04.07.2016 Author: Alexander Orlov

The Situation in Syria Remains Tense

10341907701Although recent reports show that pro-government forces in Syria are successfully developing an offensive against radical militants, while recapturing one city after another, the actual success of Damascus is not as good as it may sound. The fact is there hasn’t been a considerable breakthrough to this date in the way skirmishes go. It must be admitted that the positions of President Bashar al-Assad are not as strong as it’s generally believed, although he has no serious competition in the ranks of the so-called moderate opposition, which is supported by the United States. As a matter of fact, he is still able to stay in power due to the presence of Russia’s military aircraft and Russian military advisers, along with Iranian military troops, Shia volunteers from Iraq and Hezbollah fighters. Without this external aid Assad would not last three months.

The fact that everything is not going particularly well in Damascus is manifested by its inability to seal the Syrian-Turkish border, across which a constant stream of weapons, resources and new fighter has been flowing all along. Additionally, Aleppo hasn’t been captured yet, and radical militants are assaulting governmental troops in the province of Latakia – the stronghold of the Alawites and the Assad clan and in the suburbs of Damascus itself. It’s curious that Iranians and Iraqi volunteers have launched a massive offensive against Aleppo without even consulting Russian military experts, which resulted in massive losses on their part. Only after the meeting of Russia’s, Syrian and Iranian Ministers of Defence the decision was taken to intensify air strikes against militant positions in Aleppo and the surrounding areas in a bid to change the desperate situation. But even when Aleppo is taken, it can easily fall to a counter-offensive launched by radical militants. Yet, Syrian and Iranian troops are being deployed to the north of Latakia to stabilize the front there.

But the greatest threat to Assad, as well as to Russia and Iran, is a joint military operation of the Syrian Kurds and the US aimed at capturing Al-Raqqah. It was launched simultaneously with the operation of the Iraqi Kurds and the US in the area of Iraqi Mosul. If those two cities are to be captured by Kurds with the extensive amount of support of the US, the future of an independent Kurdistan will be secured. At first it will only occupy disputed territories in Syria and Iraq, but then Turkey and Iran will fall its victims too.

Against this background a veritable war that has been waged for a year now by Kurdish rebels of the PKK and Turkish security forces in the Turkish Southeast Anatolia looks particularly troublesome, since police officers are not the only ones who get killed in this face-off, as civilians come under fire too. Terrorist attacks and sabotage raids are being committed almost on a weekly basis in Turkey, as Erdogan rapidly loses control of this area. Apparently, this explains why Ankara decided to seek reconcilation with Moscow. Without an agreement with Russia on Syria and Iraq, Ankara will be unable to keep the situation under control, especially against the background of a sharp increase in ISIS attacks. But Turkey has only itself to blame that the suicide bombers that commit attacks in public places originate from Russia’s North Caucasus and the former Central Asian republics of the USSR, since it allowed them to receive training on its territory under the supervision of foreign instructors paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

At the beginning of 2016, Turkey proposed the US join forces to open a “second front” against ISIS, if the forces of the People’s Protection Units  – the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party will not be a part of this front. However, the US turned down Ankara’s hand. The US State Department spokesman Mark Toner noted back then that Washington would continue its cooperations with Kurdish forces both in Syria and Iraq, since they proved to be a formidable fighting force. At the same the spokesperson added that the United States opposed Kurdish declarations of autonomy or semi-autonomy in Syria. A couple of months later the strained relations between the US and Turkey got particularly tense when pictures of US soldiers wearing People’s Protection Units’ badges appeared on the Internet. Turkish officials accused the US of “double standards and hypocrisy” and advised American soldiers to wear badges of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and other groups when they arrive to certain parts of Syria.

Then, the foreign ministers of Turkey accused the US of not fulfilling its promises of deploying its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System РСЗО on the border with Syria. He recalled that the United States promised to provide these systems in May, but then Washington announced a new date – August 2016. He suggested that Kurds were after new territories in a bid to divide Syria. It’s reported that Tayyip Erdogan was outraged by the fact that the Syrian Kurds seized Tel Abyad back in 2015, which opened a lot of options in front of them. It’s reported that the Turkish President announced that 95 percent of the city’s population are Arabs and Turkomans, while Kurds constitute only 5 percent of the population. It seems that the US is delaying the delivery of HIMARS to allow Kurds to capture the territories on the western bank of the Euphrates river.

In March of this year the Kurds controlling the northern part Syria have announced the creation of a federal region on the occupied territories. This decision was taken in the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, since it considers federalization to be the onlyviable option of solving the Syrian crisis. Iraqi Kurds supported the creation of the Syrian Kurdish federal region in northern Syria, but Turkey ultimately condemned this decision.

It should be noted that Ankara has recently suffered several major setbacks in Syria, since local Kurds have become a powerful player that controls the better part of the Turkish-Syrian that beats Jabhat Al-Nusra units on the regular basis. As it has been pointed out by a Turkish General Ilker Basbug, due to its wrong approach to the situation in Syria, Turkey has made the People’s Protection Units a US ally. It’s curious that Turkey has made the same mistake in Iraq, when its approach pushed local Peshmerga units into the warm embrace of the United States. And ISIS is in much weakened position in this area now, due to which it has gradually begun losing its significance for Turkey.

In this situation, Ankara started to shift its focus towards the support of Jabhat al-Nusra, to prevent the future victories of People’s Protection Units on the Mediterranean coast. However, it suffers from a long list of differences with the United States, since the latter opposes Turkey’s military intervention in Syria and the creation of a northern buffer zone. The US is going to use American, French and German special forces to prepare a group of Arabs, Turkomans and Assyrians who will be able to storm the city of Al-Raqqah themselves pretty soon now. The withdrawal of Syrian government forces from the province of Al-Raqqah leaves this sector to the mercy of the US and its allies among the Syrian opposition groups. It is clear that Washington’s main intention at this stage – is taking Al-Raqqah in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq.

While Al-Raqqah is left for the taking of the US, the direction of Aleppo becomes particularly important for Damascus and its allies. The visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Tehran and Damascus was  clearly aimed the approaches towards the military operation completely, since different opinions on this matter existed in those two capitals. The day after the visit, Shoigu visited Hassan Nasrallah – the Secretary General of the Lebanese Hezbollah and it’s reported that their discussion was devoted to the liberation of Aleppo. The words of the leader of Hezbollah about the fate of Syria being resolved in Aleppo explains the importance of those preparations. The Lebanese forces will play a major part in the forthcoming offensive. They will be joined by Palestinian forces of PFLP-GC, which have long been struggling for the liberation of Aleppo. This major offensive is going to be backed by the air and artillery support of the Russian military forces, since the movement of heavily armored vehicles to the region of Aleppo has already been reported. The operation, apparently, will begin after Ramadan.

In any case, the situation remains quite complex in Syria and it’s pretty much impossible to predict its futher development, especially one Erdogan began the process of reconciliation with Russia. Surely the Syrian issue, too, will be a part of the “package deal” between Moscow and Ankara.

Alexander Orlov, Political Scientist and Expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook