|Illustration by DonkeyHotey|
A Dramatic Escalation Appears Imminent in Syria
By The Saker
The situation in Syria has reached a watershed moment and a dramatic escalation of the war appears imminent. Let’s look again at how we reached this point.
During the first phase of the operation, the Syrian armed forces were unable to achieve an immediate strategic success. This is rather unsurprising. It is important to remember here that during the first weeks of the operation the Russian did not provide close air support to the Syrians. Instead, they chose to systematically degrade the entire Daesh (Note: I refer to *all* terrorist in Syria as “Daesh”) infrastructure including command posts, communication nodes, oil dumps, ammo dumps, supply routes, etc. This was important work, but it did not have an immediate impact upon the Syrian military. Then the Russians turned to two important tasks: to push back Daesh in the Latakia province and to hit the illegal oil trade between Daesh and Turkey. The first goal was needed for the protection of the Russian task force and the second one hit the Daesh finances. Then the Russians seriously turned to providing close air support. Not only that, but the Russians got directly involved with the ground operation.
The second phase was introduced gradually, without much fanfare, but it made a big difference on the ground: the Russians and Syrians began to closely work together and they soon honed their collaboration to a quantitatively new level which allowed the Syrian commanders to use Russian firepower with great effectiveness. Furthermore, the Russians began providing modern equipment to the Syrians, including T-90 tanks, modern artillery systems, counter-battery radars, night vision gear, etc. Finally, according to various Russian reports, Russian special operations teams (mostly Chechens) were also engaged in key locations, including deep in the rear of Daesh. As a result, the Syrian military for the first time went from achieving tactical successes to operational victories: for the first time the Syrian began to liberate key towns of strategic importance.
Finally, the Russians unleashed a fantastically intense firepower on Daesh along crucial sectors of the front. In northern Homs, the Russians bombed a sector for 36 hours in a row. According to the latest briefing of the Russian Defense Ministry, just between February 4th and February 11th, the Russian aviation group in the Syrian Arab Republic performed 510 combat sorties and engaged 1,888 terrorists targets. That kind of ferocious pounding did produce the expected effect and the Syrian military began slowly moving along the Turkish-Syrian border while, at the same time, threatening the Daesh forces still deployed inside the northern part of Aleppo. In doing so, the Russians and Syrian threatened to cut off the vital resupply route linking Daesh to Turkey. According to Russian sources, Daesh forces were so demoralized that they forced the local people to flee towards the Turkish border and attempted to hide inside this movement of internally displaced civilians.
This strategic Russian and Syrian victory meant that all the nations supporting Daesh, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the USA were facing a complete collapse of their efforts to overthrow Assad and to break-up Syria and turn part of it into a “Jihadistan”. The Americans could not admit this, of course; as for the Saudis, their threats to invade Syria were rather laughable. Which left the main role to Erdogan who was more than happy to provide the West with yet another maniacal ally willing to act in a completely irresponsible way just to deny the “other side” anything looking like a victory.
Erdogan seems to be contemplating two options. The first one is a ground operation into Syria aimed at restoring the supply lines of Daesh and at preventing the Syrian military from controlling the border. Here is a good illustration (taken from a SouthFront video) of what this would look like:
According to various reports, Erdogan has 18,000 soldiers supported by aircraft, armor and artillery poised along the border to execute such an invasion.
The second plan is even simpler, at least in theory: to create a no-fly zone over all of Syria. Erdogan personally mentioned this option several times, the latest one on Thursday the 11th.
Needless to say, both plans are absolutely illegal under international law and would constitute an act of aggression, the “supreme international crime” according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, because “it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Not that this would deter a megalomaniac like Erdogan.
In purely military terms, Russia has taken a number of crucial steps: she declared a large scale “verification” of the “combat readiness” of the Southern and Central military districts. In practical terms, this means that all the Russian forces are on high alert, especially the AeroSpace forces, the Airborne Forces, the Military Transportation Aviation forces and, of course, all the Russian forces in Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet. The first practical effect of such “exercises” is not only to make a lot of forces immediately available, but it is also to make them very difficult to track. This not only protects the mobilized forces, but also makes it very hard for the enemy to figure out what exactly they are doing. There are also report that Russian Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft – A-50M – are now regularly flying over Syria. In other words, Russia has taken the preparations needed to go to war with Turkey.
Needless to say, the Turks and the Saudis have also announced joint military exercises. They have even announced that Saudi aircraft will conduct airstrikes from the Incirlik air base in support of an invasion of Syria.
At the same time, the Russians have also launched a peace initiative centered around a general ceasefire starting on March 1st or even, according to the latest leaks, on February 15th. The goal is is transparent: to break the Turkish momentum towards an invasion of Syria. It is obvious that Russian diplomats are doing everything they can to avert a war with Turkey.
Here again I have to repeat what I have said already a million times in the past: the small Russian contingent in Syria is in a very precarious position: far away from Russia and very close (45km) to Turkey. Not only that, but the Turks have over 200 combat aircraft ready to attack, whereas the Russians probably has less than 20 SU-30/35/34s in total. Yes, these are very advanced aircraft, of the 4++ generation, and they will be supported by S-400 systems, but the force ratio remains a terrible 1:10.
Russia does, however, have one big advantage over Turkey: Russia has plenty of long-range bombers, armed with gravity bombs and cruise missiles, capable of striking the Turks anywhere, in Syria and in Turkey proper. In fact, Russia even has the capability to strike at Turkish airfields, something which the Turks cannot prevent and something which they cannot retaliate in kind for. The big risk for Russia, at this point, would be that NATO would interpret this as a Russian “aggression” against a member-state, especially if the (in)famous Incirlik air base is hit.
Erdogan also has to consider another real risk: that, while undoubtedly proficient, the Turkish forces might not be a match for the battle-hardened Kurds and Syrians, especially if the latter are supported by Iranian and Hezbollah forces. The Turks have a checkered record against the Kurds whom they typically do overwhelm with firepower and numbers, but whom they never succeeded in neutralizing, subduing or eliminating. Finally, there is the possibility that Russians might have to use their ground forces, especially if the task force in Khmeimim is really threatened.