Behind the Idlib Offensive

Russia and the US increasingly risk coming to blows in Syria 




By Abdel Bari Atwan

The Syrian army, with Iranian ground and Russian air support, has been making rapid advances in the Idlib region, taking the town of Sinjar and tens of other villages in the surrounding countryside, and preparing for a battle for Abu-Dhuhour airbase some 50km away.

To understand the reasons for this offensive, we must go back to the night of 5/6 January, when 13 pilotless drones raided the Russian air and naval bases in Hmeimim and Tartous, accompanied by missile attacks and mortar shelling.

This attack led to the killing of to Russian servicemen and the injury of seven. The missiles were intercepted and the drones brought down, but three were not hit and remained largely in tact. Most impartial reports concurred that no Russian warplanes were hit in the raid, and that images posted on social media purporting to show seven destroyed jets were taken elsewhere and falsely attributed.

Russian investigators who examined the drones came to some startling conclusions which shocked the Russian leadership, as did strategic analysts.

First, the supposedly home-made drones were surprisingly sophisticated and equipped with advanced control and missile-guidance mechanisms – a revelation which caused much concern in Moscow.

Secondly, only two countries posses and produce this kind of launch and control technology: the US and Israel. Russian experts doubt that Israel would have been involved as it is wary of making an enemy of Moscow, and suspect the US was probably the source.

Third, these drones were launched from the vicinity of Idlib city in territory controlled by the Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly an-Nusra) Front, as were the missiles and mortars.

Fourth, the drone launches and attack on Hmeimim were linked to American plans to establish a separate Kurdish enclave in northern Syria which would provide a military foothold for the US and Israel. Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey saw them as a statement of American of intent. The nascent enclave would need a corridor to the Mediterranean in the far north of Syria, as it would be of little strategic value without access so the sea.

Finally, Russian radar detected high-altitude over-flights by US spy planes above the Hmeimim and Tartous bases for a period of four hours during the night they came under attack.

Erdogan’s Choice

Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is keenly aware of the dual threat facing his strategic ambitions in Syria and the region. He is dismayed both by the US’ plans to create a Kurdish enclave, and by the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian army advance in Idlib, which threatens the last major stronghold of his army and his client Syrian opposition forces such as the Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar ash-Sham. That would spell the end of Turkey’ s presence and influence in the country.

The Turkish foreign ministry has spent the last two days summoning the ambassadors of the US (on Wednesday) and Iran and Russia (Tuesday) to lodge protests against their government’s policies. It protested to the American charge d’affaires about his country’s backing for the Kurds and their proposed enclave, and to the Russian and Iranian ambassadors about the Syrian army’s advance in Idlib, deeming it a violation of the Astana Accords under which the area was designated a de-escalation zone.

The surprise attack on Hmeimim also heightens the risk of Russia and the US coming to blows in Syria, whether directly or indirectly (by proxy).

There has been considerable speculation about the options available to Russia should it decide to retaliate.

It could throw its full weight behind an assault on Idlib city aimed at eradicating all the armed groups there – especially Nusra and the other Turkish-backed actions – and bringing the area completely back under government control. This is a task the Syrian army already appears to have begun.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that Russia might give the nod to pro-Iranian and pro-regime militias to mount direct attacks on the US military in both Syria and Iraq – along the lines of the 1983 bombing of the US Marines base in Beirut which prompted the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon. Or even to provide drones to insurgent forces in Afghanistan to use against US and Nato troops.

In all likelihood, Moscow will suffice with supporting the first option as first step in order to prevent its bases in Syria from coming under further attacked, and then consider how to proceed – depending in large part on how Washington reacts.

Turkey seems set to emerge as the biggest loser from developments in Idlib. If it uses its forces to block the Syrian army advance and protect its militia allies, that would mean going to war against the Russians and Iranians as well as the Syrians. And if it intervenes militarily against the Kurds in Manbaj and Afrin to prevent the establishment of a US-sponsored Kurdish enclaves, it could find itself in direct confrontation with the US without any cover from its Iranian and Russian allies.

Erdogan cannot afford to lose Vladimir Putin as an ally. The question to which the Russian president is now seeking an answer is whether or not Turkey knew or approved of the attempted drone attack launched from Idlib against Hmeimim. If the answer is affirmative, the consequences could be extremely serious – a full-blown crisis in relations like that which followed Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane in 2015.

Erdogan has a very tough choice to make. If he opts for neutrality and declines to take sides, he stands to lose most if not all of his influence in Syria and also Iraq. Otherwise, he will have to make a firm and resolute decision to side either with Russia or the US. By the time he makes up his mind, the Syrian army may have retaken much of Idlib.


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