As if the civil war in Syria has not witnessed enough conflict and bloodshed, a new element has crept into the ongoing drama. Last week, Turkey dispatched a convoy to Northern Syria to aid the Sunni Islamist rebels holed up in the Idlib province, which has been under attack by Assad regime forces and Russian airpower. The convoy, which carried ammunition, and other military hardware was bombed by the Assad forces, with some casualties inflicted on the Turkish convoy. The Sunni Muslim rebel force – Gabhat al-Nusra (The Nusra Front), which is an affiliate of al-Qaida, has been actively counter-attacking the Assad forces. Turkey’s primary agent in Syria is, however, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The conflicting interests of Syria and Turkey could lead to a shooting war between the two dictators.
The Syrian dictator, Bashar el-Assad, seeks to consolidate his hold on all former Syrian territory, and especially the northwestern region of Syria, which is the home ground of the Alawite sect (sub-sect of Shiite Islam). The region has been the Assad family power base, which Bashar Assad wants to secure at all costs. Given the revenge sought by the majority of the Sunni-Muslim Syrians, who have been the primary victims of the Assad’s Alawites, the northwest region is intended to be their refuge. With southwestern Syria now secured by the regime, and the country’s center as well, Idlib province remains a significant challenge for Assad. Of course, he and his Iranian allies have not yet subdued the northeastern portion of Syria, which is being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a primarily Kurdish force, that is allied with the U.S. and other western states (primarily Britain and France). The SDF has been the major contributor to expelling the Islamic State (or ISIS) from its capital of Raqqa, and the wider region.
The Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s involvement in Syria is grounded on two principles. First, Erdogan has positioned Turkey as the protector of Sunni-Muslims. As he aspires to become the leader of the Sunni world, and being a leading supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, he is compelled to show support for the besieged Sunni-Muslim Arabs, and Turkmen rebels. Both his domestic constituency and the larger Sunni world expect Erdogan to defend the Sunni’s in Syria. The other, more important principle is Ankara’s fear of Kurdish self-determination in Syria. The Kurds are now in control of a large portion of northeastern Syria, which is their natural homeland with its capital, Qamishli. An arbitrary border separating the large Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey from their brethren in northeast Syria has made the Turks nervous. Erdogan fears the creation of the Kurdish self-rule in Syria and envisions Turkey’s Kurds flocking to it, resulting in an eventual Kurdish state that might swallow a portion of southeastern Turkey. Ankara, along with Tehran, both having large Kurdish populations, seek to deny the Kurds their self-determination. In January 2018, Erdogan’s Turkish military attacked the Kurds in Afrin, which was previously controlled by the Kurds.
Erdogan has threatened to invade northeastern Syria and destroy the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG). Ankara has accused the YPG of being terrorists and allegedly supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization. Yet, the hypocritical Erdogan supports the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and has provided these terrorists with offices in Turkey. Erdogan is determined to prevent the YPG-Kurdish-led SDF from forming territorial contiguity along the Turkish border in northern Syria. This is the ostensible reason that Erdogan has moved Turkish troops to the region. Naturally, Assad opposes the Turkish incursion into sovereign Syrian territory.
The Syrian civil war began as a protest against the Assad Alawite governing elite repressive rule over a majority Sunni population. It occurred in the midst of what is known as the “Arab Spring.” Soon thereafter, it turned into a war against the Islamic State, which was, in the mid-decade, able to capture large portions of western Iraq and northern Syria, establishing their capital in Raqqa. The Islamic State (IS) terrorists proved to be the most brutal, yet effective, force in Syria. The IS cruelties compelled the U.S. and its western allies to intervene with airstrikes and small contingents of special forces. The major fighting and sacrifices on the ground, however, were made by the Kurdish-led SDF.
Russia moved into Syria to bolster the failing Assad regime, and naturally to secure its air and naval bases along Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Russian intervention, particularly since September 2015, when it actively deployed its air power to bomb the various rebel groups including innocent civilians, and destroying hospitals in Aleppo and Idlib among others turned the tide in favor of Assad.
Iran provided the Assad regime with logistical, technical, and financial support in addition to vital manpower. Assad lost many officers and soldiers who defected to the rebels. The fighting men the Islamic Republic of Iran provided included its proxies; a large contingent of Hezbollah terrorist fighters from Lebanon, and Shiite “volunteer” militias from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen. All of them served under the command of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force commander Major-General Qasem Soleimani. These groups operated alongside Assad’s army in southwestern Syria, aiming to establish a presence along Israel’s Golan Heights. Iran and its Hezbollah proxy would like to use the area to launch attacks against Israel.
The growing tension between the two dictators over the presence of Turkish forces in northwestern Syria, and Ankara’s support for the FSA, and Sunni-Islamist rebels in Idlib begs the question, which one of the two will blink first. Erdogan, through his support for the rebels, holds a bargaining chip. Assad though has the Russian and Iranians on his side. A hot war between the two may be horrific, especially if Russia provided air power to aid Assad. It is apparent, however, that neither side wants a major war to erupt. Therefore, one can expect more limited skirmishes to continue.
Russia is not keen on having Turkish or Iranian forces operating in Syria, especially close to its bases in northwestern Syria. Moscow has its naval base in Tartus, and Hameimim (airbase). According to Reuters (12/26/2017), Russia signed a deal with the Assad regime in Damascus on January 18 that will expand the Tartus naval facility, Russia’s only naval foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. “(It) will grant Russian warships access to Syrian waters and ports.” The deal is for 49-years, and it would “allow Russia to keep 11 warships at Tartus, including nuclear vessels.”
In the end, after Russia’s President Putin and Erdogan have conferred, Assad will commit to preventing the Syrian Kurds from establishing any form of self-rule. Also, Assad will agree to allow the rebel forces and their families safe passage to withdraw to Turkey, in exchange for Turkish forces moving out of Syrian territory. In the Middle East, however, no one can predict what new twists will turn things upside down.