Russia: Blinking Fatigue

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March 3, 2020: Russia did not confront a major Turkish offensive against Syrian forces seeking to capture all of Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria. Over the last four days, two Turkish brigades crossed into Syria accompanied by artillery, armed UAVs and F-16s. The Turks claim to have destroyed over a hundred Syrian armored vehicles, most of them tanks, along with two Su-24 fighter-bombers, eight helicopters and numerous unarmored vehicles. The Turks claim to have killed or wounded several thousand Syrian troops. Most of the airstrikes were carried out by slow, low flying Turkish made armed UAVs using Turkish versions of the U.S. Hellfire missile or lightweight GPS guided bombs. Some F-16s and helicopter gunships were also used. The Turkish offensive took much from the Cold War NATO playbook for war against Russia. The Turks still practice these tactics and in the past often did so with NATO allies, including American forces.

The current Turkish attack did not depend on the many American specialized electronic warfare aircraft but did go after whatever electronic weapons (usually jammers) the Syrians were using. Syrian air defenses were apparently not very effective. Turkish UAVs captured on video their attacks destroying several of the Russian Pantsir air defense vehicles (equipped with radar, missiles and autocannon). Turkey demanded that Syrian forces pull back from Idlib territory they have captured recently, and that the Russians enforce the boundaries and ceasefire previously agreed to by Turkey and Syria.

Iran threatened to support the Syrian forces if the Turks attacked. The Iranians apparently fired a ballistic missile at the advancing Turkish forces but the missile did not appear to do any damage. The Turks claim to have intercepted the missile but did not say with what. Beyond that Iranian forces stayed away.

What triggered this change of attitude by the Turks was the death of so many (33) Turkish troops during a February 27 Syrian/Russian airstrike. This was big news inside Turkey and Turks, in general, were enraged and demanded reprisals. A lot of Turks do not agree with their government on the importance of the 30 kilometers deep security zone in Syria but they do agree that anyone who kills Turkish soldiers must be punished. As of now, 54 Turkish troops have died in Syria this month, most of them because of Russian airstrikes. One more Turkish soldier was killed before the end of the month and the Turkish voters were in an ugly mood.

The current Turkish government, the first Islamic one since the republic was founded in the 1920s, has been in trouble during the last few years as the president was accused of acting more like a sultan (unelected monarch) than a leader elected to clean up the corruption and protect Turkey’s border. The anti-corruption campaign worked for about a decade until it no longer did and for the last decade, it has become common for Islamic party politicians to put personal wealth ahead of the public welfare. Now the unpopular president was accused of doing nothing as Russians continued killing Turkish soldiers. The government did promptly respond, quietly ordering a major military operation against the Syrian ground forces and letting the Russians know that if Russians interfered they would be treated as hostile and attacked. The Russians said nothing publically but their warplanes, artillery and air defense systems did not open fire on the Turkish offensive that took place a few days later. It was notable that the Turks did not officially accuse Russian aircraft of deliberately attacking Turkish troops. Turkey and Russia have an agreement to report where each side has troops in Syrian combat zones in order to avoid situations where Turkish and Russian forces might fire on each other. In practice this agreement is imperfect and both sides know it.

Turkey also accused the EU (European Union) of not helping Turkey enough with its Syrian refugee problem and at the end of February began allowing these refugees to cross the Turkish border into EU territory where the refugees could claim asylum and demand to be taken care of, including the right to settle permanently in the EU. The refugees could not do this in Turkey, or any other Moslem country. It appears the Turks are allowing at least 20,000 Syrians a day into the EU and will continue until the EU agrees to increase payments, currently (since 2014) $814 million a year to over a billion a year, perhaps way over a billion.

The confrontation in northwest Syria (Idlib province) is closer to home for Turkey because Russian support for the Syrian (Assad) government offensive to eliminate the last rebel (and Islamic terrorist) stronghold in Syria is driving hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, along with many Islamic terrorists disguised as refugees, towards the nearby Turkish border. The Turks are on good terms with some of the Islamic terror groups in Idlib, as they are with Islamic groups in Libya. The Russians are generally hostile to all Islamic terrorist and Islamic political groups. For that reason, the Turks are openly calling on the Russians to decide if they are a friend of Turkey or not. The Russians don’t want to make an open declaration, at least not yet. Turkey is a new customer for Russian weapons and helpful against the sanctions Russia is operating under. The Turks have already proved a troublesome ally for the United States and other NATO members. Turkey is in real danger of being expelled from NATO. While the Russians would love that, they are finding that being a Turkish ally is a risky and expensive undertaking.

The Russians have refused to consider a ceasefire and are apparently prepared to back Syria with whatever it takes to regain control of the entire province. At this point, Russia and Syria both claim that Syrian troops are firmly in control of the southern half of Idlib province and are continuing to advance on the other half.

The Turks insist they won’t halt their efforts to block and roll back the Syrian offensive. So far the Turks have been taking casualties while the Russians are not. The Russians have pilots and some special operations troops on the ground who are at risk. Russia also uses mercenaries, but they are former Russian troops now working for Russian military contractors. Most of the Russian losses so far have been among the contractors. The Turks threaten to send their U.S. made F-16 fighters into Syria to confront the Russian jets. The Russian S-400 air defense system has been operational in Syria for several years and is considered quite formidable, at least compared to older Russian systems. Turkey recently purchased the S-400 from Russia but it is not operational yet and if the Russians decide to bomb targets inside Turkey the Turks will have a hard time opposing them with the Cold War era air defense systems they currently have. The Turkish air force has been weakened over the last decade by several purges as the current Islamic government accused many pilots of plotting against the government. So many pilots were dismissed that there aren't enough to fly the hundreds of combat aircraft the Turks have. The Russians know this but are apparently unwilling to endanger their S-400 sale to Turkey by using the S-400 against Turkish warplanes.

War Crimes Described

The UN released a report today that detailed Russian attacks on civilians in Syria. This is no secret but now the UN has documented the practice in great detail and called for the prosecution of Russia and the Asssads for war crimes. The Assads have long used starvation, as well as artillery fire and airstrikes, against civilians. By cutting road access to pro-rebel areas, food and other aid could not get through. This is why there were times in the last few years when at least a million civilians nationwide were cut off from food and other supplies. Since 2011 nearly two-thirds of the dead in Syria have been civilians largely because of a deliberate Assad policy of attacking pro-rebel civilians to force them out of the country (or at least the combat zone). This has worked because over half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, especially the government's air and artillery attacks on civilians. Thus the Assads have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of the civilian deaths since 2011. The Russians still use the same tactics and, since the Russian forces arrived in mid-2015, the air attacks on rebel civilians have increased. This includes attacks on hospitals and aid facilities, including some run by the UN and thus illegal to attack. Russia says these targets were actually being used by rebels, which in some cases is true. Technically if armed men are in any of these “neutral facilities” they lose their legal immunity from air or artillery attack. Russia has refused to back off from using what the West considers barbaric and inhumane tactics. Russia is determined to see the Assad government regain control of the country no matter what. That goal is shared by Iran. Russia does not deny its airstrikes since September 2015 have killed a lot of people (estimates go as high as 20,000) and that many of the victims might have been civilians. The Russians point out that their approach defeats the rebels while the more acceptable (to the rest of the world) methods merely prolongs the fighting and enable Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL, to expand.

Ukraine

The low-level war in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) continues. Pro-Russian forces suffered 38 dead and 44 wounded in February. The rebels continue to be more aggressive and frequently violate the ceasefire using machine-guns and mortars against Ukrainian troops, who managed to suffer somewhat lower casualties. The new Ukrainian president made several attempts to discuss peace with his Russian counterpart but to no avail. As a result, there will be no more attempts unless Russia makes a convincing offer. The Ukrainians are paying more attention to their economy and continuing corruption problems. Meanwhile, Donbas will fester, costing Russia billions a year to support. Given the current poor economic condition of Russia, that expense hurts.

Libya

At the end of February Russia ordered hundreds of Wagner Group military contractors out of Libya because the Turkish backed GNA Libyan government had agreed to a ceasefire with a more powerful Russian backed government. The Turkish troops were to have left as well but didn’t. Once more Russian blinked in the face of Turkish resistance.

March 2, 2020: Ukraine has started broadcasting a new TV channel with programming suited to the populations in Crimea and the half of Donbas controlled by Russia. Broadcast towers were built close to the areas occupied by Russia and, as expected, the Russians proceeded to jam these broadcasts most of the time.

March 1, 2020: The United States responded to more pleas from Turkey for military assistance to halt Russian attacks on Turkish troops in Syria. The U.S. refused to help with troops or by sending a Patriot air defense battery to Turkey. The Americans said they would do everything they could short of direct military intervention and made it clear they believed Russia was the guilty party. But the situation did not meet the criteria to trigger the NATO mutual-defense clause. That would only happen if Russia attacks Turkey itself. The U.S. pointed out that the Turkish presence in Syria was technically illegal, as was past and current Turkish support for Islamic terrorist groups. Other NATO members are offering Turkey military support inside Turkey, but not Patriot batteries (which had been in Turkey after 2014 to protect against possible ISIL attack) on the borders. There are still some foreign Patriot batteries guarding airbases in eastern Turkey that are heavily used by NATO aircraft. Other NATO members are not happy about Turkey letting Syrian refugees enter Europe and resent the Turks demanding more cash from the EU if the Turk border with the EU is to be closed tight one more.

February 29, 2020: Turkey demanded that Russian forces cease supporting the Syrian offensive against rebels in Idlib province. Both Russia and Iran insist they are the only legitimate foreign force allowed in Syria. The Assad government, although widely condemned for past and current atrocities has been the legitimate government of Syria for decades and did invite Russian and Iranian forces in. The Turks were invited in by the Syrian rebels who, since 2011, have been trying to oust the Assads. The problem is that Turkey has backed Islamic terror groups who are at war with the world as well as the Assads. Any nation backing or trying to use Islamic terror groups is deluding itself. Recognizing this the Turks mainly depend on the one secular Syrian rebel group, the FSA, and hire them as mercenaries. The FSA that the Turks are not fighting to overthrow the Assads but rather support Turkish efforts to establish a 30 kilometers deep security zone on the Syrian side of the border in order to keep Islamic terrorists and other undesirables (like Syrian refugees) out of Turkey.

Russia sympathizes with Turkey on the issues of Islamic terrorists and illegal migrants. Russia has to choose between Iran, which wants the Assad rule in all of Syria no matter what the cost, and Turkey while wants its security zone no matter what the cost. Russian and Turkish leaders have agreed to meet soon and discuss possible solutions. The key problem here is that Russian wants a unified Syria under a Russia-friendly government. At the moment that means the Assads and their patron Iran. The only compromise opportunities are a suitable deal on Turkish border security. The only positive factor here is that neither Turkey nor Russia wants to keep fighting each other. That is a losing proposition for both nations but the Turkish leaders have committed themselves to secure the border and the Russian leader cannot afford anything the reeks of defeat in Syria.

Turkey claims its troops, armed with tanks and artillery, are inflicting massive casualties on the Syrian troops who already control half of Idlib and want to continue advancing. The Syrians have suffered losses from Turkish troops but continue to hold a lot of territory the Turks want them out of. Until now the Turkish troops and their FSA mercenaries were not numerous enough to halt all the Syrian advances in Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province. The Syrians deny they have taken heavy losses or halted their advance. It will be another week or so to determine exactly who lost, or gained, what.

The Turkish offensive has cost it the diplomatic support of any Arab nations that had long expressed willingness to tolerate Turkish support for Syrian rebels. The recent fighting between Russian and Turkish forces persuaded Arab states to seek accommodation with the Assad government, which is now seen likely to eventually regain control of the entire country. This sudden switch is also another example of how much Arab states distrust and dislike the Turks. These Arabs made no secret of their fears that the Turks were seeking more than better ties with their former imperial provinces and would go after actual control of more Arab territory.

February 28, 2020: Russia sent two more frigates to Syria, with both ships coming from the Black Sea via the Turkish controlled Bosporus/Dardanelles channel. By international agreement, Turkey must allow passage of all warships through the Bosporus/Dardanelles route unless that puts Turkey at risk. Turkey told Russia that they would use this clause of the treaty to block all Russian shipping if Russia opposed Turkish forces in Syria. This apparently played a part in the Russian decision to stand aside and let Turkish troops inflict major damage on Syrian forces in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

February 27, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), another Russian/Syrian airstrike in support of the Syrian offensive killed Turkish troops, this time 33 of them. This involved two Syrian Su-22 ground attack aircraft and two Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers attacking a Turk occupied building and a Turkish convoy. The Russians said the Turks were mingling with Islamic terrorists and thus legitimate targets.

February 26, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), the Turkey-backed NLF (National Liberation Front) Islamic terrorist coalition claims they have recaptured the crossroads town of Saraqeb, which the NLF had lost to Syrian forces earlier in the month. With this, the M5 highway is again blocked, as is the M4 which is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports. Given the importance of the M5, it was believed that Syrian troops and Russian air support would try to regain control of the town. Instead, the Russians and Syrians denied that the control of the town had been lost. So far no one else has been able to confirm who is in control.

The NLF serves as a Turkish military auxiliary force that will carry out missions the NLF believes are in its interest. At the moment preventing the Syrians from regaining control of Idlib is crucial. If the Syrians do manage to conquer the entire province the NLF (about 50,000 armed men and their families) face death at the hands of the Syrian secret police which have been quick to kill even suspected Sunni Islamic terrorists elsewhere in Syria where the Assads regained control. This was brutal even by Russian standards and the Russians brought in Moslem police battalions, mainly from Chechnya, to get the Syrians to ease up on the mass murder. The conquest of Idlib will put the largest, so far, a number of Islamic terrorists and their dependents under the control of the Syrian secret police. In the past, the Assads have not hesitated to kill large numbers (at least 10,000 in one case) of opponents in one place after a failed uprising. Russian military police will be insufficient to block this, especially when Iran agrees with and encourages the Assads use of mass-murder to remind rebellious Syrians what is at stake here. The NLF does have the possibility of being allowed to find refuge in Turkey. While the current Turkish government favors that approach, most Turks do not and the Islamic Turkish political that has been in power since 2000 is in danger of losing control of the government in upcoming elections. That is not good news for the desperate NLF.

The NLF is a Syrian Islamic terrorist coalition formed in August 2018 with the help and approval of Turkey. This merger was arranged by Ahrar al Sham, a longtime rival of al Qaeda faction HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham), and backed by Turkey. At that point, about ten percent of the province was controlled by Turkey (in the north along the hundred kilometer long border with Turkey) and Assad forces (several towns and villages in the southeast). HTS recently convinced the NLF to join a larger coalition, under the leadership of HTS which would be better able to defend Idlib. Despite its Turkish ties, NLF was persuaded, after HTS attacked and eliminated NLF factions who opposed the deal.

Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS , which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions never did trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turks. Russia and Syria has reason to believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it did not work out well. It rarely does but for many shortsighted politicians, it is still an attractive option.

February 25, 2020: In Libya, the Russian-backed LNA (Libyan National Army) repeated its demand that the Turks leave the country. As long as the Turks are in Libya there can be no peace. The LNA also pointed out that the Turks are not the invincible imperial conquerors of old. The LNA claims to have killed at least 17 Turks and nearly a hundred of their Syrian Arab (FSA) mercenaries. Several Turkish UAVs have been shot down and photographed. The Turks deny these claims but back in Turkey, the government is doing its best to suppress news of Turkish military personnel who have died in Libya and buried back in Turkey without any admission of where they died and how.

Turkey claims to have killed at least a hundred LNA personnel so far. If the casualty reports are to be believed then the Turks are taking more of a beating than the LNA, which has always stressed keeping its casualties low. According to Turkish claims, the LNA has lost less than one percent of its strength in the same period that the Turkish mercs lost over three percent and the smaller Turkish military contingent suffered about the same casualty rate. The Russian mercs have casualty rates similar to the Turks while the Russian and Gulf Arab military personnel providing logistical and tech support for the LNA have suffered very few casualties. Most Libyans oppose the Turks and welcome assistance from other Arab states as well as the Russians, who got on well with Libyans on a personnel level. Russian support for the Kaddafi dictatorship came from the Soviet Union, which itself disappeared in 1991. After that, the Russians were no longer as eager to back Kaddafi who seemed to be following the same self-destructive trajectory as the Soviet Union. The GNA is being propped up by the Turks and still depends on independent minded Islamic militias as well as some militias that are basically criminal gangs with heavy weapons.

Historically the Turks and Russians were always rivals and often at war with each other. Although the Russian and Turk empires dissolved a century ago, the ancient animosities did not. Now Turkish and Russian forces are fighter each other in Syria and Libya. Both areas used to be part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and both because close to Russia during the Cold War, buying most of their weapons from Russia and cooperating diplomatically. Most Syrians and Libyans are more interested in reviving the Russian relationship than the Turkish one.

February 23, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), Turkey complains that the Syrian attacks in the province have caused nearly a million Syrian civilians to head for the closed Turkish border. These refugees are camped out on the Syrian side of the border. There they join over a million refugees that had been camped out there for a while, hoping to get into Turkey.

February 20, 2020: In northwestern Syria (Idlib province) Turkish forces attacked Syrian army positions near the town of Nayrab, which had recently been held by Idlib based rebels. While Turkish troops operated the artillery they did not provide air support. That was because Russian fighters and air defense systems dominated the air space in northwest Syria. Russian warplanes provided air support for the Syrian troops who were fighting the Turkish ground forces. These were not Turks but veteran Syrian mercenaries of the FSA. These mercenaries felt pretty confident because of the massive and accurate artillery support and could have defeated the Syrian troops if it were not for the Russian air support the Syrian forces, in addition to some Syrian Air Force aircraft that Russian technical personnel helped keep flying. The Turkish military announced that two Turkish soldiers had been killed and three wounded by a Russian airstrike in Idlib province. The Russians admitted that their Su-24 fighter-bombers were involved. So far fifteen Turkish troops have died from Syrian artillery fire and Russian or Syrian airstrikes.

Turkey accuses Russia of violating an Idlib ceasefire agreement both had signed in late 2018. The Assads were no party to that deal and continued to prepare for the current offensive to regain control of Idlib province even though it has caused so many civilians to head for the Turkish border. Syrian claims and the Russians concur, that Turkey did not keep its end of the ceasefire deal by controlling the heavily armed Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib who continued to fire on Syrian and Russian forces. The Tusks and Russians are technically allies but they couldn’t agree on how to handle these ceasefire violations which were caused by Turkish inaction.

Now the Turks are complaining about “Russian aggression” and asking NATO allies to help them out. The Turks even asked the Americans to provide some Patriot batteries to protect Turkey from possible air raids. Turkey chose Russian S-400 air defense systems over the American Patriot (or similar European or Israeli systems) and has received much of the S-400 equipment but the Turkish crews and maintainers of the S-400 have not completed their training yet. Since the Syrians began their current offensive on January 16th they have regained control of 1.500 square kilometers of rebel territory in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. But now Russia and Turkey are technically at war with each other. Diplomats and senior officials from each country were on the phone talking to each other soon after the Russian airstrikes against Turkish forces took place. The situation is further complicated because two thousand of the Turkish FSA mercenaries volunteered to serve in Libya, where their opposition is assisted by Russian troops (veterans serving as military contractors for the Wagner Group). The FSA mercs are Syrian Sunni Arabs who oppose the Assads and Islamic terrorism. But in Idlib and Libya, they are supporting Russian allies who see Islamic terrorists as potential allies, not relentless foes. Many FSA men are beginning to doubt the wisdom of trusting the Turks. That is a common attitude throughout the Arab world.

In western Syria (Latakia province), one kilometer from the Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) Russian airbase Syrian forces report being hit by missiles fired by unidentified aircraft off the coast. The Syrians have some of their S-300 air defense batteries in this area but since their arrival in late 2018, these S-300 systems have not been used in combat. It took about a year for the Syrian crews to be trained and out of that came Syrian complaints that the S-300 radar could not find or track Israeli F-35 stealth fighters. The Syrian S-300 operators doubt the S-300 is very effective against any Israeli weapons, including the less stealthy cruise missiles and F-16 fighters. The Syrians claim the Israelis have EW (electronic warfare) equipment that can jam or deceive the S-300 radars and guidance systems in S-300 missiles. Russia is believed to still have a veto over when the Syrian S-300s can be used and apparently has not yet allowed the Syrian S-300s to fire on Israeli attackers. In China, a recent article in a state-controlled newspaper came right out and said the S-300 does not work and that the Chinese should know because they bought the system from Russia and fixed the problems by developing their own, improved version of the S-300 called the FD-2000. This system is available for export, to just about anyone can pay, including the Syrian government.

February 19, 2020: The United States has imposed sanctions on Roseneft, the Russian state-owned oil company, for assisting Venezuela to export its oil despite sanctions on such exports. Roseneft is using its distribution network to sell Venezuelan oil and the new sanctions on Roseneft and any companies doing business with them, will make it more difficult, and expensive to move Venezuelan oil. These American sanctions are usually pretty effective because the U.S. has learned to specify sanctions that do maximum damage to those they are aimed at while causing minimal or no problems for anyone else. Russia depends on its sale of Venezuelan oil to get some repayments on loans to Venezuela as well as paying for current Venezuelan purchases of Russian goods. For example, a Russian firm prints the Venezuelan currency and just received another contract for that worth $7.4 million. Most Venezuelans are now using dollars, which the Venezuelan government tolerates because that is the only way to keep some of the economy going.

February 18, 2020: In eastern Syria (Hasaka province), a Russian convoy was stopped by an American checkpoint and turned away. The road led to a Kurdish controlled oilfield. This is the fifth time so far this year that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to drive past Kurdish oil facilities in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces.

February 9, 2020: Over the weekend Russia again accused Israeli airstrikes of using civilian airliners to mask their airstrikes from Syrian air defense systems. Russia provided no evidence and no civilian airliner has complained. This is apparently another effort to support its ally Iran. Russia is unable to halt the Israeli airstrikes with the many Russian air defense systems stationed in Syria so some anti-Israel propaganda is better than nothing.

 

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