By James The Russian Analyst
Since the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been pivoting the once staunch NATO allied country toward its neighbors Russia and Iran. However, there are inherent tensions between the Turks illegal under international law de facto zone of occupation in northern Syria and Moscow's client in Damascus. Yet it appears that it's the Trump Administration, seeking 'leverage' on behalf of its Israeli and Saudi allies through proxy forces building in Syria, that's forcing Erdogan to finally put his cards on the table against NATO.
The Assad government wants the Turks out of their country, but Damascus and its Russian patrons desire a Kurdish state backed by the Americans -- who cannot be easily dislodged without risking a much larger conflict -- even less. Now with Washington declaring a 30,000 strong 'border security force' aka an American occupation supporting proxy army led by Ankara's YPG Kurdish enemy, the Turks are indicating forceful action, through shelling Afrin. The rumors (which are being spread by pro-Russian sites like Southfront) that the U.S. is supplying the Kurds with MANPADs capable of shooting down Turkish helicopters and or lower flying jets may prove the last straw for Erdogan.
Putin: Drone Swarm Attack Launched Against Khmeimim from Turkish Deconfliction (Occupation) Zone in Syria Was Intended to Drive a Wedge Between Moscow and Ankara
Before we forecast what's about to happen in Syria, it's important to note what President Vladimir Putin said in his remarks hosted by the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid to Russian journalists and editors several days ago. The Russian leader referred to 'our Turkish partners' and said provocateurs had infiltrated territory controlled by the Turks under the deconfliction zones agreements reached in Astana, Kazakhstan. Putin declared that 'we know who they are' and how much the drone unleashing terrorists had been paid and by whom. He clearly meant that it was not the Turks, but another government seeking to stoke tensions between Moscow and Ankara that assisted with the drone attack on Russia's main air base in Syria. Putin said "someone is trying to destroy" Moscow's improving ties with not only the Turks, but Russian facilitating of warming Turkish relations with the Iranians. That means Putin is all but pointing the finger at the US and Israel.
The Russian Ministry of Defense subsequently released their own drone video of the terrorist drone swarm launching team being incinerated in an Idlib region village by a long range, laser guided artillery shell fired from a howitzer.
The RU MoD also released more detailed data undermining the Pentagon claim that any group of jihadists could have assembled the GPS guided far beyond visual range mortar round dropping drones without state sponsorship. This was in support of their commander and chief's words that the devices were only 'disguised' as home made/improvised and in fact, showed a remarkable degree of 'high technology components'. According to the Ru MoD report, GPS coordinate-based flying would make the drones more resistant to Russia's electronic warfare jamming that interferes with non-Russian satellite guidance signal near the base (six of the craft were nonetheless forced down via Krasukha or other jammers). The RuMoD also hinted that the pentaerythrite tetranitrate explosive packed inside one of the recovered enemy drones was manufactured in Ukraine.
The Jihadist Idlib Counteroffensive:
Turkey Backing Terrorists Again or Exposing Them to Russian Air Strikes/SAA Artillery?
Over the weekend of January 12-14 the designated Al-Qaeda linked terrorist group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) joined with the ethnic Uighur and former Soviet Union (FSU -- including Uzbeks) origin terrorists of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in a counteroffensive against the SAA. The offensive also includes the boy beheaders of the Nouradin al Zinki brigade, a terrorist group allied with Al-Qaeda that received American-made TOW missiles from Saudi Arabia as part of the (treasonous al)CIA(eda under previous Agency director Riyadh Ibn Saud John Brennan) program to arm 'moderate Syrian opposition'.
The aim of the HTS attack is to stop Syrian government forces from securing the Abu Duhur air base and linking up with friendly forces to the north in Aleppo province. The facility was the site of a massacre by the terrorists of 56 captured SAA soldiers in September 2015. For the Syrian Army's elite Tiger Forces, retaking the base while inflicting heavy casualties on the jihadists would be fitting payback. However, the SAA advance was rebuffed over the weekend as its lead elements were within sight of the base. The Russian Air Force responded with stepped air strikes pummeling villages seized by the jihadis after the SAA retreated. The RuAF has also been inflicting heavy strikes on the jihadis left in north Hama.
The significance of this battle is twofold. While the so-called 'moderate rebel' supporters including #JihadiJulian Roepcke of Bild and others reveal their true colors in supporting an attack spearheaded by non-Syrian international terrorists, China as a backer of Russia's operations in Syria would like to see more of the Uighur jihadist wiped out before they can return to East Turkistan. For the SAA, crushing the jihadi counteroffensive would allow it to trap hundreds if not thousands of adversaries while splitting the enemy's Idlib stronghold in two.
For the backers of the so-called 'moderate rebels' who in reality have been supporting HTS and its al-Qaeda lite ally Ahrar al Sham all along like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this is where they throw everything but the kitchen sink at the SAA to deter Assad from contemplating an even more costly assault against Idlib city. Nonetheless, given that so many jihadists including from the besieged East Ghouta pocket have been bused to Idlib, it isn't clear that Assad much less his allies in Tehran and Moscow are quite ready for that step. What is clear is that Western media coverage of the Syrian government offensive is overwhelmingly negative, blaming the SAA for more refugees fleeing into Turkey, while downplaying the fact that the area is controlled by hardline Islamists allied with Al-Qaeda. Interestingly though, the special U.S. envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk has referred to Idlib as the largest concentration of Al-Qaeda gathered in one area since 9/11. But obviously McGurk does not acknowledge the Al-Qaeda surge is the direct result of U.S. and its Gulf allies support for the 'moderate rebels' who acted as arms and often recruiting cut outs for the terrorists.
While Washington's GCC funded analysts imagine that Turkey has been providing major support for the recent jihadi counterattack, it's possible the Turks are playing a double game to Moscow's benefit. While the terrorists have been using more of their anti-tank missile stocks for great Twitter propaganda of their missile kills, they've also been getting pounded by the Russian Air Force and taking heavy losses from SAA artillery guided by Russian drones. The temporary and soon to be reversed jihadist gains near Abu Duhur have not slowed the SAA's rapid advance to the northeast, raising the risk that any jihadi salient could quickly be cut off and turned into a deadly cauldron of air and artillery strikes. And certainly Ankara does not want to antagonize Beijing by allowing the Uighur to seek refuge on its soil if many of their men can be fed into an Idlib meat-grinder instead.
According to retired Army Col. and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst Pat Lang, another problem the jihadis may soon have is attacks from Kurdish forces, who are just about done mopping up ISIS remnants in the Euphrates Valley (though small ISIS units continue to 'pop up' here and there in both SAA and YPG controlled territory):
“R+6 are carving up the Greater Idlib Pocket like a Thanksgiving turkey. I see that a spokesman for the Kurdish SDF/YPG says that Kurdish forces will enter Idlib to participate in the destruction of HTS and friends. It seems clear to me that the Kurds will fight on the government side if they enter the fight in Idlib. This must really be a disppointment to CENTCOM. ”
The U.S. Announces Its Intent to Stay in Eastern Syria (As an Illegal Occupier Under International Law) to 'Support Local Forces' and Allegedly Check Iranian Ambitions
In testimony that was barely covered by mainstream media, preoccupied as they've been with President Trump's alleged scatalogical remarks about various African nations and Haiti, a senior State Department official told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 11 that the U.S. intends to keep its forces in eastern Syria on an indefinite basis. Confirming what Secretary of Defense James Mattis had already said, that American troops will remain inside the country where no one internationally recognized government invited them, Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield stated that countering Iran's 'malign influence' was part of the reason for the continuing occupation.
Russia has responded by denouncing the U.S. presence around the Al-Tanf area as illegitimate and a location where Moscow's Defense Ministry says 'former' ISIS terrorists are being re-trained as fighters in U.S. backed Arab militias under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) label. Adding to that criticism, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the U.S. of deliberately provoking Turkey via the announcement of a 30,000-strong, American troops advised Kurdish force and undermining Syria's territorial integrity.
The Turks, who consider the YPG to be a front for the PKK militants that attack their troops on Turkish soil, have declared the new U.S.-led Kurdish force to be unacceptable. New videos posted on Twitter over the weekend appear to show more Turkish Army armor moving to the Syrian border. It appears Erdogan's vow last week not to let the YPG control Afrin and to start an operation against the U.S.-supported Kurdish forces in the northern Syrian town is more than an empty threat.