As the Syrian military continues to advance deeper into eastern Aleppo, with the Iranian Fars News Agency (FNA) reporting – perhaps rather over-optimistically – that the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis in eastern Aleppo may soon be forced to surrender, the situation between Syria and Turkey is deteriorating rapidly, with reports of armed clashes on Syrian territory between their two militaries.
Firstly there are reliable reports, confirmed by FNA, that a Syrian army offensive against Al-Qaeda led Jihadis in Lattakia province was forced back by heavy artillery fire directed from across the border by the Turkish army.
Secondly, and far more seriously, there are now also reports – confirmed by the Turks but not so far by the Syrians – of a Syrian air force strike on Turkish military positions north of the ISIS controlled Syrian town of Al-Bab in Aleppo province.
According to these reports either 3 or 5 Turkish soldiers were killed, with a further 10 or 16 wounded (precise figures for casualties differ). Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is already threatening retaliation.
Since the Turkish incursion into Syria began in August, there have been continuous rumours of some sort of deal done between Russia and Turkey over Syria.
These rumours have evolved from original claims that the Russians had consented in advance to Operation Euphrates Shield, which is supposedly being carried out with their tacit agreement – claims for which as I have previously said there is absolutely no evidence – to fresh claims that the Turks have supposedly heeded a Russian warning by agreeing to stop their advance north of Al-Bab, supposedly agreeing not to capture the town which is within artillery range of Aleppo.
A point sometimes made about Al-Bab is that it is beyond the range of artillery located within Turkey itself. With the Russians supposedly warning the Turks not to fly their air force over Al-Bab, and with the Turks supposedly reluctant to send Turkish infantry and artillery into Syria to support the Turkish tank units and pro Turkish Jihadi militia who are already there, those who make this point infer from it that it means that the project of capturing Al-Bab has been called off.
The trouble with the claim of an agreement between the Russians and the Turks about Al-Bab – as with all other claims of secret Russian-Turkish agreements about Syria – is that there is no evidence for it.
In the case of Al-Bab, if such an agreement exists then it seems no-one has told Turkish President Erdogan about it. In comments made in Ankara on 22nd November 2016 Erdogan not only confirmed that the Turkish military is besieging Al-Bab, but went on to say that its next objective is Manjib – liberated by the Kurds from ISIS with the help of US air support as recently as August.
“We have now reached al-Bab; we have also encircled and besieged al-Bab from the west. This is not enough. From there we will also head to Manbij. Why are we going to go to Manbij? Not because we are keen on it. There are PYD and YPG in Manbij. They should also leave [Manbij] and go further to the east.”
In other words not only is the Turkish incursion into Syria not halting at Al-Bab. It is actually expanding beyond it. This fact is sufficient in itself to explain why there has apparently been a Syrian air strike on Turkish army positions north of Al-Bab.
All the indications are that despite the moves Turkey is currently making towards Russia, Erdogan remains personally committed to continuing his war against President Assad and the Syrian government. Not only has Erdogan ordered his army to press on towards Al-Bab and Manjib, but in Lattakia province his army has now intervened directly in order to prevent his Jihadi allies from being defeated.
With Erdogan wholly committed to his policy of regime change in Syria, the prospects of a full-scale clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries increases by the day. Already the Turkish army is engaged in sometimes bitter fighting with the Kurdish YPG militia, which is de facto allied to the Syrian government.
If things continue to go the way they are going, whilst Erdogan will almost certainly try to avoid getting into conflict with the Russians – which rules out any Turkish move on Aleppo – a further and much bigger clash between his military and the Syrian army looks like being only a matter of weeks or perhaps even days away.
As for Trump’s election victory in the US, it seems that far from deterring Erdogan, the pending change of administrations in Washington may actually be emboldening him.
On the one hand Erdogan may feel impelled to capture as much Syrian territory as he can before Trump’s inauguration and before Putin and Trump reach an agreement over Syria, which may rule out any further Turkish army advances. On the other hand Erdogan may feel that in Michael Flynn – Trump’s National Security Adviser – he at last has a powerful friend in Washington, who will make it possible for him to get away with much more than he has been allowed to get away with before.
Given the perennial recklessness of Erdogan’s behaviour, the news of the latest clashes between the Turkish and Syrian militaries are bound to be setting the alarm bells ringing in Moscow and in European capitals. The telephone lines to Ankara are almost certainly crackling with warnings and calls for restraint. The problem is that Erdogan doesn’t seem to be listening.