On the 24th of November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian Sokhoi Su-24 over the Turkish-Syrian border causing the death of one of the two parachuted pilots while trying to hit the ground. On the same day, a year later, a Syrian Air Force jet hits a Turkish military convoy two kilometres from the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, killing three Turkish soldiers. The Turkish aggressive move toward Russia had come after the destruction of hundreds of oil tankers used by the “Islamic State” (ISIS) to transport oil from Syria and Iraq to Turkey.
The Syrian Air Force (SyAF) activity is directly linked, coordinated and ordered by a common military operations room, headed by a Russian General, so as to avoid friendly fire or incidents. Russia coordinates most of the air traffic with the US-led coalition activities over Syria for the same purposes. The Russian command needs to assure the safeguard of its military naval and ground force with artillery and air protection since it is operating in various locations and cities over the Syrian geography. Therefore, every air strike, reconnaissance or drone sorties must be agreed and approved before anything takes off. Faisal al-Miqdad, the Syrian deputy Foreign Minister clearly said: “This event took place on Syrian land. Turkey should only blame itself”.
But why the Syrian city of al-Bab?
When Turkey shot down the Russian jet, the aim was to humiliate Russia and push it out of its comfort zone, knowing that Moscow would think carefully before stepping up a full military escalation against Ankara. On the same day, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan ran to NATO for protection and refuge. The Russian President Vladimir Putin limited his reaction to hitting Turkey proxies in Syria hard, followed by economic sanctions and much more aggressive support to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He agreed to help the Syrian Army retake Aleppo and decided to stand and face the United States of America at all costs in Bilad al-Sham. Putin considered the Turkish action not an Erdogan miscalculated adventure but rather a coordinated act of war with the US. Two main strong elements stand out:
Russia coordinates air traffic control with the US, informing the military command of its schedule and presence over specific areas.
It took 17 seconds for the Turkish Air Force to see the Russian Su-24 on its border, ask for orders from the military chain of command and from then via the highest political leadership for the anti-air missile to be launched. This is not a record by military means but impossible to achieve unless previous orders were in place given way ahead.
Nevertheless, the night of the coup-d’Etat against Erdogan allowed Russia to return the hit to the US by informing Erdogan – via Iran – of the plan to kill him. The premises he was spending some holidays in were supposed to be bombed. But the thirty minutes warning were enough to save Erdogan’s life, and, in consequences, caused the failure of the coup that should have been ignited from the Incirlic military Air base, where US officers are established. The Turkish President accused the US administration indirectly, who in turn strongly contested the Turkish reaction in jailing most officers “friendly of the US”.
This event warmed up the Turkish-Russian relationship which had dramatically cooled. In Putin’s eyes, the US, not Erdogan, paid the price (even if not fully) of its involvement in the Su-24 incident.
Turkey responded to the Russian favour by recalling thousands of fighters from Aleppo to the borders to start a military campaign aiming to dismantle the US plan to divide Syria and create a Kurdish state from the Syrian north east, Al-Hasaka, to the Syrian north west, Afrin.
Dismantling the US plan was convenient for:
Turkey by preventing a Kurdish state along its borders. This state, apart form the long-lasting Turkish struggle with the Kurds, would also foil the Turkish dream to annexe part of Syria or impose its agenda on Damascus at the end of the war.
Russia wanted to hit back at the US for the Su-24. The Russian plan is to establish a long-lasting presence in Syria without having to share the territory with its old US enemy. Therefore, the unity of Syria has become valuable for Putin.
Damascus was happy to teach the Kurds a lesson following al-Hasaka events. The government of Syria and the Kurds were always on good terms, supporting Syrian cities under siege, i.e. Aleppo, Nubl and Zahra’. Nevertheless, the US pressure on the Kurds was greater than the long-standing relationship with Damascus. Nevertheless, the Kurds, as a minority, have dream “since forever” about having a Federation for themselves.
All of the above created a convenient environment for many players in favour of the Turkish advance toward Jarablus and disturbing the US plans in the north of Syria. Nevertheless, the Turkish President was not content with contering the Kurdish plan but wanted to expand further, even without Russia closing its eyes to what he was doing.
Turkey allowed regional countries to generously finance and supply Qaidat al-Jihad and Syrian rebels with weapons to initiate major attacks against the Syrian Army and keep it busy within a limited geographical sector, mainly around Aleppo. As soon as Russia and its allies pushed forces toward ISIS occupied territories at al-Tabqa, the jihadists and rebels attacked rural Homs and south Aleppo, forcing Damascus to recall all forces engaged on that front to defend positions under attack.
Recently, jihadists and rebels carried out two major attacks on Aleppo under the banner of “breaking the siege” of the eastern surrounded part of the city. The “Aleppo Epic Battle” and the “Abu Omar Saraqeb” second battle caused months of full engagement for over 25.000 members of the Syrian Army, and around 8500 of all of their allies ground forces (Iraqi militia, Iranian advisors and their Afghan and Pakistani militia). Additionally, the Lebanese Hezbollah decided to inject 2500 of its elite Ridwan force in Aleppo and leave these in the city. The two attacks failed to achieve their objective in that part of Syria but succeeded in giving enough time for Turkey to advance toward al-Bab city and make the Syrian Army less keen to distribute forces around multiple fronts.
Damascus didn’t officially agree with the Russian-Turkish understanding over Jarablus because Syria mistrusted the Turkish leader and wanted to maintain a good relationship with the Kurds. Moscow never agreed with Ankara to expand its military presence for controlling the triangle Jarablus-Manbij-al-Bab or even to go to Raqqah.
The presence of Turkish forces at the door of al-Bab represented a strategic menace to the Syrian Army based in Aleppo from its eastern gate. The presence of Turkish forces and their proxies at 2 km from al-Bab triggered an understanding where ISIS would pull forces from the city without a fight, as was the case in Jarablus. Ankara is trying to insinuate that the intention of its forces to enter al-Bab aim is to stop the Kurdish federation.
But neither Damascus not Russia will tolerate the Turkish control of al-Bab. The Russians delivered a squad of Su-24M2, deployed the anti-air missiles S-300 and S-400 and encouraged the Syrian President to impose new rules of engagement (ROE) and red lines on Turkey for the first time since the creation of the two states.
A squadron of the Syrian Air Force, followed by a protection escort, raided a Turkish military convoy at the door of al-Bab on the morning of the 24th of November, killing 3 Turkish soldiers. Russia was on alert, ready to launch its missiles in case of any Turkish reaction. That was the second Syrian-Turkish confrontation since the last month. The first took place over the Syrian-Turkish borders when two F-16s violated Syrian air space. These were confronted by four MIGs who locked their missiles on the Turkish jets. The F-16 scan radar informed the F-16 pilots who received instructions to return to base. Syria imposed it sovereignty over its air space for the first time. Russia won’t tolerate any further violation and Ankara’s F-16 are no longer permitted in the sky over Syria.
This is exactly what the newly elected US President Donald Trump meant when he declared he has no intention to fight Assad, because this means confronting Putin who is determine to keep Syria united and defend the Syrian regime.
When hitting Turkish soldiers on Syrian territory, Damascus is not provoking Ankara because it had never given the permission to send that army onto Syrian soil. In consequences, the idea of Turkey pushing forces even toward Raqqah is no longer a pushover, because Damascus and Moscow have not said their last word to Turkey and the US.
Since Trump said he has no intention of triggering a nuclear war or a third World War, the partition of the north of Syria is no longer as easily imposed compared with during Obama administration. Therefore, the future of Syria depends on how Trump-Putin understanding is imposed on all parties. Either that, or the war will proceed even more violently.
Erdogan is weaker than ever in relation to Iraq and Syria: he failed to impose his will regarding participation in the attack against the capital of the caliphate, Mosul, or even the smaller city of Talafar. And today he can’t materialise his dream to annex Aleppo, and his forces are stopped at the gates of al-Bab. If he continues toward Raqqah there is a huge risk: he will have to face a superpower: Russia.