The Russian military said on February 4 that it has «reasonable grounds» to suspect that Turkey is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of neighboring Syria. Images of a checkpoint on the border between the Turkish town of Reyhanli and the town of Sarmada in Syria taken in late October and late January show a buildup of transportation infrastructure that could be used for moving in troops, ammunition and weapons, spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in an English-language written statement.
He said these were among growing signs of «hidden preparation of the Turkish armed forces for active actions on the territory of Syria».
The analysis of the facts produces ample evidence to substantiate this statement.
A Russian military advisor was killed in the Syrian city of Salma on February 1. The city was liberated by Syrian forces in mid-January. It is located about 15 kilometers south of the Syrian-Turkish border, in the same area where the Russian Su-24 bomber was shot down last November. It’s not known who exactly opened fire to kill him. At first, it was widely believed that the Islamic State was behind the attack. On February 4, Russian «Komsomolskaya Pravda» reported that he could have died as a result of artillery shelling from the territory of Turkey.
The newspaper cited its own sources in the Syrian regular army. War correspondents Alexander Kots and Dmitry Steshin said the shelling of Syrian positions in the north of the country has become more frequent in recent weeks, especially after high-ranking military arrived.
On February 1, the Russian Ministry of Defense published a video that shows Turkish artillery shelling Syria across the border.
Whoever is responsible for the killing of the Russian advisor, it demonstrates how destabilizing Turkey’s artillery attacks are. Ankara’s military involvement offers protection to Islamists in their effort to fend off the government troops’ offensive and endangers the lives of those who conduct legitimate activities in Syria upon an invitation of the internationally recognized Syrian government.
Turkey blatantly breaches major international treaty: why now?
On February 3, Turkey set «a dangerous precedent» by denying an observation flight over the areas adjacent to Syria in a blatant violation of Turkey’s obligations under the international Open Skies Treaty. The Russian An-30B plane was banned from conducting its surveillance flight over the Turkish territory which was scheduled for February 1-5.
Moscow has warned it would take an appropriate retaliatory action.
The Treaty on Open Skies was signed in 1992 and has 34 member states. It entered into force in 2002. The Treaty establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the territories of its signatories. It is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international arms control efforts to promote openness and transparency in military forces and activities. Under the Treaty, Russia has conducted approximately two observation flights a year since 2006. Turkey has flown over Russian airspace approximately four times a year.
In a separate development, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced on February 2 that another group of Russian inspectors would visit Turkish military facilities and get briefed by the Turkish military command as part of the framework of the 2011 Vienna document on confidence and security building measures. There has been no response from Turkey as of February 4, at the time this article was prepared. The refusal to comply will mean a final withdrawal from any international obligations on the part of Turkey – an unprecedented behavior in the history of diplomacy that should be strongly condemned by international community.
Obviously, the flight would have revealed the preparations for an offensive in Syria. One thing leads to another and everything has its purpose. No doubt the shelling across the border and the outright violation of a major international agreement by preventing monitoring of military activities on the ground are all elements of a trend – a broader effort aimed at preparing a large-scale military action.
Turkey on the way to military action with US involvement
On January 23, Vice President Joe Biden said, the US and Turkey are prepared for a military solution against the Islamic State in Syria should the Syrian government and rebel-opposition forces fail to reach a peace agreement during its upcoming meeting in Geneva. Mr Biden made this comment at a news conference after a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul.
«We do know it would better if we can reach a political solution but we are prepared... if that's not possible, to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh», Biden said.
On February 3, the peace talks in Geneva were stalled to be restarted on February 25 to justify the military solution Mr Biden talked about.
According to Stratfor, a prestigious American publisher and global intelligence company, it has received new information that points toward an understanding between the United States and Turkey and opens the way for a Turkish incursion into northern Syria.
The report says, «Though Stratfor has not been able to fully verify the veracity of the information, Turkey has made no secret of its desire for the United States to help it drive the Islamic State out of northern Aleppo province. Moreover, Turkey would then be able to bolster its rebel proxies and prevent the Kurdish People's Protection Units from controlling the area from Afrin to Kobani». According to estimates made by Stratfor experts, «Turkey has already begun to ramp up its artillery strikes along its border with Syria to help its rebel allies and to destroy Islamic State targets. This could indicate an effort to soften enemy defenses ahead of a Turkish ground incursion once minesweeping operations have been completed. An invasion could theoretically occur at any point along the Islamic State-controlled portion of Turkey's border with Syria, but if it begins at Jarabulus, where Turkey is clearing mines, it would have to be mostly carried out by Turkish forces».
With Russia-supported Syrian troops advancing in Aleppo and the Kurds slowly retaking northern Syria from Islamic State, Turkey has to preserve its role as a major actor. As Patrick Cockburn, a well-known Irish journalist specializing on Middle East affairs wrote in the Independent, «Turkey is getting close to the point where it has to become militarily engaged in the war for northern Syria or become a marginal player».
The above mentioned statements and military activities may be the first steps on the way to setting a buffer or «safety» zone along the border – the coveted goal of Turkish government since a long time ago.
The USA needs Turkey for its plans
The possibility of American participation mentioned by Vice President Biden would draw the United States deeper into the Syrian conflict and would serve Turkish interests, as Ankara needs allies.
With the Iranian nuclear deal now in force, the United States can devote its energies to strengthening its foothold in the Middle East as a leader of the international forces that would cripple the Islamic State, especially in view of evident success of Russia’s military operation in Syria. Turkey is a key country for implementation of these plans. The US is working with predominantly Kurdish rebel factions east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria and with Iraqi forces along the Iraq-Syria border in an attempt to strangle the Islamic State in Raqqa. Washington needs a lot of assistance from Turkey west of the Euphrates to accomplish the mission. It makes it coordinate activities with Ankara. This January the US sent combat components of 101th Airborne (air assault) division to Syria and Iraq.
Opportunities for Turkey
The establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria along the border would reinforce Turkey’s rebel proxies against Syria, keep a check on the Kurds (to prevent the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from expanding their reach westward) and defend supply lines of oil smuggling business.
With a zone established, refugee camps would be set up and Syrian migrants could live within their country's borders. Turkey needs to avoid augmenting the burden of refugees as its economy is going through hard times. No matter shady dealings like oil smuggling, Ankara is threatened by Islamic State as the recent terrorist acts prove, so it wants to have a buffer zone between its borders and the self-proclaimed «caliphate». Syria may be fragmented as a result of the war. It’s important for Ankara to establish a foothold in northern Syria to prevent the emergence of a viable Kurdish autonomous state that could deteriorate Turkey's own Kurdish problem at home. A divided Syria creates an opportunity for Turkey to expand its sphere of influence in the Levant. The creation of a puppet state on the Syrian soil with Ankara pulling the strings would meet Turkey’s regional ambitions.
Threats and implications
The planned Turkish operation is a risky venture. It’s impossible to predict a whole range of repercussions, but some of them are obvious enough.
The operation has a slight chance of getting international support. The people of Europe and the US are tired of being involved in the Middle East conflicts. There is no example of successful post-war "nation building" by an outside power in the region. Huge sums of money are spent with no results. The operation would be a unilateral action rather than an international endeavor.
Military escalation in the region could provoke incidents, or even a conflict, between NATO and the Russia-led alternative anti-Islamic State coalition. Turkey, a NATO member, has already shown that it’s ready to escalate the situation to defend its illegal oil business with the Islamic State group.
Once set up, the «safe zone» could be the first step of the process leading to the division of Syria and the establishment of a pro-Turkey puppet regime on the Syria’s territory to make the country a smoldering hot bed for many years to come.
If Syria supported by Russia and Iran takes control of the country’s key areas, there will be no reason for interference on the part of the US-led coalition, which will have to focus on operations in Iraq to use it as a foothold for launching further destructive actions against Syria. With Iraq becoming the major battlefield, Turkey’s clout will be reduced. It may be a safer scenario with global escalation avoided. And, probably, that’s exactly what Turkey is trying to prevent at all costs expediting the preparations for intervention.
Russia: major obstacle on the way
Russia is the main obstacle on the way of bringing these plans into life. It has highly capable long-range air defense systems in place to make a «no-fly zone» a really risky business. The advance of the Russia-supported Syrian troops in Aleppo challenges Turkish plans for a «safety zone» on the ground. Perhaps, Turkey made a mistake when it swept under the rug Russian proposal to form a working group of military officials to avoid incidents and misunderstandings in Syria.
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A military invasion would be a flagrant violation of international law to make go down the drain all the international efforts to launch the crisis management process. The goal is not to defeat the Islamic State but rather reshape the region to promote individual interests of Turkey and, to a certain extent, the US. The action would exacerbate the situation inside Turkey. Finally, an intervention would bring Russia and Turkey supported by the US on the brink of war. The major actors would have to fight instead of using their political weight to turn the events in the right direction and make the parties involved get together at the round table at last. The Turkish government should think twice before it crosses the red line.