Turkey bombs Kobane again. New Russian-Turkish prospects in Syria?

(To Antonino Lombardi)

A few days after the attack in Istanbul and after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) of the attack, yesterday Turkey launched a series of airstrikes during the "Pence Kilic" operation hitting Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq.

The PKK, however, has denied any role in the November 13 attack, the deadliest in five years after a spate of attacks between 2015 and 2017.

The bombings were carried out by drones on a base in northeastern Syria used by Kurdish forces and the US-led coalition and continued with Turkish artillery on the northern Syrian city of Kobane, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces Kurdish-led and in the cities of Tel Rifat, Derbysia and Derik.

15 government soldiers and 32 fighters of the SDF - Syrian Democratic Forces - (an alliance of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian-Syrian militias) were killed. Press sources report that the Turkish drone strikes also hit a small oil field near the border town of Al-Qahtaniyah.

Erdogan has repeatedly called for a 30-kilometer "safe zone" to protect Turkey from cross-border attacks from Syrian territory. At least three people, including a child, were killed in a Turkish border town on Monday by a rocket fired from Syria. It seems that the Turkish president, in view of the elections next June, wants to strengthen his policy against Kurdish fighters and increase support for his nationalist allies of the MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi).

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is seen by many analysts as the continuation of the war in Syria where, on the battlefield of a third state, the two superpowers (USA and Russia) and their respective allies are fighting.

Some scholars wonder if the almost seven years of military activity in Syria on the Russian side could have conditioned, at least in part, the operation in Ukraine and others argue that the number of men and equipment present in the Middle Eastern country does not justify such an interpretation .

The Russians continue to deploy about 1971 men, several dozen aircraft and the full operation of the Tartus naval base on the Syrian front. On the latter, born in 2017 with agreements between the Soviets and the father of Bashar al-Assad as a logistics base, since XNUMX Russia has acquired full sovereignty of the area, has expanded and modernized the structures becoming a strategic point in the Mediterranean and a hub crucial for trade in the area and beyond, given its proximity to the important Suez Canal.

The Russian intervention in Syria was launched in September 2015 with the aim of supporting the president of the country and fighting terrorism represented by the Islamic State. The Russians have defended the Bashar al-Assad regime which now controls at least two thirds of the country and have contributed to considerably reducing the presence of the Islamic State which in any case continues its action on the territory. Some scholars speculate that while the Russian intervention has buoyed the weakened Assad regime, the operation may have instead created greater unity among the rebels and prompted them to join the anti-Assad cause. However, Russia has based its support in the name of countering IS by gaining more legitimacy than US intervention.

As seems to be happening in Ukraine, the fighting will probably continue in Syria as well by proxy. The main components of a proxy war are1 la supply of men, of matter,financial assistance ed non-military assistance. This leads to inevitable consequences, such as the long-term dependence between the benefactor and the beneficiary, the expansion and intensification of the original conflict, its extension beyond the initial borders and possible repercussions, at the end of the war, for the participants.

Russia's direct military involvement in Syria's ongoing civil war has raised concerns about its true motivations. The concerns have led to several explanations and interpretations, including:

  • geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic interests and sphere of influence in the Middle East that Russia must protect from Western encroachment;
  • Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war to uphold the UN principles of non-interference, state sovereignty and to prevent the UN from setting a precedent that the West could use in the future to interfere in any sovereign country's internal conflict with an anti-Western regime and change it;
  • involvement in the Syrian civil war to obviate the possibility of Syria becoming an Islamic fundamentalist and jihadist stronghold;
  • exercising power in the form of military force against Western opposition in order to protect its national interests and preserve its national survival in a hostile international system.

Russia's military action in Syria, therefore, is part of President Putin's policy to regain Russia's lost sphere of influence and strategic advantages. This effort began in 2005 with the victory in the Second Chechen War, followed by the 2008 invasion of Abkhazia to regain control of the port of Ochamchire on the Black Sea coast, the reconstruction of the port of Tartus in Syria 2008-2009, the invasion and annexation of Crimea into Ukraine in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia had previously limited its role in the Syrian civil war to providing the Syrian government with diplomatic support, supplies of weapons and ammunition as well as military training and advisory services to the Syrian army. However, the Islamic terrorist groups and the regular army continued to gain positions and ground until forcing the regime to move its troops from the province of Latakia to Damascus in order to defend the teetering power of Bashar al-Assad which seemed to be on the brink of defeat. Therefore, Russia, also with a view to avoiding the resurgence of terrorism in the North Caucasus region subject to new terrorist activities, has deemed it appropriate to intervene in Syria.

Russia's interest in the Mediterranean is vital to military strategy. It seems that the Soviets, despite the conflict in Ukraine requiring huge resources, are continuing to keep their influence alive and present in Syria also so as not to leave too much room for Turkey.

The 2015 Russian intervention allowed Assad to reconquer a large part of the country and now it is the latter who clearly supports the Russian president by announcing the sending of Syrian militias to the Ukrainian front and formally recognizing the People's Republic last June 29 of Donetsk and the Luhansk People's Republic, as sovereign nations. Evidently Bashar al-Assad feels protected by Russia not only in his territory but also at the UN where he can count on the Russian veto right in the Security Council.

Meanwhile, Syrians continue to die

The conflict represents the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world: 14 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and 6,7 million Syrians have fled the country and almost 60% of the population is on the verge of starvation. In the first six months of this year, 1568 civilians (114 children) were killed. The latest attack reported by the press is that of 22 July in which seven people, including five children, were killed following a Russian bombing of a neighborhood of Jisr al-Shughur in the north of the country. In the areas bordering Idlib and Aleppo there are about 4 million people, displaced and crowded into tent cities, living in extreme conditions. These are increasingly under Turkish control.

Since the beginning of the conflict, indiscriminate attacks by government forces against densely populated areas have been a constant. They were carried out with bombardments by artillery, mortars, rockets, tanks and air attacks, but also by means of cluster or thermobaric bombs. Since 2015 the Russians with the air force have hit civilian neighborhoods and crowded places or carried out attacks that have killed and injured the population and damaged places of care.

Armed groups, not only Daesh, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham and Kurdish People's Protection Units have launched numerous indiscriminate attacks using mortars and rockets, and improvised devices.

The US-led coalition's military action to retake Raqqah damaged or destroyed up to 80 percent of buildings, killing and wounding thousands of civilians and displacing as many.

In the recommendations, the ratio of Syrian Network for Human Rights, calls on the Security Council to “stop using their veto to protect the Syrian regime, which has committed hundreds of thousands of violations, many of which amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes” and to take further measures after the adoption of resolution 2254 ie “Cease all attacks against civilians”. It also requires "to all UN agencies to make greater efforts to provide humanitarian aid, food and medical assistance". The latter has become a topic that has sparked a bitter dispute in the Security Council. Moscow, in fact, would like the Syrian government to handle this task in order to prevent aid from being easily reached by the populations of the areas controlled by the rebels. It seems that a few weeks ago an agreement was reached to allow humanitarian aid to enter northern Syria through Turkey.

At the Tehran summit on 19 July, the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey met and Syria was also discussed: despite many differences, they agreed on the need for the United States and NATO to leave the country. Russia and Iran have formalized new commercial contracts such as the one between Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company. Old grudges, on the other hand, have emerged between Russia and Turkey over the security zone along the Turkish border which would allow Ankara to keep the Kurds away and, while Moscow hints at some possibilities, Ebrahim Raisi says that a “attack on Syria would be harmful to Turkey for the benefit of terrorists” also accusing Israel of its continued attacks on civilian infrastructure.

The European Council extended until 1 June 2023 the EU restrictive measures against the Syrian regime due to the repression it continues to exercise against the civilian population of the country.

The sanctions include an embargo on oil imports, a freeze on Syrian central bank assets held in the EU, and restrictions on the export of technology that could be used for internal repression. They are also aimed at companies and entrepreneurs who benefit from the regime and the war economy.

The presence of Islamist terrorism (IS) and other groups in Syria poses a serious threat to the country, the Middle East and the international community. The European strategy developed in Syria and Iraq to address the terrorist threat of IS/Daesh was adopted in March 2015. It aims to support the international coalition to fight Daesh, reduce the influx of foreign terrorist fighters, funds and weapons to Daesh, improve border security and provide humanitarian assistance to affected populations.

The regime appears to be unable to put an end to the rebellions despite external aid and shows no interest in diplomacy. With these assumptions and the willingness of the Assad government to commit brutality and illegality, there is no room for future changes in the direction of the conflict.

1 Mumford

Photo: SANA