Erdogan Is in Hot Water in Washington, Moscow and Tehran
“Accidental” bombardments in Syria may often warn an adversary that a red line has been crossed and it should back off. This is what happened 10 months ago, when on June 16, 2016, the Russian air force bombed Syrian rebels trained by the US in Jordan in southern Syria – not once but twice.
The second attack came after the US used a hot line to the Russian command and demanded that the bombing stop.
Ash Carter, then US Defense Secretary, said he wasn’t sure if the Russians meant to ht those rebels. “It was an attack on forces fighting ISIL and that’s problematic,” he said.
It was therefore in character when, on Feb. 28, ten months later, an American general chose to treat as a mistake a Russian and Syrian bombing attack on US-backed fighters in villages near the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab.
Army Lt. Stephen Townsend, commander of anti-ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq, said he believed the pilots thought they were bombing militants, not US-trained Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). He also reported that this time, when American officers assisting the Syrian fighters nearby notified the Russians, the air strikes stopped.
Afterwards, the Russians denied their or Syrian aircraft had conducted the attacks.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources provide the background for this accident-on-purpose incident.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had entered into a secret agreement with Russia to hand Al-Bab after its capture from ISIS into the custody of the Russian army, or Syrian units appointed by the Russian command.
But instead of keeping his word, he decided to hand the captured town over to the US-backed SDF.
This was essentially a face-saving ploy. Conscious that American commanders were disillusioned with the Turkish army’s operational performance in Syria, he put forward the SDF as an ally, to show he was not without resources in the Syrian war arena.
But the Russians, who watch like hawks the smallest military movements in Syria, decided to defeat that maneuver by clobbering the SDF with an air strike.
The Turkish leader, who is known for his lightning switches between commitments when it suits him, found that in this case, he had bitten off more than he can chew. The “mistaken” air strike told him that Vladimir Putin was gunning for him and would not let up until he closed in on Turkish military or even economic interests in Syria or elsewhere, such as Iraq.
Erdogan has also landed himself in a fix with Iran. His meeting with President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday, March 1, in Pakistan, was set up to iron out their differences in Syria and Iraq.
It turned into a battle of recriminations.
Tehran is particularly bitter about the Turkish army’s occupation of large areas in northern Syria and also resents Erdogan’s support for Donald Trump’s plan to create safe havens in Syria.
The rising hostility between the two powers is expected to unfold in military clashes between their proxies in Syria.