTS stays in control, Syria and its allies will move into Idleb. Turkey will then have to cope with thousands of battle seasoned Jihdis and a million of their kinfolk as refugees. If Erdogan moves Turkish forces into the Idleb area it will become a very costly fight and he will soon be in trouble in his own realm. Making peace with HTS is not an option. HTS rejected all offers to “change its skin” and to melt away. Iran, the Astana agreement and a number of UN Security Council Resolutions also stand against that.
It will be difficult for Turkey to untangle that knot.
This article was originally published by Moon Of Alabama –
See also –
US suspends all non-immigrant visa services in Turkey: US Embassy says recent events forced it to reassess Ankara’s commitment to the security of US facilities and staff.
October 08, 2017 “Information Clearing House” –
Why Are Washington’s Clients Getting Cozy With Moscow?
By Nauman Sadiq
October 07, 2017 “Information Clearing House” – Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, has been cooperating with Russia in Syria against Washington’s interests since last year and has recently placed an order for the Russian-made S-400 missile system.
Similarly, the Saudi King Salman, who is on a landmark state visit to Moscow, has signed several cooperation agreements with Kremlin and has also expressed his willingness to buy S-400 missile system.
Another traditional ally of Washington in the region, Pakistan, has agreed to build a 600 mega-watt power project with Moscow’s assistance, has bought Russian helicopters and defense equipment and has held joint military exercises with Kremlin.
All three countries have been steadfast US allies since the times of the Cold War, or rather, to put it bluntly, the political establishments of these countries have acted as virtual proxies of Washington in the region and had played an important role in the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
In order to understand the significance of relationship between Washington and Ankara, which is a NATO member, bear in mind that the United States has been conducting air strikes against targets in Syria from the Incirlik airbase and around fifty American B-61 hydrogen bombs have also been deployed there, whose safety became a matter of real concern during the failed July 2016 coup plot against the Erdogan administration; when the commander of the Incirlik airbase, General Bekir Ercan Van, along with nine other officers were arrested for supporting the coup; movement in and out of the base was denied, power supply was cut off and the security threat level was raised to the highest state of alert, according to a report by Eric Schlosser for the New Yorker.
Similarly, in order to grasp the nature of principal-agent relationship between the United States on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on the other, keep in mind that Washington used Gulf’s petro-dollars and Islamabad’s intelligence agencies to nurture jihadists against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.
It is an irrefutable fact that the United States sponsors militants, but only for a limited period of time in order to achieve certain policy objectives. For instance: the United States nurtured the Afghan jihadists during the Cold War against the former Soviet Union from 1979 to 1988, but after the signing of the Geneva Accords and consequent withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the United States withdrew its support to the Afghan jihadists.
Similarly, the United States lent its support to the militants during the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, but after achieving the policy objectives of toppling the Arab nationalist Gaddafi regime in Libya and weakening the anti-Israel Assad regime in Syria, the United States relinquished its blanket support to the militants and eventually declared a war against a faction of Sunni militants battling the Syrian government, the Islamic State, when the latter transgressed its mandate in Syria and dared to occupy Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014.
The United States regional allies in the Middle East, however, are not as subtle and experienced in Machiavellian geopolitics. Under the misconception that alliances and enmities in international politics are permanent, the Middle Eastern autocrats keep on pursuing the same belligerent policy indefinitely as laid down by the hawks in Washington for a brief period of time in order to achieve certain strategic objectives.
For example: the security establishment of Pakistan kept pursuing the policy of training and arming the Afghan and Kashmiri jihadists throughout the eighties and nineties and right up to September 2001, even after the United States withdrew its support to the jihadists’ cause in Afghanistan during the nineties after the collapse of its erstwhile archrival, the Soviet Union.
Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Turkey has made the same mistake of lending indiscriminate support to the Syrian militants even after the United States partial reversal of policy in Syria and the declaration of war against the Islamic State in August 2014 in order to placate the international public opinion when the graphic images and videos of Islamic State’s brutality surfaced on the social media.
Keeping up appearances in order to maintain the façade of justice and morality is indispensable in international politics and the Western powers strictly abide by this code of conduct. Their medieval client states in the Middle East, however, are not as experienced and they often keep on pursuing the same militarist policies of training and arming the militants against their regional rivals, which are untenable in the long run in a world where pacifism has generally been accepted as one of the fundamental axioms of the modern worldview.
Regarding the recent cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in the Syrian civil war, although the proximate cause of this détente seems to be the attempted coup plot against the Erdogan administration in July last year by the supporters of the US-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen, but this surprising development also sheds light on the deeper divisions between the United States and Turkey over their respective Syria policy.
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After the United States reversal of “regime change” policy in Syria in August 2014 when the Islamic State overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014 and threatened the capital of another steadfast American ally, Masoud Barzani’s Erbil in the oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, Washington has made the Kurds the centerpiece of its policy in Syria and Iraq.
Bear in mind that the conflict in Syria and Iraq is actually a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arabs, the Shi’a Arabs and the Sunni Kurds. Although after the declaration of war against a faction of Sunni Arab militants, the Islamic State, Washington has also lent its support to the Shi’a-led government in Iraq, but the Shi’a Arabs of Iraq are not the trustworthy allies of the United States because they are under the influence of Iran.
Therefore, Washington was left with no other choice than to make the Kurds the centerpiece of its policy in Syria and Iraq after a group of Sunni Arab jihadists transgressed its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014 from where the United States had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which are on the verge of liberating the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa, and are currently battling the jihadist group in a small pocket of the city between the stadium and a hospital, are nothing more than the Kurdish militias with a symbolic presence of mercenary Arab tribesmen in order to make them appear more representative and inclusive in outlook.
As far as the regional parties to the Syrian civil war are concerned, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the rest of the Gulf Arab States may not have serious reservations against this close cooperation between the United States and the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, because the Gulf Arab States tend to look at the regional conflicts from the lens of the Iranian Shi’a threat.
Turkey, on the other hand, has been more wary of the separatist Kurdish tendencies in its southeast than the Iranian Shi’a threat, and particularly now after the Kurds have held a referendum for independence in Iraq despite the international pressure against such an ill-advised move.
Finally, any radical departure from the longstanding policy of providing unequivocal support to Washington’s policy in the region by the political establishment of Turkey since the times of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is highly unlikely. But after this perfidy by Washington of lending its support to the Kurds against the Turkish proxies in Syria, it is quite plausible that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Turkey might try to strike a balance in its relations with the Cold War-era rivals.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.