by Eric Zuesse for The Saker Blog
The success of Turkey’s takeover of Syria’s most pro-jihadist province, Idlib, is making less and less likely that Syria will be able to continue maintaining Idlib as being a part of Syria. (This is something I had predicted, back on 14 September 2018, to be possible or even likely, and now it is actually happening.) On July 10th, Reuters headlined “Assad hits a wall in Syrian war as front lines harden”, and reported that, “More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015. While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey.” It continues:
Moscow has appeared keen to preserve its ties with Ankara even as its air force bombs in support of Assad: Turkey says Russia has intervened to stop attacks on Turkish forces from Syrian government-held territory. … The Idlib area is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front. [And before that, they were called Al Qaeda in Syria, but Western news-agencies, such as Reuters, prefer not to mention that fact, especially because the U.S. used_Nusra to train ‘our’ proxy boots-on-the-ground ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria to bring down Syria’s Government. Elsewhere, the Reuters article calls them ‘insurgents’.] Some 300,000 people fleeing bombardment have moved toward the Turkish border since April, prompting the United Nations to warn that Idlib was on the brink of a “humanitarian nightmare”.
For Ankara, the Syrian opposition’s last major state sponsor, preventing another major influx of Syrian refugees is of paramount importance: Turkey already hosts 3.6 million of them. …
A Russian private military contractor who was based near Idlib province told Reuters that rebel fighters there are far more professional and motivated than their adversary. Pro-government forces cannot win the battle for Idlib unless Moscow helps them on the ground, he said. …
“Of course the regime [that’s the legitimate Government, but Western ‘news’-agencies such as Reuters call it ‘the regime’, and most of their audience don’t even recognize that their own intelligence has just been insulted by calling Syria’s Government a ‘regime’ while calling the invading regimes, Turkey and U.S., not that] has the desire to recover Idlib by force [as if the sovereign Government of Syria doesn’t have this right], but … without the Russians it can’t [those nasty Russians, who are defending Syria from U.S.-Saud-backed proxy-armies that are led mostly by Al Qaeda in Syria], because there are many militants and the Russians are completely committed to the Turks,” the source said.
Syria’s Government is fighting hard against jihadist forces in Idlib who meet Turkey’s standard of being ‘moderate rebels’ against Syria’s Government, but unless Russian forces there — which were invited in by Syria’s Government, instead of being invaders there like Turkey and the United States are — will commit far more forces for the defense of Syria (which seems increasingly unlikely), Turkey will win Idlib as being a part of Turkey.
Consequently, Turkey is already starting to build infrastructure even immediately to the north and east of Idlib in order to stake its claim to a yet larger portion of Syria than just Idlib. This might not have been part of the deal that was worked out by Russia’s Putin, Iran’s Rouhani, and Turkey’s Erdogan, in Tehran, on 9 September 2018, which agreement allowed Turkey only to take over — and only on a temporary basis — Idlib province, which is by far the most pro-jihadist (and the most anti-Assad) of Syria’s 14 provinces. Turkey was instead supposed to hold it only temporarily, but the exact terms of the Turkey-Russia-Iran agreement have never been publicly disclosed.
Until that 9 September 2018 Tehran conference, Idlib had been the province to which Syria’s Government was busing defeated jihadists who had surrendered instead of choosing to stay and die where they were. Syria’s Government had given its surrounded jihadists this final option, in order to reduce as much as possible the numbers of jihadists’ civilian hostages who would also likely be killed in an all-out bombing campaign there. So, the existing population of Idlib, which was already the most pro-jihadist in Syria, was now starting to overflow with the additional thousands of defeated jihadists who had chosen to surrender instead of to be immediately killed.
At that time, just prior to the Tehran conference — and this was actually the reason why the conference was held — the U.S. and its allies, and the U.N., were demanding that an all-out invasion of Idlib, which had been planned by the Governments of Syria and of Russia, must not take place, for ‘humanitarian’ reasons. There was all that ‘humanitarian’ concern (led by the United States) for the world’s biggest concentration of Nusra and Nusra-led jihadists — and for Syria’s most jihadist-supporting civilian population. So much ‘kindness’, such ‘admirable’ ‘humanitarianism’. Furthermore the U.S. Government was threatening to greatly increase its forces against Syria if that invasion by Syria and by Russia into Idlib (which is, after all, part of Syria — so, what business is it, even of the U.N., at all?) were to be carried out. The Tehran conference was meeting in order to resolve that emergency situation (mainly America’s threats of a possible war against Russia), so as to forestall this attack.
However, now that it’s clear that Erdogan will not follow through on his generally understood promise that this would be only a temporary military occupation of Idlib, the question is: what can Syria and Russia and Iran do to keep Idlib inside Syria, and whether they even want to do so. If Syria loses those jihadists, then not only will it lose the perhaps hundred thousand surviving jihadists there — many of whom came from other countries in order to fight against Syria’s secular Government — but also will lose some of those Idlib natives, who were always against Syria’s secular Government. Since those people would no longer be voting against Bashar al-Assad, because they would become Turks, this would actually be a Syrian political advantage for Assad. Yet, he has been resisting it, in order to hold Syria together. He has always been committed to holding Syria together.
Turkey’s negotiating position is exceptionally strong, because Turkey now is riding the fence between the U.S. alliance, NATO (of which Turkey has been the only predominantly Muslim member ever since it joined in 1952), versus Russia. According to a major report in English from Iran’s Fars News Agency — which had translated from published Arab sources in many countries and which report hasn’t been denied by any of them — Russia had saved Erdogan’s life on 15 June 2016, when there was a coup-attempt to get rid of him. Headlining on 20 July, just five days after the failed coup, “Erdogan Warned of Incoming Coup by Russian Alert”, Fars said that,
Several Arab media outlets, including Rai Alyoum, quoted diplomatic sources in Ankara as saying that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known locally as the MIT, received intel from its Russian counterpart that warned of an impending coup in the Muslim state.
The unnamed diplomats said the Russian army in the region had intercepted highly sensitive army exchanges and encoded radio messages showing that the Turkish army was readying to stage a coup against the administration in Ankara.
The exchanges included dispatch of several army choppers to President Erdogan’s resort hotel to arrest or kill the president.
In any case, after that event, Turkey’s foreign policies definitely switched away from being clearly U.S.-allied, to being on the fence and calculated purely to serve Turkey’s advantage, no longer tied, at all, to NATO or the U.S., and, in many important respects, very much contrary to the U.S. regime. In fact, Erdogan has been emphatic that this coup had been led by Fethullah Gulen, a billionaire Muslim cleric, formerly allied with Erdogan, who since moving to the U.S. in 1999 has been his bitter enemy. In fact, some of NATO’s forces in Turkey were participating in the attempted coup. However, Erdogan holds on tenaciously to that NATO membership, because it gives Turkey enormous leverage it can use in order to grab territory from Syria, which the U.S. regime wants Turkey to do.
Here is how Erdogan has clearlly committed Turkey to taking at least parts of Syria’s northeast:
On 6 June 2018, Reuters headlined “Turkish university to open campus in northern Syria” and reported that, “Turkey’s Harran University, in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa [Turkey], said it is preparing to open a faculty in Al-Bab [Syria] for students in towns under Turkish control. … The Turkish cabinet has also approved opening a vocational high school in Jarablus [Syria] affiliated with Gaziantep University, Turkey’s official gazette said on Tuesday.”
On 30 July 2018, Syria.LiveuaMap headlined “Turkey start[s] to build highways starting from Cobanbey-al-Bab to Jarablus-Manbij in Syria” — all of which is in the parts of Syria’s north that Turkey controls.
On 23 May 2019, Gaziantep University posted an announcement of “The Global Syrian Refugee Crisis” conference to be held in Gaziantep, Turkey, on 14-18 October 2019, and also announced that: “The medium of instruction of our university is entirely English in %80 of faculties and Turkish in some faculties. However, after the ferocious civil war in Syria, we opened four departments (Engineering, Architecture, Administration and Theology) that teach in Arabic language. This was achieved by hiring Syrian academic staff in these programs which created opportunities for refugee students who want to continue their studies in Arabic.” So, it does seem to be Erdogan’s intention that directly across the border in Syria, this part of what has, until recently, been a part of Syria, is to be instead a part of Turkey. This would be the chief favorable outcome for the U.S. regime resulting from the Syrian portion of the CIA-planted “Arab Spring” rebellions in 2011.
On 27 May 2019, the Daily Sabah headlined “Turkey to Build New Faculties to Promote Higher Education in Northern Syria” and reported that
Gaziantep University, located in southern Turkey close to the Syrian border, decided to offer education for Syrians living in the northern part of the war-torn country, the areas that were liberated by Turkey’s two cross-border operations. …
The university applied to Turkish education officials to set up four faculties in northern Syria’s al-Bab, Azaz and Mare districts, which is planned to focus on economics, business, teaching and engineering; some 2,700 prospective students have already taken proficiency exams. The faculties will be the second move by Gaziantep University as it previously opened a vocational school last year in Aleppo’s Jarablus district. While vocational education currently continues in five departments, the university is planning to expand it with four more and to provide education for 500 students.
In 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield and cleared about 2,000 kilometers of area in northern Syria, which was once dragged into darkness by the Daesh terrorist organization.
This seems to reflect Syria’s actual capitulation to Turkey, which henceforth is to control that area — permanently. The only question now is how large the seized area will turn out to be.
The first person, it seems, who recognized quickly the significance of this takeover was the tweeter “domihol” who on 28 May 2019 posted
Turkey is also throwing serious money at its seemingly permanent slice of Syria.
You don’t build universities just so Damascus can take it over soon.
Right below that is his:
I’m sorry to say – my prediction for Syria’s near and possibly medium term future still holds …
Dominic | دومينيك added,
[15 December 2018] prediction:
TRUMP gets the oil & gas
ERDOGAN gets the water
PUTIN gets the “mission accomplished” moment …
9:49 AM – 28 May 2019
However, his predictions there (as is routine for tweets, which are good for communicating only bumper-stickers) are unsupported by anything. For example: Where is Turkey’s oil and gas? Is it actually anywhere near to the Turkish border? Here’s a map which shows where it is, and that’s certainly not near the Turkish border.
In addition, the U.S. regime is evidently preparing to assist Turkey’s takeover of parts of Syria, but focuses it specifically against Iran. On 24 May 2019, the U.S. State Department advertised a “Grant Opportunity” for NGOs to be “Supporting Local Governance and Civil Society in Syria” and are offering up to $75 million to each, in order to “Counter extremism and disinformation perpetuated by Iranian forces” and “End the presence of Iranian forces and proxies in Syria” and otherwise support America’s war against Iran. Perhaps the U.S. and Turkey have agreed that U.S. operations against Syria will continue in the Turk-seized areas after the U.S. occupation of the remaining parts of Syria has ended.
If Assad were to give a press conference now, the first question to ask would be: “Is Syria going to allow Turkish universities and highways to be built on Turk-seized Syrian territory?” Because, if the answer to that is anything like yes, then not only would it seem that Turkey has won against Syria and Russia and Iran, but so too has the U.S., whose fall-back position, ever since it first tried a coup in Syria in 1949, has been to at least break off a piece of Syria, when and if it failed to take the whole thing. The construction of a Turkish university, highway, and/or etc., in Syria, would be a huge apparent win for Donald Trump, but an even bigger apparent victory for Tayyip Erdogan, who now seems to be, yet again, a member of America’s alliance against Russia. (And Iran, too, would seem to be endangered by Syria’s apparent defeat in that part of Syria. But maybe not: is Turkey going to end altogether its alliance with the U.S.?)
Usually, successful aggression is impossible without allies, and the U.S., again, seems to have Turkey as one — and as an extremely important one (more important, perhaps, than ever before).
The U.S. Government wants to remove land from Syria’s Government. The Turkish Government wants to be the Government that actually takes it. So, U.S. and Turkey seem to have made a deal. Turkey took Syrian territory while promising (as the Qatar regime’s Al Jazeera headlined on 5 June 2018 — “YPG confirms withdrawal from Syria’s Manbij after Turkey-US deal”). Al Jazeera reported there that, “The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) said its military advisers would leave the town of Manbij a day after Turkey and the United States said they reached an agreement on the armed group’s withdrawal.” Those two foreign invaders against Syria (Turkey and U.S.) came to this agreement in Washington DC, regarding their respective invasions: Turkish forces won’t conquer YPG (separatist-Kurd) forces in any part of Syria unless and until that part has already become instead a part of Turkey — swallowed-up by Turkey. The U.S. will be protecting those Kurds until the U.S. ends its military occupation of Syria. After that, those Kurds will be on their own.
Back on 10 January 2018, Elijah J. Magnier had commented, “Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad also considers Turkey to be another occupying force in northern Syria. He would like to liberate the entire Syrian territory, which is not the case with Russia, which would prefer to end the war as soon as possible and undertake the work at the negotiating table.” Magnier seems to have been correct: Russia appears not to be objecting to Turkey’s land-seizures in Syria. Therefore, Turkey is a “middle-man” between both U.S. and Russia — strategizing with both.
On 19 January 2018, Tony Cartalucci commented, “The Syrian government with support from its Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies has embarked on a major military operation to retake parts of Syria’s northern governorate of Idlib. As it does so, the US and its regional allies are rushing to position themselves to ensure the permanent partition of Syria is achieved.” He continued (all of which has likewise subsequently been borne out):
It should be noted that Afrin is located between [Idlib and] territory Turkey is currently occupying. Turkish troops, should they seize Afrin [which they soon did], would effectively have expanded Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” by 30 miles (53 km) and present an opportunity for its troops to link up with troops of Turkey’s “Idlib Shield.” This would create a large, singular buffer zone within which US-NATO forces could harbor militants driven back by Syria’s most recent offensive.
Depending on Turkey’s success, the zone could be expanded even further, even as far as including Idlib city itself [which happened in September of that year] – thus granting the US an opportunity to present it as a second Syrian “capital” much in the way Benghazi was used in Libya during US-led regime change there. There remains, however, the fact that Idlib is openly occupied and administered by Al Qaeda, making the proposal of transforming it into an “opposition capital” particularly dubious.
Meanwhile, the US itself continues its own uninvited, illegal occupation of Syrian territory east of the Euphrates, having previously justified the invasion and occupation of Syrian territory under the guise of fighting the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS). …
The US occupation of Syrian territory will be difficult for Damascus and its allies to contest without being drawn into a direct military confrontation. Turkey’s occupation may be easier to confound, but if sufficient political will exists to maintain it along with US backing, it could effectively result in a Golan Heights-style occupation of Syrian territory [by Turkey] that provides a long-term geopolitical pressure point versus Damascus for years to come.
And while US efforts to destroy Syria have fallen short, the US now permanently occupies territory within one of Iran’s closest and most important regional allies. Like a splinter under the skin turning septic, the US occupation will remain a constant potential source of wider infection both for Syria and the rest of the region.
Perhaps Cartalucci was the first person publicly to recognize what has been happening here.
On 8 February 2018, Russia’s RT bannered, “US-led coalition conducts ‘defensive’ airstrikes against Syrian forces”, and reported, “The US-led coalition has also firmly stressed its ‘non-negotiable right to act in self-defense,’ since its service members are embedded with the [anti-Syrian] ‘partners’ on ground in Syria. … ‘It’s very likely that the Americans have taken a course of dividing the country. They just gave up their assurances, given to us, that the only goal of their presence in Syria – without an invitation of the legitimate government – was to defeat Islamic State and the terrorists,’ Lavrov said.”
All of this, likewise, has since been borne out. Key was the September 2018 Tehran summit of Erdogan, Putin and Rouhani (Syria not even being represented there), to decide how to handle Syria’s most pro-jihadist province: Idlib. (It’s even more jihadist than Raqqah, where ISIS was headquartered, and which is the second-most-jihadist.)
On 9 September 2018, the Turkish-Government-controlled (and this also means anti-Syrian) Daily Sabah newspaper bannered “The outcome of the Tehran summit” and reported that:
We know for a fact that Erdoğan’s goal was to prevent the Russians and the Assad regime from carrying out a comprehensive operation in Idlib. In this sense, he got what he wanted. At the joint press conference, the Russian president announced that the three countries, at the request of President Erdoğan, urged all parties to lay down their arms. As such, it became possible to prevent another humanitarian disaster, a new influx of refugees, the collapse of the Astana process [which Putin had established to replace the U.N.’s peace process immediately after Obama bombed on 17 September 2016 Syria’s Army at Deir Ezzor, thus violating the ceasefire agreement that his Secretary of State John Kerry had just signed with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 9 September 2016] and the radicalization of moderate opposition, who would have moved closer to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) [Al Qaeda in Syria]. At the same time, a clear distinction was made between ‘terrorists’ and opposition groups. At the same time, there is no doubt that the Iranian president’s proposal to remove the United States from the east of the Euphrates river was in line with Erdoğan’s own agenda.
Actually, however, the truthfulness of that last sentence is still very much in doubt.
The ultra-reliable Al Masdar News reported on 10 September 2018 that “Russia and Iran have already informed Turkey that they will not accept any jihadist factions inside of Idlib; however, the latter is attempting to convince Moscow and Tehran to avoid carrying out the attack in favor of Ankara clearing these groups.” Putin and Rouhani accepted Erdogan’s promise there (of “Ankara clearing those groups”), and consequently allowed Turkey’s troops to handle Idlib. But, evidently, Erdogan had been lying about that. He didn’t eliminate the jihadists — he has instead been protecting them (except that his forces attack the Kurdish-independence forces against Syria’s Government, the anti-Assad fighters whom Erdogan authentically has been obsessed to kill).
The very next day, on September 11th, Paul Mansfield at Syria News headlined “Erdogan Buys Time for Terrorists at the Tehran Summit” and he observed that
The Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah released the components of Turkey’s plan for Idlib. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out it effectively means annexing Syrian territory, entrenching Turkish proxy Free Syrian Army forces, while falsely legitimizing their presence through a trilateral agreement, one made (it should be mentioned) without the presence of the country it concerns: Syria.
On 18 September 2018, another of the Turkish regime’s major newspapers, Yeni Safak, headlined “Turkey tells 50,000 FSA fighters to be ready for deployment as tensions rise in Idlib” and reported that, “As the Assad regime and Russian warplanes viciously attack the last opposition-held stronghold of Syria’s Idlib, Turkey ramped up its military reinforcements in northern Syria and instructed over 50,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) [that being the Turkish-led anti-Assad] fighters stationed in Afrin, Azaz, Jarabulus, al-Bab and al-Rai to ‘be ready for military deployment.’”
This anti-Syrian report continued, “The Bashar al-Assad regime recently announced plans to launch a major military offensive in Idlib, which is controlled by various armed opposition groups.” It didn’t mention that those “armed opposition groups” were the members of Al Qaeda-led forces defeated elsewhere in Syria who had chosen to be bused by the Syrian Government into the most pro-jihadist Syrian province, Idlib, instead of to be outright shot to death on-the-spot by Syrian troops, where they had been fighting. Such crucial information was left out of Western news-reports.
It went on: “An attack on Syria’s Idlib, the last opposition-held stronghold, would be a massacre,” and (since this newspaper reflected Erdogan’s anti-Assad, meaning anti-Syrian, viewpoint) it alleged that “Russia and Assad regime target civilians” instead of try to exterminate jihadists — especially now in Idlib itself, to which Syria’s Government had, indeed, been busing the surviving defeated jihadists. (As was previously noted, the only alternative that Syria’s Government had had regarding those hold-out fighters would have been simply to go in and slaughter not only them but the human shields behind whom they were fighting, which would have enormously increased the civilian casualties, which the ‘barbaric’ Assad-led Government was always trying to avoid doing. So: that’s how and why so many of the Al Qaeda-led forces came to be collected inside Idlib to begin with.)
Erdogan might be a double-agent here. But how could Turkey be building infrastructure in Syria and not be permanently taking that land? All of those “seems to be” could be wrong, but it’s hard to see how Syria’s Government could accept any such blatant grab of land away from their nation. I had written on 14 September 2018 about Erdogan’s duplicity, headlining “U.S. Protects Al Qaeda in Syria, Proven”:
Erdogan is in both camps — America’s and Russia’s — and playing each side against the other, for what he wants. But he could turn out to be the biggest loser from ‘his’ success here.
If he exterminates Idlib’s jihadists, then the U.S. side will condemn him for it. But if he instead frees those jihadists to return to their home-countries, then both sides will condemn him for having done so.
The biggest apparent ‘winner’ from all this, Erdogan, could thus turn out to be the biggest real loser from it. And the biggest apparent ‘loser’ from it, Assad, could turn out to be the biggest real winner from it.
Then, three days later, on September 17th, I argued that the big winners from this will probably be Putin, Erdogan, Rouhani, and Assad. The headline of that was “Putin and Erdogan Plan Syria-Idlib DMZ as I Recommended”, and the basic case was presented that this would turn out to be only a feint on Erdogan’s part, and that he and Putin and Rouhani (and Assad) would all benefit from this feint by Erdogan, and take home the win. It still could be that. But only Erdogan himself probably knows. And who can read his mind? The main sign I would look at is whether Putin and Rouhani just ignore, as much as possible, Turkey’s ‘seizures’ of Idlib and of the most-jihadist parts of Aleppo province bordering Idlib to Idlib’s immediate east. (For example, this fundamentalist-Sunni family from Sweida — which is perhaps the most pro-jihadist southern province — migrated during the war to Al-Bab, which is Turk-controlled.) If Putin and Rouhani ignore Turkey’s solidification of its control over those areas of northwestern Syria, then this is how the U.S. side and proxy forces — jihadists and Kurdish fanatics — might lose in Syria, and be forced out of there. This Turkish ‘win’ would entail a loss for both the U.S. and its proxy-forces, especially the Kurds. But it would also entail Syria’s loss of the areas that were always the greatest thorn in Assad’s side. In that case, America’s former proxy-forces in northwest Syria — Al Qaeda’s surviving Syrian forces, plus the separatist Kurdish forces — would henceforth be under Erdogan’s control. If Putin, Rouhani and Assad won’t object to that, then the main loser could be the U.S. regime, which would cede to Erdogan not only America’s last holdout in Syria but also all of its proxy-forces in Syria, henceforth to be totally subject to whatever Erdogan has in mind for them. However, the biggest losers could still be the Turkish and the American regimes. But that would be true only if the surrounded U.S. forces in Syria’s northeast become forced out. If the U.S. occupation stays in Syria, then the U.S. and Turkey will have taken all of northern Syria. But no oil or gas is there, either. (It’s south of there.) What, consequently, is this war even about, any longer? Is it about contending national leaders who refuse to acknowledge defeat? Is that now the only real reason for all of this ongoing death, and destruction? Is it just pure ego?
If Turkey quits NATO, then the biggest loser from the end-part of the Syrian war would be the U.S. and its allies. But, of course, the biggest losers from the entire war are the Syrian people. There’s no doubt, whatsoever, about that.
Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.