How Russia Helped Turkey Grab 5,000 sq. km of North Syria
Behind the horrors of the barbaric Syrian war, a quiet land grab is slicing into the war-torn country with no way to predict the eventual shape of the country’s geography.
It now turns out that Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria on Aug. 24 was preceded by a secret – or possibly tacit – agreement between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan, which hinged on the following tit-for-tat bargain.
Turkey agreed to pull its support from the Syrian rebel militias it sponsors in Aleppo, in return for which Russia would sanction the creation of a 5,000 sq. km Turkish-controlled security zone, occupying 3 pc of Syrian territory. The rebels and supporters driven out of Aleppo were to be pushed into this enclave.
Ankara, moreover, guaranteed that the rebels would not be allowed to use the security zone to re-launch attacks on any more government-held towns and territories, against a pledge by Moscow to restrain Bashar Assad from actively resisting or attacking the Turkish security zone.
This Turkish-Russian deal loomed large as an impassable stumbling block in the way of the military cooperation deal and truce in Syria that US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to forge with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month.
In round after round of futile negotiations in Geneva, Kerry sought to derail the Russian-Turkish deal, while Lavrov attempted obfuscation to blind the Obama administration to Moscow’s covert game in Syria and the battle for Aleppo, in particular.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources reveal additional details of the Putin-Erdogan pact:
Ankara promised Turkish forces would not step out of their security zone to seize Al-Bab, the town northeast of Aleppo, which is the hub of the Syrian rebels’ mainline supplies of war materiel and fighters from Turkey to Aleppo.
By relinquishing this goal, the Turks enabled the Syrian army, Hizballah and the pro-Iranian militias to tighten the noose around rebel-held eastern Aleppo and confront the rebels with the choice between surrender and escape from beleaguered city northward to the Turkish zone.
Syrian and Russian blanket air raids of rebel strongholds in the city were intensified this week to force them to knuckle under to the Russian-Turkish ultimatum.
The cruel pressure had the effect of dividing the rebel leadership holding out in Aleppo – especially the Islamists. One faction urges surrender to the Russian-Turkish dictate; another calls for unleashing all-out war against the Turkish forces occupying northern Syria.
The most powerful rebel group, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front – renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) – is against taking on the Turkish army in battle and opts only for resistance, namely, defying Russian-Turkish dictates to abandon Aleppo.
For its part, the Sunni Salafist Harakat Ahrar al-Sharm (the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) favors cooperating with Turkey.
While this argument rages among rebel groups, the Russians and Turkey deepen their military partnership in Syria.
On Sept. 15, the Russian and Turkish chiefs of staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Gen. Hulusi Akar decided at a meeting in Ankara to coordinate military flights over Syria and set up a hot line between the two air force commands to prevent accidents.
A Russian-Turkish military protocol for boosting military-to-military relations and coordination between their armies in the Syrian arena is being drafted. Turkish military sources reveal that the armies are meanwhile acting on a verbal “gentleman’s agreement,” whereby Turkey provides the coordinates of the areas of its ground and air operations, while Russian warplanes steer clear of those areas.
Most official sources in Washington can’t account for the Obama administration’s silence as those arrangements go forward. But, according to information reaching DEBKA Weekly, US intelligence has got wind of another change of heart by the mercurial Erdogan. He is said to have lost interest in a security zone in northern Syria under Turkish control, having decided to use his invasion of Syria to cover up a ferocious Turkish military crackdown on the separatist Kurdish PKK in southern Turkey.
If this is indeed the Turkish leader’s covert plan, it would mean that he slyly staged a Turkish military invasion of northern Syria for the sole purpose of severing the PKK from the Syrian Kurdish militia. This deceit would leave the Russians clutching at air and the bottom dropping out of their profitable deal with Turkey in Aleppo, and Syria at large.