It’s been a dramatic few days in Syria. The Syrian Army pushed across Idlib Province to retake major strongholds of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists who have controlled the region for years thanks to support from Turkey.
This provoked a major escalation from Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Major offensives by the jihadists, backed by Turkish armor and air power, pushed back the Syrian army from the outskirts of Idlib city and took back the town of Saraqib at the confluence of the M4 and M5 highways which are of major strategic importance.
That counterattack occurred while the Syrian Army had moved south to claim vast territory northeast of the Russian air base at Latakia.
Erdogan has been threatening for weeks for the Syrian army to halt its advance or face the brunt of the Turkish Army. He made good on those threats, but only after taking advantage of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s temperance.
Over 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike on a convoy in southern Idlib who, by all accounts, were embedded with, to Russia, legitimate targets, i.e. members of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly al-Nusra and really just al-Qaeda.
According to the latest from Elijah Magnier, Putin unilaterally stood his air force down to de-escalate the situation and Erdogan used that opening to attack east of Idlib and south against the Kurds at Afrin towards Aleppo.
According to the sources, Russia was surprised by the number of Turkish soldiers killed and declared a unilateral ceasefire to calm down the front and de-escalate. Moscow ordered its military operational room in Syria to stop the military push and halt the attack on rural Idlib. Engaging in a war against Turkey is not part of President Putin’s plans in Syria. Russia thought it the right time to quieten the front and allow Erdogan to lick his wounds.
Two possibilities exist here.
Either Putin entirely miscalculated Erdogan’s intentions in Idlib expecting to him to be reasonable knowing that the bombing was unintentional.
Or, Putin stood his forces down to finally find out what Erdogan was willing to do to retain Idlib.
It’s clear that Erdogan believes something that is simply not true, that the Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey which established the demilitarized zones and Turkish observation posts was a de facto ceding that territory to Turkey.
Putin has made it clear that the territorial integrity of Syria is to be re-established and from there a political solution determined by Syrians occurs.
Erdogan’s betrayal goes far beyond just the counter-attack at Saraqib. He also ignored entreaties from Iran to stop attacking and sent drones in to attack an Iranian base and military hospital south of Aleppo.
Again from Magnier:
Turkey, which maintains over 2000 officers and soldiers in 14 observation locations that are today under Syrian Army control, ignored the Iranian request and bombed Iranian HQ and that of its allies, including a military field hospital killing 30 (9 Hezbollah and 21 Fatimiyoun) and tens of the Syrian army officers. The Turkish attack wounded more than 150 soldiers of the Syrian Army and their allies.
And this is the big problem for Erdogan. Because he has now decided that because Russia doesn’t want a war with a member of NATO, he feels that gives him the room to enforce his edicts in Syria.
But in doing this he has also greatly over-extended himself because the U.S., under Trump, wants nothing to do with what he’s doing in Idlib directly. The proxy war is fine. Harrassing Assad is fine. Forcing Putin to commit more while the world economy shudders is fine.
But there’s nothing Trump will do materially to get involved in Idlib. The usual suspects in the U.S. are crying for a U.S. maintained “No Fly Zone” over Idlib but that is simply the Israeli lobby talking.
Multiple times Erdogan has gone to the U.S. and NATO asking for assistance and multiple times he’s been sent back with nothing except, “Go for it!”
But at the same time, Putin’s political instincts may have betrayed him here. Russia’s position in Syria is tenuous if Erdogan wants to play all of his cards. It would be insane for him to do this, but this is not someone I believe at this point is a rational actor.
By all accounts the Kremlin was slow to respond to the ferocity of Turkey’s attacks over the weekend and it resulted in a lot of battle-hardened Syrian troops and commanders getting killed along with a lot of armor (and possibly air defense systems) destroyed.
And now, Putin will have to resupply the Syrians while regaining their trust that he has the situation in hand. It is hard to fault Putin’s handling of the situation in Syria, overall. He’s made deft move after deft move, operating at an incredibly high rate of competence over the past four-plus years.
At some point he was going to make a serious mistake, and this unilateral cease fire over Idlib may have been it. Trusting a duplicitous snake like Erdogan to not seize the opportunity Putin’s humanity afforded him has, at a minimum, extended the timetable for a resolution of Idlib.
We don’t know as of yet what extent the damage Turkey has inflicted on the Syrians to hold their gains and/or counter-attack. The Turks are obviously lying about the number of tanks destroyed and Syrian troops killed.
The numbers are laughably large.
The SAA has re-taken Saraqib and the M4/M5 crossing, but they had to abandon gains made in the south to do so. That ended their campaign to retake the M4 highway and cut off Turkey’s resupply routes to Idlib.
Idlib City is, for now, off the table.
And Putin’s move to immediately deploy Russian military police there is a clear message to Erdogan that if he is serious about not wanting a war with Russia, Saraqib is now off limits.
The question is whether or not Erdogan is listening. Because to this point he hasn’t been.
There are other reports of Russia moving large numbers of troops and airlifting in personnel and weaponry into Latakia air base and the naval base at Tartus and turn the tables on Erdogan.
Mass transfer: 8 Il-76 arrived in Khmeimim, as well as a group of air defense officers🇷🇺🇸🇾— Sukhoi Su-57 Felon 🇷🇺🇮🇳 (@I30mki) March 2, 2020
3 Il-76 transport aircraft of RuAF arrived in Khmeimim in Syrian province of Latakia on night of March 1 to 2. In general, over past 72 hours, 8 aircraft of this type have landed at AFB. pic.twitter.com/2aSNZPeNDi
For more than a year Erdogan has used his troops as shields in those observation posts to allow HTS and al-Nusra terrorists to attack across the agreed upon DMZ, especially south towards the suburbs of Damascus.
Those observation posts and the troops are now in the hands of the SAA and are effectively hostages. This is also part of the reason why Erdogan has escalated things here.
This is deeply embarrassing to the would-be Sultan.
All of this is backdrop for the upcoming meeting between Putin and Erdogan in Moscow later this week. Make no mistake, the Sultan has been summoned not the other way around. Erdogan will try and wheedle a deal out of Putin which gives him some of what he wants.
However, I don’t think that will fly. Despite his missteps here, I think Putin still has this situation under control. In fact, if I know Putin at all, I’d say that Erdogan will leave Moscow with nothing, even though Erdogan has cards he thinks he can play.
And it is the silence coming from major NATO players that is his biggest issue. Trump cannot get involved in Idlib in an election year.
Without NATO backing him up, what is he going to offer Putin?
Having ticked off all of his benefactors to this point, trying to use access to the Bosporus and NATO Article 5 as leverage for his aggressions in Syria have their limits.
But, at the same time, Putin has to recognize now, with these moves by Erdogan, that he is dealing with a person with delusions of grandeur at a Hitlerian level. And I don’t say that lightly.
It’s clear his neo-Ottoman Empire dreams blind him and all he sees is the U.S.’s pullback from the region as his opportunity to press his military advantage regionally.
If Putin doesn’t recognize this and put a stop to him now, Idlib will deteriorate and his troops will be there far longer and under much worse conditions than even he has the political capital to expend.
Erdogan’s moves here betray a solipsism which infects all men who have held power for too long and through their success, believe themselves infallible.
He’s managed to bring Turkey to this point where NATO is exasperated with him and the SCO states see Turkey as a prize to advance their agenda to stare down the unipolar power, the U.S., in the West. Whether this was skill or blind luck is anyone’s guess.
I expect it’s a bit of both, since I don’t like to underestimate my enemies.
And I honestly think he thought he would be able to turn the tables on Russia and China here, getting concessions from them while blackmailing NATO with refugees.
The Saker has initial thoughts on this a bit more detailed militarily than I do, and I recommend you read them.
But with Erdogan’s drones now falling out of the sky at the Syrian border and his army now potentially facing thousands of Iranian-made precision missiles and Hezbollah likely rejoining the fight in real numbers thanks to his betrayal of them, it is likely his misjudgment is far greater than anything Putin is guilty of.
It looks like this is that moment where someone finally tells tells him that while Turkey may be important, he isn’t.
And if he wants to stay in power, the time for him to leave NATO for real is now.
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