The Turkish-Syrian battle is the battle of the Kurds in Ayn al-Arab, Kobane.
Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan had decided to attack Russia, Iran and Syria when he sent his army to Idlib and bombed Russian and Iranian allies on the Idlib front. The Turkish president is feeling strong and believes he is holding many good cards to play against his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin. He trusts he is in a position to bomb Iran’s allies, despite the fact that they hold armed drones, precision missiles and experienced Special Forces that can hit Turkey very hard in the case of war.
The conflict Erdogan envisions between Russia, Iran and Syria on one side and Turkey on the other would suit the US and Israel. They would be happy to see Presidents Putin and Erdogan sinking into the Syrian quagmire and Hezbollah losing more men in the Levant. Negotiations, intense battles and attempts to reshuffle the military situation are taking place behind the scenes. President Erdogan is trying to improve his military position on the ground before his meeting with President Putin in Moscow tomorrow Thursday- but to no avail. Stormy negotiations can be expected.
President Erdogan is not in a position to bang his fist on the table. At the time Russia is receiving Erdogan a tweet by the Russian Foreign Ministry reminds him how Russia defeated the Ottoman Empire and forced it to sign the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878 in Constantinople. It has accused Erdogan of altering Syrian demography after occupying the Afrin province and Tal Abyad, forcing the departure of over 350,000 Kurds and the relocation of Turkmen militants and their families instead.
The battle of Idlib follows many secret talks before the struggle and reflects serious disagreements between Turkey on one side and Russia, Iran and Syria on the other. Erdogan was ready to negotiate and clear the roads linking Damascus and Aleppo (M5) and Aleppo and Latakia (M4) but in exchange, he asked for concessions in north-east Syria that were rejected. Turkey tried to stop the Syrian army and its allies and wanted to reach the gates of Aleppo. The current battle for Idlib, the “mother of all battles”, follows many secret talks which are the necessary context for understanding the current Turkish war on Syria and Syria’s response. For the first time, Syria has dared to hit the Turkish army directly- this has never happened before in the modern history of Syria.
Turkey is more isolated than it has ever been. It has lost its privileged position within the US by buying the S-400 and hosting the Turkstream pipeline selling Russian gas to Europe. It has lost European respect by organising the transfer of over 110,000 Syrian and other nationalities’ refugees to the borders, allowing them to reach the borders with Greece and refusing to close the Turkish borders to prevent the crossing. This Turkish blackmail is not winning friends on the European continent, especially since Erdogan is at the same time asking for more money to compensate the refugees’ presence in his country.
Arab countries are standing with Syria against Turkey. Libya’s eastern-based government linked to General Khalifa Haftar inaugurated the opening of its embassy in Damascus. Saudi Arabian, Egypt, and the Emirates are showing solidarity with President Assad against the Turkish-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood alliance. A strong message was delivered during the battle of Idlib where for the first time the Syrian and Turkish armies face each other on the battlefield.
Erdogan is also losing support from Putin by bombing the Syrian army, trained by Russia, and damaging Syrian military effectiveness honed with Russian help. When Moscow closed an eye to Turkey’s desire to avenge the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers and officers in south Idlib, Erdogan responded with a disproportionate bombing which angered Russia and the allies that suffered the most. In response, Iran threatened to hit back against more than a thousand Turkish troops within the 14 Turkish observation points located within liberated Syrian territory and guarded by Hezbollah and Iranian IRGC forces.
Putin is not completely losing his relationship with Erdogan, nor is it Russia’s intention to declare war on Turkey. In recent days, during a private meeting between Iranian and Turkish officials in Ankara, Iranian officers explained that “Iran and Russia believe that any war with Turkey will serve the US and Israel who would happily watch and contribute to fuelling the animosity between both sides.” US special representative for Syria James Jeffery said his country is ready to provide ammunition to Turkey in its Idlib battle. However, US defence secretary Mark Esper ruled out US intervention in favour of Turkey in Idlib.
In Idlib, Turkey seems to have lost hope in the capacities of tens of thousands of jihadists to hold the ground notwithstanding years of fortifications, tunnel digging and building stronghold positions in the cities along the Damascus-Aleppo (known as the M5) and Aleppo-Latakia (M4) roads. These jihadists are made up of a mixture of foreign fighters from dozens of different countries but mainly from the Tajik, Uighur, Turkmen and Arab jihadists fighting under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former ISIS, former al-Qaeda in Syria, former al-Nusra) fighting under different banners: from al-Qaeda (Hurras al-Din), Jund al-Aqsa to Ahrar al-Sham and many other names.
Hezbollah stopped an attack aiming to take back el-Eiss and from it to reach the gates of south Aleppo last Friday. The Turkish army bombed Hezbollah and Zul-fiqar brigade (Iranian IRGC, Fatimiyoun and Zeinabiyoun) at Talhiya to allow jihadists supported by Turkey to push into a corridor from Binnish and Taftanaz towards Talhiyah and from it to Rasm al-Is, Rasm al-Saharij, El-Eis strategic hill until al-Hader. Notwithstanding the Turkish intensive bombing to clear the road for jihadists and the killing of nine Hezbollah and over 66 wounded, the jihadists did not manage to get through. Hezbollah and their allies from the Zulfiqar brigades held their ground and stopped the advance.
Russia grounded its Air Force for 48 hours after the killing of 36 Turkish soldiers and officers (officially Turkey has declared 41 killed so far). The lack of air coverage surprised the allies of Russia who have anti-air missiles but were not expecting the Russians to abdicate their agreed role. Turkey managed to stop the Syrian army and its allies’ advance for 48 hours. However, all areas lost to the Turks were recovered within 48 hours. The battle of Saraqeb was the harshest. Hezbollah and the Zulfiqar brigade never withdrew from the east side of the city, while jihadists controlled the west side.
Following the Turkish “disproportionate bombing”, as described by the Russian generals in Syria, Moscow ordered its Air Force commanders to escort a dozen Syrian anti-air batteries to the front line to protect Syrian troops from any Turkish bombing. Syria brought the Tor-M1 and its Pantsir system and took measures to reduce the casualties caused by the Turkish drones.
Syria and its allies carried out (exceptional) night attacks liberating the strategic city of Saraqeb and held their positions in it. Hezbollah and Iran tripled the number of forces along the 70 km (M5 and M4) front against Turkey and its jihadists. Russia made 27 air attacks against Saraqeb and resumed air bombing in support of its allies.
Russia declared it could no longer “guarantee the safety of the Turkish aviation in Syria after Damascus shuts Idlib airspace”. The Syrian air defence systems downed around 7 Turkish drones. The Syrian army is showing dauntless courage by standing and bombing the Turkish military and fighting it face to face. Syrian artillery pounded Turkish positions and killed close to a dozen Turkish soldiers on the battlefield. President Bashar al-Assad’s decision to stand up to Turkey is something not even his father Hafez dared to do.
This is a response to Turkey’s killing and wounding of a large number of Syrian soldiers. Syria has been at war for nine years and has withstood significant losses. On the other hand, Turkey has one of the most prominent NATO armies with the most advanced means. A small and reduced Syrian army has now managed to kill Turkish soldiers on the battlefield, to destroy Turkish tanks and down their drones.
Turkey halted its direct bombing against Hezbollah and the Zulfiqar brigade. Iran and Hezbollah threatened to hit Turkey if the bombing continued. Close to 2000 Turkish officers and soldiers are now positioned, under Hezbollah and Iran’s ‘protection’, in 14 observation posts inside Syrian controlled areas, where they receive supplies locally. A meeting between the Iranians and the Turkish army and an exchange of messages took place between Hezbollah and Ankara, explaining that any clash between the two will bring the Levant and Turkey into a comprehensive confrontation that no one could win. The battle in Syria should not be against Turkey, and Erdogan needs to understand that the presence of his troops on Syrian territory is not acceptable.
Moscow moved its military police and special forces into Saraqeb to draw a line on any possible Turkish intention to attack the city again. The Turkish army attacks have yielded nothing, and the Syrian army and its allies are gaining momentum and have the upper hand. What is pushing Erdogan to fight with his own army alongside the jihadists for the control of two roads which it had previously agreed to de-escalate and declare a demilitarised zone in 2018?
According to decision-makers in Syria, President Erdogan asked his Russian counterpart to allow his forces to occupy an area 50 km deep in north-east Syria. At the start, Russia did not react to the Turkish advance to replace the US forces who decided to limit its presence in Syria to stealing Syrian oil, i.e. around the oil wells in north-east Syria. When the US redeployed, Russia asked Turkey to halt its operations in al-Hasaka and Raqqa provinces. Erdogan then lowered his request, asked for a 30 km deep buffer zone.
Russia has good ties with the Kurds and wants to see Syria united and all foreign forces leaving Syria. Erdogan said he was ready to clear the M5 and M4 in exchange for the control of Ayn al-Arab (Kobane). Putin refused and agreed with Iran and Damascus to remove jihadists along the M5 and M4 by military force. Erdogan felt he was cut out of the deal because his jihadists did not hold their ground, and proved to be an incapable military force against Syria and its allies. This is why the Turkish army was pushed into the battle, supported by drones, F-16s, precision missiles and artillery. Today it is fighting on behalf of the jihadists that, according to Sochi agreement, should have been eliminated by Turkey more than a year ago.
Turkey wants to bring back the deployment of forces on the ground to where they were before the Idlib battle and is calling for the respect of the Astana agreement but from a weaker position. In fact, it is too late for that; deals have a short life in Syria! Ankara will have to accept the status quo and prepare to lose Idlib without further concessions in the Kurdish area. This does not mean Erdogan will accept and surrender without a fight all the Syrian territories he has occupied without a fight. The Putin-Erdogan meeting will probably not end all differences, and much may have to be postponed until the forthcoming Putin-Erdogan-Rohani meeting this month in Tehran.
Erdogan seems to have forgotten the help Putin and Rohani gave him during the 2016 failed coup-d’état. He is showing recklessness and wrongly believes his potential partners are weak. The Turkish president is prioritising his territory-expansion ambition over his commercial and partnership relationship with Russia and Iran. The Turkish army is grinding its teeth over Idlib. The Ottoman Sultan never defeated the Russian Czar in the past and he certainly won’t succeed now in Syria…
Proofread by C.G.B. and Maurice Brasher