If the Middle East were a forest, Syria would be a propane tank burning beside it. Despite the efforts of firemen, the blaze continues. It’s only a matter of time before the tank explodes and sets the trees afire. The Syrian Conflict has been raging for seven years and shows no signs of receding. The war has transformed from a civil war to an amalgamation of loosely connected blood feuds, civil, tribal, and proxy wars that have the potential to spark a major regional conflict or worse. To make matters more complex, the Syrian Conflict is now on the verge of escalating to a point where two allies are threatening war on each other.
Syrian Government forces, with the invaluable support of Russian, and Iranian forces, are rolling up rebel forces, and expanding the amount of territory it controls. ISIS is reeling as US, and British forces are moving in for the kill. Iranian actions have brought about Israeli air strikes and the threat of further Israeli involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, in the north Turkish forces continue their offensive against Kurdish militias, and forces, some of which are supported by the US and other Western governments. France is now taking a stand against Turkish operations against the Kurds. Relations between Ankara and Paris are deteriorating amid reports the French are considering sending additional troops to Syria to aid the Kurds if Turkish forces extend their offensive east of Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated Turkey would regard such a move as an invasion. Turkey and France, both members of NATO, are sounding more like opponents instead of allies these days. The repercussions of a military clash between the two countries would be felt around the world.
The latest layer added to the conflict is President Trump hinting that the US will be scaling down or ending entirely its military presence in Syria. With ISIS close to defeat on the battlefield, the primary mission for US forces is ending and Trump sees no reason to keep them in country. A final decision has not been made, however, and some senior US officials have warned that a US pullout now could strengthen Russia and Iran’s influence across the entire region.
Later this week I’ll continue this subject by discussing the ongoing geopolitical chess match in the Middle East between the US on one side and Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the other.
Thursday’s remarks by President Trump regarding a possible US withdrawal from Syria coming ‘very soon’ has sparked concern in Washington and beyond. US involvement in Syria has been a hotly debated issue among Trump’s advisers and aides. Some feel that if the US is to withdraw from Syria, it needs to be phased, and staggered to reduce the risk of creating a vacuum, similar to what happened in Iraq after Barack Obama withdrew US forces in 2011 which contributed to the rise of ISIS. Other administration members support an immediate, and complete removal of the US presence in Syria. For weeks the president has been hinting to his advisers about his desire to pull US troops out of Syria, a major turn from the administration’s supposed current Syrian policy. Trump’s remarks might be based on the presumption that with the war against ISIS in Syria is nearing an end there is no other purpose for keeping US troops in Syria. Many Pentagon and State Department officials believe otherwise, pointing to the worsening situation in northern Syria and a desire to use US forces and other means of support to help in stabilizing the region.
With the Easter holiday upon us, I’m cutting this update short, but will return to the subject Tuesday morning. Syria is heating up again, and not only because of President Trump’s remarks.
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.