Key words: Turkey, Russia, Syria, Iran, U.S.
Elijah J. Magnier: @
As the end of 2016 approaches, the Syrian war is coming close to its sixth year, leaving about half a million combatants and civilians killed, more than that number wounded, and millions of displaced people inside and outside the country. The infrastructure, housing and business damage exceeds 250 billion dollars. In addition Syria almost set off the third world war, between the United States of America and Russia.
The Syrian war spawned such terrorist organisations as the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) and the al-Qaeda franchise (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham). Many rebel factions emerged and several small groups merged with other more powerful ones. Other rebel organisations were taken out of the Syrian arena despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in training and weapons in the hope of changing the Syrian regime.
From Syria, terrorism spread outside its borders striking Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other countries in the region and much further afield, setting off serious alarm bells and increasing counter-terrorism budgets throughout the world.
Human beings in Syria faced humiliation and killing in the name of religion and doctrine. The mainstream media seriously contributed to fuelling sectarian strife by reporting news away from the field, quoting anti-government sectarian activists, and projecting the war in Syria as one between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority. The war is far from being exclusively between religious belligerents. The majority of the Syrian Army is Sunni, fighting for the survival of the government infrastructure and unity of the country, against Jihadists whose creed rejects democracy, all non Muslim-Sunni, and non religious government. International media reputation was seriously damaged, losing credibility due to this poor and biased coverage of the Syrian war.
Players change as well as their role and the consequences of their input: Syria moved from certain partition to another more stable situation that will be more easily defined as the coming year, 2017, evolves.
The Turkish role:
This role was and still is the most influential in the Syrian war over jihadists and rebels. Turkey’s intervention was important and decisive for the fate of Syria politically and on the battlefield, forming different alliances where yesterday’s enemies are today now tolerated.
Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian war began five and a half years ago. The goal of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not limited to the removal of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, but included the annexation of a “security belt” (safe zone) along the northern border. He went even further in his plans, preparing the ground to seize the city of Aleppo, a city that remained outside what was falsely called the “Syrian spring” for over a year after the beginning of the unrest in Syria. The city was enjoying the economic-political power it represented, the Sunni influence in Syria being represented in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus.
This Turkish intervention came with the impact of Western countries’ push to dislodge Assad, for various reasons: the US extended its influence through former President George W. Bush, following the invasion of Iraq. Syria was next on the list to produce a “new Middle East”; the Qatar gas project that was supposed to go through Syria into Europe with the aim of weakening the Russian economy, at present a major gas supplier to Europe; the role of Assad in the “axis of resistance” and his support for organisations Washington considers terrorist groups (Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad); Syria’s support for Iran standing in the way of an Arab – Israeli rapprochement. All of these influences were present behind the “Arab Spring,” putting Syria into a real “Arab tsunami” without apparently creating major benefits.
Since the first days of the war in Syria, Turkey has opened its borders to anyone who wanted to join the war. Many foreigners (European and non European) travelled to Syria, via Turkey, to join jihadist organisations, later known as the “Islamic state” (ISIS/Daesh) and the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra, aka Fateh al-Sham).These people travelled with the knowledge and, for the most part, the approval of Western countries (France, US, Britain …). Many of those same fighters returned later to their respective countries, representing a real threat to their societies, but above all to Turkey itself because fighters were also asked to establish themselves in that country to form a (radical) society. In fact, ISIS asked many of these foreign fighters to stop in Turkey and form a family and a society where they might be needed one day to serve “the Islamic nation”, establishing a nucleus for the future.
The “free world” predicted the fall of Assad in 3 months…6months…1 year… The situation became gloomy after that date. The fall of Assad was no longer predictable. In the first years of the war, the Syrian army resisted despite the large splits within its ranks, to become cornered in few cities in 2013. This is when Assad called on his allies for help. The French intelligence chief and his British intelligence counterpart both said “the map of the Middle East will never be the same again”. In the light of today, both clearly failed in the extent of their prediction, confirming that many politicians, intelligence officers, analysts and media also failed in their assessment because they were expressing wishful thinking rather than facts. This is exactly what happened to President Erdogan, who believed the partition of Syria was at hand.
Erdogan therefore allowed ISIS to spill over inside the country, permitting commercial exchanges, especially oil, and opening the arms supply road to the Jihadists of al-Qaeda as well. That was considered a temporary procedure because “Assad was supposed to step-down in few months”.
As time was going by and the Syrian government was still holding up, Turkey built strong alliances with Syrian groups like Ahrar al-Sham (15-20,000 fighters), Nur ad-DinZengi (3,000 fighters), Sultan Murad (2,000 fighters) and others who were (years later) recalled to form the ” Euphrates shield” and fight under direct Turkish forces’ command in Syria. These same groups established good relations with both the moderate and jihadist groups in Syria.
Turkey contributed effectively to the fall of the city of Kessab in rural Lattakia by allowing jihadists to use its territory to cross into Syria and to control the hills surrounding the north-west Syrian province. Moreover, Turkey played an essential role in arming and offering logistics and intelligence for jihadists and rebels to occupy the city of Idlib and Jisr al-Shoughour. Everything was going as Turkey planned until Assad called Iran and its allies for help.
Ankara has supported the control which the jihadists and the opposition exerted over large parts of Aleppo. It played an active role, enabling Iran to enter the battle line with its allies. The presence of Iran tipped the scales in favour of President Assad, but not enough to counter the continuous Turkish regional support, sustained by the United States and the countries of the region (Saudi Arabia and Qatar). Despite significant gains made in Damascus and Qalmoun and other areas, the regime and its allies decided to retreat within the major towns to protect the cities themselves.
Here Russia intervened to spoil the plans of everyone willing to divide Syria, and change the map of their projects and their wishes. It rebalanced the battlefield imposing the initial solution which required everyone to sit down at the negotiating table and recognize the role of al-Assad, who had been sidelined. But Turkey’s shooting down of the Sukhoi 24 in Novembre 2015 changed the whole Syrian game. The partition of Syria was no longer an option and Russia showed thatkeeping a balance among the various players was not its concern. The event marked a turning point in the history of the Syrian war: Russia deployed more forces, advanced anti-air missiles and threw its military weight in the battle field offering the possibility of a victory for President Assad.
A second turning point in the Syrian war took place when President Erdogan suffered a failed coup d’état. Intelligence support provided by Moscow through Iran contributed in warning the Turkish president in time for him to adopt security measures, counter the coup and remain alive. Erdogan implicitly accused the US of being behind the coup and turned his political energies towards Russia.
The Turkish – Russian – Iranian understanding over Syria isolated the present US administration and marginalised it (at least until the new US administration takes control). This consensus among the three countries has allowed the return of Aleppo to the control of the Syrian government. It has also prevented the partition of northern Syria and a large US sphere of influence among the Kurdish controlled area extending from al-Hasaka to Afrin.
Russia blessed the involvement of Turkey on the battlefield: Turkish forces and their allies took control of Jarablus, Dabiq and reached the gates of the city of al-Bab. This is when Russia stopped Erdogan again due to the lack of coordination of the presence of anti-government forces (Turkey proxies) facing the Syrian Army at the limits of Aleppo. This would be critical in the event of al-Bab falling to Ankara’s control. Turkish forces were bombed a few kilometres from al-Bab, sending a strong message and drawing the line of what would be the limit of deployment of forces. Again, Turkey understood the message and called for an immediate meeting with Russia and Iran to coordinate further steps.
An important meeting was held between the Foreign and Defence ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow to map out the strategy and distribute/co-ordinate tasks through to 2017 in Syria. This meeting excluded the US and Europe. The exit of militants from Aleppo and the advance of theTurkish troops (with their proxies under “the Euphrates Shield”) to al-Bab were the first visible results of the meeting.
The ISIS brutality of burning two captured Turkish soldiers in its custody removed President Erdogan’s option of going back to support the terrorist group. On the contrary, the elimination of this organisation has now become one of Turkey’s priorities. However, the harmony between Russia -Turkey – Iran, if continued at this rhythm, will not aim to destroy ISIS as a priority compared to the other jihadist groups operating within the collection of Syrian rebels.
Turkey has abandoned Aleppo and contributed to the defeat of the militants and jihadists. Despite Ankara’s long record of support to al-Qaeda (Nusra, aka Fatah al-Sham), the relationship can now no longer be the same. Indeed, Al-Qaeda has refused to bow to Erdogan on many occasions even though its military, security, medical and logistic support comes via the Syrian-Turkish borders.
Turkey announced that al-Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra) is on its list of terrorist groups. But this decision was never implemented: on the contrary, Ankara effectively contributed to the formation of “Jaish al-Fath” where al-Qaeda and Turkey’s allies (and other groups) were included under one umbrella.
However, al-Qaida stood up to Turkey when it announced its rejection of a safe zone on the borders “because it is not in the interests of the Jihad,” and pulled out its jihadists from the northern part of Syria, leaving Turkish allies to face ISIS on their own. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when al-Qaida announced the prohibition of asking for Turkish Army support and therefore condemned any group participating in the “Euphrates Shield”.
The Turkish-backed factions will never accept a merger with al-Qaeda because in Syria this organisation is expected to be targeted in the coming months.
This was also clearly announced and approved by Turkey during the Moscow meeting with Russia and Iran.
Turkey now is one of the main players in the Syrian arena. Its forces are deployed on the battlefield to contribute to changing the rules of the game and the pattern of alliances. Ankara’s soldiers are in the Syrian quagmire (fighting ISIS in al-Bab to start with), losing more men in one week than Russia has lost in 18 months. President Erdogan can no longer pull out of his involvement to collect the result after the war. Therefore, a peaceful settlement will not include those jihadist groups unwilling to merge with more moderate (even Islamist) groups. In Syria, there can’t be a place for al-Qaeda foreign fighters, neither ISIS nor the ones unwilling to bow to a peace process to stop the war.
Therefore, serious differences and infighting are expected to arise between the various factions located at the northern city of Idlib in the process which should pave the way for a political settlement and spare Idlib a bloody theatre-style destructive climax similar to that which flattened the city of Aleppo.
So Turkey remains one of the most important players, aware that any alliance with the actual US administration (under Obama) over Syria will have an aborted outcome, whereas the alliance with Russia has allowed Ankara to remain in Syria. The Syrian President will have to negotiate with Ankara and take into consideration its interests, the day the Syrian war comes to an end.
Regional and international balance in the Levant (2): Russia’s role in the Syrian war and the tactical differences with Iran.