Whether by design or reluctantly, Turkey is being drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict. Fighting has escalated as Syrian government forces are attempting to retake control of Idlib, the last rebel-held province in the country. Clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces have been going on since last week. Attacks against Syrian observation posts in northwestern Syria have been taking place since last week. Monday’s attack killed 5 Turkish troops, bringing the Turk military death toll to 14 while the Syrian number is undoubtedly higher.
Turkish government officials have been warning of stronger retaliation against Syria for the attacks on Turkish observation posts. President Recep Tayip Erdogan warned that Turkey will strike Syrian government forces anywhere in the country if any more Turkish soldiers are harmed in the last rebel bastion. Even more than protecting its own soldiers’ lives, Turkey’s tough talk and actions in Syria are also designed to prevent the government from capturing the Idlib province entirely. At least before Turkey can arrange some type of ceasefire, or partition of the territory.
Turkey’s motivation for acting in Idlib is more practical than ideological. Ankara has long supported the non-ISIS rebel groups opposing the al-Assad government in Syria. Lately the Turks have been using the relationship to send Syrian rebels to Libya in order to help support the Libyan Government of National Accord. In order to keep the stream of support going from Syria to Libya, Turkey has to do whatever is possible to keep the government forces and Russians from occupying all of Idlib. Another practical reason is the refugee crisis on Syria’s northern border. As fighting intensifies, the number of Syrian civilians looking to escape has risen considerably. Turkey has closed the border, yet if Idlib falls it may have to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees in order to avoid a humanitarian crisis, and the bad PR it would bring.
Author’s Note: I was away for a few days and just getting settled back in. I’ll try and catch up on events around the world more between tomorrow and Sunday. Sorry for the short length of this post. –Mike
As a strong supporter of President Trump and his policy goals I was surprised by the talk of military action against Bashr al-Assad and his government that started to emanate from Washington DC beginning Wednesday night. Most Americans recognize the debacle that Syria has become and regard the mess as partly the result of the previous administration’s failed foreign policy. The last thing we want is to become embroiled fully in the tinderbox which Syria has become.
As a foreign policy advisor and geopolitical expert, on the other hand, I agreed with the tone and message on Syria that was coming from Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump. Bashar al-Assad crossed a line by using chemical weapons against his own people. His actions demanded a firm, immediate response which would affirm that further use of chemical weapons by Syria will not be tolerated.
As an American I fully support the cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria. After eight years of the previous administration’s penchant for leading from behind, last night the United States of America reclaimed its place as leader of the Free World. The military action ordered by President Trump was measured, limited, and delivered the proper message to Assad, Russia, and our allies across the globe. It was not a shot across the bow, or the implementation of a ‘red line,’ but a justified punishment and message to Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
What comes next is not as clear-cut as last night’s US action was. Tillerson spoke in broad terms yesterday about a coalition forming to stop Assad. He also said Russia has been either complicit or incompetent in reining in the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. The cruise missile strikes certainly raise the prospect of the proxy war in Syria heating up and will certainly raise tensions before Tillerson leaves next week for a visit to Moscow.
On the topic of Russia, today Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the attack as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.” Russia’s Ministry of Defense also stated its intention to increase the capabilities of Syria’s air defense system following the attack. At current, Syria’s air defenses are centered around single-digit Soviet manufactured Surface to Air missiles from the Cold War era like the SA-5 and SA-4. These systems are very limited in their abilities to contend with cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk. In comparison, Russia’s newer double-digit SAM systems such as the SA-21 Growler, which is currently defending Russian forces in Syria, has the ability to detect and engage low flying cruise missiles.
Over the weekend we’ll take a look at some of the other topics emerging from the US strike, as well as try and chart in more specific detail what might come next in Syria, and for US-Russian relations.
Even before the ceasefire in Syria collapsed, Russia was already making preparations to reinforce its military contingent in Syria. Since the ceasefire’s premature end and the withdrawal of the US from bilateral talks on the Syrian conflict, Moscow has cast subtlety aside and is moving forward in Syria with little regard for the objections of the US government. Public and social media statements by members of the Russian government this week resembled taunts and with the general state of US-Russian relations rapidly deteriorating, it probably will not improve anytime in the near future.
Russia is moving additional forces and supplies to Syria. Additional Russian Navy warships have been seen transiting the Bosphorus on their way to the East Med, and another advanced SAM system is on its way to Syria. This one is the SA-23 Gladiator/Giant, known as the S-300VM in Russian military circles. It is an updated version of the SA-21 Growler (S-400) system that arrived in Syria last year. The Gladiator was designed to defend against and defeat theater ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and is also very effective against precision-guided munitions and perhaps even standoff jammers such as the US Navy’s EA-18 Growler.
On the surface it might seem the movement of additional advanced SAMs into Syria is textbook example of sabre rattling. That might be Moscow’s intent. However, the operational implications cannot be overlooked or ignored. With the incoming SA-23s, and the SA-21s and fighters already in place, Russia has the foundation for a very effective no-fly zone at its fingertips. At any given moment, Russia can choose to close off the skies of Syria to all aircraft except for its own and those of its Syrian allies. Such a no-fly zone would be invaluable in the event of a Syrian offensive against rebel groups around Aleppo or other parts of the nation. The US had made noise about targeting Syrian government forces and airbases with airstrikes to help alleviate the crisis in Aleppo. The presence of a potential Russian-enforced no-fly zone essentially kills the possibility of US/coalition airstrikes against government targets.
In a nutshell, what Russia is doing right now is locking down Syria tight. Moscow has gained control of the geopolitical and military situation in the country. Washington’s position in Syria has been largely minimized, due in large part to the mismanagement of the administration and the naïve, pie-in-the-sky expectations that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama adopted when Russia intervened in the conflict last year. Back in September of 2015 it was obvious that Russia was not interested in a partnership with the US either to stabilize Syria and/or combat ISIS. Putin sent Russian forces to Syria to ensure the survival and eventual victory of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. Yet Obama and Kerry still went forward in the belief that Syria could be stabilized through US-Russian cooperation. The chances of that happening have evaporated, leaving Washington with two choices: do nothing further or respond to the Aleppo situation with airstrikes and run the risk of escalation and a wider conflict with Russia.
The airspace over northern Syria has become crowded and tense of late. Twice in the last four days, Syrian warplanes have made rare appearances over territory held by Kurdish forces in the northeast corner of Syria prompting coalition aircraft to be scrambled. On 18 August, Syrian Su-24 Fencers conducted raids in an area where US special forces were operating. A request for assistance went out and US fighters were launched but by the time they arrived in the area, the Syrian Fencers had departed. Following the incident, the Assad regime was placed on notice by the Pentagon. Damascus was warned not to fly or conducts strikes in areas where US forces are operating.
On the next day, US F-22 Raptors were scrambled to intercept another pair of Syrian Su-24s that flew near the town of Hasakah. The Raptor pilots flew within a mile of their Syrian counterparts and attempted to hail them, but received no response. The Raptors then used other means to ‘encourage the Syrians to depart from the area.’ This effort was successful, though the details on exactly what the ‘other means’ were remains unclear.
The encounters highlight the crowded and complex conditions that exist in Syrian airspace these days. Aircraft from the US-led coalition, Russia and Syria are all operating in the same areas and at the same times in some cases. The deconfliction plan that was put in place between the US and Russian militaries to keep their aircraft separated has worked very well so far. Judging by the events of 18 and 19 August, however, it appears that the Syrian Air Force is not included in the same agreement.
If that is the case, more incidents like this can be expected in the future, adding to an already tense situation in the air above Syria.
The United States and Russia are slated to hold another round of talks on deconfliction methods today. The talks come after it was revealed that US and Russian warplanes came within a short distance of each other over Syria this weekend. Russia’s air campaign, such as it is, has thus far included a number of highly visible incidents that exemplify the situation in the air over Syria. It is encouraging to see that the US and Russia are making an effort to minimize the dangers to their aircrews and avoid an incident that might potentially involve shooting. Whether the effort results in safer skies remains to be seen, however.
The Russian air campaign has strengthened Bashar al-Assad and his forces. Syrian government forces, along with Iranian and Hezbollah troops are massing in preparation for an offensive to regain control of Aleppo. Right now, sections of the city are held by government and rebel forces while ISIS has hold on some of the rural areas outside of the city. The coming offensive is hardly a secret. Preparations are underway on the ground and have been relatively visible. According to sources, the attack will begin soon and expand a government-led ground offensive against rebel forces in the Hama province further west.
With the Syrians expanding operations on the ground under the protection of Russian air cover and support, the United States is feeling pressure to build and engage in an effective Syrian policy. So far, that has not happened. US involvement in Syria continues to be confined to airstrikes against ISIS and airdrops of ammunition and supplies for moderate rebel groups. The decision to scrap its training program for rebels was the right move to make since the training program was not effective. Something more is going to be needed.
As time goes on, the US goal of an al-Assad free Syria is becoming less and less likely. Russian airstrikes are increasingly targeting US supported rebel groups. The United States needs to find a way to bolster the power of these groups in order for them to survive until perhaps a new US strategy evolves. Along with ammunition, additional anti-aircraft weapons should be supplied. Namely, the latest model of the Stinger man portable surface to air missile.
*Short update today. I apologize for that. Another will be posted tomorrow.*