Threats of Turkish and Saudi military intervention in Syria look like bluff in absence of support from Washington.
The last ten days have been the moment when it has finally dawned upon the West that the Syrian army – backed by Iran and Russia – is close to winning a decisive victory in Syria.
The Syrian army has expanded the government’s control of the countryside around Damascus. It has cleared Hama and Homs of the jihadi rebels who established themselves there in 2012. It has broken the siege of Aleppo, reopening the roads that link Aleppo to the rest of the country. It has also succeeded in largely clearing the rebels from Latakia province, site of Russia’s Khmeimim airbase.
These initial steps of consolidation are now being followed by military offensives along two axes.
The first is in the northwest of the country, with the Syrian army now very close to encircling the jihadi rebels who since 2012 have partly occupied and besieged Syria’s biggest city and economic capital, Aleppo.
It seems that all the main road links to Turkey have now been cut, reducing the jihadi rebels to reliance on country roads through Idlib province where they are very vulnerable to attack from the Russian airforce.
The second is along the main road from Hama to the Islamic State’s “capital” Raqqa.
The encirclement of the jihadi rebels besieging Aleppo threatens the collapse of the rebellion in the north of Syria. The fall of Raqqa would cause the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria.
As I have explained many times, the nature of the Islamic State means it cannot afford to lose its core territory – and certainly not its “capital” Raqqa.
A movement that claims its leader is the Commander of the Faithful of God and the political heir of God’s Prophet – ie. the Caliph – cannot be seen to lose. Defeat inevitably calls such claims into question, and if great enough will cause the collapse of the movement as its followers become disillusioned and start to doubt.
Al-Qaeda – which has never made such claims for itself – can survive defeat and reorganise itself into an underground guerrilla or terrorist movement. The Islamic State cannot.
In the West – and in Ankara and Riyadh – the prospect of the Syrian government achieving victory, and of the Russians succeeding in Syria where the Western powers have utterly failed, has provoked horror.
The result has been a concerted attempt over the last ten days to get the Russians and the Syrians to accept a ceasefire, leaving the jihadi rebels in Aleppo intact and in place, and preventing a Syrian military advance on Raqqa.
Firstly, an attempt was made to force the Russians to stop their bombing by threatening a walkout of the rebels from the Geneva peace conference unless the bombing stopped.
The Russians rejected the demand, and in order to prevent the threatened walkout from taking place the UN suspended the conference.
The Western media then promptly – and predictably – blamed the Russians. The fact the peace conference was suspended because the rebels threatened a walkout was barely reported.
Instead false reports were published that Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, had blamed the Russians for the suspension of the peace conference by accusing them of indiscriminate bombing.
Ban Ki-Moon’s office has complained on his behalf at the way in which his comments have been misrepresented. However the Western media agencies that misrepresented his comments have failed to report this, or to correct their earlier wrong reports of his comments.
The US in the person of Secretary of State Kerry then tried again to persuade the Russians to agree a ceasefire at his meeting with Lavrov in Munich.
The Russians again said no. The result was a joint statement that simply restates what had already been said by the preceding UN Security Council Resolutions – that the parties should work towards a ceasefire but that the jihadi terrorist movements would be excluded from it.
There then followed a media campaign to try to represent the rebels in Aleppo as part of the Western backed Free Syrian Army – and therefore covered by the ceasefire.
As the Western commentators who claim this almost certainly know, this is simply not true. The Free Syrian Army – to the extent that it exists at all – is largely located in the south of the country, near Damascus. The Russians not only claim they are not bombing it, but say that they are actually cooperating with it. The rebels in the north, and specifically those in Aleppo, are jihadis.
This media campaign to misrepresent the character of the rebels in Aleppo is accompanied by an intense media campaign to try to embarrass the Russians by claiming that their bombing campaign is indiscriminate and is killing thousands of civilians.
Russian bombing undoubtedly has killed civilians, though not on the scale that is being alleged.
The Russians not only publish very detailed accounts of their bombing raids – far more detailed than those the US and its allies publish – but they share information, including detailed information about the flight paths of their aircraft, with the US military.
That makes it all but impossible for the Russian bombing to be anything like as indiscriminate as is being alleged.
Though some Western journalists at least know this, that has not prevented them from bombarding Medvedev and Lavrov at the security conference in Munich with demands that Russia stop bombing civilians, whilst ridiculing and misrepresenting their denials that such bombing is taking place.
The failure to get the Russians to stop their bombing – and to stop the Syrian army from advancing – is having two outcomes.
The first is that parts of the Western media are now criticising the US administration for “weakness”, though short of attacking the Russian military in Syria – something strongly opposed by Western public opinion and by the uniformed military in Washington – they have no alternative to suggest.
The second is a plan hatched by the Saudis for a Western invasion force to march into Syria to capture Raqqa before the Syrian army does.
Since despatch of a US ground force to capture Raqqa is for domestic political reasons out of the question – and almost certainly could not be organised quickly enough anyway – what that means in practice is a Turkish invasion of Syria to capture Raqqa.
At the same time the Turks are trying to keep routes to Aleppo open by shelling the Syrian government’s Kurdish allies in the north of Syria around the town of Azaz, which is located on the main highway between Aleppo and Turkey.
All these moves are being accompanied by increasingly shrill demands from the Saudis for Assad to be removed “by force if necessary”.
These military moves by the Turks and the Saudis should be seen for what they are: manifestations of panic at the collapse of their regime change strategy.
Without US support a Turkish advance on Raqqa is simply not practical.
The US is most unlikely to support such a move because it would entangle Turkey with the US’s own Kurdish allies, as well as with the Russians.
It would also be a major extension of the war, with the Turkish army fighting on foreign soil in a way that could easily end up threatening Turkey’s own stability.
That is emphatically not in the US’s interests, and for that reason too the US is likely to oppose it.
As for Turkish shelling of the Kurds around Azaz, that cannot change the situation around Aleppo, which is further to the south. In the meantime it is again embroiling Turkey in another row with the US.
As I discussed previously, with a personality as whimsical and impulsive as Erdogan, it is impossible to predict his moves with any certainty. However so far Turkish and Saudis moves have been more bluster than action.
The Syrian conflict has far failed to become a big issue in the US Presidential race – a fact that strongly suggests most Americans do not want the US to become embroiled in the conflict.
That the American people do not share the enthusiasm of the neocons for tangling with the Russians in order to aid violent jihadis who hate – and have previously attacked – the US should surprise no-one. That and the opposition of the uniformed military is a major constraint on US action, and makes US intervention on the side of the jihadi rebels – and the Turks and the Saudis – look unlikely.
If so the latest moves by the Turks and the Saudis are a bluff, and one that is likely to be called before very long.