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
On Monday, President Trump indicated he will soon sign an executive order placing considerable economic sanctions on Turkey in response to its ‘destabilizing’ offensive in northeastern Syria. Sanctions indicate that Turkey has in fact gone ‘off limits’ with some of its actions, a fear Trump has voiced recently. Earlier today, the president was specific when indicating some of the economic actions to be taken against Turkey ahead of the executive order. Negotiations on a $100 trade deal between the US and Turkey will end immediately, and steel tariffs will be placed back up to 50 percent.
The executive order will bring on more aggressive measures. According to news sources in the US who obtained a copy of the order it will declare a national emergency to “address the situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the recent actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria.” Current and former Turkish government and military officials will be targeted.
The situation in northeastern Syria has grown increasingly unstable since Turkish forces crossed the border. The apparently intentional artillery shelling of a US base by Turkish troops is but one of the incidents that has prompted Trump’s decision to implement sanctions. Aside from the shelling, news of the Syrian government’s decision to deploy troops in the northeast to aid Kurdish and SDF forces, and confront the Turkish invasion.
Trump is hoping the economic sanctions will help the US get out in front of the recent developments, and with luck bring Turkey’s war aims back down to a realistic level.
This will be discussed more tomorrow, along with some discussion about Turkey’s precarious relationship with NATO, and its future.
On the heels of President Trump’s intentions to withdraw US troops from Syria, Israel is making it known to the world that the pending US departure will not affect its own Syrian strategy. On Christmas Day Israeli warplanes went into action against Iranian military targets in Syria, striking a weapons storage warehouses, and ammunition supply points. Iran’s significant military presence in Syria has been a major concern for Israel and in 2018 a number of airstrikes were launched against Iranian targets on Syrian soil. Israel’s government has stressed that Iran’s smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon is a red line and as long as it continues, military actions will continue.
Syrian government statements claim that its air defense forces shot down 14 of the 16 missiles launched by Israeli warplanes, however, post-strike satellite photos appear to show that most Israeli missiles reached their targets. The Russian Defense Ministry also reported that two civilian airliners were placed in danger by the air strikes. There are unconfirmed reports that one of the flights was diverted to the Russian airbase outside of Latakia. Igor Konashenkov, a defense ministry spokesman was quoted as saying, “Provocative acts by the Israeli air force endangered two passenger jets, when six of their F-16s carried out air strikes on Syria from Lebanese airspace.”
There has been concern about the blowback the US pullout might bring for Israel, but Tuesday’s air strikes should lay these concerns to rest. The absence of US ground troops in Syria will not alter, or dissuade current and future strategies, and actions of the major players in and around Syria. Russia will continue to consolidate and expand its position with an eye towards shaping how Syria develops post-conflict. The Assad government is still centered on dismantling any and all rebel groups posing a threat to its hold on power. Iran, like Russia, intends to consolidate its presence in Syria now and in the future while continuing to funnel weapons to Hezbollah from there.
And while Iran continues along this path, Israel remains committed to actively defending against it.
Israel responded promptly to the Iranian rocket attacks against Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights with a series of counterstrikes that targeted the Iranian infrastructure inside of Syria. In what was Israel’s largest air operation in Syria since the Yom Kippur War, air and missile strikes were launched against a large number of Iranian targets in Syria. An IDF spokesman claimed 70 military targets were hit including Syrian air defense units after they fired on Israeli fighters.
The Iranian attack on Israeli forces in the Golan was likely launched as a response to Israeli airstrikes against Iranian bases in Syria over the last month. Israel claimed those actions were taken to stave off the growing Iranian military entrenchment there. The Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack in Douma and the resulting Western military response pushed the growing Israel-Iran confrontation into the shadows for a short time. Now the world is again paying close attention.
Russia, France, and Germany have called on Tehran and Tel Aviv to exercise restraint and caution. The United States condemned the Iranian rocket attack and laid the blame on Iran’s shoulders.
The events in Middle East over the past twenty-four hours have demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that Israel and Iran are approaching the brink of full-scale war. There is still time for both nations to take a step back and restore an uneasy peace. However, even they do, Israel and Iran will probably end up embroiled in a major conflict sooner or later.
Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.
Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential. If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.
Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.
Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.