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Turkey's Syria Entanglement

In the northwest (Aleppo province) Turkish troops and YPG Kurds have been fighting each other near the town of Afrin (northwest of Aleppo city) since January 20 th . The Turkish troops in Syria, and their FSA allies, have been trying to force Kurdish fighters out of Afrin since 2016 but have so far failed. This area has been frequently fought over since 2013. Those battles involved al Nusra and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces as well as the Syrian Army and FSA and U.S. supported SDF rebels. The Turks have become a major supporters of the FSA rebels in the area. This led to regular clashes between FSA and SDF forces. There have been clashes between the YPG (the Kurdish separatist component of SDF) and FSA rebels in the past, even though both groups have long been supported by the Americans. These hostilities were basically the outgrowth of personal disputes between leaders of some YPG and FSA groups. The U.S. sees the Turkish attitude here (that all armed Kurds must disband and disarm) as being more about domestic Turkish politics (where an unpopular pro-Islamic government is trying to create an external threat to distract Turks from the dislike for their own government). The Americans see Turkish hostility towards the Syrian Kurds as having nothing to do with reality and actually hurting the campaign to replace the Assad government.

Turkey wants all Kurds gone from their 911 kilometer border with Syria. Over half that border is east of the Euphrates River in what has long been Kurdish occupied territory (Hasakeh province). Syrian Kurds cleared of most ISIL forces out here by 2015 with the help of some Assad troops. Until 2012 the Assad government hoped to gain the Syrian Kurds as allies, but that did not work out and in 2012 the Assad forces officially turned Hasakeh province over to the local Kurdish militias. For the next five years the Kurds and Assad forces have occasionally cooperated against ISIL and other Islamic terrorist rebel groups that are hostile to Kurds as well as the Assads. The Turks are now accusing the Syria Kurds of supporting PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) who are again fighting the Turks. The SDF denies this and the American troops who have been advising, and training the SDF for years sided with the SDF on this. The Americans were willing to work with the Syrian Kurds the way they had done with the Iraqi Kurds since the 1990s. That Iraqi arrangement worked for the Turks but the Syrian Kurds are seen as less reliable. The Turks now say they will go after the town of Manbij (northeast of Aleppo city, 40 kilometers south of the Turkish border and near the west bank of the Euphrates River). SDF controls Manbij despite the fact that it is west of the Euphrates. According to the senior U.S. general in the region the American troops with SDF in Manbij are staying, mainly because most of the SDF fighters in Manbij are Arabs, not Kurds. SDF is mainly Kurdish but also contained large numbers of Arabs (Moslem and Christian) and other minorities. Moreover the SDF is composed of militias that were among the first to rebel against the Assads and remained focused on the rebellion and did not get involved with Islamic terrorism (which many Syrian rebels did). Even al Qaeda leaders agree that the rebellion was greatly weakened by feuding and fighting between various Islamic terror groups.

The Turkish actions towards U.S. backed Kurds in Syria is but one of several actions Turkey has taken to cut its ties with Western nations since World War II. Turkey is a member of NATO because of that but NATO is edging closer to expelling Turkey. Not so much for Turkish moves in Syria, but because Turkey is becoming an ally of Russia. More to the point Turkey has ordered two Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems and is in line to get over a hundred new F-35 fighters. The S-400 is not compatible with the NATO air defense system and the F-35s contain a lot of technical secrets the Russians would like to get a close look at. Worse the current Russian government has accused NATO of plotting to destroy Russia. This fantasy is a ploy by the current (since 1999) Russian leaders to justify reviving police state rule. To get away with this Russia needs a scary foe that will not actually become a threat. China won't do because China has claims on much of the Russian Far East while there is no such claims by any Western nation. Russia appears to be playing with both Turkey and Iran in Syria, but that's another story.

Iran opposes Turkish operations along the Syrian border and there have been clashes between Assad and Turkish forces in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. The Assads do not want to fight Turkey but the Assads have been kept in power throughout the civil war by Iran, or at least mainly Iran. Russia arrived in 2015 and plays a secondary role. Neither Iran nor the Assads want to go to war with the Turks, but they are not cooperating with them either. Most European countries see Turkish and Iranian operations in Syria as a violation of international law, despite the fact that Iran was officially "invited" to enter Syria. Turkey and the United States did not get an invitation but for Europe the Americans in Syria are seen as helpful, not a threat to regional stability.

Iran appears to control most of the military forces available to the Assads. This force is better armed, trained and led than the Syrian military. The Iranian forces includes 3,000 Iranian personnel, 8,000 Hezbollah fighters (with more on call in Lebanon) and some 70,000 pro-Iran militias. About a fifth of these are foreign Shia mercenaries recruited, armed and led by Iranians. The rest are local pro-Assad militias that are equipped (and often paid) by Iran. Russia is the main source of logistic, technical, air and diplomatic (via a UN veto) support. But Iran has the most armed people on the ground. To make matters worse the main function of the Iranian ground forces is to prepare for a war with Israel.

The Civil War

The Syrian civil war is not over but it is entering its third phase. The first phase was in 2011-2 when the majority of Syrians turned against the Assad government. The Assads seemed doomed. But then the various rebel groups began spending more time fighting each other than the Assads. It got worse when ISIL showed up in 2013 and did not end until ISIL was crushed by the end of 2017. Now the factions are rearranging themselves for continued fighting. Already Turkish troops are fighting Kurds in northwest Syria while American troops settle down in the Kurdish northeast and announce a long-term presence to monitor Islamic terrorist activity and keep Iran from expanding.

Iran responded to American criticism of Iranian aggression in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon by insisting that it had an obligation to aid these nations in their fight against American and Israeli threats. This justification is unpopular with most Iranians who want their government to pay more attention to real problems inside Iran rather than imaginary ones overseas. Leaders of the PMF (government supported militias) in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon openly boast of their financial and other support from Iran. This makes most Iraqis and Lebanese uncomfortable. Hezbollah has long been recognized by most foreign nations as an Islamic terrorist organization. Syrians are dreading Iranian plans to create a Syrian Hezbollah. Now Iranians officers openly talk of attacking American troops in northeast Syria, with the help of Turkish troops who are already attacking Kurds in northwest Syria (Afrin).

Russia is being asked to take sides in northern Syria where Turkey has begun attacking Syrian Kurds west of the Euphrates River, an area dominated by Russian warplanes and air defense systems. The Russians did not interfere with Turkish air strikes. Turkish warplanes are supporting Turkish ground troops seeking to drive Syrian Kurds out of territory (especially the town of Afrin) they control near the Turkish border. After that the Turks want the Americans to get out of northeast Syria. The Americans don't want to leave but have heeded Turkish concerns and agreed that the Syrian Kurds would not control security along the Turkish border (from Iraq to the Euphrates River). In mid-January the United States announced that it is assisting in the creation of a 30,000 strong BSF ("border security force") in northeast Syria. This appears to be a repeat of what the U.S. and Britain did in Kurdish northern Iraq in the early 1990s. Neither Turkey, Iran nor Syria (the Assads) support this autonomous Kurdish portion of Syria. But the Americans insist it is essential to ensure that Islamic terrorists do not again have an opportunity to operate in this area. Russia noted with approval how the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq kept things quiet in their territory since the early 1990s. The U.S. backed SDF have already said they would not allow Assad forces to cross the Euphrates River in order to regain control of northeastern Syria that was now largely held by the SDF. The SDF is being converted to the BSF and, unlike Kurdish northern Iraq, the SDF controlled territory will have a defense force (the BSF), that will be about a third non-Kurds and border security will be handled by whichever ethnic group dominates in that area. Most of the Turkish border will be patrolled by Kurds while the Iraq border will have a lot more Arab participation. There will be two American bases in this SDF controlled territory. One will be on the Iraq border at the al Tanf (on the Syrian side)/ Walweed (on the Iraqi side) border crossing. The other American base in Syria will be at the airbase outside Raqqa. This American controlled area will block Iran from having a land route from Iran to Damascus (and Lebanon).

The Americans have about 6,000 troops in Iraq but most (about 3,500) of these are leaving. Most will go to Afghanistan but some will end up in Syria and the rest back to the United States. There are still about 10,000 ISIL supporters in Iraq and Syria but only about a third are armed fighters. The only territory ISIL still controls are some sparely inhabited desert areas in eastern Syria and a few rural areas along the Iraq border and in western Iraq. At this point the big threat in Iraq and Syria is Iran, which is aggressively seeking to extend its power and influence throughout the region. Iran also wants to destroy Israel, something it has loudly repeated for decades.

Rearranging The Factions

The Syrian Kurds want autonomy in the northeast (mainly Hasakah province) and protection from Turkish efforts to keep the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border. That's going to be a problem. There are more problems in the north, such as the FSA (Free Syrian Army). This group was a major player early on because it was largely secular and popular with Western nations. Now it is split with about 10,000 FSA working for the Turks and about 5,000 in the south still fighting the Assads. From 2012-16 FSA was in decline because most Syrian rebels preferred more radical groups like al Qaeda and eventually ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). FSA persisted and eventually found a major patron in Turkey, which apparently plans to turn over control of the Syrian side of the border to FSA, if the Assads and Syrian Kurds can be taken care of. The Turks can promise FSA fighters support in the northern Syria border zone that is controlled by Turkey and may remain under Turkish control (or "protection") for some time to come. The Turks want a stable government in Syria that is not hostile towards Turkey. That could include the Assads, or not. At the moment the Assads are under the control of Iran.

After its first appearance in 2011 the FSA grew largely by forming a coalition. The basic requirement for FSA membership was opposition to the Assad government and support of democracy (not religious or secular dictatorship) in Syria. About a third of the FSA was in the south and those rebels were more inclined to work with the Americans or even Israel. FSA has long received assistance from the U.S. and Jordan as well but in 2017 the northern faction made it clear that Turkey was their new sponsor and refused American requests that FSA work with the SDF in Deir Ezzor province, which is the southern neighbor of SDF controlled Hasakah province.

The Syrian Kurds and SDF want to make peace with Turkey but this is increasingly difficult. Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the United States keep getting worse because of American support for local Kurds and refusing to extradite back to Turkey those who Turkey believes were responsible for an alleged coup in 2016. The Turks can provide the Americans with no convincing evidence (which is essential to get someone extradited). Then again the U.S. has been making and breaking promises to the local Kurds for over a century now. But the Kurds have few choices because reliable foreign backers have always been in short supply. The Syrian Kurds have been discussing a post-war deal with the Assads and seem to think they will have a better chance with that than trying to negotiate with the Turks. At the moment the Turks are going after the remaining Kurdish controlled areas in Idlib province near the Mediterranean coast. Apparently the Turks will only tolerate the Syrian Kurds if they stay in Hasakah province on the Iraq border. The Syrian Kurds (the SDF and its American air and special operations support) have been responsible for taking the ISIL capital (Raqqa) without any help from the Assads, Russia or anyone else. Because of that the SDF has told the Assads that they do not want a return of the Assad government to areas they control (Hasakah province and parts of Deir Ezzor province). The SDF is willing to discuss an autonomy deal similar to what the Iraqi Kurds have.

Turkey gets little criticism from Europe, mainly because Turkey hosts over three million Syrian refugees and has been keeping the deal it made with Europe to prevent those refugees from heading for Europe via Turkey. In return the Europeans pay Turkey billions of dollars a year. This is one reason the European nations have largely backed away from supporting Syrian rebels. At this point the primary supporter of the Syrian rebels is the United States.

Israel is preparing for an Iranian attack from Lebanon and/or Syria. In addition to moving more troops to the Syrian border, improving the security fence and anti-aircraft/rocket defense Israel is also making deals with rebels on the Syrian side of the border in an effort to establish a 40 kilometers deep buffer zone. Israel has long provided some support (usually medical, in Israeli hospitals) for cooperative Syrian rebels. Now that support includes material aid and airstrikes and artillery fire against shared threats.

Israel has suggested that Russia work out some sort of truce between Iran and Israel. That is a great idea in theory but in practice Iran is pretty irrational when it comes to Israel.

In the northwest (Aleppo province) fighting near Afrin has left about twenty Turkish s0ldiers dead since the operation began on January 20th. FSA losses have been higher and the Turks claim to have killed, wounded or captured about a thousand Kurdish fighters in that period as well. The Kurds disagree with the Turkish estimate.

February 8, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) over 300 pro-Assad militiamen attacked SDF positions near the Khusham oilfields (which once supplied ISIL with a lot of cash). The attack was defeated with the help of American air power (F-15Es, AH-64s and an AC-130) and artillery. At least a hundred attackers were killed and two tanks and several artillery pieces were destroyed. The SDF suffered a few wounded even though the attackers had tanks and artillery with them. The U.S. was in touch with the Russians to ensure there no problems in the air (Russian and American warplanes operating too close together). There were some American troops among the SDF defenders.

The Assad forces continue attacks in the north (Idlib province) and down south in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. These two campaigns have been going on for weeks and mostly consist of firing on civilians (with airstrikes and artillery) in an effort to persuade the rebels to surrender. So far this month over a thousand civilians have been killed or wounded in these two areas. The attacks on Ghouta have been particularly intense for the last four days. There are also Turkish troops in Idlib province, mainly along the border. One of those soldiers was killed today, and four wounded, by some mortar shells.

In the south some gunfire from Syria hit a village on the Israeli side of the border in the Golan Heights. There were no injuries and the Israelis decided it was not deliberate and did not return fire.

February 7, 2018: In the northwest (Aleppo province) fighting included artillery fire hitting the water treatment plant nine kilometers northeast of Afrin. This cut water supplies for Afrin and surrounding areas. The Turks said they had not fired on the water treatment facility. Turkish forces near Afrin detected and destroyed a suicide truck bomb before it could reach Turkish troops.

In the south (Damascus) Syria claims that Israeli aircraft in Lebanon fired missiles at a research center outside Damascus. Syria claim they shot some of the missiles. Israel did not comment, which is typical. Other witnesses report the missiles hit a new Iranian base near the Jamraya research center which specializes in weapons development.

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