syria for friday feb 21

Hulusi Akar about the wars in Syria and Libya
Colonel Cassad, Feb 21 2020

Last night the Minister of Defence of Turkey Hulusi Acar gave an interview to CNN Turk where he spoke about the current position of Turkey on the war in Libya and Syria. Below, the precis of his statements. It can be regarded as the collection of theses of the official Turkish narrative. I’ll return in the future to these materials in Syria and Libya, when to the question of the position that Turkey officially claims and the actions that it performs in practice. About Libya: Acar said that Faiz Sarraj asked for help from President Erdogan, writing a letter. Then came the discussion, and the result was ratified a motion on sending Turkish troops to Libya. This is now in Libya. Turkish soldiers, officers and NCOs train and advise Libyan colleagues. Some countries in the Middle East and Europe provide significant support to the Caliph Haftar. Acar recalled that Haftar did not sign the agreement on a ceasefire in early January, calling such behavior “inappropriate.” Turkey helps to achieve a ceasefire to stop the attacks, to end the bloodshed and begin a political settlement in Libya. Libya belongs to Libyans. Mission of Turkey to contribute in the fulfillment of desires and plans of the Libyans. Acar expressed dissatisfaction with the decision of the EU to strengthen the embargo on arms supplies to Libya, saying that this move is directed against Turkey. Acar doubts that the EU has the authority to make such decisions. Acar called on the EU to turn its attention to those who send weapons to the LNA. Turkey supports the UN initiative.

About Syria: In accordance with the Sochi agreement, Turkey to send into Syria their forces for the attainment of the ceasefire. Turkey expects Russia will use its influence on Assad. Also, all parties are required to follow the Sochi agreements are the basis of settlement of the conflict. Turkey has no intention to enter into open conflict with Russia. There are constantly ongoing negotiations between the two parties. Turkey hopes that the Syrian crisis will be resolved through joint efforts. The SAA attack and the Assad regime not only contribute to radical sentiments in the region, but also increase the wave of refugees. Turkey could not accept more refugees. The consequences of the humanitarian crisis will affect America and Europe. If the SAA will not retreat from observation points of Turkey by the end of February, Turkey has contingency plans. Will involve plans A, B, C. The President gave necessary instructions. Turkey advocates the formation of a new government, a new Constitution and the holding of democratic elections in Syria. In case of an attack on the Turkish military, it will be given prompt response. There is is not enough real action of the Western colleagues to resolve the Syrian crisis. Only Merkel gives financial help to the refugees. Acar stressed once again that Turkey is a NATO member. Turkey fears a threat from the air. Turkey does not rule out the possibility of acquiring “Patriot” SAMs. Turkey is currently engaged in the process of learning to work with the S-400. During the spring will be the installation of S-400. Trump didn’t want to sell “Patriot” to Turkey, and Turkey accepted the proposal from Russia on buying S-400. This decision was deliberate. Turkey is a sovereign state and acts in its own interests. The negotiations on the “Patriot” are still ongoing. Turkey has fulfilled all the conditions to ensure that she was provided with the F-35. If Pindostan does not give the F-35, Turkey will look for other solutions. The main bone of contention in the relations between Turkey and Pindostan is Pindo support for the YPG. In the buffer zone, according to the operation “the Source of Peace” opened mosques, churches, schools. Russia also contributed to the decrease in attacks in the area. 200,000 Syrians returned to their homes.

Turkey’s Strategy Is Pushing It Into A Corner
South Front, Feb 21 2020

The situation in Idlib has long been shaped by the balance of talks between Russia and Turkey, and to a lesser extent Iran. The bifurcation point was the Sochi Agreement of 2018, when Russia and Iran recognized Turkey’s right to control the situation in Idlib until the end of the war, up to the formation of the Constitutional Committee and presidential elections, while Ankara agreed to accept Assad if he wins the elections. Turkey had to do three things for that to happen: separate the actual terrorists from the “moderate opposition” and remove all heavy weapons from the area, unblock the Hama-Aleppo and Latakia-Aleppo routes, even if the surrounding area remained in control of militants; and ensure in conjunction with the Russian military that the DEZ was actually effective. Turkey didn’t carry out any of its obligations, whether because it was unwilling or unable to do so. As the SAA cleared other territories of Syria, the situation in Idlib did not fundamentally change. A year after Sochi, part of rural Idlib was taken from the militants. Erdogan did not understand which way the wind was blowing. He had a tactic, and he adhered to it. The Syrian government constantly demanded that Russia give the go-ahead for the offensive and in the end it got it and the operation in Idlib began.

A situation arose in which Turkey could come to the negotiation table for a post-war Syria without Idlib. This, in the long run would weaken the negotiating position of Turkey and its ability to influence the formation of post-war Syria. Ankara began issuing complaints to Moscow, claiming that the SAA is surrounding its observation posts and violating the Sochi agreement. Moscow pointed out that Turkey did nothing for 1.5 years to fulfill the main points of the Sochi agreement, and thus Assad’s government is within its rights. While Erdogan was stirring up drama and spreading propaganda in the media, the Syrian government, with the support of Russia and Iran, took part of the privince under negotiation from Erdogan, thereby changing the potential balance of negotiations on post-war Syria. It is in the Syrian government’s interest to have as little possible territory outside of its control when the war ends, which will mean making as few concessions as possible. By February, Turkey’s strategic loss was obvious. The militant front fell apart, dozens of cities began to be liberated, and due to the position of Russia and Iran, any logical moves within the framework of the Turkish Idlib strategy ended. If Turkey continued to operate as it did before, the SAA would simply surround all Turkish observation posts, and within a few months would go to the border with Turkey along the entire border of the Idlib province.

Therefore, Turkey attempted to muddy the water through threats, supplying ATGMs and MANPADs to militants, and tactics were employed to put pressure on the Kremlin by flirting with Pindostan, amid accompanying rhetoric in the media. Thus Turkey signals that it is not happy with how the situation in Idlib is developing and is trying to force Russia to change course from pursuing a strategic plan to clean up Idlib and make it respond to Turkish threats and blackmail. At the current stage, Russia has ignored the Turkish threats, saying that Turkey itself is to blame for what is happening, and that the Syrian government has the right to continue the offensive, essentially adhering to the line of behavior that ensured the latest operational and strategic successes. Thus, the ball was thrown back to Erdogan. Since Turkey’s Idlib policy has reached an impasse at a strategic level, Erdogan intensifies the rhetoric and slowly raises the bets by attacking the SAA. So far, that’s led to the deaths of Turkish soldiers and absolutely no success whatsoever. It has also failed to lead to any change in Russian attitude. Hence the “strange” position of Ankara: it has no problems with Russia and it does not want to spoil relations with Russia, it only has problems with the Syrian government. But it is no secret that Russia and Iran are behind Syria, and they will not stop supporting it, thus cementing the positions of Russia and Iran in Syria. Turkey is signaling that it wants to come to an agreement with Russia, but at this stage it is not happy with the proposal of Moscow, which reasonably believes that Erdogan is acting from a position of weakness, so there is no point in drastically changing the strategy or giving Erdogan more than he has leverage for.

In fact, Erdogan was left face to face with serious problems, where on the one hand there is a risk of a clash with Russia and Iran, as well as spoiled relations with Pindostan, Israel and Germany, and on the other hand, a declining rating within Turkey, increased opposition and the threat of losing face in Syria. Moreover, Turkey is now conducting essentially four separate military campaigns: in Libya, in Idlib, in Syia and in Iraq. In general, this is a classic example of military-political adventurism. Erdogan has made increased commitments and is faced with the fact that it is difficult for him to fight off Assad’s claims supported by Russia, Haftar’s pressure on GNA in Libya, sanctions pressure and a policy of threats from Pindostan. Therefore currently Turkey’s direct military threats are met with counter-threats, and in the case of Syria the Turkish military is also subject to attacks, so Erdogan follows a predetermined trajectory, alternating threats and provocations with attempts to force Moscow to make concessions. The issue is that Moscow isn’t negotiating from a position of weakness. Erdogan keeps driving himself into a corner which would ultimately lead to a choice of either war or shameful failure in Syria. The potential for escalation may be aggravated by the possibility of intervention by other countries that are objectively interested in destroying the situational Russian-Turkish-Iranian partnership in Syria, primarily Pindostan and Israel, and in this case, the very “negative scenarios” may arise when the game of rhetoric and threats comes to an end due to an escalation.

Erdogan says Turkey will not withdraw from Idlib until attacks by Damascus stop
RT.com, Feb 21 2020

Erdogan vowed not to remove Turkish troops from Idlib and said that his upcoming phone call with Putin will help Ankara determine its policies. A phone call between the two leaders to discuss Idlib is expected to take place on Friday evening. The Turkish leader stated:

The result of this conversation will determine our attitude. Unless the regime stops its attacks in Idlib, it is not possible for us to withdraw.

Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province is the last-remaining major stronghold controlled by the forces fighting against the Syrian government. Some of these forces are jihadist groups and some are militants backed by Turkey. The situation on the ground deteriorated dramatically in recent weeks as the Syrian army renewed its push against what it said were terrorists attacking Syrian troops and personnel. Turkey, meanwhile, accused Damascus of bombing civilians and shelling its soldiers. On Thursday, the militants backed by the Turkish artillery launched a counter-attack against the Syrian Army in Idlib’s eastern countryside but were repulsed with the help of Russian airstrikes. Ankara said that two of its servicemen were killed in airstrikes that day. Speaking on Friday, Erdogan claimed his troops “neutralized” around 150 Syrian government soldiers along with a dozen tanks and 14 self-propelled guns. Syrian state media, meanwhile, reported that “dozens” of terrorists were killed in the failed attack on Syrian positions. Erdogan said that Merkel and Macron proposed to hold a four-way meeting in Istanbul with Putin on Mar 5, and he still has not received Russia’s answer to that. Moscow has been accusing Ankara of failing on its promise to remove the jihadist groups from the Idlib DEZ set up by Russia and Turkey. Russian military said on Friday that the terrorists were using civilians as human shields, preventing them from leaving the combat zone through humanitarian corridors established by Moscow. Russia’s Reconciliation Center for Syria urged Ankara to avoid further bloodshed by “stopping its support for terrorists and arming them.”

Turkey to Remain in Idlib As Long As Damascus Continues ‘Violent Onslaught’ – Erdogan
Sputnik News, Feb 21 2020

Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkey was fully ready for its own operation in Idlib and could launch it at “any minute.” Earlier this week, a Turkish delegation arrived in Moscow for talks regarding the situation in Idlib. Ankara announced it was dissatisfied with the negotiations, and no deal was struck. He said on Friday:

According to the latest data, we have neutralised 150 regime elements, destroyed 12 tanks, three armoured vehicles, 14 howitzers and two pick-up trucks. We will not pull out from Idlib until the regime halts its aggression against the province’s population. This is the only condition for cessation of hostilities. At around 6 pm, I will have talks with Putin. We will discuss everything that is going on in Idlib. The result of this conversation will determine our next steps.

Addressing the issue of Patriot air defence systems, Erdogan said that Ankara requested them from the Trump administration, but is still not abandoning the S-400. He said Macron and Merkel have proposed holding a four-way summit including Russia on Mar 5 in Istanbul to resolve the situation in Idlib. Earlier in February, Lavrov said that Turkey had not fulfilled several key commitments on Idlib, including its failure to separate “extremists” from “moderates” among the armed opposition, eligible for dialogue with the government within the framework of the political process. Turkish Vice Pres Oktay claims that Ankara has fulfilled its obligations in Idlib. In May 2017, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed during talks in Astana to create four DEZs in Syria. Damascus gained control over three of them in 2018 but the fourth, located in Idlib and parts of several neighbouring provinces, is mostly controlled by HTS/Nusra. In Sep 2018, Russia and Turkey agreed to create a DMZ in the province, where more than 10 different militant groups are operating along with HTS/Nusra.

Turkey Deploying Kilometre-Long Convoys To Idlib: Russian Reconciliation Center
South Front, Feb 21 2020

Oleg Zhuravlev of the Russian reconciliation center in Syria said:

Turkey has flown a large amount of military equipment and ammunition to the Idlib DEZ in Syria. All the main transport arteries in the north of the province have been operating normally over the past few weeks, which has allowed for the transfer from the Republic of Turkey to the territory of the DEZ of convoys with a length of several kilometers, of military equipment and trucks with ammunition and materials means for the Turkish troops.

On Feb 19, Erdogan demanded that Damascus withdraw troops to positions that preceded the offensive in Idlib, threatening to otherwise begin full-scale military operations in northern Syria. He called the issue of time the beginning of the Turkish military operation in Idlib, noting that it could begin “suddenly, one night.” Erdogan also said that negotiations between the Russian Federation and Turkey on the situation in Idlib have not yet brought tangible results, and will continue. According to him, none of the meetings with Russia on Idlib went as Turkey wanted, and the parties are far from adopting a common position. In an interview with CNN Turk, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said:

We do not aim for a face-off with Russia. This is out of question. We have done everything in our power to prevent this from happening, and we will continue to do so. The most important thing now is for the regime to comply with the cease-fire.

He said Turkey has continued its relations with all parties in a “transparent and principled” way. Referring to a possible Idlib operation by Turkey, Akar said Erdogan “gave orders and set targets” on the issue. He said:

We have done the necessary planning. We have our A, B and C plan to put into action when necessary.

He stressed that Turkey’s stance on the Idlib issue “has not changed” and it has been fulfilling its responsibilities on the matter, adding Turkey expects its counterparts to do the same. Regarding what Turkey expected, Akar said:

The most important issues are ensuring a stable cease-fire and stopping the migration, thus relieving the public.

He noted that there is a humanitarian crisis in Idlib along with the military issues, adding the regime has been continuing its “ruthless attacks” even on hospitals, and said:

Our expectations are clear. Our stance has not changed.

He said talks with Russ are ongoing and that there’s little progress to show for them. He continued the Turkish rhetoric that the militants in Idlib are “moderate opposition” and they are in need of protection, entirely disregarding the reaction of civilians when the SAA liberated Western Aleppo and allowed for the Aleppo International Airport to operate for the first time in 8 years. He said:

The regime accuses people living in Idlib of being terrorists. The regime murders everyone who opposes it through airstrikes, ground attacks and barrel bombs. This is a massacre. Turkey has stood with innocent people throughout its history, and this will not change. We will maintain our presence there and expect all parties to comply with the Sochi agreement. We need to remind about the fifth article of the Astana agreement. This article suggests that all parties will take necessary precautions to reduce tensions in Idlib de-escalation zone. Under this, we say that we will send our forces there and maintain the ceasefire, by force, if necessary. Whoever violates the ceasefire will be our target.

The observation posts are the only point from the Astana and Sochi agreements that Turkey adheres to, and not entirely, since it is allowed to have 12 but instead has close to 36. On Pindo support in Idlib, Akar said many countries are aware of the humanitarian crisis in Idlib and that Turkey’s activities are respected. He added that “active support” is just as important as words. He said:

They previously sent us air defense batteries. Our country is threatened through air strikes and missiles. So there might be Patriot support. NATO’s secretary-general also made comments on the issue. Stoltenberg is closely watching the situation, and there might be further action and plans coming from their side. Turkey is not going through an axis shift. It is simply conducting some negotiations to preserve our nation’s interests. No one should try to push us out. We are in NATO, and we will be in NATO. Also, nothing has changed in our EU efforts. We do what is necessary in this issue, but the problems are being created by Europe.

Turkish War On Syria. Bluff Or Reality?
South Front, Feb 21 2020

Turkey will take the Idlib matter into its own hands and the military operation in north-western Syria is simply a “matter of time,” Erdogan declared on Feb 19. Erdogan said that Turkey is not satisfied with talks on the matter with Russia, and it will not leave the region to “the Assad regime and its backers.” He recalled that only a few days left until the end of February, the deadline given by Ankara to Syrian forces to stop operations against Idlib armed groups. If the Syrians do not withdraw, Turkey promised to attack and push the SAA back from the areas cleared from militants. Erdogan’s “last warning” came as Turkish media outlets were broadcasting news showing how columns of Turkish troops and vehicle were moving towards the border with Syria. However, did Turkey really deploy enough forces to deliver a devastating blow to the SAA and not pay a heavy price? In the framework of the Astana agreements, Turkey established 12 observation posts. As the SAA was advancing into Idlib, Ankara created a plethora of additional military positions in a failed attempt to stop the collapse of militants’ defense. These efforts binged the total number of Turkish military installations in the region up to 27. Judging from drone videos, there are between one dozen and two dozen soldiers and 4 to 6 military vehicles at every post located within the areas currently controlled by the Syrian government. The recently created posts are much stronger and can be described as real military positions, with battle tanks, howitzers, mortars and fortified structures. The estimated total number of military equipment deployed by the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib stands at 3,000. Since Feb 2, Turkey deployed 2,315 trucks and military vehicles, as well as 7,000 soldiers. It also positioned approximately 30,000 troops along the border in case of escalation. The equipment and weapons that are being delivered include armored trucks, MRAPs, APCs, battle tanks, ATGMs, various artillery pieces and rocket launchers. Army troops are reinforced with a notable number of special forces. According to pro-opposition sources, there are over 100,000 members of various groups in Idlib, predominantly HTS/Nusra. These groups are already actively taking part in the fight against the SAA.

However, the real mobilization potential demonstrated by these factions during the recent battles does not exceed 10,000-20,000. In comparison, during Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Turkey struggled greatly, it deployed approximately 8,000 soldiers, in addition to approximately 11,000 Syrian “opposition” fighters, against 7,000 Daesh militants. This operation became widely known for large casualties among Turkish soldiers and proxies, as well as a large number of military equipment, including Leopard 2A4 battle tanks, lost during the battle of al-Bab. Another example is operation Olive Branch, which involved around 6,000 Turkish troops, and 20,000 Turkish-backed fighters, against approximately 20,000 Kurdish SDF and allied fighters. However, Kurdish armed groups did not engage Turkish-led forces in an intense open or urban fighting, and opted to retreat from the region after weeks of artillery and air bombardment. Since then Ankara has been trying to consolidate control over the area and put an end to constant attacks on its forces from the remaining YPG cells. Finally, Operation Peace Spring, which began in late 2019, reportedly involved 15,000 Turkish troops and 14,000 members of proxy groups. It also went without a significant open resistance from Kurdish groups and was frozen with the SAA and the Russian Military Police deployed in the area. It’s worthy of note that both the Daesh and the Kurdish formations targeted by Turkey were outnumbered in the area of operations, suffered from a lack of modern weapons, heavy military equipment and artillery, and had no means and measures to combat the Turkish Air Force. No intense fighting took place in large urban areas. Despite this, the aforementioned operations became a real challenge for Turkey and its proxy groups. Therefore, it is unlikely that the Turkish forces currently deployed in Idlib and north-western Syria will be enough to turn into reality Erdogan’s threats and promises. Turkey should hurry up and increase its military group in the area by several times, or else Erdogan supporters should start preparing for Mar 1, the day when the dreams about the swift and powerful Turkish victory over ‘Assad forces’ will be broken by the reality.

What are the odds Turkey will start a full-scale offensive against Syria in Idlib?
RT.com, Feb 21 2020

Turkish Army tanks in Gaziantep, Aug 25 2016. Photo: Umit Bektas/Reuters

Tensions are boiling over between Ankara and Damascus as Turkey vowed to take matters into its own hands and openly intervene in Syria’s Idlib province, where government forces are routing the Turkish-backed militants. The troubled north-western province is the last major bastion of the militants in war-torn Syria. It saw another round of escalating violence on Thursday. Local armed groups seeking to push back the Syrian Army from the territories along the strategic highway it recently seized were counting on support from Turkish artillery, which only stood down after Russian forces in the area intervened. Ankara does not plan to back down, and Erdogan recently declared that a Turkish offensive in Idlib is just “a matter of time.” Meanwhile, Moscow has described any direct Turkish military involvement in Syria as the “worst-case scenario.” How likely is it to happen? Editor-in-Chief of ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ Fyodor Lukyanov told RT:

Judging by Erdogan’s statements, it appears that the Turks are quite determined. Idlib has become an arena of a geopolitical struggle between Ankara and Damascus, and therefore its allies in Moscow as well. Russia has tried to mediate the conflict, but so far the talks with Turkey have not yielded any practical results, while the situation on the ground is heating up. Ankara has managed to avoid a full-blown interstate war only because the troops actually fighting in Idlib are AQ-affiliated militants that Ankara is backing as proxies.

Turkey might be poised to win big, should it face only the SAA, according to Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired colonel in the RAF and former General Staff officer, who told RT:

Erdogan has enough combat and operational capabilities as well as military equipment and personnel to overrun Assad’s forces within days. As battle-hardened as it is, the SAA has been whittled down by almost a decade of war, and has to fight on several fronts against various militants and extremists. However, the question is largely hypothetical, since the SAA does not fight alone. Russia has its own stake in the situation. A defeat of its Syrian allies would be a catastrophe for Moscow’s anti-terrorism efforts in Syria over the past five years, as well as its Middle Eastern policy in general. It is highly unlikely Russia will just stand aside and watch the conflict erode its authority in the region.

Any large-scale Turkish operations against the SAA would most likely impact Russian military advisers and ground troops, such as the military police patrolling some areas of Syria, Aleksey Khlebnikov, Middle East expert for the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RT. Khlebnikov said:

Russia already supports the SAA offensive with its air force and… plays a role of a deterrent against any Turkish offensive on the Syrian positions, basically ensuring the SAA’s control of the newly retaken territories.

Moscow’s certain involvement makes overt intervention a much less feasible option for Turkey, not the least because it would risk a conflict with a nuclear armed UNSC member, and trigger a general stand-off between Russia and NATO. Ankara has much to lose from even a mild deterioration of relations with Moscow, as evidenced by the last time it happened, after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 in Nov 2015. Following that incident, Russia imposed a series of sanctions against Turkish exports and businesses, crippling agriculture and tourism sectors in particular. The stakes are even higher now. Turkey has since upped its defense cooperation with Russia through purchasing S-400 air defense systems, a deal Ankara deemed so important it was willing to resist Pindo pressure and even sacrifice its role in Pindostan’s F-35 program. Russia is not likely to share any similar equipment with Turkey again, should the two cross swords over Idlib.

Another high-profile joint project is the TurkStream pipeline, which delivers Russian natural gas to power Istanbul and the industrial zones around it. Sakir Arikan, managing director of TurkAkim Gas, called the massive infrastructure project a “matter of national security” last month. Yet Russia did not hesitate to halt construction on the project back in 2015, as part of the sanctions packet. Cooperation between Moscow and Ankara goes beyond economic and defense matters. In addition to partnering in the Syrian peace process, Turkey and Russia recently emerged as leaders in the stalled talks to end the chaos in Libya. Vitaly Naumkin, president of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told RT:

No-one is interested in a big war breaking out that would lead to a conflict between Turkey and Russia. The stakes both sides have in mutual cooperation are just too high. That means they are likely to make an arrangement.

Carnegie’s Khlebnikov also believes:

It is highly unlikely that Turkey would choose a path of direct clash and escalation of tensions with Moscow.

That does not mean that Moscow can just bask in the Syrian sun. Lukyanov told RT that much will depend on Russian diplomatic efforts, which have already made clear to Turkey that a military path will lead nowhere. Any attempts to resolve this issue through military means are just senseless. Unless Russia and Turkey reach an understanding on division of spheres of influence in Idlib, hostilities will continue, Lukyanov warned. This may sound unpalatable to Syrians, who are eager to liberate their country after almost a decade of strife.

All the experts seemed to agree that freezing the hostilities in Idlib may help avoid escalation for the time being, until a more long-term solution is found.

Russian Su-24 Warplane Avoids Two Ground-To-Air Missiles Over Greater Idlib
South Front, Feb 21 2020

On Feb 20, a Su-24 warplane of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) avoided at least two anti-aircraft missiles while providing Syrian Arab Army (SAA) troops in southern Idlib with close air support. Halab Today, a pro-opposition new channel, released a video showing the Russian warplane dodging one of the two missiles by maneuvering and releasing jamming flares. Syrian activists claimed that the missile was a MANPAD launched from a Turkish observation post in the town of Qaminas in southern Idlib. These claims have not been verified yet. Several Syrian and Russian airstrikes targeted the Turkish “observation post” in Qaminas, killing two Turkish soldiers and injuring others. The incident took place during a Turkish-led attack on SAA positions in southern Idlib. Russian Su-24 warplanes provided the army with close air support, allowing it to repel the attack within a few hours. The Russian airstrikes destroyed twelve vehicles of the attackers. Earlier this month, two helicopters of the SAA Air Force were shot down over Greater Idlib. While Syrian militants claimed responsibility for both incidents, some observers believe that it was the Turkish military that targeted the helicopters.

Turkey claims airstrikes ‘kill 50 Syrian soldiers’ as conflict escalates
Borzou Daragahi, Independent, Feb 21 2020

Armed conflict between Turkey and the Damascus regime and their allies escalated dramatically on Thursday, with airstrikes and artillery leaving dead and injured on both sides of the ongoing battle over Syria’s northwest Idlib province. Turkey’s defence ministry claimed it had “neutralised” some 50 SAA troops after the SAA airforce struck Turkish troops, killing at least two. A statement from the Russian defence ministry said that only four SAA troops were wounded in Turkish artillery strikes, and claimed its Su-24 warplanes struck rebel groups allied with Ankara on the outskirts of Idlib. The exchanges of fire on Thursday potentially portend even more heavy warfare following a Feb 29 deadline set by Erdogan for SAA troops to withdraw from positions near a dozen observation posts established inIdlib province as part of a 2018 de-escalation agreement made with Moscow and Tehran. The SAA has intensified military operations in Idlib, hoping to stamp out the last significant rebel stronghold in the country after a civil conflict that has lasted nearly nine years. The assault has displaced 900,000 since Dec 1, with the front-lines moving closer to more densely populated areas, including camps for the internally displaced and the city of Idlib. Yusuf Erim, an analyst at Turkey’s state broadcaster, said:

Turkey has shown that Idlib is a red line and it is ready to defend the last rebel stronghold with its military. While the presence of the Russian military, especially its air force, may complicate the situation on the ground, it is not a deterrent for Ankara. What we are seeing right now are the footsteps of a major operation.

Russia has ignored calls by international officials and aid groups to halt the offensive, accusing Turkey of prolonging the war by backing armed groups in Idlib. An organ of the Russian military said in a statement:

We call on the Turkish side to stop its support for the actions of terrorists and the transfer of weapons to them in order to avoid incidents.

Fighting in Idlib shows no sign of abating. In addition to Thursday’s airstrikes, a Syrian monitoring group described fierce clashes between regime forces and Turkish-backed rebels on the ground east of Idlib. Mr Erim said:

A Turkish operation would complicate Putin’s plans for Syria. I believe he will play it safe and seek a deal with Erdogan before the February-end deadline set by Ankara for a regime retreat. For Moscow, entering March without a deal would be sailing into the unknown and playing Russian roulette with its Syria policy.

Further escalation of the conflict could also encourage more international involvement, a scenario Moscow would prefer to avoid, said Mr Erim. Despite the escalating exchanges of fire, Turkish and Russian diplomats continue to meet in attempts to hammer out a fresh agreement. Pindostan has encouraged Ankara to stand up to Russia, seeing an opportunity to woo back an ally that has been increasingly drifting into the Kremlin’s orbit. Bloomberg News on Thursday cited an unnamed Turkish boxtop as saying that Turkey was asking Faschingstein for Patriot missile-defence systems on its southern border to protect its troops in Syria. The missile defence system would allow Turkey to use F-16 fighter jets to strike Assad regime troops, the boxtop told Bloomberg.

Fighting mounts as Faschingstein backs Turkish attack on Syria, Russia
Alex Lantier, WSWS, Feb 21 2020

The danger of all-out war in the Middle East and beyond kept escalating out of control yesterday, as bloody fighting erupted between Turkish, Syrian and Russian troops in northern Syria. Turkish artillery units in northern Syria’s Idlib province backed a coordinated offensive by Islamist opposition militias targeting Syrian government troops near Qminas and Nayrab. They initially broke through the government lines, causing heavy losses. During the fighting, the Turkish Defense Ministry reported on Twitter, 50 Syrian “regime elements” were destroyed, along with five tanks, two armored personnel carriers, two pickup trucks and a howitzer. Syrian government troops called in Russian air strikes in response, and Russian fighter-bombers together with Syrian army counter-offensives repulsed the attacking force. The Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria claimed this counterattack destroyed “one tank, six infantry fighting vehicles and five pickup trucks containing large-calibre weapons.” The Turkish Defense Ministry said two Turkish soldiers had been killed and five were wounded by the air strikes. A war over Idlib and other regions of Syria between Turkey, Syria and Russia, the country with the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, threatens to escalate into a global conflict between nuclear armed states. Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance, and it is escalating the fighting in Syria because it is receiving assurances of support against Russia from the NATO capitals. Led by the Turkish government and Faschingstein, all the major powers involved in the fighting are proceeding with staggering recklessness, making bellicose statements warning that they are prepared to take military action. On Wednesday, Erdoğan issued perhaps the starkest warning he has made since fighting broke out on Feb 3 at Turkish military observation posts in the region. The Turkish president had previously given the Syrian government an ultimatum to abandon its attacks on opposition militias by the end of February or face military action from Turkey. On Wednesday, Erdoğan said a Turkish invasion of Syria was imminent and inevitable, and that the invasion would “end” Syrian military operations in Idlib. He said:

We are entering the last days for the regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings. Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. I say that we can come at any point. In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time.

Officials in Syrian opposition militias also insisted that Turkey is preparing for large-scale war. One told Reuters:

You can’t imagine the scale of Turkish reinforcements. Half of Reyhanli is now full of Turkish commandos ready to enter Syria. They are readying their forces for zero hour. Operations are expected to start any time.

Erdoğan’s threats on Wednesday came a day after Trump issued a statement endorsing Turkish military action in Syria, thanking Erdoğan and emphasizing that Faschingstein and Ankara are “working together.” Trump praised Erdoğan, saying:

He’s fighting on Idlib (sic – RB). … You have a lot of warring going on right now, a lot of warring going on, but I am dealing with President Erdoğan.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the military believes the threat of war between Turkey and Russia is real. Hoffman said:

We are seeing the Russians and the Turks have come very close to having more extensive conflict in the area. We are hopeful they will find a solution to avoid that.

Remarkably, however, he refused to say whether Faschingstein is in contact with the different parties to the conflict over Idlib province. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov also refused to say how Moscow would react to a Turkish invasion of Syria, commenting:

If it is an operation against Syria’s legitimate authorities and armed forces, it will definitely be the worst scenario. Let us not expect the worst scenario to become a reality. We negotiated a deal over Syria at Sochi in 2018 … but we stopped being satisfied after militants and terrorist groups launched offensive operations against the Syrian armed forces and Russian military facilities from Idlib’s territory.

This explosive situation is the product of nearly a decade of relentless proxy wars waged by Faschingstein and the European imperialist powers in Syria since 2011. Initially mobilizing AQ-linked Islamist militias funded by the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms, and then ethnic Kurdish militias, NATO relentlessly stoked up a civil war inside Syria that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and forced over 10 million to flee their homes. The war escalated into a global proxy war, as Russia, Iran and China intervened to support the Syrian regime against NATO. Last year, Trump withdrew Pindo protection from Kurdish militias in northern Syria, green-lighting a cross-border raid by the Turkish government, which fears the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria, next to the majority-Kurdish provinces of south-eastern Turkey. This set the stage for a violent clash between Turkish and Syrian forces, as Pres Assad’s regime seeks to reassert control over the whole of Syrian territory. With 3.5 million Syrians living as refugees in Turkey, the Turkish government has closed its borders with Syria, trapping up to one million Syrian refugees living in camps in horrific conditions inside Idlib province.

The alarm must be sounded. Despite Peskov’s advice to the world’s population to hope for the best, humanity is only a few steps away from a catastrophic war between the major nuclear-armed states. It is critical to politically mobilize the working class in an international anti-war movement. Should Russia counter-attack against Turkey and large-scale fighting between Turkish, Syrian and Russian units in Syria ensue, Turkey could invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty to try to legally compel Pindostan & Eurostan to declare war on Russia. This provision for collective defense requires all NATO member states to go to war if any NATO member state is the target of military aggression by an external power. A deafening silence prevails from heads of state in the NATO alliance over whether they will honor a request from Ankara to go to war with Russia. TASS cited an anonymous NATO diplomat of unspecified rank as saying:

NATO countries will not support the invocation of Article 5 over the death of Turkish troops in Idlib in early February.

According to the Middle East Monitor, this is because Turkish military losses are taking “place during a unilateral military operation on foreign soil, which goes beyond Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty.” That is, in this case, Turkey is not the target but the perpetrator of military aggression, and behind Turkey stand Faschingstein and the major European imperialist powers. As Erdoğan steps up military action against Syrian and Russian troops, it is plainly evident that Ankara is counting on active NATO assistance against Russia. According to the Independent’s Turkish edition, Ankara has informed NATO of its plans to invade Syria and has requested that NATO enforce a no-fly zone in targeted areas ahead of the offensive. Since Russian warplanes are offering close air support to Syrian troops across the region, this means asking NATO to shoot down Russian planes to ensure that they do not threaten Turkish troops. According to a Bloomberg News report, Turkey has asked Faschingstein for Patriot missile batteries to shoot down Russian warplanes.

Here is the airplane story:

Russian plane worth £7m shot down by Turkish-backed forces as military offensive launched
Simon Osborne, Daily Express, Feb 20 2020

A Russian reconnaissance plane has been shot down above the war-torn Syrian province of Idlib as a Turkish-backed operation against forces loyal to Pres Assad gets underway. Initial reports suggest the £7m aircraft was brought down by the Turkish-backed SNA. There are also reports the revolutionary faction had destroyed two SAA tanks during violent clashes. The latest developments bring Turkey and Syria close to the brink of direct confrontation a day after Pres Erdogan warned the launch of a new military operation was imminent. Russian warplanes have continued to bombard rebel-held towns in north-west Syria again, as Turkish artillery supported insurgent attacks elsewhere across Idlib. The Kremlin, which has supported the SAA push with airstrikes against the rebel militia, said a clash between Turkish and Syrian forces would be a “worst-case scenario” and Russia would work to prevent the situation from worsening. SAA troops supported by Russian warplanes and special forces have been battling since December to eradicate the last rebel bastions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in what could be one of the final chapters of the bloody civil war. But as Turkish troops took up strategic positions across Idlib, Erdogan told MPs:

Turkey has completed preparations for the implementation of its plan on Idlib, just like we did with previous operations. Frankly speaking, an operation in Idlib is only a matter of time. Turkey won’t leave Idlib to the devices of the Assad regime.

Tensions in Idlib have escalated further since Turkey and Russia failed to reach an agreement after two rounds of talks in the last two weeks. Syrian opposition forces supported by Turkey have launched large-scale attacks on SAA troops last week, particularly on Saraqib and the Nayrab settlement. The fighting also involved supporters of the Jabhat al-Nusra group, which is outlawed in Russia (sic! – RB). The Russian-backed SAA troops thwarted the attacks and Moscow said the militants suffered substantial losses. An SAA offensive to eradicate the last rebel strongholds in north-west Syria has led to some of the most serious confrontations yet between Ankara and Damascus, and prompted Turkey to send thousands of troops and convoys of heavy weapons to the border area. A Turkish boxtop said:

Talks with Russia have not been completely without result. They have moved forward, without reaching a final decision. Russia has maintained its position that Turkey withdraws from Idlib and evacuates its observation posts since the beginning. Withdrawing from Idlib or evacuating the observation posts is not on the agenda. Various exercises are being discussed. For example, ensuring security through Turkish and Russian security officials and holding joint patrols could be possible.

The Turkish Defence Ministry said this afternoon:

As a result of an air attack on our elements in the Idlib region to provide a truce, two of our hero gunmates were martyred and five of our hero gunmen were injured (sic! – RB). The determined targets have been put under fire and continue to be taken.

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