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Turkey is preparing to invade Syria: strategy or imitation?

Turkish armored vehicles at the border with Syria. Photo: turkiyegazetesi.com.tr

The latest developments in the north of Syria have propped up EADaily’s analytical forecasts: Turkey is suffering military and diplomatic defeats in the Middle East. Yet the postponement of the Geneva talks over Syria until February 25 became a tactical, though questionable, success for Turkey.

Nevertheless, Turkey has sparked rather grave consequences for itself in the north of Syria by its destructive contribution to the suspension of the talks in Switzerland. The Islamic militants that are supplied with weapons, provisions and funds from the territory of Turkey are retreating and giving up their positions in Aleppo province. The Ankara-backed “compatriot Turkomans” in Latakia “work wonders” of political adaptation attempting to convert from the allies into adversaries of Turkey. It has turned out gradually that the image of the united Turkic nation stretching from Latakia (Syria) to Nineveh (Iraq) which Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling regime is creating is a distorted reality.

Turkey had and still has a number of strategic priorities in the north of Syria. These priorities are fading away amid Ankara’s growing despair. This makes the Turkish government prepare for a military operation deeper in the territory of Syria. The main military and political guidelines for Turkey are as follows:

- To ensure stable canal of supplies for the insurgent groups fighting against the Syrian government troops;

- To neutralize the military activities of the Syrian Kurds to the west of Euphrates;

- To prevent penetration of Daesh (the Arabic acronym of the “Islamic State”, a terrorist organization banned in Russia) militants into the territory of Turkey.

Before the Russian air group emerged in Latakia and S-400 missile system were deployed there, Ankara’s main claim in Syria was the “safe zone” on the 98km-long territory that stretches from Jarabulus, a town that sits just west of the Euphrates River to Azaz, a Syrian border town across Kilis in southeast Turkey, as well as the no-fly zone over that territory.

U.S. and other partners of Turkey have clearly understood that the implementation of the “safe zone and no-fly zone” since autumn 2015 was impossible, and they have now focused on more realistic scenarios of ground-based operations in the north of Syria.  These actions by the army security service target the Daesh infrastructures and leaders, nothing else.

It appears Turkey’s intervention plans with possible involvement of the Arab states of the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, first of all) and with the air, intelligence and logistic support of the United States will be very painful. U.S. has set a definite condition to Turkey – preparation of a ground-based operation must be strictly coordinated with NATO. In other words, any independent steps by Ankara at any stage of the operation – from planning up to the call for intervention - are banned.  Washington did not dare to launch a bilateral format of operation with Turkey mainly due to the domestic policy nuances of the upcoming election campaign in U.S.  It is noteworthy that Washington chose NATO Headquarters in Brussels as a place for consultations over the Syrian “military dossiers” with Saudi Arabia’s representatives. 

Turkey has found itself in a situation when it cannot but accept the terms of the U.S. Administration. These terms were clearly explained to it during the recent visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford.  The situation on the Syrian-Turkish border develops so dynamically that the NATO allies and their Middle East partners may simply fail to take any actions for the ground-based operation.

The frontline in the north of Syria is rapidly approaching the Turkish border. The risk of a direct clash of the frontline groups of the Syrian army, Iranian and Iraqi volunteers, and the Hezbollah fighters with the Turkish troops is growing, especially if they are ordered to launch intervention.  By some data, nearly 500 Turkish security officers camouflaged as “instructors” and “advisers” are in the territory of Syria – some two-three km deep into the country.  Turkey’s General Staff does not risk taking more steps so far, as the Syrian government troops are pressing in Aleppo.

The defense line of the insurgent groups in the north of Aleppo is disintegrating. The highway from Aleppo to Azaz on the border with Turkey are under control of the government troops now. Earlier the roads via Anadan, Hreitan, Hayan and Mayer were blocked. The Syrian army broke into the sieged towns of Nubul and Al-Zahraa in the northwest of Aleppo. On February 3, the militia from Nubul and the army units from Hardetnina took Maareset al-Khan and mopped up the outskirts of Mayer in the northwest and Bynun in the south. The offensive is continued with the active support of the Russian and Syrian air force. According to the information resources of the Islamic militants, during the last days the Syrian Armed Forces and Russian Aerospace Force launched nearly 500 (!) air strikes in the north of Aleppo. The U.S.-led coalition comprising 66 countries cannot undertake such scales of air strikes against Daesh even within a month.

The period of “pause” in the Syria talks will determine the further developments. Turkish politician and military may make quite abrupt steps by February 25 when the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura hopes to launch Geneva-3 Talks. Turkey may not adhere to Washington’s demand to coordinate its actions with NATO until the end of the operation. At least look at the latest steps by Turkey.

Ankara hurries to intervene into the territory of Syria from three different directions: northwest (Latakia), north (Aleppo), and northeast (Hasakah). This will spoil Washington’s plans to protract the process. While U.S. promises, for instance, to direct its EA-18 Growlers electronic warfare aircrafts to the air base in Turkey to counteract Russia’s S-400 missiles, the Turkish authorities have already launched activities in the above directions.

In Latakia, the Syrian army’s positions in the mountainous regions of the provinces were targeted by Turkey’s artillery. Turkey is pulling additional forces close to Aleppo and forming armored striking force. The latter deploys heavy military hardware from the border with Greece (East Thrace) to the Syrian border. Reportedly, it is more than one thousand pieces of military hardware (tanks, armored artillery weapons, infantry combat vehicles, multiple artillery rocket systems and others).  It is nearly one-fourth of the total weaponry and military hardware of Turkey’s Istanbul-based 1st Army Command.  A 60,000-strong group of Turkish troops (nearly one-sixth of Turkey’s ground forces) has been concentrated in the north of the border with Syria.

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Military experts say Turkey has made a step forward to the “X-hour” by raising the combat readiness of its Air Force to the highest “Orange” level.  Reportedly, Turkish manpower, light and heavy armored vehicles, and de-mining vehicles have been dispatched closer to the Syrian border in the direction of Aleppo. The use of special armored de-mining vehicles to overcome the mined fields along the border suggests that Turkey is preparing for a large-scale operation.

The northeast of Syria, under control of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) of the local Kurds does not let Turks act without the support of the United States.  Therefore, in the given direction, they are pushing their overseas ally to establish military presence in Syria. Special units of the U.S. Armed Forces -  up to 100 men and technical staff – arrived in Qamishli, the largest city in Al-Hasakah province, yet last November. They are re-equipping the local airfield Rmeilan to turn it into a military base. They are working on the 2,700m take-off runway that will be used by the military, transport, and army aviation of the United States. 

Much suggests that U.S. is waging its own policy in the north of Syria, especially in the areas under control of YPG.  Driving Turkey into the NATO “trap,” U.S. is not going to refuse from partnership with the Syrian Kurds. To recall, Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Global Coalition to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has visited al-Hasakah province recently to get a first-hand view of the progress in the military campaign against Daesh.

According to Kurdish sources, McGurk arrived at YPG-held area by a military helicopter of the U.S. Air Force. The rotor-system helicopter landed at Rmeilan airfield. It appears that Turkey has enough reasons for nervous hysteria in conditions, as Washington plays its own game with the Syrian Kurds, Russia opens a representation of the Syrian Kurdistan, and its interests are ignored both openly and in a veiled manner. Turks can demonstrate that they are preparing for a large-scale military intervention, being aware that the time for such intervention is missed and it is no longer sensible to break into the northern regions of Syria.

None of the above priorities of Turkey can be implemented now through deployment of troops in the territory of Syria. The line of the positions sponsored by “moderate” groups has approached Turkey’s borders (some positions are even visible through optical devices). Furthermore, it has lost its erstwhile combat efficiency and there is panic among Islamic militants. Many rebels with families are fleeing to Turkey. In such situation, it is absurd to maintain the previous canals of provision for the opposition through battle march of the Turkish troops.

A stream of comments by the leaders of the “moderate” groups confirms the panic among the groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. For instance, leader of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal Hassan Haj Ali informed his patrons that the government troops have surrounded the north of Aleppo with the intensive support of Russia’s Aerospace Force.  Ali, whose militants were trained in the camps in the territory of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, said the situation on the frontline will turn disastrous for the rebels, unless no counter measures are taken.  The outcry of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal leader was published by the state English-language newspaper of the Saudi Arabia – Arab News. The Saudi henchman asked surface-to-air missiles to somehow impede Russia’s air strikes. Simultaneously, the Kingdom that failed to make a turning point is its military mission in Yemen, has surprised everyone by the announcement of an upcoming ground-based operation in Syria. One can announce anything, especially when he needs to encourage his clients on the Syrian front who more and more hint at their possible retreat.

As for the second priority for Turkey – to deter the Syrian Kurds – it has no good reason to pull its divisions to Syria. If the Kurds were not supported by the United States, Turkey would dare to launch a preventive, or more specifically, punitive operation in the Kurdish enclaves in the north of Syria. By autumn 2015, Kurds received aid from Russia too. The Turkish army has stuck in the guerrilla war in the southeast of its own territory densely populated with Kurds for several months already. Opening a second “Kurdish front” in such unfavorable for the Turkish government foreign policy and regional situation is fraught with another strategic defeat. Iran and Iraq are against the separatist goals of Kurds, but they will be happy to see Turkey’s failure, as they have their own geopolitical accounts with it.

Finally, after intervention, Ankara will get nothing concerning its third priority, the existence of which seems very doubtful.  The traffic of the Daesh militants to Turkey will just intensify and the threat of terror attacks in Turkey’s big cities will grow dramatically. Yet, the Turkish top power is far as never before from a direct clash with Daesh on the theater of war in Syria.

Turkey is imitating a big game. Meantime, the political leadership of that country will probably make just limited steps in the military field. Ankara has already tested the scenario of deploying troops “without invitation” in the field conditions.  In early December 2015, a limited contingent of Turkey entered Nineveh province, Iraq, with a declarative goal of supporting the local forces to fight Daesh. Despite the categorical demands of Iraq’s central government and the strong recommendations of the United States to pull back the contingent, Turkey has tented 30km to the northeast of Mosul.

Something like this the Turkish authorities may do in Syria too. This time, the declarative goal will have a different content. Turkey will argument the deployment of troops with the need to prevent a humanitarian disaster and curb refugee flows.  Turkey will open several military checkpoints and pull armored vehicles to confirm its presence in Syria.  The Turkish military will sure not become what Turkey’s propaganda calls a “human shield against Russia’s bombardments of the civilians.”  They will just ensure a more favorable diplomatic background for their political leadership ahead of another attempt to launch Syria peace talks in Geneva.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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