It is the second week we wished to leave Syria behind a little to deal with other parts of the Middle East. For long we wish to take a closer look on the Libyan folder, which on its own is highly tied to Syria. Not only because a large number of the organizations fighting in Syria for years against the legitimate government were redeployed in Libya, but also because the same complex considerations that drive Ankara now to pursue its huge gamble in Syria lead it to embark on a similar adventure in North Africa. And just like in Syria the seemingly impossible Turkish gamble has gains.
This week, however, witnessed such developments that made us stay with the Syrian scene for just a little longer. For the first time the Turkish Army, this week officially, launched a military operation against the Syrian Army, this time still using its armed militia allies, but not hiding behind them anymore. Which, also for the first time, produced direct clash between Russian and Turkish forces as the Russian Air Force directly targeted brand new Turkish vehicles on the ground. Amidst major confrontations and general worry that we may be on the edge of direct war between Russia and Turkey once again, two seemingly minor things happened, which shows that the rearrangements behind the curtains have already begun and we cannot know which side will profit the most.
In one hand America managed to reappear on the scene once again. Turkey now openly hints that it might ditch the S-400 missile defense systems after all the quarrels with Washington. What is more, it openly suggests to buy Patriot systems from the US, a plan long desired by Ankara only to be turned down continuously, which lead it to turn to Russia. This time, however, Washington seems ready to deliver these much desired means, knowing that these might jut be used right away even against Russia in Idlib. A thing that the Turks don’t even hide anymore. And a thing they might even need desperately, after the Russians for the first time directly hit Turkish columns in Idlib, humiliating Ankara. The American-Turkish relations were in all time low since the last Turkish offense in Syria in October against Qasad, which turned for the worse after Ankara bought and tested the Russian S-400 systems. Yet now the table turns again, if at the end America gives a helping hand in this deadlock. Which might, however, can turn sour any minute, since recently Myles Caggings, spokesman of the American Forces had some rather unnerving comments about Idlib. Comments that can be even more destructive to the Turkish position now in Syria than the Russian jets. A very complex game indeed.
While on the other hand ‘Alī Lārīğānī, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament took on an unannounced tour to Syrian and Lebanon offering support. That alone might not be significant, however, the timing and the very person is showing a lot about the changing tides. A month ago Iranian influence was seriously questioned by the Americans and at that time about Syria Turkish analysts with quite some merit pointed out that the Iranian role is diminishing. After all while a year or so ago Tehran was a major power broker in the Syrian process, it was slowly sidelined in Sochi. And the unprecedented visit of Putin to Damascus right at that time when Tehran lived its most heated times with Washington after the assassination of Qāsem Soleymānī certainly showed this trajectory. That Iran might have lost its role in Syria. But now at the height of the tension between Damascus, Moscow and Ankara Iran announced its will to host yet another de-escalation summit in Tehran next month, which so far only Turkey is hesitant to accept. Lārīğānī’s visit, while his own personal standing is dwindling, coincidences with three other major developments, all in favor of Iran now. The inauguration of a new Lebanese government, the same event in Iraq, and the general elections in Iran this week. All these would signal that Iran hasn’t just lost all its influence yet, and might reappear in the scene stronger than before.
What really happened in an-Nayrab this week? How was Turkey humiliated and how that might change the scene once again? What can Ankara still bet on? And how is the stalemate between Moscow and Ankara might be exploited by Tehran and Washington respectively, while they themselves still on stiff terms with each other?
The town of an-Nayrab in Idlib is a relatively unimportant place, right along the Sarāqib-Arīḥā section of the M4 highway, which was only known before the war for its military airport, all destroyed during the last years. On 20 February 2020 a major operation started here, which might prove to be a game changer in the long run. Since the early hours of that day the Turkish media and all the outlets supporting its radical affiliates in Syria focused on footages that the Turkish forces have started to roll along the highway towards an-Nayrab, augmented by some 60 militant formations, and that by the night they will not only be in an-Nayrab, but will retake Sarāqib as well. Meaning the operations Erdoğan threatened the Syrian Army with in case it does not withdraw from Idlib province have indeed started, regardless the deadline the Turkish President gave until the end of February. But the developments and the obvious disregard by Damascus for its threats prompted him to speed up its measures.
In light of the recent war of accusations and threats when both Turkey and Russian aggravated their rhetoric against each other, like when Moscow openly called upon Ankara to “stop supporting terrorists in Idlib”, the attack came as rather a surprise. A surprise in the sense that Erdoğan is really about to do this. And it is a surprise since during the last two weeks when Turkish soldiers fell in Idlib the Turkish leadership was content to run only a PR campaign saying it hit numbers of Syrian targets, but doing nothing of such in reality. Meaning it was supposed that all the threats are just one major bluff. But Thursday this week it turned out to be real.
The surprise met yet an even bigger surprise as the Russian Air Force reacted instantly and bombed the Turkish column, which made it stop, which was followed by a barrage from the Syrian artillery leaving two Turkish soldiers dead and five other injured. After that the terrorist organizations continued their attempts against an-Nayrab, even directly against the Russian troops, which all failed. That night the news were busy claiming that an-Nayrab fell, but it was clear to see that the Syrian Army – with much support from the Russian Air Force – managed to block all attempts and no change on the map have happened whatsoever. This inability to gain any advance was even worse when it was revealed that some of the most modern German built tanks were amongst those lost in the operation. After much preparation, the fell of more than 250 militants and even Turkish troops the only result was that the Syrian advance stopped, but that now only weakens the militant lines in other fronts. Meaning that the Syrian advance on the al-Atārib front is expected to happen soon next week.
That one battle has much bigger significance in the overall political and tactical considerations than on the actual ground level. Though the operation was surely intended to raise the moral of the militants that now Turkey openly supports them even against the Russian, only to see that this in not entirely the case and it is not even effective. Which will soon present its effect in the frontlines soon. But above that it proved that the Turkish forces are vulnerable by the air, regardless it recently equipped its affiliates with anti-air equipment. Which made Ankara to turn – at lest seemingly – once again on the famous Damascus road.
One more turn
Turkey soon announced the fell of two more Turkish soldiers in Idlib, giving little attention to the circumstances, only that now Russia was directly involved in the Syrian Army’s operation against their troops. A claim many times circulated by Ankara, but this time turning out to be true.
Giving little regard to the humiliation itself Ankara turned once again and announced that it might ditch its newly bought Russian S-400 systems and asked Washington to deliver new Patriot missile battalions. So to confront the Russian Air Force, which would make it able to directly use its F-16 planes against the Syrian Army. Strangely, that once again seem to prove that all the claims during the last weeks that such thing happened numerously have not in fact took place.
This development did not come new, and Washington was building this channel for some time. When the first Turkish soldiers fell in Idlib, upon this occasion the former American ambassador James Jeffrey – who now happens to be the US special envoy to Syria -, who speaks Turkish said that “we have had martyrs until now!” Meaning that Turkey’s lost soldiers are America’s martyrs as well, a message all understood in Turkey and in the Arab world too. America this way was signaling its readiness to support Ankara once again in the Syrian case. On the 11 February when James Jeffrey arrived to Ankara he clearly expressed that Washington stands by Ankara against Moscow. After the failure in an-Nayrab that was repeated by Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Defense Minister as well, this time adding to it the matter of the air defense systems. So it would seem that the alliance between the US and Turkey broken in Eastern Syria and upon the S-400 matter was restored once again. But is it? And who profits from this more?
The most important player in this equation is of course Turkey, and from Ankara’s point of view the Syrian game is closing to its end. As we dealt with this before, the biggest problem for Turkey now, is what to do with all the militias it trained for long years. Now that all other options are closing down. Probably not a coincidence that this week for the first time Erdoğan openly admitted that there are “Syrian” militia forces – mostly Syrian Turkmens – fighting in Libya. With all other alternatives are closing down now Erdoğan knows that these radical elements will soon arrive to Turkey in big numbers – where they already are – and that is why he said “every battle not fought in Syria will soon have to be fought inside Turkey”. Therefore the last resort is to send the biggest possible numbers into the meat grinder. The attack on an-Nayrab aimed this, to boost the moral of the terrorist fractions and keep them on the ground. But also there is an increasing number of reports on the filed that all those trying to escape the battle towards the Turkish border are arrested by the Turkish forces and detained. Though so far their faith is unknown, but it is highly likely that they will soon appear in official statistics as result of the Turkish anti-terror efforts. As the same attempt goes on internally as well, like when recently Turkey arrested a former Dā‘iš commander, a so called Abū Taqiyya, who for years now lived in Bursa as repairman.
It should be clear that all possible options are bad for Turkey. Even if the majority of the terrorist factions die in Syrian and the rest can be fully apprehended – which would be a miracle – that would mean that the Syrian state won. That is one thing, but than what happens to the millions of refugees living in Turkey? So far the plan was that they would be relocated to the so called “liberated safe zones” under the rule of the radical groups allied to Turkey. But that is not really happening now, and if the Syrian state restores its authority all over than this project cannot happen. What to do then? If the Syrians will be kept in Turkey than the pressure will just grow internally. Until there was no internal competition for Erdoğan that could have been contained, but with the rise of new competitors – many of the former AKP members, like Davutoğlu – this is a risky option. Letting, or even persuading the Syrians to return after the war is not better either, since than the whole charade of “Turkey helping against dictatorship” will be exposed. Have the Syrians really run away from a dictatorship, how come they are returning after the war? While they were not willing to return to the “liberated zones”? Given all options are bad Turkey chose to stall the matter, and might even use it to restore its relations with Washington and get something long desired from it. Also this way strengthening its positions against Iran, a regional competitor, now that Iran is felt vulnerable. But the loss of ever more Turkish soldiers on the ground, and even more the total inability to reach any substantial gain from the gamble make Erdoğan ever more erratic now. The game is getting hotter ever more on the grand scale as well, since as Turkey is jumping back and forth between the US and Russia gaining the most from both, it is hard to know when the luck will run out and one party will stop tolerating the tricks by Ankara. Which seems to be the case by Russia now.
And which is also shown by the fact that Erdoğan, though accepted an invitation to Tehran for a tripartite summit over Idlib, on 22 February he hastily conveyed another. A quadrilateral meeting with Russia, Germany and France to 5 March. Which is not likely to bring much luck to him, since Germany has little weight in the Syrian matter and Chancellor Merkel is by now more concern about her retire. Probably it will not be a very pleasant conversation, when the Turkish officials have to explain why they humiliated the pride of German military engineering, the Leopard tank, which were destroyed with relative ease at an-Nayrab, and all the more humiliating that it happened during a terrorist attack. As for France President Macron will also less likely to be a friend, after Erdoğan openly mocked him in his last trip to Algeria. European mediation on its own never has been really tried in Syria, and never has shown any effect. Meaning that Erdoğan is running out of options and this step tries to counterweight the also scheduled Tehran meeting, where he will surely face serious opposition.
As for the US it is clear that the situation is a prime opportunity to reappear on the Syrian scene once again. To regain a position mostly lost right by Turkey. It is, however, noticeable that this mostly diplomatic maneuver is run by the most hawkish elements of the American foreign administration. Pompeo is the most active in this scene, and James Jeffrey is one of his favored aids. It is noticeable that Trump is once again almost nowhere to be found. Surely Washington does not care nor about Idlib, nor about the results there – otherwise it would have tried to impose its presence – but by coming back to the filed once again can stall the result here. And the later Idlib is solved, the later attention will come to Eastern Syria and the illegally occupied oilfields there, where resistance is growing. The longer it is stalled the more chance there is to keep the matter for the next American administration – Trump, or otherwise – and then close it with celebration, or open it once again. Today Washington really turned up its rhetoric support for Turkey, but the result are less clear. Will Washington really stop the years long economic war against Turkey and forget the S-400 case, just for some window opportunity in Syria? Will Turkey close the Russian pipelines going to Europe? Will Turkey stop it’s claims against Fethullah Gülen, who is still residing in America? Of course the contradictions are way bigger between Washington and Ankara, and even between Trump and Erdoğan personally to just skip all these. And there should be now doubt that Ankara sees this. The art of the gamble is that now both Washington and Ankara are trying to exploit the other.
While the result is yet to be seen, no doubt Turkey has much more to lose here. And about the suddenly raising American friendship two notions are very telling. First of all, Washington might have used very harsh words about Idlib and solidarity for Turkey, but hasn’t promised one thing. Direct military support. So far during the years of the Syrian war the US was eager to finally get a good excuse and crush the Syrian government militarily. Now there is a golden opportunity, but yet it is not about to be used. The answer is of course easily, against Russia that would be way too big of a gamble for very little to gain. Nonetheless it is telling that the US is not about to help directly, the farthest they go is to give arms. And even more telling that on 21 February spokesman of the US Central Command Myles Caggings, the very same person, who only a week ago had to explain why the US Air Force is bombing villages in Eastern Syria, had shocking comments about Idlib. According to his words Idlib is a “magnet for terrorist groups”. A very sharp deviation of the former “Asad is only killing civilians in Idlib” line, which Turkey maintains until now, but almost identical to the standing of Damascus.
Which likely to signal that the US wants to remind Turkey that it might play along once again, but this turn should be the last.
It is also somewhat puzzling to see why Russia suddenly changed its position and started to hit even Turkish troops directly. If indeed that happened such a way. First of all the official line did not change as Moscow agreed to meet the Turks both with the Iranians and with the German-French duo. It only refused bilateral meetings now, but still negations are preferred. The difference is more apparent in the tone, as now Russian officials openly accuse Turkey with support of terrorism, that is should stop that, and that Ankara did not fulfill its vows. Here the real question is, why Russia suddenly decided to increase the support? That might come as natural, but it should be kept in mind that Russian forces are in Syria for Russian interests, not for affection. The most important gains, the military positions and the economic interests are well secured, so as the position on the Syrian government to fulfill these obligations. Idlib means little threat to that and in the long run it is even preferable for Russia to prolong the solution there. The longer this fight goes on, the longer the Syrian government is reliant of Russian support and the less likely to slip away, even partially. The answer is, however, and that is the most likely reason what upset Moscow, is that the attacks on the Ḥamīmīm military airport are increasing by the Turkish back groups, so as their technical level. To which now, as the Syrian Army on its own is getting the upper hand it is time to respond.
Overall the only player in this equation, who hasn’t changed at all is the Syrian side. But it is also the most to gain now. The longer Turkey is hesitant how to respond to the gains and what lessons are to be drawn from an-Nayrab the more areas can be liberated and Ankara pushed to a fait accompli.
The other changing side
This week also witnessed the reemergence and the reposition of another regional player, Iran. Tehran was slowly sidelined after the Astana process in Sochi, and it was clear that Russia never had much to say about the Israeli attacks on Syria. Not as its impact was important. Apart from the claims the Israelis mostly could not seriously injure the Iranian positions in Syria. But the very fact that Moscow had nothing to say about that is telling. Until the last incident, when an Iranian airliner was almost shut down and it had to land in the Russian airport in Ḥamīmīm. The most showing sign was that at the height of the tension with the US after the assassination of Qāsem Soleymānī Putin suddenly payed a surprise visit to Damascus. The message was clear that Syria is Russian territory and Iran should know that.
Not long ago Turkish analysts cheerful mocked Iran that is was completely eliminated from the Syrian negotiations and has not weight anymore. Yet now, as after an-Nayrab a deadlock was reached between Ankara and Moscow Tehran reappeared once again. On 20 February it was announced that there will be a new Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit on Idlib in early March. And right in Tehran. It is true that it is counterweighted by the quadrilateral meeting with the Europeans, and also analyses go far why the Turks were hesitant to accept the invitation to Tehran, but nonetheless it shows that Iran is not absent from the game. A message not only for Ankara, but also to Moscow. Because right at the time when the Russians met a deadlock in their Middle East endeavors, it was time for another visit. On 16 February, so even before an-Nayrab, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament ‘Alī Lārīğānī arrived to Damascus. His meetings were relatively short and former, but carried a strong message that Tehran stand by Damascus and the there should be no compromise in Idlib. However, Lārīğānī in Damascus was only passing by on the way to Lebanon, what was his real aim. He met with the Lebanese President, inviting him to Iran, and also the recently appointed new Prime Minister Ḥussām Diyāb, that being the first official meeting between the new Lebanese PM and the Iranian leadership. Lārīğānī closed his visit, very naturally, with a meeting with leadership of Ḥizb Allah, assessing the situation. However, this visit was far from a courtesy tour, but Lārīğānī came with a list of offers for the new Lebanese government, from credits to offers of building electrical plants. A field being a huge problem for Lebanon for year, and on which Iran has good experience. A bundle of promising cooperation possibilities that even the Lebanese opposition could criticize it only on the ground that Tehran is unable to fulfill these. But all sides admitted that this would mean a huge help for Beirut now. A help no one else is willing to give.
The message of this trip, just like Putin’s last visit to Damascus is huge. Lārīğānī is one of the heavyweights of the Iranian politics being Speaker of the Parliament since 2008, after holding a number of key roles, he is the head of the Lārīğānī clan. A set of very influential and prominent lawmakers, clerics, intellectuals and businessmen lead by the four Lārīğānī brothers. His visit come in a very sensitive time for three reasons. First of all for the growing tension in Idlib and now Tehran can also come back as a powerbroker, right along the US, only on the other side. Secondly, after lengthy attempts by Washington, most specifically by the circles of Pompeo to undermine Iranian positions in Iraq and Lebanon, in both of these states there are new governments now. In Iraq the new PM Muḥammad ‘Alāwī got office in early February and held his first speech on 19 February, asking support from the Parliament for a reform government. He is counted as lightweight personal most known for his cousin ‘Iyād ‘Allāwī former PM. Nonetheless he is not an aggressive anti-Iran person and his election crossed the hopes of the most aggressive contender, Muqtada aṣ-Ṣadr. The most active anti-Iranian forces failed in Iraq to take over, and the assassination of Abū Mahdī al-Muhandis rallied support for the pro-Iranian camp once again. The same can be said about Lebanon, where Sa‘d al-Ḥarīrī was sure that no government can come out of the crisis without him, and an early election can be achieved. Yet he turned out to be wrong and a caretaker was found to run the new government. Once much smaller, and much more attractive even to the West for its fist woman Defense Minister, but still including Ḥizb Allah. It is understandable why al-Ḥarīrī, who only played along with the bigger plotters, became so bitter and his recent speech lashed out saying: “I dealt with the President of Darkness”. He once again tried to stir up tension against the new government and achieve new elections, but so far it seems that the premiership of Ḥussām Diyāb is stabile. Right at that critical time arrived Lārīğānī, and with a bucket of possible solutions to Lebanon’s problems. Meaning that after all attempts and beyond the climax of the Soleymānī assassination Iran is still a strong player.
The visit by Lārīğānī is also significant since in this week Iran held Parliamentary elections. At the time of issue we still have no final results, but it seems the turnout was high, the Principalists – the conservatives – won, and by the first estimates ‘Alī Lārīğānī has just lost his position. The fact that right before the general elections he went for such a significant trip instead to heavily campaigning at home also signals confidence. Not to mention that the high turnout, the only thing for which the Supreme leader called for, consolidates the Iranian system once again. One reads these signs can clearly see, the worst is over, Iran withheld the “maximum pressure” and now its rolling again. Though for President Rōḥānī and the conciliatory approach started in 2013, if the conservatives really won huge, it is the end.
The storm over an-Nayrab
Strangely that battle over an-Nayrab, which was a big victory for the Syrian Army, but otherwise is insignificant has accelerated great changes. Over Syria for sure, but there is a much bigger realignment all over the region where almost all player changed position. Most interestingly the two biggest changers being the US and Iran. With all these major shift the whole equation over Syria and the whole region hasn’t got any easier. But so far the Syrian fortune is holding and the Turkish is running out. The developments of the next coming weeks and the two summits over Idlib are to be critical, as for now Putin has seem to has his feet put down.