Original by Pyotr Skorobogatyy published by expert.ru; translation by J.Hawk
The local operation conducted by the Russian-Syrian coalition dramatically changed the theater of operations and caused all manner of geopolitical consequences. In one week, the strategic corridor north of Aleppo used for supplying militants from Turkey was closed. This success predictably caused the first round of Geneva negotiations to fail, and Turkey started to seriously consider a land operation in Syria. Washington expansionists are slapping together their own coalition. Western media launched another propaganda barrage of accusations that tens of thousands of Syrian civilians are fleeing Russian bombs. The situation is changing from day to day, but Russia continues to hold strategic initiative which prevents Arab and Western powers from coming up with a response.
Turkey prepares for war
On February 4, Russian MOD reported that Ankara has established a precedent of “unmonitored military activity”: Turkey refused to allow a Russian observation flight over its territory in accordance with Open Skies Treaty. A Russian aircraft was to overly Turkish border regions and NATO airbases. This incident which many media did not report is rumored to have stopped the Turkish land operation. Russian specialists have proposed a flight route which made it clear that the Russian General Staff knows very well what is being prepared, and that the Russian reaction will be extremely harsh.
A bit later, MOD’s official representative Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that, well, Syria provided photos showing Turkish self-propelled howitzers on the border itself: “There are more signs of preparations to invade Syria every day. We view Turkish actions as dangerous and criminal efforts to hide their criminal military activities on the border with Syria.”
Ankara views creating a buffer zone on its southern border a priority, but the question is whether this zone will be on Turkish or Syrian soil. Once the hope to overthrow Assad was dispelled by Russia’s arrival, Ankara had to set up barrier detachments on the border to prevent the militants, who are fleeing Russian airstrikes, from entering Turkey. The buffer is also intended to keep the Kurdish offensive at bay and prevent it from linking up with the two large Kurdish enclaves in Syria’s north-west and north-east. Finally, this hypothetical zone of influence is needed to ensure the terrorists continue being supplied and trade with ISIS continues.
The Russian warning held up the Turkish advance, but did not resolve the overall problem: with every new town liberated in the “appendix” north of Aleppo, Ankara has less time to carry out an intervention on Syria’s territory. It’s one thing to take territory from militants, and something else to fight the SAA or the Kurds who are now actively supported by the US. The decision tree looks like this: is Turkey ready to act unilaterally with tacit Western support, or will it coordinate its actions with the pro-US coalition.
The first option could follow the Lebanese precedent: Israel has invaded southern Lebanon many times to fight Hezbollah with no UN authorizations and in spite of neighboring countries’ condemnations. Tel-Aviv operated quickly and decisively: it established a buffer and no-fly zones, introduced troops, and attacked the adversary with pin-point special operations raids and artillery bombardments. The outcome was always debatable, but Israel did not suffer fatal consequences. Ankara could use the artificially-created humanitarian crisis on the border as a pretext for a similar operation, which is already being explained as necessary to ensure EU’s stability. Erdogan is continuing to skilfully blackmail the infantile Euro-bureaucrats: “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria and bring up the refugees on buses. If you give us 3 billion euro over two years, there is no point in further discussions. Greece received 400 million during the crisis. We should use this money to create a security zone in Syria to solve all the refugee problems.” EU, incidentally, could decide to save themselves further trouble and close its eyes on Turkey’s military operation, just as it has ignored the slaughter in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces. Merkel made it clear that she’s prepared to play that game: “We have been not just astounded but shocked in the last few days by the suffering of tens of thousands of people due to bombings, including by the Russians.” Other NATO countries also are “shocked” by Russian airstrikes, and NATO GenSec Stoltenberg said that our operation in Syria is preventing the peaceful resolution of the conflict and is raising tensions in the region.
The Russian MOD answered: “We would like to remind Mr. Stoltenberg that it was not Russian airstrikes that caused the crisis in Syria, but the senseless NATO actions with plunged the Middle East into chaos. What is more, prior to Russian aircraft arriving in Syria, NATO has been pretending for three years to be destroying international terrorism. During all that time, nobody in the West and especially in Brussels so much as mentioned any negotiations over Syria. They were only making estimates when the country would finally fall apart, like Libya, where NATO countries were also busy establishing Western-style “democracy.” If anyone right now in Syria is worried about Russian aircraft, it’s the terrorists. We’d like to ask Mr. Stoltenberg why some NATO countries are worried about Russian aircraft in Syria.”
One should keep in mind that Turkey’s intervention does not at all mean a direct clash between Russian and Turkey. It would most likely be limited to yet another round of hybrid war, and it’s wholly possible Assad’s troops hardened by four years of war could deal with the Turkish soldiery on their own. “Any military intervention without Syrian government’s approval would be viewed as aggression. The invaders will be sent home in coffins,” was Damascus’ direct response.
There’s also another possiblity, namely that Turkey will not simply attempt to create a buffer zone, but break through the corridor toward Aleppo or Raqqa. But that option is only possible if it acts as part of a coalition.
Most of the attempts to discuss the hypothetical war between Russian and Turkey fail to realistically assess all the Syrian conflict actors. Ankara is described as an insane asylum inmate who is ready to do something suicidal at any moment. The role of the United States, which clearly has lost the initiative in the region, tends to be diminished, and in general Obama’s policies are treated with disregard if not outright contempt. Underestimating the world’s strongest power could be costly, but fortunately it’s mostly the private citizens who do so, not specialists.
Sure, Washington was taken by surprise by the Russian operation in Syria and lost its tactical bridgeheads on Syria’s soil. But it still is dominant in Iraq where it appears willing to start a major operation against ISIS in order to move toward Raqqa. The start of the operation is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2016. Its feasibility is debatable. It’s not clear who will do the fighting: the Iraqi army which usually suffers defeats, the hypothetical US forces, whose deployment would also have to pass the pre-election test, or Saudi mercenaries which burns with desire to stick it to the Iranians on the Syrian front but which is still counting its own losses in Yemen. So here the “fresh” and relatively powerful Turkish military machine could turn out to be just what’s needed. To be sure, the US complicated its relations with Ankara by supporting the Kurds.
It’s not clear how Washington will resolve this problem. On the one hand, Kurds are weaker militarily than the Turks, and no matter how many weapons US gives them, Kurdish infantry will find it difficult to fight major ground battles. The Kurds will not operate outside the areas they inhabit, especially without a guarantee of establishing their own state (which the White House is not about to give). On the other hand, the Kurds provide Washington with their only genuine toehold on Syrian soil, whose loss would mean leaving the Syrian theater of operations. Turkish pressure would force Kurds in Iraq and Syria to turn their weapons against their historic enemies–the Turks–thus leaving ISIS on US conscience or feeding them to the Russian-Syrian coalition. The war would become more complicated, and it’s wholly possible the US would find itself simply ejected from it.
The problem lies in that the US is forced to rein in Turkish ambitions, but does not have levers of influence sufficiently powerful to force Erdogan to do what it wants. “Turkey’s growing hostility toward the Kurdish fighters in Syria, who are America’s most effective allies against ISIS, is undermining the efforts to launch more effective operations against this extremist group,” US officials told the Wall Street Journal. Washington is also unhappy with the collapse of the Geneva talks and blames Ankara for it, implying it gave the militants it controls corresponding instructions. It does not mean that Washington agreed to Damascus’ conditions, but the whole peace process is another lever of influence which Turkey is knocking out of the West’s hands with its stubbornness.
Creating a pro-US coalition with Ankara’s participation and with the prospect of an upcoming land operation could temporarily accommodate Erdogan’s ambitions and make them compatible with the US foreign policy, to the point of outweighing the cost of having such an unstable ally. However, right now none of the Syrian conflict parties has sufficient military potential to go all out. The recent months have shown that initiative belongs to the side which has the best trained and equipped infantry. Today, it’s Damascus.