The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower strike group entered the Mediterranean on Sunday March 1 as Turkey’s ambitious military interventions in Syria and Libya blew up in President Recep Erdogan’s face.
The carrier’s escort included two Tomahawk-armed cruisers, the USS San Jacinto and USS Vella Gulf; three destroyers, the USS Stout, USS James E. Williams and USS Truxton; eight squadrons of F/A-18E fighter jets; maritime attack choppers and 6,000 sailors.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources found the Trump administration’s powerful military force in place ready for six potential explosive developments.
1. If Erdogan fails to elicit an Idlib ceasefire from President Vladimir Putin in their talks in Moscow on Thursday, March 5, Ankara will redouble its pressure on Washington and NATO’s European members to extricate him from his jam in northern Syria. Otherwise, the Turkish leader threatens to open the floodgates for millions of Syrian refugees to surge into Europe.
The engagement of NATO troops has not been ruled out, but the alliance prefers to aid Turkey with information. NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenburg said on Feb. 28 that the alliance was providing Ankara with airborne radar surveillance over Syria.
Turkey has asked the US for Patriot missiles against Syrian and Russian air power, but Trump replied: First make inoperable the S-400 missiles you purchased from Russia. Still, US President Donald Trump said later that a possible sale of Patriots to Turkey was under discussion.
If Trump does decide to step into the Idlib imbroglio, he may enforce a no-fly zone over Idlib against Russian air raids, Erdogan would then be free to go forward with his planned major offensive for control of the disputed Syrian province
2. In that case, Moscow may then choose to drive home to Erdogan who is the boss in the province abutting southern Turkey by continuing to back the Syrian government army-cum-Hizballah’s advance to regain Idlib.
So far, Turkish forces claim to have neutralized in Idlib two aircraft, two drones, eight choppers, 136 tanks, five air defense systems, 86 cannons, howitzers and multiple rocket launchers, as well as 16 anti-armors and mortars, 77 armored vehicles, 9 ammunition depots; unmanned UAVS and UCAVs and 2,557 elements and soldiers – all belonging to the Assad regime.
The Turkish army has used Bayraktar TV2 UCAVs. ANKA UAVs, T-122 Sakarya multiple-launcher rocket system, the J-600T Yildirim (Thunderbolt) ballistic missile systems and Firtina (Storm) Howitzers, as well as F-16 warplanes. The KORAL Electronic Warfare Systems – effective up to 200km – were used to jam the target’s communications and “blind” it electronically.
However, on Feb. 27. Turkish troops endured a disastrous debacle at Russian and Syria hands (see a separate article) – a foretaste of the punishment Putin is capable of inflicting.
3. Turkey’s tribulations in Syria are further complicated by a setback in Erdogan’s Libyan venture, this one likewise versus the side backed by Russia. The Assad regime and the Libyan entity which challenges the UN-recognized government in Tripoli agreed on Sunday, March 1 to exchange diplomatic missions and join forces to confront Turkish “interference.”
Libyan strongman Khalif Haftar met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus and signed a memorandum of understanding for reopening diplomatic and consular missions closed since the fall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in 2012.
4. Washington is keeping a wary eye on the movements of Russian forces in Syria, lest they take advantage of the turmoil for another attempt to cross the Euphrates River and head east towards the oil and gas fields secured by US troops.
5. Another player in the Syrian pandemonium, Iran, is also being watched closely by the Americans. The Revolutionary Guards’ Al Qods Brigades, the pro-Iranian Afghan militia and the Lebanese Hizballah are fighting along with Russia in support of Syrian government forces in Idlib. Tehran may decide to use the sound and fury in this province to cover a sudden move against Israel and so ignite another Syrian hotbed of violence.
Last Saturday, Israel launched strikes against pro-Iranian forces parked dangerously close to its border around Quneitra on the Syrian Golan. Another strike took place on Wednesday night.
6. Not just Israel, but Turkey too may be close to clashing with Iran over their cross-interests in Idlib. At the outset of Erdogan’s operation, his army launched fierce attacks on the Hizballah units backing the Syrian advance. Former allies in support of the Assad regime, Turkey and Iran are now at loggerheads and apparently spoiling for their first military clash.
Assad’s propaganda outlets are claiming that Israel has offered immediate military aid to Turkey. This is totally false, but the Assad regime’s anger with Ankara has boiled over to the point of regarding Erdogan as no better than an abettor of the regime’s nemesis, Israel, for the sin of opposing Iran’s military role in Syria.
Israel, too, with a new government in the offing, may take advantage of all these uncertainties to go for the Iranian/Hizballah factories upgrading their missiles with high precision kits.
The biggest X factor at present is the outcome of the multilateral struggle for Idlib. This depends on numerous imponderables. Will Moscow give in to Erdogan’s demand to apply the brakes to the Syrian/pro-Iranian drive to recover the province from the rebels’ grip? Or will Russia redouble its assaults on the Turkish invaders of the Syrian province? Will Trump close the skies of Idlib to Russian and Syrian raids against Turkey and turn a blind eye to a major Turkish operation? Will Erdogan fly in the face of every US and Russian warning no matter the consequences?