French President Francois Hollande headed to Moscow from his White House talks with President Barack Obama, hoping to persuade Vladimir Putin, when they met on Thursday, Nov. 26, to join the US-led front against the Islamic State in the wake of the multiple terror assault on Paris.
Hollande also wanted to try his hand at de-escalating the rising tensions between Moscow and Ankara over the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi-24 by Turkish warplanes Tuesday, Nov. 24.
His first mission was a non-starter; as for his second, he arrived too late. It had taken President Putin less than 48 hours from the Su-24 incident to unleash a whole range of rapid-fire reprisals against Turkey.
The Russian president acted fast, DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources report, because he saw the attack as a golden opportunity to go for four of his key objectives:
1. To cut Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan out of any role in steps for ending the Syrian civil war and indeed expelling him from the Syrian theater altogether.
His first tactic was to send Russian planes Wednesday, Nov. 25, for a carpet-bombing blitz over northern Syria up to the Turkish province of Hatay. Putin counted on the Turkish president not daring to ramp up military tensions with Russia any further – even in the face of this extraordinary exhibition of brute force.
Severing Turkish-Syrian road links, blocking rebel supply routes
The blitz aimed essentially at cutting the main commercial highway and other main routes linking Syria with Turkey. For two days, Wednesday and Thursday, Russian bombers pounded the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which normally has long lines of buses and trucks on both sides of the border, waiting to drive through on highway M45 from the Syrian town of Aleppo, and on Turkish Highway D827 that leads to the Turkish town of Iskenderun.
To finally disable all traffic moving between Syria and Turkey, Russian airborne missiles struck any cars moving on Syrian roads into Turkey, and ploughed up two large parking spaces reserved for the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation on the Syrian side of the border. Most of the trucks parked there were damaged or destroyed and at least three Turkish drivers were killed.
Ankara has not said a word about the attack, but the message struck home: Moscow was going all out to sever Turkey from its vital road connections with Syria and would prevent any vehicles from crossing in either direction, even at the cost of Turkish civilian casualties.
The S-400 missiles designed to inhibit US and Turkish air operations
2. Those same Russian steps are also serving a constant Russian objective of saving the Assad regime from its enemies by cutting the Syrian rebels fighting in and around Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia from their Turkish supply routes. The groups most affected are the pro-Western Free Syrian Army and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front
For three years, these rebel groups had safe passage from the areas under their control to and from Turkey. On Nov. 25, they were stunned to discover their passage suddenly blocked, depriving them of access to their regular sources for replenishing ammunition and spare parts stocks, as well as supplies of food and reinforcements. No longer could they send their injured fighters to Turkish military hospitals.
The Russian campaign against Turkey has left the affected Sunni rebel groups fair game for an all-out offensive, should one be launched by the Syrian army, Iran and Hizballah.
Their plight adds substance to Western allegations that Putin’s military buildup in Syria focused more on finishing the anti-Assad rebellion than on defeating ISIS.
3. The Russian president’s placement of S-400 missiles in the Syrian coastal district of Latakia is designed to meet another of his objectives, which is to severely inhibit US and Turkish air force operations, not only in Syria but also in southern Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean.
This weapon is deemed the most advanced of its kind against aircraft and missiles, including cruise missiles.
4. Putin is counting on its arrival to persuade the US intelligence and Special Operations units present in northern Syria to evacuate to Turkey – in particular, the small US contingent which is deployed in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.