The article provides a general look at changes of the military and political situation in the Middle East as result of the Syrian conflict.
Sponsors of Terrorism Are Faced with the Results of a “Sudden Test”
Written by Eugene Satanovskiy; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Alice Decker exclusively for SouthFront
The situation in Syria reveals the international community in its truest form, the way it is. The picture is not flattering to the UN or the “Great Powers”, or to their regional allies — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile Russia is showing not only persistence and consistency in the diplomatic arena, where she faces serious pressure, but military prowess, making her a force that potential adversaries will have to reckon with.
Let’s consider the current situation in Syria in light of the actions of the Russian Federation and Turkey, based on the work of an expert from the Institute of the Near East, Y. B. Sche.
Erdogan’s Last Weapons
On November 29 the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stated once again that the true purpose of his army in Syria is to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad and to return the country to its “true masters.” The reaction to his words, by local politicians and the media, were extremely sharp — and that is what gave his words weight. The main problems catching people’s attention in Turkey itself were a fire in a girls’ dormitory in Adana in which students were killed, the imminent delivery of the draft of the reformed constitution to the Mejlis, and the Kremlin’s reaction to Erdogan’s statement — and not the statement as such, but his perception of Moscow, because Ankara hasn’t got the military, economic, or political resources for “the overthrow of the Assad regime.”
In theory Turkey must be raging over the losses the army would incur, if, in practice, they actually try to celebrate “festive” Friday prayers in Damascus, as Erdogan promised in 2011. But that “Friday prayer” has long been a popular saying in Turkey, used to indicate something that is not fated to come true. And by the way, nobody cares how Aksaray will respond to Moscow’s bewilderment. So the Turks regard Erdogan’s words as just an attempt to stuff the ballot box — the second time in recent years. The first was when his country allegedly entered the SCO. Note: at the Jerusalem Summit in Istanbul, in front of those who were gathered in the hall, and the Arab “street,” Erdogan cannot act otherwise. His image as an uncompromising fighter against Islamophobia, “tyrants” like the Syrian President, Israel and the West, requires him to make tough statements.
His words signal to Saudi Arabia and Qatar that Turkey is still a strategic ally of theirs (despite overtures to Trump made in the expectation of a partnership, on the condition that the preacher Gulen is handed over), and of Moscow, with whom a “reconciliation” has taken place. It is no coincidence that Erdogan’s statement came on the eve of a visit to Turkey by Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov. Ankara is lobbying for the lifting of sanctions against Turkish business and a return by the parties to a visa-free regime, seeking to allow entry based on domestic documents, and a move to making settlements in national currencies.
Turkey is seeking to achieve as many goals as possible using whatever rhetoric works, whether it’s membership in the SCO or the overthrow of Assad. The country is in a difficult economic situation due to the breakdown in relations with Russia, the attempted coup and the imposition of a state of emergency, tensions with the EU, and participation in the Iraqi and Syrian events. Moreover, there is no easy way for Turkey to improve its position in any of these areas. In this situation, there is nothing left but rhetoric to make foreign “partners” react — and this is what Erdogan has been doing.
Consultations with the Opposition
Representatives of the Syrian opposition from the northern part of the country have told the Financial Times newspaper that they are in Ankara negotiating with Russia, under the mediation of Turkey, on how to end the standoff in Aleppo. “Washington is completely cut off from these negotiations and has no idea about what is happening in Ankara” — suggests the source. As the newspaper notes, such negotiations may leave Washington out of the most important conflicts in the Middle East. The parties have not reached consensus, but the very fact that the negotiations are going on without US participation underscores the changes in the Middle East, says the FT.
Note that this is indirectly confirmed by the news that Ankara and Moscow, given President Erdogan’s statements against the Assad regime, agreed on joint efforts at humanitarian intervention in Aleppo. The role of Turkey is clearly not limited to providing assistance, but includes the impact on groups that are still prolonging the resistance in Eastern Aleppo, including the “Noureddine al-Zinki,” which forms a bloc with the “Dzhabhat al-Nusra” (aka “jabhat al Fatah ash-sham”) which is banned in Russia.
Initially, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia had planned to use Aleppo as an alternative to Damascus and to create a government there that would act on the international stage as a “true representative of the Syrian people” (Libyan version). This is why Aleppo has received increased attention in the West, in the Arab monarchies, and Turkey. The talks in Ankara show that it has decided to respond to the worsening situation and proceed in Syrian politics from the loss of control of Aleppo. There is no more talk about expanding the opposition throughout the territory. Ankara needs to wipe out the Kurds’ plans to form a quasi-state enclave in Northern Syria. It cannot be ruled out that for the sake of this Ankara will go as far as reducing its participation in supplying matériel and technology to the Syrian armed opposition through the Turkish logistic corridors, even to the detriment of relations with Riyadh. To use them as before would compel Damascus and Moscow to encourage the creation of a Kurdish “cordon sanitaire” in the North.
The break with Saudi Arabia is preordained for the Turkish leadership. Riyadh and those linked with Ankara–Doha have different visions of the future form of Syria and the forces that will take the lead in it. For Saudi Arabia, it is Salafis and the movements affiliated with them; for Turkey and Qatar — the Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara won’t stage an excessive military build-up of the pro-Saudi Jabhat al-Nusra though now an alliance exists between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, while groups under their control are often at war together. United by the shared goal of overthrowing the Syrian president, they will be fighting among themselves in the post-Assad period. The entrance of Russia into Syria and its success in Aleppo means that Assad won’t be overthrown and a strategy has to be built proceeding from that reality. Turkey and Qatar were quicker to realize that than Saudi Arabia.
The beginning of consultations between Ankara and Moscow on the Syrian conflict marks the beginning of Turkey’s withdrawal from under the Saudi mantel. Leaving the Americans out in the cold (which has to be confirmed) — is the result of the lack of progress in Turkey–US consultations on supporting the Syrian Kurds and the attack on Raqqa. US tricked Turkey, promising them that the Kurds would leave Manbij. Taking into account the Russian experience with guarantees from Obama, the Turks would have to conclude that with the US, words are not to be relied on; you need to sign papers.
Mustard Gas from the Sunni Triangle
The problem of chemical weapons in Syria, a topic usually used by Assad’s opponents as a justification for his overthrow, is back on the agenda. Russian military experts have proven the use of mustard gas against the civilian population in Aleppo province. It was used in September in Marat-ym-Haoush. Unexploded chemical munitions were found near the army barracks. There was a crude 240-millimeter mine with the filler neck in the rear. The contents — black oily liquid, a volume of 0.5 to 1.5 liters.
A New Middle East reality
There was a time when the Saudi and Turkish intelligence services tried to use the notion of chemical weapons to induce the US Air Force to strike Syrian military targets. This attempt was thwarted by Moscow, which guaranteed the removal of chemical weapons from Syria under the control of the OPCW. The impetus for the escalation of the situation was a provocation by anti-Assad forces who sprayed crude mustard gas in one of Aleppo’s densely populated districts.
In the first stage of the war, the Saudi intelligence services organized the delivery of chemical weapons components to Syria with the participation of the Turks. Riyadh bought technologies and equipment for the production of mustard gas through front companies in Albania. This country had had stockpiles of chemical weapons since the days of Enver Hoxha. After the collapse of the Tirana regime, these arsenals began to be disposed of under the auspices of the OPCW. The weapons themselves were destroyed, but the components for the production of mustard gas, technical documentation, and lab equipment went to the black market. They were purchased by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A laboratory for the production of mustard gas was established in Iraq in the ”Sunni triangle.” The poisonous substance was then shipped through Turkey to Syria.
After the attempted provocation failed to draw the Americans into the war in Syria, a no-fly zone was announced (a pet idea of Riyadh and Ankara, based on the experience in Libya) and this channel was frozen after the Turkish security services seized couriers with a cargo of mustard gas. Given the events associated with the coup and the covert activity of the Turkish security forces to discredit the Erdogan regime, this action could have complicated Ankara’s actions in Syria. It is no coincidence that the rest of this story has not been made public; only that a few months later Baghdad issued a statement saying that a laboratory for the production of makeshift chemical weapons had been found in the “Sunni triangle”.
Saudi Arabia has changed tactics. At present, makeshift laboratories for the production of low-quality mustard (which follows from the number of victims) are functioning in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, this is done by “Islamic State” (banned in Russia), which was selling the mustard gas to “Dzhabhat al-Nusra” through Turkish mediators, and in Syria by “Dzhabhat al-Nusra” itself, having organized a laboratory in Idlib.
Breakthrough in Aleppo
[SF: The analysis was prepared on December 7, 2016 Now, 98% of the city of Aleppo is under the control of government forces. The Syrian army is conducting a counter-terrorism operation against the remaining militants in separate parts of Aleppo.]
The turning point in the battle for Aleppo has become the key to the current situation in Syria. The Syrian Army and units of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” took control of several strategic areas in East Aleppo, dividing the “cauldron” in two. From a military standpoint this means agony for the militant defenders, a loss of opportunities for resistance and growing desires to flee in every direction. As the run out of ammunition and lose hope of any breakthrough in the blockade, the combat potential of the anti-Assad groups plummets.
During the offensive on Aleppo “Dzhebhat al-Nusra” wasted their resources. The Saudi military instructors used their usual tactic of “human waves”, because of which the Islamists’ losses exceeded acceptable limits. Every third gunman was killed or injured. As a result of the unprofessional command, the artillery used up almost their whole arsenal, which had to be delivered under fire from Idlib. Half of it was wasted. As a result, those who were trapped in East Aleppo could not be pulled out, and the position of the Islamists in Idlib was disastrous because of the shortage of manpower and ammunition.
A few facts confirm that this is the turning point. First and foremost — the beginning of a mass exodus of the civilian population (tens of thousands) for whom corridors were granted and the surrender of several hundred rebels. It is essential to finish up the operation in East Aleppo and prepare an offensive in Idlib, where the militants’ bases should be under constant pressure from artillery and air power. The leadership of “Dzhabhat al-Nusra” has ordered his supporters to withdraw from Aleppo, as its defense is over now.
The loss of Idlib would mean the end of the organized presence of Saudi Arabia in Syria, having lost to Iran, and a blow to the reputation (which was none too brilliant because of blunders in domestic and foreign policy) of Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the Crown Prince and the Saudi Minister of Defense. So we must be prepared for the fact that Riyadh will expend every resource in order to hold onto Idlib.
The second point, showing that the situation in Aleppo is close to a catastrophe for the anti-Assad forces, is the activity of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is trying to revive the framework agreement with the Russian Federation on Aleppo. The current administration has not given up attempts to come to terms with Russia, offering to end the siege of Aleppo in exchange for the disengagement of the Syrian opposition forces there and terrorist groups “Dzhabhat Fatah al-Sham” (formerly “Dzhabhat al-Nusra”). This was reported by the Washington Post. The administration understands that Trump may enter into “a different kind of deal with Moscow” and accept an agreement that “leaves the Syrian opposition to their fate” while firmly putting” Washington on the side of President Assad.
From a practical point of view, Damascus and Moscow need to continue clearing East Aleppo of militants. This will clearly speed up the process of involving more towns in the peace process that were in opposition to Assad; it will encourage groups in opposition to disintegrate, and will create a basis for negotiations on a peaceful settlement. This should be combined with humanitarian interventions to benefit the population of Aleppo. The relevant UN agencies should be publicly taken to task for sitting on their hands and taking a position of “wait and see.” This point should be made to the US relentlessly, without forgetting that sweeping all the insurgents from Aleppo remains the principal goal.
The “Russian Factor”
What has allowed Syrian government forces to make progress in Aleppo, despite the fact that a lot of work remains to be done to engage those pro-Islamist neighborhoods that remain and that talk of a final success will be possible only after the whole eastern part of the city has come under the control of government forces? First and foremost, it was the work of the General Staff of the Russian Army. After receiving the order to start preparing for such a military operation, they were faced with the task of defining how the armed forces would participate. They had to provide for the political and physical survival of the Assad regime but avoid the danger of getting bogged down in a conflict with never-ending loss with no visible progress, like Afghanistan.
The United States was not able to do it in Iraq, even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried. Defining the necessary and sufficient extent of a country’s participation in military operations is the main task facing the military leadership before deciding whether to intervene in conflicts of low and medium intensity. Aside from Russia and its Armed Forces Command, no one else in recent history has managed to do this, if we are talking about world powers and the major local clashes of modernity. We should note the high level planning of the operation, starting with transferring a group of Russian special forces to Syria and its deployment there. That was an absolute surprise for the United States and their intelligence; that is important in itself.
The Russian Ministry of Defense and the General Staff had to calculate the optimal plan for participating in the war given the shortage of human resources in the Syrian Army, which fell apart along interfaith lines reducing it to two or three divisions out of the whole lot; the greater part of the air force having worn-out equipment; and the growing panic of the command of the CAA and the political leadership amid mass defections of Sunni privates and officers. The Russian military operation in Syria had to be based on skill, not size.
Within the shortest possible time, our military and political leadership had to stabilize the situation on the fronts and providing optimal cover for the Syrian army, and handle the operational management and strategic planning. The advisors sent to the headquarters of the Syrian armed forces had the task of providing operational management and at the same time combat coordination between the Syrians, Iranians and Lebanese, the individual branches of the military and the fronts to the south and the north. A consensus had to be found with the Kurdish troops, who had positioned themselves as an autonomous force. This challenge, Moscow resolved — unlike Washington.
It should be noted that the conflict in Syria, as in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, was both tribal and sectarian. The concept of local truces between the tribes, sheikhs, various groupings and populations, mapped out and successfully fulfilled by the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, worked fully. More than a thousand such structures and military units agreed to a truce with the government. This approach pacified the south of Syria, which allowed the scarce government forces to concentrate in the north, in Aleppo and Homs. This difficult and complicated work was done for the most part by Russian negotiators from among the military advisors. This task, measured by its significance to the overall success, is on a par with those Russian advisors who make decisions in the control units of the Syrian army, as well as military pilots and sailors.
In Aleppo, what forces the government army had, strengthened organizationally, technically and morally by advisors of equal numbers, quickly turned the tide at the front. The breach of the Islamists’ defense was made possible also by the correct assessment of the enemy’s combat potential and the accurate calculation of his actions. The strategy was based on wearing them down, and this led to success. The Russian HQ’s operation in Syria is a successful embodiment of the optimal model of participation in local conflicts of medium and high intensity, which the West and primarily the United States failed to build. At the same time the effectiveness of the Russian military advisers to the Syrian army was the result of unannounced inspections carried out by the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff. These policies, aimed at creating a professional army, are justified, as confirmed in Syria in a real combat situation.