Southern Syria: UN calls for a ceasefire to prevent a humanitarian disaster in and around Ghouta have gained steam. An emergency session of the UN Security Council will be held later today. Russia has indicated it might be receptive to a ceasefire in the Ghouta area, but will not support a nationwide ceasefire. Sweden and Kuwait have called for a resolution ordering a 30 day ceasefire in order to provide humanitarian aid. Russia’s UN ambassador described the 30 day window for a ceasefire as being unrealistic. Russian airpower has been supporting Syrian government forces in the push to oust rebel forces from Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, though the Syrian air force has been flying the majority of the air strikes launched during the operation. Civilian casualties are soaring, with government forces deliberately targeting hospitals in and around Ghouta with artillery and air attacks. Among the dead are upwards of sixty children and forty-five women.
Northern Syria: The Syrian Kurdish YPG has called for assistance from the Syrian army in repelling the Turkish offensive. Some groups of pro-government troops have arrived in the area, but so far no forces from the army have come to the section of northern Syria that is under Turkish assault. Syrian army forces are not likely to join the fighting either, with Bashar al-Assad reluctant to spark a direct confrontation between his army and Turkish forces. At the moment, northern Syria is a cauldron of tense confusion. Turkey’s involvement there only served to strain matters even more and increase the chances of a wider clash occurring.
Tensions in the Middle East are heightened this Saturday after Israel launched air strikes against Syrian air defense sites, and Iranian targets inside of Syria following an earlier incident when an Iranian UAV entered Israeli air space and was shot down. During the Israeli raids one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel. The pilots ejected safely, however, one sustained serious injuries according to reports. The incident marks the first time since the 1980s that an Israeli warplane has been shot down as a result of enemy action. Even more disconcerting is the fact that drone incident, and air strikes mark the first direct clash between Israeli and Iranian forces inside of Syria.
Israeli fighters struck the site where the drone was launched first. Subsequent strikes were made against other Iranian military targets in Syria, as well as Syrian air defense batteries. IDF reports do not indicate whether the F-16 was downed by AAA fire, or a SAM. The fighter carried a two man crew, indicating that was likely a type of F-16 that Israel uses in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, leading to the conclusion that the Israelis were probably targeting SAM batteries. (note: Right before posting I learned the aircraft was in fact struck by an SA-5 SAM)
Today’s shootdown is the third one to take place in the Syrian skies this week. A Russian Su-25 Frogfoot was downed by FSA forces last Saturday, and earlier today it was confirmed that a Turkish helicopter over northern Syria was attacked and destroyed by Kurdish forces sometime in the past 24 hours.
The consequences of the action in Syria and northern Israel remain to be seen. There is a strong possibility that Israel’s response could be heavier air strikes against targets in Syria, possibly as part of a bigger effort to put more pressure on Iran.
Although the Olympic games are supposed to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, it would appear somebody forgot to tell that to Iran and Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed today to expand the offensive against Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria until ‘the last terrorist’ is killed. Operation Olive Branch, a Turkish offensive aimed at expelling the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from northern Syria, commenced on Saturday. Syrian opposition forces are also taking part in the offensive. Erdogan said the offensive has been successful thus far and will continue despite growing international concern.
A NATO ally appears to be expressing the sharpest concerns. Germany, which has seen its relationship with Turkey sour in recent years, is reconsidering a deal that would see Turkey’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks upgraded by Rheinmetall. Photographs and video taken by the media in northern Syria have shown that Turkish Leopard 2s are taking part in the offensive. Berlin is facing many calls from politicians on the left and right to cancel the deal.
The United States is another ally that has seen a decline in its relationship with Turkey in recent years. The offensive underway in northwest Syria threatens to disrupt the fight against ISIS at a time when the organization is clearly on the ropes. US forces in Syria enjoy a solid working relationship with a number of Kurdish militia groups. YPG is the US military’s main partner for operations against ISIS in Syria. It has trained and equipped a large number of YPGs combatants. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the White House and Pentagon are both concerned about the Olive Branch offensive disrupting the relationship and potentially placing Turkey and the US on a collision course. President Trump is expected to speak with Erdogan this afternoon. There is some hope that a de-escalation of the situation in northwest Syria can be reached. If that does not come about, President Trump will have to decide whether the fight against ISIS, or supporting a NATO ally takes precedence for the United States.
In the aftermath of the Russian intervention on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his government, Moscow has taken an active role in diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to an end. As time went on following the introduction of Russian military forces, the fortunes of war turned irreversibly in Syria’s favor. Despite temporary setbacks, and a US military response to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons earlier this year it is safe to assume that when the shooting finally ends in Syria, al-Assad will remain in power. The Syrian conflict is winding down, but without a formal diplomatic compromise involving all parties. This is where the problems begin.
The Syrian Conflict is ripe with players, both combatant and non-combatant. A final compromise cannot come about until all of them have an opportunity to carve a piece of the cake off for themselves. Unfortunately, the sheer number of parties involved assures that the mad dash for a piece of the cake will inevitably dissolve into a fight for the last morsel. The peace process promises to be every bit as difficult and bitter as the conflict itself.
Nevertheless, Russia is making a push to begin a fresh round of peace talks later this month in Sochi or possibly on the Russian military base in Latakia, Syria. The conference is being called the “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” and is expected to discuss reconciliation, political reform and other issues that will be of utmost importance in post-war Syria. The newly proposed Syrian constitution will also be discussed. Anti-Assad rebels and other members of the Syrian Opposition are among the invitees, as are the Kurds. The inclusion of the Kurds has been surprising to many in the region. In all previous UN sponsored peace talks there hasn’t been a visible Kurdish involvement.
Turkey and Iran endorsed the Russian plan yesterday. The Syrian National Council, the primary Western-supported opposition group has denounced the effort as an attempt by Moscow to perform an end run around UN-supported peace talks in Geneva. To be fair, UN peace talks have accomplished little, however Russia’s motives are highly suspect. It is no secret that Moscow wants to redraw Syria, and the region in way that is supports Russia’s overall geopolitical goals.
On Monday, Iraqi Kurds voted in a referendum on an independent Kurdish state. The official results will not be revealed until later in the week, but a vote in favor of independence is expected. For ethnic Kurds, Monday was a historic day and a step closer to achieving their long sought after goal of forming an independent state out of the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.
Regional, and international reactions to the referendum were generally negative. The nations surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan have rejected the vote and are notably wary of the consequences it could bring. For Iraq, the vote could mean a redrawing of its borders and a redistribution of the nation’s oil wealth. Iran and Turkey are concerned that the vote will inspire their own Kurdish populations to demand more autonomy, something that neither nation is willing to consider. Regional concerns have been paired with saber-rattling from neighboring nations. Today, Iraqi and Turkish forces are staging joint exercises on their shared border. Iran has also held exercises on its border with Iraq and closed off its airspace to aircraft traveling to and from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at the Kurds, warning them that they are risking an ethnic war. He stated that economic sanctions and military action are both possible responses to the referendum. Turkey considers this a national security threat. Ankara has had problems with its own Kurdish population and, like Iran, fears this vote will embolden its own Kurds. Iraq is not thrilled either, as mentioned above. Yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the vote unconstitutional, and ruled out talks on the referendum results with the Kurds.
The United Nations has also taken note of the potential fallout the vote might bring. Secretary General António Guterres warned of the ‘destabilizing effects’ that could result from it. Even the United States could not abstain from voicing its disappointment, voicing its own concerns about the instability that the Kurdish referendum could bring to a region that is already a powder keg.