Syria: Turkey Advances Into The Unwelcome

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October 15, 2019: The Americans, unable to get the Turks and Syrian Kurds to work out a compromise deal, finally did what they had long said they would and pulled their troops out of Syria. The compromise offered was continued military support, but very few Americans in Syria, if the Kurds would pull back and allow the Turks to establish their long sought security zone. This would push Kurdish and other armed groups, especially YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatist) forces, 30 kilometers away from the Turkish border. Going much further than 30 kilometers south of the border, at least on a permanent basis, is not part of the Turkish strategy. That alone was not unreasonable. But the Turks also wanted to move many, if not most, of their 3.5 million Syrian refugees out of Turkey and into the security zone. These refugees are almost entirely Sunni Arabs and most are anti-Assad. The Assads don’t want these Sunni Arabs back and the Kurds don’t want them in areas that have long been predominantly Kurdish.

Northeast Syria is largely Hasaka province and that is the Syrian Kurd homeland. Moving all those Sunni Arabs in will cause a lot of problems because nearly all the real estate there is spoken for. Something will have to give and it will probably be the Kurds, who are facing Turkish troops and police as well as FSA (Free Syrian Army) militiamen. The FSA is one of the few secular Syrian rebel groups besides the Syrian Kurds (who are largely Sunni Moslems). When originally formed back in 2012 there were FSA forces operating along the Turkish and Jordan borders. Early on the U.S. trained and equipped many of the FSA fighters but eventually withdrew support because of factionalism and general unreliability. The FSA was initially a major player in the rebellion against the Assads because FSA was largely secular and popular with Western nations. By late 2917 it was split with about 10,000 FSA working for the Turks and about 5,000 in the south still fighting the Assads. From 2012 through 2016 FSA was in decline because most Syrian rebels preferred more radical groups like al Qaeda and eventually ISIL. FSA persisted and eventually found a major patron in Turkey, which believed it could use the FSA as a police force in the security zone on the Syrian side of the border. The Turks are trying to establish this 30 kilometers zone along their entire border with Syria, from the Mediterranean to Iraq. The border west of the Euphrates River is already under Turkish control.

The Kurds responded to the Turkish offensive by doing something the Americans told them they would eventually have to deal with. The Assad government has prevailed in the civil war and they are technically in charge of the entire country, including border areas occupied by the Turks. The Assads declared that the Americans and Turks were in Syria without permission while the Russians and Iranians had treaties permitting their armed forces to be in Syria. The American forces were sent to Syria just to deal with ISIL and that was done, so now the Americans are leaving. This is especially true now that the Kurds have agreed to work with the Assads, Russia and Iran, to oppose the Turkish invasion. The United States sidesteped any involvement and is letting Turkey deal with the mess it created in Syria.

The Turks have been condemned by most UN members for this invasion. That includes Israel, the EU (European Union), Russia, Iran and Arab states. For the Arabs, there is fear that the Turks are trying to rebuild the empire they had a century ago and lost because they were on the wrong side during World War I. The empire was not popular with most Turks, who were fed up with ruling the troublesome and often self-destructive Arabs. Recep Erdogan, the current (since 2003) Turkish leader leads an Islamic party that got elected on the promise to reduce corruption. It did that for a while before becoming quite corrupt itself. Now Erdogan is trying to regain his popularity by invading Syria to establish an area (the security zone) where he can expel the unpopular (with most Turks) Syrian refugees to. Erdogan thought the EU would understand this because the alternative is to let the Syrian refugees cross into EU countries. Not all of the Syrians would do that but many would. That would anger the EU a lot and not completely placate Turkish voters. The EU states are threatening sanctions and other economic retaliation over Turks in Syria and are currently paying a large bribe to Turkey to keep their EU border closed. So letting the Syrian refugees go to Europe will cost Turkey a lot.

The Syrian government quickly agreed to send Syrian Army forces to Hasaka Province to join or replace Kurdish forces facing the Turks. The Kurds agreed to subordinate themselves to the Assads. Russia and Iran say they will support the Syrians but it is unclear if that means Russian warplanes will attack Turkish (or FSA) forces. At the moment Russia is officially urging the Turks to call off their invasion, which they so far refuse to do.

Syrian security forces are also helping to round up or kill any ISIL prisoners who had recently escaped from Kurdish prisons. Everyone involved here, especially the Syrians, Iranians and Iraqis, have a compelling reason to prevent ISIL members or family members from getting free. The Kurds had asked, without much success, for more help, especially financial, to deal with all the ISIL personnel they had captured. Moslem and non-Moslem nations were not eager to take back their citizens who had joined ISIL and were now Kurdish prisoners. The Assads will kill most of these ISIL members as well as many of their wives and children. That’s how the Assads deal with Islamic terrorists who oppose them and ISIL was definitely an enemy of the Assads. There are already many nations who want to prosecute the Assads for war crimes because of this policy of murdering anyone who opposes them, including women and children. Syria was a nasty mess before the civil war, during the civil war and now at the end of the civil war. Now you know why Turks a century ago and today don’t want to get involved with Arab affairs. Turkish leader Recep Erdogan is going to get a sharp reminder of that.

With everyone turning on the Turks that creates loyalty and reliability problems for the FSA forces working for the Turks. The FSA are largely Syrian Sunni Arabs who were always lukewarm about working with the Turks, who promises FSA fighters support in running the northern Syria security zone. Once established this zone would remain under Turkish control (or “protection”) for some time to come with the FSA gunmen policing the zone backed up by the Turkish military. The Turks want a stable government in Syria that is not hostile towards Turkey. That is unlikely now with the Assads condemning the Turks as foreign invaders and most of the world agrees with that assessment. With Assad support, the Kurds will again be a threat to Turkey because the YPG will have an incentive to resume working with the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) mainly out of necessity because the Syrian Kurds have decided that the Turks are a larger threat than the Assads.

Threats and Mixed Signals

Autonomous Kurds were always seen as a threat to Turkey because many Turkish Kurds want autonomy and some want an independent Kurdish state incorporating Kurds and territory from Iraq, Syria and Iran. Naturally this is opposed by Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Turkey is the most active in using force to oppose Kurdish separatism and that has been Turkish policy, and a popular one with most Turks, for decades. This has created hostile relations with Syria and Iraq, because Arabs and Turks have a long and unpleasant relationship. Syria and Iraq were part of a Turkish empire for centuries until 1918. The Turks still tend to treat the Arabs with disdain and the situation with Syria and Iraq is typical. Since 2011 Turkish troops have operated across the border in Syria and Iraq with impunity as they attack Turkish Kurdish separatist bases in Syria (not so much) and Iraq (still there). Now the Turks are trying to apply a more extreme solution to their problems with the Syrian Kurds.

American military (mainly Special Forces) working with the Kurds always pointed out that most Americans were opposed to supporting the Kurds in a “war of unification” against Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq so the Kurds could have their long desired Kurdistan. Iraq was a special situation because American and British troops found the Saddam government was having a hard time regaining control of the Kurdish north after the 1990 Gulf War. In came Americans and British military advisors and air support and Kurdish northern Iraq remained autonomous. The current elected Iraqi government is not happy about their autonomous Kurds but have been told by the Americans that if Iraq wants help in keeping the Iranians out, Kurdish autonomy (but not independence) must be respected. That was not the kind of a deal the Americans could arrange for the Iranian or Syrian Kurds. The Kurds point out that they provided the ground troops for the successful war against ISIL and that means the Americans owe them. The U.S. military advisors point out ISIL was more of an immediate and direct threat to the Syrian Kurds than to the United States or the West. The U.S. provided training, weapons, advisors plus massive artillery and air support for the fight against ISIL. The Kurdish “you owe us” angle does not carry a lot of weight in the United States because most Americans see supporting Kurdish nationalism as an endless, expensive and futile military commitment. The Kurds don’t have to agree with the American view but they have to learn to live with it because it is the reality.

The best the Americans can offer at this point is threats of economic and diplomatic sanctions if the Turks treat Kurdish civilians badly. The Turks don’t like that kind of restriction and they may not get a chance to prove they can or will abide by it. Establishing the 30 kilometers security zone was thought to be the easy part. It wasn’t. Moving lots of Syrian Sunni Arab refugees was always going to be the riskiest aspect of the Turkish plan and cause long-term problems. Now the plans for the Syrian refugees are on hold.

Americans And NATO In Syria

There are still about a thousand U.S. troops in Syria but they are no longer providing support for the Kurds against any attack (especially the Turks). These U.S. troops are now considered observers and are only there until they can be moved out safely, which is happening as quickly as possible. The Turks know where the American bases are and understand that if any Turks fire on the American bases the Turks risk a fight with the Americans. Most Turkish officials understand that American public opinion is against them and shooting at U.S. troops can have serious consequences for Turkey. With the Americans gone the Turks find themselves facing Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces. Suddenly more Turks are eager to improve relations with the Americans. Turkey and the U.S. are still NATO allies and American forces continue to operate out of the Turkish airbase at Incirlik in eastern Turkey (150 kilometers north of Syria). Most of the Americans (military and contractors) in Turkey are at Incirlik. A small, but important, number of airstrikes (against ISIL targets) come out of Incirlik. This is in addition to a larger number of reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Incirlik is where NATO warplanes have operated for decades and has been a major base to attacks against Islamic terrorist targets in Syria as well as Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Incirlik is also one of the six air bases in Turkey where American nuclear bombs (for NATO aircraft) are (or were) stored. The base long had about American 5,000 personnel in residence, about 60 percent of them civilians (workers and service personnel families). The number has since 2003 been greatly reduced but American personnel and aircraft are still there. Turkey has been a troublesome NATO ally since the 1990s but has never made a move to abandon NATO. With the mess in Syria, more Turks see NATO membership as more important than ever. Yet the current invasion of Syria has more NATO members supporting the expulsion of Turkey.

Israel, Iran And Consequences

Israel is closely monitoring what Iran is doing in Syria now that Iran and Russia are backing Syrian forces coming to the aid of the Kurds. Israel will continue to attack any Iranian moves towards Israel, especially the Israeli border. The Iranians have more than Turkey and Israel to worry about. The Syrian effort is costing Iran a lot of money, which they cannot afford. The humiliation of constant defeats in the form of Israeli airstrikes and loss of Iranian lives has enraged the Iranians. But it has not empowered them to do any better. So far Iran has tolerated the losses and continues to pour resources into permanently establishing itself in Syria. Iran is determined to finally achieve a victory over Israel using the growing presence it has in Syria but is encountering resistance from Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and most NATO nations. Now there is the Turkish invasion that has made the Iranians a potential battlefield opponent of the Turks. Iran has not made clear just how far it is willing to go in opposing the invading Turks. Over the last four centuries, Iran has fought the Turks many times and usually lost. The same pattern exists with Israel and over the last two centuries Russia has also been a difficult foe. Back in Iran most Iranians are more willing to recognize what a bad place Syria is for Iran and since 2017 there have been more and more public protests about that, and other shortcomings of the Iranian government.

Cost of Victory

Russia and the Assad government have declared the rebellion over and demand that attention must be turned towards reconstruction. The reality is that the fighting is far from over and the Assad government only controls about half the country. Everyone agrees that Islamic terrorist rebels still control most of Idlib province in the northwest and that until the last few days the Kurdish led SDF controlled Hasaka province in the northwest, as well as parts of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo provinces. The new alliance between the Assads and Kurds means the only areas not under the control of the Assad government are those occupied by al Qaeda led rebels in about half of Idlib province and whatever areas the Turks can hang on to in the northwest and all along the border. With the new campaign against the Turks, the battle against the Idlib rebels has been suspended. For most of 2019 Syrian troops have been slowly taking control of Idlib and that will resume once the Turks are taken care of.

Many of the Idlib rebels are backed by Turkey, another aspect of Turkish policy that angers the Kurds, Americans, Russians and Iranians. The Assads continue to control the Mediterranean coast (Latakia province), which is the homeland of the Syrian Shia and the Shia Assads, but it is Russian troops and bases that guarantee the security of Latakia province. The Assads have a large payroll (the military and civil servants in areas they rule) and it is Iranian financial aid that enables the Assads to meet that payroll each month. In return, the Assads cede control to Iran for areas along the Israeli, Iraq and Lebanese borders. In those areas, Iranians or Iran backed Iraqi or Lebanese militias have the final say on who enters and who does not.

The only thing that keeps the Syrian Army capable of offensive operations is Russian, air, artillery, logistics, training and special operations support. Destroying the Idlib rebels or dealing with the invading Turks is not possible without Russian support. Turkey, Russia and Iran have always agreed with the Assads that the Americans have to leave eastern Syria and cease carrying out airstrikes in Syria. The Assads don’t like to discuss the fact that Iran is at war with Israel and getting Israel to stop defending itself is not going to happen. The Assads also prefer to not discuss the fact that they would like the Turks and Iranians to leave. That is not practical at the moment and is the cost of victory over the rebellion that almost drove the Assads out of power after 2011. Now the Assads have an opportunity to push the Turks out and after that, maybe the Iranians as well. That will eliminate most of the Israeli airstrikes.

October 14, 2019: The U.S. imposed sanctions on Turkish officials it believes are involved with the Turkish invasion of Syria. This will make it difficult for these individuals to travel or do business internationally. The Turks announced that 18 Turkish soldiers had died so far in the invasion of northeast Syria. About 200 civilians had been killed or wounded and 500 enemy (Kurd) fighters had been killed, captured or surrendered so far. Those numbers are going to get much larger now that the Turks face Syrian troops as well as Kurds. The Russians have declared a “no-fly zone” in northern Syria. This means an aerial confrontation if Turkish F-16s continue providing air support in northern Syria. The Kurds believe Turkish losses are much higher because the Turks are not reporting all the FSA losses.

October 13, 2019: Iraq has sent more troops to its Syria border, especially in the north where that border is mostly with Kurdish controlled Hasaka province. This is mainly to block any ISIL members from getting into Iraq after escaping a Kurdish prison. Most of the American troops being withdrawn from Syria are being moved to the Iraqi border, most of them on the Iraqi side.

October 12, 2019: Iran offered to mediate the dispute between Turkey, the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government. The offer was ignored and became less relevant when the Kurds agreed to subordinate themselves to the Assads and Russian backed that decision.

October 11, 2019: In the north (Aleppo province), a shell exploded near an American observation post outside the border town of Kobane. No Americans were hurt and given all the fighting in the area, the incident was probably an accident. Americans have access to the Turkish military commanders operating in the area and reported the shell landing close to them and the Turks said they would deal with whatever battlefield problem caused it.

October 9, 2019: In the north (Raqqa province), and northeast (Hasaka province) Turkish ground forces crossed the border in the first stage of taking control of a “security zone” 30 kilometers into Syria. Most of the “Turkish” ground forces are actually FSA (Free Syrian Army) militiamen trained, equipped and paid by the Turks to do most of the ground combat in Syria. Turkish forces provided artillery, air and logistical support. FSA men were seen operating many armored vehicles, mostly Infantry Fighting Vehicles.

In Iran, there was an unscheduled Iranian military training exercise on the Turkish border. This was intended to send a message but exactly what the message said was unclear. Iran has also called for the Turks to call off their invasion of northeast Syria.

October 8, 2019: The Turkish parliament approved further Turkish military operations in Syria. Most members of parliament backed this with the understanding that it would mainly involve improving border security by keeping Islamic terrorists and Syrian refugees out as well as making it easier to send the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey back to Syria. Parliament is not in favor of a major war with anyone.

October 6, 2019: The United States announced it was pulling its troops out of northeast Syria. This has been the plan since early 2019, but many American politicians thought the U.S. would never take the American troops out of Syria despite the fact that the announced intention to do just that. But first, a deal had to be reached with the Turks on how the Kurds would be treated in the 30 kilometers deep security zone the Turks had long planned to establish on the Syrian side of the entire border with Turkey. The Kurds were defiant about that as long as they had the thousand American troops with them. But with those U.S. troops leaving they were forced to fall back on discussions it had with the Assads and the Russians about post-war operations. The Turks and Russians have major potential problems with the remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces in Syria and the Syrian Kurds are the most effective force to use against ISIL. So the Kurds have some leverage with the Assads, the Turks and Russia. Iran is another matter as everyone would rather see Iranian forces withdrawn from Syria.

The Turks do not want to fight the SDF for the very simple reason that there is not much popular support in Turkey for any operation that would get a lot of Turkish troops killed in Syria. For that reason, since the Turks have, since 2016, used local FSA (secular Free Syrian Army) rebel forces to do most of the fighting. What the Turks do want is to get the Kurds, especially YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatist) forces, away from the Turkish border. Going much further than 30 kilometers south of the border (at least on a permanent basis) is not part of the Turkish strategy.

Another complication was that the SDF was maintaining prison camps for captured ISIL fighters and their families. The SDF needs help in dealing with the growing number of these captives. SDF ended up with over 50,000 prisoners who are held in a large refugee/prison camp and various governments are being asked to verify who is a citizen of where. The UN has been asked to take custody of those found to be stateless. Iraq has agreed to take about 30 percent of the refugees and prosecute those who are suspected of ISIL crimes. That process was slower than expected. There are still over 40,000 of these prisoners at the al Hol camp. Many of the ISIL wives are obviously still active ISIL members and many were caught smuggling weapons into the camp when they were searched before entering. These ISIL women are terrorizing other camp residents and seeking to intimidate the camp guards. The Kurds need help paying for the camp and want the nations these people came from, including Syria, to claim and take custody of them. All of the camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them, that is unclear. Recently the ISIL leader released an audio message in which he urged all ISIL members to assist in getting the ISIL men, wives and children out of the SDF camps.

Russia may be able to help with this. In early 2017 Russia announced plans to set up a base in Kurdish territory to train members of the SDF Kurdish militia. This caused problems with Turkey and Russia backed off but maintained contact with the SDF. Since late 2016 Turkish troops in northern Syria have been seeking to avoid conflict with the Russians while attempting to intimidate some of the Kurds who have long controlled much of northeastern Syria. What complicates this is that the Syrian rebels and their Western allies (especially the United States) consider the Syrian Kurds the most effective rebel force and the key to driving ISIL out of Raqqa city and the rest of eastern Syria. The Turks are, on paper, the strongest military force in the area. But all Syrians, both the government and the rebels oppose the Turkish intervention. The Turks are mainly doing this because of domestic politics. The Kurdish separatists in Turkey (the PKK) are again openly fighting the government and often use bases in Syria. While the Kurds of northern Iraq will cooperate with the Turks in controlling the PKK, some of the Syrian Kurds (the YPG) have worked closely with the PKK before and the Turks do not trust them to behave like the Iraqi Kurds. Meanwhile, Turkey is willing to work with Kurdish militias not associated with the YPG. That is all moot now that everyone is opposing the Turks.

October 3, 2019: Russia confirmed earlier reports that Russian commanders in Syria were operating as part of a clean-up operation because major military operations were no longer taking place. Russia believes it has reached agreements with its allies (Assad government, Iran and Turkey) over how to deal with the remaining problem areas (remaining rebels in Idlib province and Kurds in Hasaka province).

October 2, 2019: A senior American official used satellite photos of the Iranian tanker Adrian Draya-1 off the coast of Syria, tied up with a smaller tanker to accuse Iran of smuggling. The Americans believe the Iranian ship was transferring its cargo to the smaller tanker which would then deliver it to Syria via the nearby oil unloading facility off the coast. This is what Iran has done but it was pointed out that there is no conclusive evidence that the transfer to Syria actually took place.

October 1, 2019: Russia revealed that it had sent a battery of S-500 SAMs (Surface to Air) missiles and associated equipment to Syria for testing of their performance in a combat zone. No missiles were fired but the troops operating the equipment discovered several problems that were tended to quickly. If there were any more serious problems, the Russians did not provide any information.

September 30, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), the border crossing at Iraqi Qaim/Syrian Bukamal was officially reopened. The crossing had officially closed in 2012 as rebels battled the Syrian army for control. Possession changed hands several times but the area remained a combat zone and had not quieted down sufficiently until early 2018 to consider an official reopening. The border crossing controls a main route up the Euphrates River Valley through Syria and into Turkey. This crossing is one of the several Iranian land routes through Syria to the Israeli border and Lebanon. This route is under constant attack by Israeli airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

September 28, 2019: In the north, a Russian UAV operating near the Turkish border was shot down by a Turkish F-16 after the UAV wandered into Turkish air space. This had happened once before, in 2015. A similar UAV had been shot down in Ukraine during 2014-15.

September 27, 2019: In the west (Tartus), satellite photos show two Kilo class subs and two surface warships docked at the Russian base at the port of Tartus. There are also several support ships. These warships come from Russia, stock up on supplies and train off the coast.

September 19, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), there was apparently another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Five pro-Iran militiamen were killed and nine wounded. This border crossing is vital for the Iran-to-Mediterranean land route. This road is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has bombed it before and will apparently continue doing so. That is what will also to happen to the new military base Iran is building here on the Syrian side of the border. The base is not complete yet but will be soon and expected to be occupied by the end of 2019. At that point, the Israeli airstrikes usually begin.

 

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