The Sept 15 visit of Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov to Ankara coincided with the dispatch of additional Turkish arms and troops to the north of Syria. For Turkey, the third stage of the Euphrates Shield operation, after the ousting of ISIL from Jarabulus and al-Rai, is to rout the “Caliphate” in al-Bab, the last foothold of ISIL in the north of Syria.
While the Turks are preparing for the attack on al-Bab, the Russians have sent a group of sea soldiers to the strategically significant section of the Castello highway. This all helps us to guess what goals Gerasimov had in Ankara.
The Russian commanders want their Turkish colleagues to observe two major requirements. One of them is to stop the supplies of arms to “moderate” rebels and Jihadists from Jaish al-Fatah in Aleppo. The Turks are gradually enlarging their control over the area between their border and the north of Aleppo and this is inspiring them to join their Islamic allies in the east of Aleppo. But this is contrary to the Russians’ plans.
The other requirement might be guarantees that the Turks will not go further than al-Bab. The local ISIL fighters are expected to be ousted and to be thrown to the south, where they will face joint strikes by Russian aerospace forces, Turkish air forces and the U.S.-led “international coalition.”
So, the Russians and the Turks urgently need to coordinate their activities in the north of Syria and to synchronize their efforts to drive ISIL from the area between al-Bab and Aleppo.
This is the goal, but it is not yet clear what the Russians will actually face. The Turks may well retract their promises, especially after the provocation of their U.S. allies in Deir ez-Zor.
Even though the Turks’ tanks are already near al-Bab, they still have an active terrorist spot in their rear in Aazaz, with their generals showing no wish to fight the local terrorists. This fact is a serious challenge to the Russian-Turkish plans as the Syrian Al-Qaeda fighters are the worst enemy for the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance. And with those people the Turks are on at best neutral or at worst allied terms.
In this light, the Americans’ decision to make public their joint plan with the Russians might be a courtesy to their NATO ally, Turkey, who has no actual plans to throw off the “moderate” rebels and their Jihadist comrades. Let’s not forget that the Euphrates Shield involves Islamic fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Nur ad-Din az-Zangi and many other “moderate” groups. And these forces are growing as the Turks are coming closer to al-Bab.
The Turkish tanks and guns passed Aazaz by. Here the Turks need an efficient force for use against Kurds in Afrin. The Americans have forbidden them to fight Kurds directly and have even sent a special force to prevent any such clashes. But the Turks are missing no chance to show their American allies who is the boss in the area now.
After having been shown the door in al-Rai, the Americans are plotting a revenge: they have sent almost 50 commandoes to Tell Adyad, a northeastern Syrian town controlled by Kurdish YPG. Once the commandoes arrived, they hoisted a U.S. flag. Quite an adequate response, isn’t it?
Turkey’s growing presence in the north of Syria will certainly deepen the contradictions existing within the Russia-Turkey-U.S. triangle. In Jarabulus and al-Rai the Turks had troops from their 5th armored brigade, the 39th mechanized infantry brigade and the 106th artillery regiment.
They are not saying how many soldiers they have in Northern Syria and how many “moderate” fighters are involved in their Euphrates Shield operation, but military experts believe that the Turkish-Islamic coalition may comprise as many as 5,000-6,000 men. And now that the Turks are approaching al-Bab, this figure is obviously growing.
The Turks’ surge towards Aleppo has undermined the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and the United States in Geneva on Sept 12. On Sept 19, when the sides were supposed to form a joint anti-terror center, the ceasefire was broken. In the southeast of Aleppo, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, who is said by the Americans to have nothing to do with the “moderate” groups, led its allies from Jaish al-Fatah into a new attack.
The Russians replied by criticizing the Americans for breaking the Geneva plan and by declaring senseless one-sided ceasefire.
The Americans’ “mistake” in Deir ez-Zor was the last blow on the Russian-American plan on Syria. The Americans had never made such mistakes before. So, it was strange to see one occurring at such a crucial moment.
What happened in Deir ez-Zor was a provocation, which has helped the Americans to solve two tasks: to wreck the Russian-Turkish plans on Aleppo and to avoid cooperation with the Russians in the south of Syria. Now the Russian-Turkish plans to destroy ISIL fighters in the area between al-Bab and Aleppo and to stop military deliveries to the east of Aleppo have become just a hypothesis.
The U.S. military commanders were not enthusiastic about the State Department’s approach to Russia in Syria. And Sept 17 was a good chance for them to put back both the Russians and their own Secretary of State. The price of their provocation was dozens of Syrian soldiers, who were real fighters with terrorism, unlike those sitting in Pentagon offices. This “unintentional mistake” may have irreversible consequences.
After the Americans’ provocation, the north of Syria is facing growing activity. The Turks are moving towards al-Bab. The Russian sea soldiers deployed near Aleppo and along the Castello road may turn from peacekeepers into a target for Islamic fighters. Some unidentified planes are already bombing them and have even killed some of their assistants.
This all has confirmed the Iranians’ warnings that the Russians must not trust the Americans and may face geopolitical consequences if they try to make any long-term plans with them.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau