Along with the US-Russian military clash on Feb. 7-8 at the Syrian oil town of Tabiye, and the Israeli-Iranian skirmish on Feb. 10, Syria is at present beset with four more active battle fronts at Afrin, Idlib, Hama and Damascus.
The most daunting is the Turkish anti-Kurdish operation in Afrin in northern Syria. Turkish was reported on Wednesday, Feb. 14 to be massing a special commando force that specializes in urban guerilla warfare at the southern end of Afrin province. It was presumed to be ready for an onslaught on the town itself, after making little headway in three weeks. But according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, Turkey was only going through the motions of preparing a battle to avoid admitting that its anti-Kurd operation was stalled. Ankara needed to save face after being ordered by Moscow to stop using its air force to support its ground operation. In a secret message to Ankara last week, the Russians warned that any Turkish jet taking to the sky in defiance of this order would be shot down.
Moscow was punishing Ankara for sending a military force into the embattled northern province of Idlib. Its presence is impeding the Russian-backed Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah drive to root out the dominant force in the area, the rebel Tahrir al-Sham. Moscow notified Ankara that its ban on Turkish flights over Afrin would remain in force until Turkish troops pulled out of Idlib.
To break the Russian-Turkish military impasse in Syria, Hakan Fidan, head of he Turkish National Intelligence MIT, flew secretly over the weekend to Russia’s Syrian air base at Khmeimim. He arrived in an unmarked Turkish plane. This was the first time the Russians had allowed any Western intelligence chief of a NATO member to land at this base. He arrived after President Tayyip Erdogan was humiliated by Putin’s refusal to take his phone call and hoped his intelligence chief would intercede successfully on Turkey’s behalf in direct talks with the Russian commanders.
But those commanders stuck to their boss’s orders and refused permission for Turkish air raids over Afrin.
Erdogan is also under pressure from Washington to end its halt its Afrin expedition. On Wednesday, Feb. 14, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told his Turkish opposite number in Brussels that Ankara’s desire to protect its border was undermining the fight against the Islamic State.
The day before, Mattis had discussed the impasse with Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli when they met in Rome at a conference of the global coalition against ISIS. After that meeting, Mattis said mildly: “He laid out the rationale, we laid out the rationale for working this to a solution that took into account Turkey’s legitimate security concerns.”
But the Turkish minister, defending the Afrin operation, accused NATO allies of failing Turkey, a loyal member for 66 years and vowed: “Turkey will go to any length to clear its border of terrorists.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due in Ankara Friday, Feb. 16. In Kuweit Wednesday, he said he would further press the case when he meets Turkish leaders, and maintained, “As to the situation in Afrin, it has detracted from our fight to defeat ISIS in eastern Syria, as forces have diverted themselves towards Afrin.” Tillerson added that Turkey is “mindful” of the effects this is having on the war against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
Tillerson, like it or note, was on the same page as Tehran. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had earlier called on the Turkish government to stop its military operation in the Kurdish canton of Afrin “at the earliest time,” saying its war had brought death and destruction to all the peoples, including the “Kurdish brothers.”