Original by Yevgeniy Satanovskiy, president of the Middle East Institute, published by vpk-news.ru; translated from Russian by J.Hawk
Threatening losses, demanding jihad, the outrage caused by the overflight of Russian cruise missiles only a few miles from a US drone, the threat to stop buying gas and refuse to build Russian nuclear power plants—none of these sound very credible, no matter whether these statements are issued by the Americans, the Saudis, or the Turks. And they can’t win over the public’s sympathy for those who are making these claims, or for those who are ordering such statements to be made.
The refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom suddenly flooded Europe, are causing great concern among its inhabitants. But Russia is not permitting anyone to bomb Assad to pieces under the pretext of stopping the flow of refugees. Therefore the large-scale provocation in the form of mass migration has not brought the desired results.
A terrorist act is a different story. It’s a win-win proposition. The victims are provoking sympathy, while the terrorists are provoking outrage because it was a peace rally. The published list of organizations which, according to the Turkish authorities, might be behind the terrorist attack, includes all the usual suspects on the principle “kill them all and sort them out later”. Nobody is even asking why they needed to launch the attack whose only beneficiary is the government of Turkey on the eve of the upcoming parliamentary elections. It now has a blank check to do whatever it wants to against anyone accused of supporting the radicals. Naturally, Turkey’s MIT intelligence service is not on the suspects’ list, even though the event is eerily similar in its lack of motives to the recent terror act in Surush which launched the latest round of Erdogan’s war against the Kurds.
As dependent as Russia’s strategy in Syria is dependent on the US and Franco-British factors, they are secondary in importance. The real threats are associated with Qatar’s, Saudi Arabia’s, and Turkey’s activities on Syria’s territory. Especially the latter, since Erdogan has nowhere to retreat to.
The level of bilateral trade between Russia and Turkey is higher by two orders of magnitude than between Russia and Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Considering the history of bilateral relations, Turkey’s NATO membership, the fighting power and experience of the Turkish military, official Ankara’s position concerning Crimea, the Straits factor, and Erdogan’s personal characteristics means that the analysis of the Turkish component of the Syria war is of particular importance when attempting to assess future developments. We’ll perform that analysis using data from IBV experts Yu. B. Shcheglovin and V.I. Kovalyov, which suggest the following: Russia’s military operation in Syria has had a most negative impact on Turkey’s strategy and tactics in Syria.
For the US, it’s a challenge to its global dominance, but for Ankara the problems are considerably more down to earth. The recent US-Turkish agreement on leasing the Incirlik airbase was difficult to Ankara. The US literally had to step on Erdogan’s throat to get him to conduct constructive negotiations. But delaying further meant losing strategic inititative. Ankara, Doha, and Riyadh spent the whole spring coordinating the spheres of influence of formations under their respective control. They were discussing a general offensive against Damascus and the end of Assad’s rule. To achieve that compromise, Saudi Arabia acceded to Qatar’s and Turkey’s demand to allow Muslim Brotherhood to participate in Syria’s political life. Which in turn led to pro-Saudi forces taking Idlib, and pro-Qatar and pro-Turkish forces (including the IS) to reach northern Aleppo.
The Kurds launched a late summer offensive against Raqqah. This forced the Turks and Qataris to change tactics which contributed to Erdogan’s party’s failure at the parliamentary elections. It was planned that, having begun operations against the PKK, Erdogan will spark a wave of Turkish nationalism and reduce the turnout in favor of the pro-Kurdish Party of the Democracy of Nations. Moreover, PKK fighters who play a crucial role in the Kurdish regions of Syria had to be diverted to the “Turkish front”. However, the Kurds’ tenacious resistance put paid to Erdogan’s hopes for rapid victory. That was his first mistake. The second one was that he decided that after the “gift” to the US in the form of Incirlik they will support his “buffer zone” idea on the border with Syria and eventually a no-fly zone as well. The buffer zone de-facto exists, but the second initiative was turned down.
The US at the moment are engaged in a propaganda war against Russia but are ready to support the Kurds’ offensive against Raqqah. That’s a lethal scenario for Erdogan. His understanding with Qatar was built on the assumption that the buffer zone will ensure a steady flow of supplies to the IS and pro-Turkish forces in Syria. Taking Raqqah would demolish that scheme. Keep in mind that after the Surush terror act which took place at a Kurdish refugee camp and which was blamed on the IS, Turkish air force did not bomb the IS but only the PKK. Likewise the IS had no reaction to Turkey’s “campaign of vengeance” allegedly aimed at it. Moreover, US aircraft bombed neither target, on Ankara’s request.
Erdogan’s third mistake is that he came to believe Moscow was ready to give up Assad. All his remaining miscalculations flowed from that mistake, including his alliance with Qatar which arose on the basis of unity of interests in Libya and Syria. If Raqqah falls, the positions of the pro-Qatari IS in Syria and ultimately in Iraq will weaken dramatically. Turkey refused to participate in the joint project with the US to train “new Syrian opposition”, instead blocking it and launching its own training program using Qatar’s money. Now Ankara will have to start over, preparing its own fighters which may be presented to the world as “moderate opposition.”
Erdogan in October
For that to happen Erdogan had to start negotiating with the EU. The official purpose of his visit was to ensure EU support on minimizing the negative aspects of the migration crisis, although Erdogan himself provoked it by attempting to reduce the electorate’s displeasure with the presence of the huge number of refugees from Syria and other places. The blackmail worked, EU agreed to finance new refugee camps in Turkey. Which allow new recruits to be trained for islamist formations since refugee camps are an ideal recruiting ground. Ankara’s level of activity in this area will increase only if Erdogan’s party has “satisfactory” results in the elections on November 1.
Erdogan’s visit to Brussels on October 5-6 had dual consequences. EU agreed to give him two billion Euro for refugee needs and compelled him to accept migrants from ships intercepted by EU naval forces. Moreover, EU politicians are discussing deporting up to 400 thousand migrants. Turkey did not promise to take them all back, and one can’t prove they came from Turkey in the first place. Moreover, deportation implies serious judicial challenges and would require the EU to adopt new laws. Having provoked a massive refugee outflow, Erdogan weakened Assad’s islamist foes and seriously reduced the recruiting base for new volunteers in the camps. What’s more, many of those who fought in Syria decided to become “forced refugees” to Europe.
But Erdogan also came to Brussels to discuss the matter of a “security buffer zone” between the Turkish border and Aleppo, including a “no-fly zone.” The objective here is to establish bases for pro-Turkish forces in northern Syria, but also to undermine efforts to create a Kurdish autonomy on its border. Europeans promised to “discuss” the project. One day later Merkel said she “doesn’t see Turkey in the EU.” The US officially said that “technical and logistica factors don’t support” establishing a security zone, or a no-fly zone. That decision was clearly made after Russian cruise missile strikes from the Caspian against terrorist targets in Syria. Thus the only force which the US can rely on to launch a Raqqah offensive are the Kurds. And they will ignore Erdogan’s opinion on that score.
Erdogan provokes suspicion and irritation in both Brussels and Washington. Ankara’s initiative failed. EU and US are not ready to quarrel with Russia in Syria to satisfy Turkey’s ambitions, and therefore Turkey will remain in isolation, especially if Qatar decides to phase out its IS project in Syria (IS militants are being rapidly transferred to the pro-Qatari forces in Libya). Turkey’s MIT will continue increasing its subversive activities in Syria, including against Russian military personnel. But if Raqqah is taken and the Kurds establish control over Syria’s northern provinces, they will become a buffer zone against Turkey’s operations. Moreover, Erdogan may be seriously weakened after the parliamentary elections where his party might not get the absolute majority.
Anatolian balance of forces
The Party of Justice and Development (PJD) chairman Akhmet Davutoglu presented the updated election platform only on October 4. The platforms will be of secondary importance during the November 1 elections, since the last election was very recently, on June 7. PJD’s platform—“The Road Map Toward Peace and Stability in Turkey” is the same as before, except then it was called “They talk, PJD acts.”
The weaknesses of Turkey’s parliamentary system which has existed for almost 100 years are becoming more plainly visible, there is a need for a new constitution and a transition to a presidential system. Kurdish crisis resolution plans are still on the agenda and have not been modified, in spite of the increase in tensions. The only thing to undergo revisions was the economy to account for the fall in the national currency and inflation.
What objective is PSR, which changed 70% of its candidate list, pursuing> We can forget about 400 seats in the parliament which it hoped to obtain in the last election. It’s goal is to add 18 seats to obtain a simple majority in the parliament—mejlis of 276 seats. It wants to obtain these seats at the expense of the pro-Kurdish Party of the Democracy of Nations which overcame the 10% electoral threshold. However, surveys do not indicate that party is dropping in popularity in spite of attacks from official media, and the PJD’s popularity remains at around 40% which is the same as during the June 7 election. Therefore the aggressive rhetoric toward the Kurds will increase as election approaches. Moreover, the emergency law in eastern and south-eastern provinces gives the authorities excuse to unite and splinter electoral districts in those parts of the country so as to increase PJD’s chances of success. As a result, PJD started going after other opposition movements, particularly the National-Republican Party (NRP) and its leader Kemal Kylychdaroglu.
The Raqqah Knot
But no matter what, the elections are approaching and its results will heavily influence Erdogan’s strategy in Syria. For the moment, judging by intelligence information, field commanders who fight in Syria against Assad received permission from their masters in Riyadh and Doha to obtain latest-generation man-portable SAMs. The main recipients are al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham, and the remnants of the Free Syrian Army based in the south, near Hama and Homs. The SAMs will be procured by the operations branch of Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, and transported to the north of Syria by Turkey’s MIT. They will also handle the technical and logistical aspects of the operation.
Jordan’s position is an open question. The Saudis’ initial consultations in Amman did not lead to a satisfactory outcome. Amman is cautious about allowing Jordan becoming a base for delivering SAMs to Syria, fearing it might lead to the spread of violence to the kingdom. Especially since the local population is none too pleased with Jordanian authorities and is sympathetic to the IS. Experts believe that SAM deliveries, should the US burn a blind eye on them, will restore the balance of forces at the front.
Western analysts also note that Russian airstrikes in Syria are a preparation for a ground operation by Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese Shia militia forces. The fight will involve units of Afghani Khazara, who will defend the liberated regions and man garrisons and checkpoints. There are three possible axes of advance: north of Homs, the al-Gab region, and the mountainous regions north-west of Homs, and the Queiris airbase which is blocked by the islamists. Surrounding the militants in the Homs pocket would eliminate the threat of their offensive on Homs and Hama. Advancing thorugh the al-Gab region would enable the Syrian army to take the city of Jisr al-Shugur, which is the gate to Latakia, thus removing the threat of islamist offensive from Idlib. The battle for the Queiris airbase would lift the morale of Assad’s forces.
The consultations in Damascus with the Kurdish militia commanders on supporting their operations against the IS by Russia aviation are also prompting the US to organize an offensive against Raqqah using 20 thousand Kurdish fighters and 5 thousand Turkoman militiamen. This would allow Russia to use the US to weaken the IS in Syria and complicating Washington’s relations with Ankara. If the US turns a blind eye on the SAM deliveries through Turkey and the reports of US collusion or passivity seeps into the media, the damage to the Democratic Party and its candidates on the eve of the election campaign would be enormous. Which is of great importance to Obama.
Now let’s turn our attention to the relocation of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Syria (CJSOTF-S) to the al-Udeid base in Qatar. It is officially under the USSOCOM, which is responsible for training and equipping Syrian opposition fighters. It’s also known that CJSOTF-S will coordinate the deliveries of weapons from US bases to Assad’s opponents. Riyadh undertook to finance these operations. The headquarters will also synchronize opposition’s operations with the USAF 39th Wing based at Incirlik. In other words, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the US are planning to greatly increase subversive activities in Syria, while at the same time supporting the Kurdish offensive against Raqqah. After all, it’s not clear what becomes of the plan to overthrow Assad following the appearance of the Russian Aerospace Forces, but one has to show Congress that one is fighting the islamists…