US, Russia trade blows in Syria on Kurds’ backs
The near-clash between US and Syrian warplanes over Kurdish Hassaka in northern Syrian Friday Aug. 19 sprung out of the Obama administration’s decision the day before to try and draw the line on the growing Russian-Iranian-Turkish-Syrian collaboration in the conjoined Syrian-Iraqi arenas, debkafile’s military sources report.
It occurred when US jets flew in protective formation over the Kurdish positions, the day after they were attacked by Syrian (some Middle East sources say, Russian) jets.
The US jets came within a mile of the two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets approaching the Kurdish enclave of Hassaka, and warned them off. Without responding the Syrian planes turned tail.
The US Defense Department reported that when the incident began, “coalition forces on the ground” tried reaching the Syrian jets on a “common radio frequency” but received no response. The spokesman did not specify which “coalition forces” he was referring to.
According to some Middle East sources, the Su-24s which attacked Hassaka Thursday were Russian – not Syrian.
Friday, US officials activated the US command center in Jordan for a complaint and warning to the Russian command center nearby, but they too were greeted with silence.
It may be assumed that the Russian tracking and reconnaissance systems spread across Syria and the eastern Mediterranean picked up the American communications and, had they wanted to, could have passed the US warnings on to Bashar Assad.
But the appearance Friday of another pair of Syrian jets over the Kurdish town indicated that the Russians had decided to pretend ignorance.
After the attack on Hassaka, a number of US special operations forces were pulled out of their northern Syrian positions. They were there as instructors and advisers to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with tens of US officers attached to every Kurdish platoon and SDF battalion.
It is now up to Washington to decide what happens next.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has obviously embarked on a new anti-American game based on the far-reaching deal he struck with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9. Part of that deal was a pledge by Moscow to help Turkey block all avenues for the Kurdish minority to attain full independence in Syria or Iraq, where it enjoys semi-autonomy, and allow a Kurdish state to rise from Irbil to the Mediterranean.
Iran and Syria’s Assad fully support the Turkish goal in their own interests.
The air strike against the Kurds of Hassaka therefore set a kind of foundation stone for the new Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance in the region, whose establishment debkafile was first to uncover exclusively on Aug. 9, after the Putin-Erdogan summit.
This emerging pact has already generated strategic military dividends for Russia in the Middle East for Russia unmatched at any time since the Cold War of the mid-20th century.
Revolutionary Iran has made Russia the first foreign recipient of an air base on its soil near Hamedan in the west.
Erdogan’s Turkey has hustled the US into evacuating its nuclear arsenal from the southern Incirlik air base, the first time NATO was forced to give up a nuclear stockpile near the Russian frontier. And before the removal was completed, calls were raised in Moscow and Ankara to let Moscow install its warplanes at the strategic Turkish base.
It is hard to see how by sending US warplanes to shield Syrian Kurdish positions against attack, the Obama administration can put the brakes on the Russian-led tactical alignment speeding forward with Iran, Turkey and the Assad regime. To make a difference, the US president would have to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard holiday and reach a decision he has avoided for the last six years, which is to put substantial American boots on the ground in Syria.
This step is not really on the cards three months before the presidential election and five months before he leaves the Oval Office for good.
In the near future, we are therefore likely to see the Russians and Syrians pressing ahead with their campaign against the Kurds, whereas Obama may opt to confront Putin outside the Syrian quagmire, possibly over Ukraine. Mindful of this likely scenario, Putin flew to Crimea Friday after staging war games there.