Amid Turkey’s games, the fight for Syria continues
Michael Jansen, author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs/ Middle East Eye
The struggle for Syria continues unabated with Russia and Turkey as the chief external actors. In his book entitled, “The Struggle for Syria,” British journalist and historian Patrick Seale described the unfolding of this struggle in the post-World War II period through 1958. Now as then, the struggle is between East and West. Now as then Russia represents the East while Nato member Turkey, the West. Russia has the backing of Iran while Turkey has had the support of the US, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, a reluctant Jordan, and others. Most of Ankara’s backers have developed doubts about Turkey’s behaviour in Syria.
Syria is the object of this struggle because it occupies strategic regional territory bordering on Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syria has been the font of Arab nationalism and contributed to the drive for Arab independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Syria opposed the emergence of Israel, a creation of the west, and took up arms against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973.
Due to the conflict with Israel, Syria chose to ally with Soviet Russia in the Cold War and relied on Moscow for political support, arms, and training for the army’s officer corps.
Following the 1979, overthrow of Iran’s pro-western Shah, Syria established close relations with the clerical regime which the ruling Syrian Baath party regarded as a counterweight to the rival Iraqi Baath. Largely due to Baathist competition, Syria backed Iran in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, alienating Baghdad’s Arab and western allies. Syrian tank units fought Israel during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon and, subsequently, supported the Iran-founded Lebanese Hizbollah movement which liberated southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation.
Syria’s independence, anti-Israeli posture, and ties with Iran did not, however, prevent Damascus from developing positive ties with the West via the European Union (EU) in the mid-1970s. Before unrest erupted in March 2011, relations were governed by the 1977 EU-Syria Co-operation Agreement and Syria was a full member of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Although the Co-operation Agreement was never signed, the Syrian government used its provisions as a framework for designing reforms and embarking on modernisation.
This connection was shattered by the crackdown on protests during 2011. On August 18th, the US and EU declared that Assad had lost legitimacy, believing he would resign. This did not happen and the ongoing proxy struggle for Syria began in earnest. Damascus turned once again to Cold War ally, Moscow.
While Moscow and Tehran gave Damascus political support from the outset of the struggle, Iran did not commit substantial numbers of fighters until 2012 after al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra joined battle. Russia became fully engaged in October 2015 when it deployed war planes to a Latakia airbase and began striking anti-government militia targets.
Turkey intervened in mid-2011 by recruiting defected Syrian army officers into the “Free Syrian Army” and formed the expatriate Syrian National Council as a potential successor to the government. The US and others began to train and arm “vetted” rebels with the aim of ousting the government but these fighters were no match for the radicals who came to dominate opposition forces.
So far, Moscow and Damascus have prevailed. Under attack from Turkish and western-backed radical fundamentalists and insurgents. Damascus has clawed back most of the territory lost during nearly nine years of conflict. Damascus’ objective is to reassert Syrian sovereignty throughout the country.
Turkey opposes this project as Ankara continues to seek the ouster of the Syrian government and its replacement by a Muslim Brotherhood-leaning surrogate regime. This was always a pipe dream. If the government falls, Syria would be fractured into fiefdoms dominated by radical fundamentalist local and foreign warlords.
The current battleground is the small, north-western Idlib province, which is strategic because it borders on Turkey. In 2018, Russia and Turkey called for a ceasefire and designated Idlib a “de-confliction” zone with the aim of putting off a Syrian army offensive to retake the province until a political settlement could be reached. Under the deal, Turkey was permitted to establish “observation posts” to see the truce was honoured, corral radicals and halt their attacks on Syrian soldiers and civilians, create a buffer zone around Idlib, and open Syria’s north-south and east-west highways to traffic. Turkey did not even try to meet these commitments but, instead, armed radicals and rebels and established fortified bases in the province.
Fed up with Ankara’s duplicity, Moscow and Damascus unleashed the postponed Syrian army offensive and provided air cover. The army entered Idlib from the south and has advanced along the main north-south highway, the M-5, connecting Damascus-Hama-Aleppo. The army has not only captured most of the highway but also seized villages and countryside west and east of the M-5 to protect it against attack from Turkish-allied radicals and surrogates. The Syrian army has also cleared these elements from territory north-west of Aleppo city which, until recently, was regularly shelled and attacked by fighters from al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
Turkish President Recep Taqyyip Erdogan has prepared for action against the army by quadrupling to 15,000 the number of regular Turkish army troops in Idlib and has threatened a full-scale offensive to drive the Syrian army from Idlib by the end of the month. Moscow views warfare a “worst case scenario” and vows to back the Syrian army until radicals branded as “terrorists” by the UN are eliminated and Idlib is restored to Damascus’ rule.
For the time being, Turkey has opted for talks plus provocations rather than war. During recent talks, Moscow put forward a map giving the Syrian government control of 60 per cent of Idlib. Erdogan responded by calling for an end to Syrian “aggression” against Turkish army and surrogate occupiers of Syrian territory and by ordering attacks on the Syrian army. Sixteen Turkish soldiers have been killed, two on Thursday during a raid on the Idlib village of Nairab by Turkish troops and client paramilitaries on Syrian troops who repelled the attackers with the aid of Russian airstrikes. In a massive a show of air power, Russia struck dozens of locations across Idlib, demonstrating that Erdogan cannot go too far because Russian warplanes rule western Syria’s skies. He has asked Donald Trump for air support, but the US is unlikely to challenge Russia.
Despite the brief clash near the M5, the Syrian Transport Ministry has declared the highway open to civilian traffic and the first flight landed at Aleppo’s airport since December 2012. Both these gains are major morale boosters for Syrians suffering from western sanctions and isolation.
During a phone call with Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the necessity of unconditionally observing Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, making it clear that Turkey’s military presence in Idlib and elsewhere in northern
Syria is temporary.