US President Barack Obama has made a date to meet with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sept. 4 during the G20 summit in China. There is also a tentative arrangement for him to hold informal talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Both encounters are bound to cover the latest events rushing forward headlong in northern Syria.
So what situation will the three leaders, when they get together in China, face in the escalating Turkish-Kurdish conflict? And how are they likely to handle the havoc building up in northern Syria?
The most sensible course would be for the US president to invite Putin and Erdogan on the spot for a trilateral sit-down, at which the US and Russian presidents would together make a stab at reining in the Turkish leader’s full-blown military offensive.
However, Putin and Erdogan are not likely to play along with an American initiative of this kind.
Anyway, it is a fact that none of the players took any notice of US Vice President Joe Biden’s intervention on Aug. 24, when he warned the Kurdish YPG militia from Ankara that if they failed to withdraw east of the Euphrates River they would lose US support.
Neither did any of the parties respond to the call by US special envoy Brett McGurk on “all the armed actors in the fight against the Islamic State in northern Syria to stand down.”
The Kurdish fighters not only stood their ground, but went ahead to build up more strength west of the Euphrates, in response to the Turkish military incursion of Aug. 24.The Syrian Kurdish party quietly circulated call-up orders among the 4.5 million compatriots dwelling west of the Euphrates, as well as calling the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey and the Peshmerga militia of Iraq to the flag.
Turkey is meanwhile continuing to pump armored, ground and artillery forces into northern Syria in preparation for a decisive assault on Manbij, 30 km west of the Euphrates. There, the Syrian Kurds have concentrated their main force since liberating this north Syrian town from ISIS with US support last month.
Turkish war planners worked initially on the hypothesis that the loss of Manbij would cause the entire Kurdish front west of the river to crumble.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, they quickly realized they had miscalculated. Defeating the Kurdish defenders would not be a cake walk and long weeks of arduous struggle were ahead for pushing the Kurdish fighters out of the region
The Kurdish militia, for its part, is in no mood to let go of Manbij, the fruit of its signal victory against ISIS - even when ordered to do so by its American ally.
That both Ankara and the Syrian Kurds have no compunctions about flouting Washington’s vacillating directives is the direct consequence of the breakdown of US-Russian talks on military and intelligence cooperation in Syria. The impasse was revealed in Geneva Friday, Aug. 26, after the last meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Moscow saw that the Turkish invasion of Syria two days earlier had opened up a whole new batch of opportunities for escaping the narrow bed offered by cooperating with Washington.
While Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was content with this turn of events, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was deeply alarmed. He saw the collapse of cooperation with Moscow as setting the scene for Turkey to declare northern Syria a no-fly zone with tacit Russian support; and US routes for air strikes against the Islamic State would be effectively blocked - both from the southern Turkish Incirlik air base and the US aircraft carrier cruising opposite Syria.
Carter ordered his staff to open immediate lines of communication with Russia “to deconflict air operations in Syria.” The staffers assigned to run the talks were not named, but the defense secretary said that the details of their conversations, including their timing, would be worked out “in the coming days.”
Carter clearly saw a crisis looming that presented real danger to US flights and air crews over Syria.
In a statement released later, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook spelled this out. Those lines of communications are to ensure that ongoing coalition air operations are not interrupted by any future Russian military activity, ”as well as the safety of coalition air crews,” he said.
“We do not want an accident to take place,” he added.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources note that the Kremlin is in no hurry to open up the lines of communications that were earlier closed to President Obama and Secretary Kerry.
The new situation growing out of the Turkish offensive will have a major impact on America’s military set-up against ISIS in northern Iraq.
All the Kurdish parties of Iraq foregathered on Aug. 29 for a rare emergency rally in the KRG capital of Irbil. It was an extraordinary show of solidarity with their Syrian brethren, the PYD-YPG, whose leaders arrived for the occasion. The Kurds on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border had come to demonstrate their unity and resolve to brave the Turkish invasion of northern Syria and meet head-on President Tayyip Erdogan’s call for Turkish national unity to fight them.
However, the Kurds addressed their most important message to President Barack Obama. Its high points are revealed here in an exclusive DEBKA Weekly report:
1. President Obama can no longer divide his support between Turkey and the Kurds who are now at war. That is no longer acceptable to the Kurdish side.
2. The US must unequivocally announce its continuing support for the Syrian-Kurdish mainstream PYD party and its YPG militia.
3. All Kurdish forces associated with US Special Operations Forces in Syria and Iraq will disengage.
4. All units of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga will withdraw from the joint preparations afoot with US Special Operations forces for launching anti-ISIS offensives against Raqqa and Mosul.
5. The Kurds are giving Washington notice of their withdrawal from all coalition military operations against ISIS.
As DEBKA Weekly 722 revealed last week, therefore, the US has lost the key ground force on which its coalition counted for spearheading the offensives against the Islamic State terrorists at their Syrian and Iraqi strongholds.
6. The PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is the most important Syrian-Kurdish political grouping, has drawn up a constitution for a future autonomous Kurdish state to be established in Syria on lines similar to those governing the autonomous Kurdish republic in northern Iraq.
The Kurdish leadership informs Washington that, in reprisal for the Turkish invasion, the new constitution will be applied henceforth to all Syrian districts with a Kurdish majority and all Kurdish city neighborhoods, such as Aleppo.
This determination is tantamount to expanding Kurdish autonomous territory to areas outside their present enclaves of Hassaka, Kobane and Afrin.
7. The Kurdish constitution will also be imposed in all parts of Syria that the Kurdish fighters capture.
In response to the Kurds’ message to Washington, the Turkish presidential palace spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin confronted the Obama administration on Aug. 30 with a demand “to revise its policy of supporting Kurdish forces.”
President Obama has been given a hard choice between abandoning the Syrian Kurds to their fate and turning his back on Turkey, a NATO ally.
Two long analytical essays were published in Tehran and Moscow synchronously on Aug. 30 in an attempt to put a good face on their apparent “misunderstanding” over the Nojeh air base.
This incident - whereby Tehran granted Moscow an air base and then snatched it back - took some hard explaining.
This is how it unfolded: In mid-August, the Russian Air force was granted permission to use the Nojeh air base near the western Iranian town of Hamadan for bombing missions over Syria. Moscow was jubilant, certain it had won a strategic asset comparable to the Hmeimim air base in Latakia granted by Syria.
For almost two months, Iran made no objections to Russian teams of engineers busily building and adapting Nojeh to accommodate the huge Russian bombers and fighters.
But then, the regime in Tehran, dismayed by the popular outcry over a foreign power gaining a base on Islamic Republican soil, was on the spot. Hence the awkward statement from Tehran about Moscow being allowed limited use of the air base as needed, but no permanent presence.
That was the version fed to the media.
But DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian and intelligence sources disclose here for the first time what really happened.
The Russians at no time halted their bombing sorties from Nojeh; nor have their engineers stopped building longer runways and living quarters for the Russian air crews and elite troops due to take up their duties there.
But both needed cover stories to iron out the awkwardness for their respective public: Iranians had to be convinced that the Russians were not given an air base in their country, while the Russians needed to hear that Moscow had saved face from the humiliation of being booted out of Iran.
Two news media were enlisted to this convoluted task.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) news agency Mehr ran a long essay Tuesday under the title, “Nojeh airbase: climax of Iran-Russia defense cooperation,” accusing the US (who else?) of spreading the rumor (sic) that Iran had granted the Russian air force an air base in order to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran.
The article’s centerpiece was a quote from Iran’s Minister of Defense, Hossein Dehghan: “Iran would provide a second airbase to Russia if the situation demands,” he said, stressing that this action does not undermine the Islamic Republic’s constitution, because, “No Russian plane and/or fleet has been deployed in the airbase and they use it for fueling and taking off for Syria.”
This article was phrased to emphasize that the ties between the two countries were so close that Tehran would even grant Russia the use of a second air base in addition to Nojeh - so long as it was used only for the refueling and takeoff of its warplanes.
Moscow’s contribution to this web of misinformation was an article published the same day on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website Russia Direct. Under the caption: “Russia and Iran, ready to give their relationship another try,” the Kremlin was offered a piece of sage advice: “In order to boost its position as a significant player in the Middle East, Moscow should pay more attention to the concerns of regional actors such as Iran.”
The meaning here was that Moscow is not only willing to take responsibility for the “misunderstanding”’ over the air base, but promises to indulge Iran’s aspiration for a future role as a major player in Middle East affairs.
Indeed, according to DEBKA Weekly military and intelligence sources, the two powers have moved forward from the air base “misunderstanding” to tighten their military ties on other issues as well.
Iran is the main beneficiary: Moscow decided to hand over all the batteries of the advanced S-300 air defense missiles that were imported for the defense of the Russian facilities at Nojeh.
This week, they were deployed at the Fordo underground uranium enrichment facility, as Iranian state TV triumphantly aired footage of the S-300 missile’s deployment at “a nuclear site in central Iran.”
“Our main priority is to protect Iran's nuclear facilities under any circumstances," Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) air defense force told state TV.
There was an added benefit for Tehran. It was revealed Monday, Aug. 29, by the semi-official Fars agency’s claim that the Khatam ol-Anbia air defense base had warded off a US spy drone when it approached the country's border from Afghanistan.
“Iran’s army air defense detected and warned off an American drone in the eastern airspace of the country. It was coming from Afghanistan. The drone left the area," the Iranian military said.
Clearly, the Russian S-300 missiles had already been pressed into service, as soon as they were handed over, to block Iran’s skies against US drone flights over its nuclear facilities.
The perception gaining in senior Western and Middle East intelligence circles is that the Islamic State is shrinking and increasingly demoralized as a military force. Therefore, instead of squandering costly resources of manpower and funds on large-scale wars, the smart thing to do is to let the jihadist organization waste away at its own pace until it disappears for good.
This evaluation is grounded in intelligence figures that find the ISIS fighting force has indeed withered in numbers from a 30,000-peak in the summer of 2014, when its jihadists seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria, to under 16,000 today.
It is just a hop from there to a dangerous and fallacious underestimate of the Islamic caliphate’s current capabilities, i.e., that ISIS or ISIL is so enfeebled that large US or Russian military forces are no longer necessary for bringing the terrorists to their knees. Instead, the big powers can play them as a ball for juggling in their own political and military interests.
Because ISIS was judged early this year to be in an advanced state of shrinkage, Moscow declined to follow through on the recovery in March of the Syrian heritage city of Palmyra by embarking on further action to dislodge ISIS in more places.
Palmyra’s fall opened the way for the Russians, the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian allies to smash their way southeast towards Deir ez-Zour and so bolster Bashar Assad’s grip on his regime.
But the Russians although talking at length about an Eastern Front in Syria, balked when it came to action.
Following the same scenario, the Americans also held their horses. At most, they try and pick off prominent ISIS figures from the air and sometimes succeed - although, this week, the Russians tried to steal their thunder by claiming they - and not the Americans - had managed to liquidate the senior ISIS leader, Mohammed al-Adnani.
Had Washington seriously meant to take out the ISIS Syrian capital of Raqqa, the necessary manpower resources were available, especially among the Syrian Kurdish militia.
However, just as the Russians held back from going after Deir ez-Zour, the Americans abstained from a Raqqa offensive, even though most of the big terrorist attacks in Europe, the US and Turkey were plotted and launched from the Islamic State’s Syrian hub of global terror.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources, this fundamental assessment of ISIS’ diminishing strength is overoptimistic and fails to take other key considerations into account:
1. Going back to 2014, ISIS success in seizing and holding large tracts of Iraqi and Syrian territory should be weighed in the correct context. Their spectacular success at the time owed less to their operational prowess and large numbers and more to the ineptness displayed by the Iraqi and Syrian armies and regimes.
2. Even now, their performance is below par, although Damascus is bolstered militarily by the Russian intervention and Baghdad by US and Iranian forces.
In Iraq, ISIS’ loss of around half of the terrain it seized two years ago does not signify a decline in its fighting prowess or improved performance by its foes, rather its reversion to the size and strength that suits its current requirements. The jihadists find that a small number of 12-15,000 fighters are sufficient to maintain firm control of inordinately broad spaces.
3. In Syria too, notwithstanding the large Russian military presence, ISIS continues to retain 70 percent of the land it captured two years hence.
4. This equation is paralleled in Libya and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, where ISIS maintains around 16,000 fighters, equal to the sum of its deployments in Iraq and Syria. Nonetheless, in early August, although pro-government, pro-Western Libyan forces fighting ISIS, backed by US, British, Italian special operations forces and their air support, were able to capture the key Libyan port town of Sirte, a jihadist rearguard continues to put up a fierce fight to this day. ISIS still retains 70 percent of the territory originally seized in Libya.
A comparable situation prevails in Sinai. Despite dogged Egyptian army combat, backed by Israeli air power, the local ISIS franchise maintains a grip on 80 percent of its initial gains.
Taliban and the Islamic State are making bloody inroads on putatively post-war Afghanistan, claiming a rising death toll among members of the US-trained and backed Afghan National Defense Security Force (ANDSF) and civilians of all creeds.
While the two Islamist terrorist organizations vacillate between collaboration and rivalry against shared targets, they carry the same message of death to the war-torn populace and its security forces.
On Aug. 24, Taliban terrorists invaded the well-guarded American University of Afghanistan, lobbing grenades as they advanced past armed guards and watchtowers. At least seven students, a professor and two security guards were killed and another 45 persons injured.
A fortnight earlier, on August 7, two professors of the same university - an American and an Australian - were abducted at gunpoint near the University campus. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
On July 23, an ISIS suicide killer struck a Hazara Shiite protest sit-in in Kabul, killing at least 80 people, mostly civilians, and injuring another 231.The Hazaras were demanding that the Afghan Government drop its plan to reroute the 500-kilovolt TUTAP (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) power line.
While the indigenous Taliban has been around for decades, the ISIS’ aggressive footprint dates from 2014, at about the same time as it swept across Iraq and Syria for major land grabs.
Although they sometimes announce “truces,” “non-aggression pacts” - or even “alliances” - the two jihadist organizations are essentially fighting a turf war in Afghanistan.
A shaky “truce” in the last two months enabled ISIS to regroup and make gains in the eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. It is ready to spread further, with the promise of more violence.
From January to June 30, 2016, at least 5,166 Afghan civilians were casualties – 1,601 deaths and 3,565 injured, according to the midyear report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Afghanistan, prepared by the Human Rights Unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
This was the highest casualty count in the first half of any year since 2009.
Those figures were far exceeded by the fatalities among the Afghan National Defense Security Force (ANDSF) The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in its Quarterly report (April 30, 2016) submitted to the United States Congress stated that at least 6,637 personnel were killed and another 12,471 were injured through 2015.
The report added that, in the first two months of 2016, an additional 820 ANDSF personnel were killed and 1,389 were wounded.
On July 28, Gen. John Nicholson, Commander Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, disclosed that the number of ANDSF personnel killed in the first half of 2016 was about 20 per cent higher than during the same period of the preceding year.
The Afghan government and its security force are also losing territory to the Islamist terrorists. The 70.5 percent of the country’s districts they controlled in January, 2016, had shrunk to 65.6% by the end of July.
Of the 407 Districts within 34 Provinces, 268 were under Government control or influence; 36 (8.8%) in 15 Provinces were under insurgent control or influence; and 104 (25.6%) were "at risk".
Of the 36 Districts under insurgent control or influence, nine, with a population of 524,072, were under insurgent control, and 27, with a population of 1.98 million, were under insurgent influence.
Not surprisingly, during the first six months of the current year, 157,987 Afghans were newly displaced - a 10% increase over the same period last year. This brings the estimated total number of conflict-induced internally displaced Afghans to 1.2 million.
That figure shot up on Aug. 20, when Taliban seized the entire Khan Abad district in the northeastern Kunduz province, snatching weapons and vehicles from local forces and putting local civilians to flight. The Head of the Kunduz provincial council warned the government that the Islamist group could take over the province like in 2015 if immediate action was not taken to halt their advances.
Turkey’s invasion of Syria on Aug. 24 heavily overshadowed the continuing off-and-on siege crisis besetting US personnel at Incilik air base in the south (as first disclosed by DEBKA Weekly 721 on August 18).
In the early hours of its army’s thrust into northern Syria, Ankara was careful to paint it as a military operation against the Islamic State for which the US was providing aerial support.
“The US air coalition against ISIS is taking part in the action,” Ankara announced.
In actual fact, not a single US airplane took off from Incirlik or any other US air base in the Middle East to assist the Turks. US personnel remain pinned down there by a Turkish military presence hovering too close for comfort, ever since President Tayyip Erdogan crushed the July 15 coup to unseat him.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources now reveal that the American personnel virtually under lock and key at Incirlik have good company: German air force personnel are sharing the Turkish siege – in their case, on another pretext.
A delegation of high-ranking German officials was refused permission to visit the base in July, until “Germany takes the necessary steps,” they were told by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
He did not say what steps, but Berlin was left in no doubt that Ankara was holding its personnel hostage against the German Bundestag’s amendment of a resolution, which branded as genocide the 1915 massacre of millions of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Cavusoglu explained that people who "manipulate" Turkish history "in an unfair manner" would not be allowed on the base.
Incirlik houses about 240 German troops, a refueling tanker and six German Tornado surveillance jets, Berlin’s contribution to the NATO war effort against ISIS. A number of German lawmakers are demanding their evacuation from the Turkish base and relocation in another country.
For now, they are inaccessible and virtual prisoners. Even the military attaché at the German embassy was refused permission to visit them. Their only links with the outside world go through Turkish liaison officers stationed at Incirlik, but no German officers, pilots or troops are permitted to leave the base – even for medical treatment.
Germany’s European Affairs Minister Michael Roth who visited Ankara this week spoke of first steps toward reconciliation. But the situation at Incirlik tells the opposite story.
According to our military sources, Berlin is not making a fuss about this – partly to avoid worsening relations further, but also in view of Washington’s seeming inertia on the incarceration of its own 2,500 personnel at Incirlik, going on now for six weeks, and the passivity of NATO headquarters in Brussels over the scandalous mistreatment of two of its members by a third.
Western officials see no light ahead in the murky US, German and NATO relationships with the Erdogan regime and predict that it will end in the eventual removal of all NATO forces from Incirlik.
This would be followed by the evacuation from Izmir of NATO’s Allied Land Command (LANDCOM), which provides support and interoperability to all NATO ground force. Also at stake is the important role played by Turkey in NATO’s integrated ballistic missile defense system. An American early warning radar station became operational at Kürecik in southern Turkey in 2012, for the critical function of detecting, tracking and intercepting incoming missiles from Iran.