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By M K Bhadrakumar, Indian Punchline, 20-1-2018

The Syrian war is taking a momentous turn with a full-fledged Turkish military operation on the northern Syrian town of Afrin having begun on Saturday. President Recep Erdogan announced today that a ground operation has also been launched alongside artillery bombardment and air strikes. He said an operation against the town of Manbij, some 140 miles to the east, will follow later. (See the Google map here.)

Afrin and Manbij are presently controlled by the Syrian Kurdish forces aligned with the US. The US, which has 5 bases in northern Syria in the territories controlled by the Kurdish militia, has directly helped the occupation of Manbij by the Kurdish militia in 2016. Thus, the Turkish operation signifies a strategic defiance of the US. Washington had repeatedly urged Ankara against making any military moves against the Kurdish militia.

But what finally proved decisive seems to be the US plan to create a 30000-strong Kurdish force in northern Syria with the intention to use it as a proxy. Erdogan senses that the US is going ahead with the project to create a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria along the Turkish border as a strategic hub for its future interventions in Syria and Iraq. Of course, such a Kurdistan enclave will pose a long-term national security threat to Turkey by giving fillip to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Erdogan kept pleading with Washington not to align with the Kurds but of no avail and has now decided to take matters into his hands.

Today’s development may well lead to a confrontation between the US and Turkey. The White House spokesperson had explicitly called on Turkey on Thursday not to undertake any military operations. State Secretary Rex Tillerson telephoned his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Saturday no sooner than it appeared that operations were imminent.

The stance of Iran and Russia is going to be crucial. Iran shares Turkey’s concerns about the US’ alliance with Kurds (who also have links with Israel) and regarding any Kurdistan in the region. Therefore, while Iran may express reservations about the Turkish operation (which is a violation of Syria’s sovereignty notionally), it is unlikely to act against Turkey.

Iran’s focus is on the ongoing Syrian government operations in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is hugely strategic, given its coastline along the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia too is currently focusing on the operations in Idlib, which is adjacent to the Latakia province (also along the Eastern Mediterranean) where the Russian naval base at Tartus and the air base at Hmeimim are situated.

Conceivably, there is a tacit understanding that Turkey may not object (except, of course, verbally) to the Syrian operations (supported by the Iran-backed militia and Russia) to crush the al-Qaeda affiliates present in Idlib and secure the big province.

The Iranian media reported today that Syrian government forces have captured the strategic Abu al-Dhohour airbase in southeastern Idlib from the al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda affiliate) on Saturday afternoon.

As for the Russian stance, significantly, Erdogan deputed the Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and the head of the National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan to fly to Moscow on Wednesday to meet the Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and the Russian intelligence. Clearly, a high degree of coordination between Moscow and Ankara went into Erdogan’s decision to order the Turkish military operation. Moscow has expressed concern about the Turkish operations and called for restraint but simultaneously also pulled back the Russian personnel in the vicinity of Afrin out of harm’s way.

There is no conceivable reason why Moscow should help the Americans — against the backdrop of the New Cold War. Interestingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hit hard at the US on Friday alleging that the US is balkanizing Syria. He said this at a press conference in the UN Headquarters in New York. To quote Lavrov, “US has been actually setting up alternative government bodies in large parts of Syria, which is contrary to the obligations in relation to Syria’s territorial integrity they have reaffirmed, committed to, particularly at the Security Council’s meetings. We are concerned about that.”

On January 15 at a news conference in Moscow, Lavrov did some plain-speaking:

We can see the aspirations not for settling the (Syrian) conflict as soon as possible, but for assisting those who would want to launch practical steps to change the regime… The actions, we can see now, demonstrate that the United States does not want to keep territorially integrated Syria. It was only yesterday that we heard a new initiative that the US wants to help the so called forces of democratic Syria to organize some border security zones. In fact, that means separation of a huge territory along the borders with Turkey and Iraq.

How does all this add up? To my mind, both Russia and Iran will simply sit back and watch as Erdogan goes about crushing the US’ main proxy (Kurdish militia) in northern Syria. Indeed, they have nothing to lose if a nasty showdown ensues between the US and Turkey, two big NATO powers. On the other hand, if Turkey succeeds in vanquishing the Kurdish militia, US will have no option but to vacate northern Syria, which will also work to the advantage of Russia and Iran. Succinctly put, Trump administration has bitten more than it could chew by its unwise decision to keep the US military presence in Syria indefinitely “to counter Assad, Iran.” Tehran knows fully well that if the US is forced to vacate Syria, the US-Israeli project against Iran will become a joke in the Middle East bazaar.

The coming weeks are going to be crucial. If the US appears helpless while Turkey crushes its allies in Syria, it will be a huge loss of face for the Trump administration regionally. Meanwhile, Turkey is actively cooperating with Russia in the preparations for holding a Syrian National Dialogue (of government and opposition representatives) in Sochi on January 29-30. Russia now gets another opportunity to speed up the Syrian settlement.


click on map to enlarge ~ here for the original link

By M K Bhadrakumar, Indian Punchline, 20-1-2018
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