Aletho News


Turkey’s Syria Convoy Stopped in Its Tracks

By Jeremy Salt | American Herald Tribune | August 23, 2019

On August 19 Turkey sent a military convoy across the border in the direction of Khan Shaikhun, in southern Idlib province. It informed Russia beforehand of what it intended to do. From what followed, it can be assumed that Russia warned Turkey not to go ahead, but it did and suffered the consequences.

South of the town of Ma’arrat al Nu’man, 20 kilometres north of Khan Shaikhun, the lead vehicle in the convoy was destroyed from the air in a Syrian missile strike. The action had the clear support of the Russian government. The destruction of the lead vehicle was a warning that if the convoy went any further it also would be bombed. It was brought to a halt and remains parked somewhere north of Khan Shaikhun.

The convoy included tanks being carried on transporters, ammunition and personnel carriers as well as an unknown number of soldiers. Turkey claimed that three civilians were killed in the attack. In fact, from reports, the ‘civilians’ in the destroyed vehicle included the commander of Faylaq al Sham, a faction integrated into the Turkish-backed ‘National Liberation Front.’

Syrian military units were already infiltrating Khan Shaikhun, held since 2014 by Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), formerly Jabhat al Nusra, formerly Al Qaida in Syria, and by August 21 they had fully liberated the city. Turkey said the convoy was bound for its military observation post near the town of Murek. Syria claims the weaponry was being sent to the beleaguered takfiris in Khan Shaikhun.

As the M5 highway runs through Murek all the way from Aleppo to Damascus, Turkey’s access to its observation post is now cut off and can only be restored through Russian mediation. The M5 runs north to Saraqib before branching off to Idlib city, which has been occupied by HTS since 2015.

Turkey has another observation post near Ma’arrat al Nu’man, which it claims has come under harassing fire from the Syrian army. It insists, however, that all its 12 observation posts in Idlib will remain open.

Further Syrian advances south of Khan Shaikhun have scattered takfiris from northern Hama, which borders southern Idlib. Others remain trapped. The Syrian military has opened a humanitarian corridor around the village of Suran for civilians to leave the region. Many are already pouring out of Idlib and northern Hama.

Turkey claims the attack on the convoy breached the understanding it had reached with Russia and Iran on the ‘de-escalation’ of conflict in Idlib, which it was supposed to manage. However, as Vladimir Putin pointed out after the aerial attack, when Turkey signed the ‘de-escalation’ agreement in August, 2018, HTS controlled 50 per cent of Idlib but within months it had taken control of 90 per cent.

Even by the US and Turkey HTS is designated as a terrorist group. Nevertheless, in the fighting for Khan Shaikhun, units from the ‘National Liberation Front’ and the ‘National Army’, founded in January, 2018, and also backed by Turkey, formed a common front with HTS against the Syrian army’s advance.

The liberation of Khan Shaikhun has been a major victory for the Syrian army, which is now positioned for an offensive north towards Ma’arrat al Nu’man, held by the ‘Syrian Liberation Army’ (SLF), originally an amalgam of two terrorist groups, Ahrar al Sham and Nur al Din Zinki, but eventually expanded to include numerous other takfiri factions.

Early in 2018 heavy fighting between the SLF and HTS took the lives of hundreds of takfiris, but the SLF captured Ma’arrat al Nu’man and has held it ever since. In August, 2018, the SLF joined the ‘National Front for Liberation,’ which is also backed by the Turkish government.

While the Syrian army is now positioned to move rapidly northwards from Khan Shaikhun, its advances in the past have been frequently stymied by ceasefires called as part of the chess game played under the heading of ‘diplomacy.’

Russia has yet to respond to Turkey’s request for a ceasefire in Idlib but this time, with its air base at Khmeimim coming under frequent attack and with Putin remarking that the takfiris in Idlib are spreading out globally, it may prefer to see the province cleared without any further delay.

The compartmentalization of interests on both sides suggest that neither Russia nor Turkey will allow developments in Idlib, including the attack on the military convoy, to jeopardize the overall relationship. Apart from diplomatic and trade considerations, Turkey is now purchasing Russian weaponry, with the delivery of the second batch of S400 missiles expected in September. On September 18 Putin, Rouhani and Erdogan will discuss Syria at a conference in Ankara.

Nevertheless, however many twists and turns ‘diplomacy’ takes, Russia stands firmly behind the Syrian government in its drive to liberate Idlib and restore its authority over all territory held by the takfiris and foreign forces, Turkish in the northwest and American in the northeast.

At odds over the status of the Syrian Kurds, Turkey and the US have now agreed to cooperate in the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border. Erdogan wanted to establish a ‘safe’ or ‘buffer’ zone inside Syria from the moment he decided to intervene in 2011 by supporting the so-called Syrian National Council and the so-called Free Syrian Army against the Syrian government.

The decision to intervene in Syria is unprecedented in the history of the Turkish republic. While a Turkish government intervened in Cyprus in 1974 to forestall the annexation of the island by the Greek military junta, and while the Turkish military has frequently campaigned against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in northern Iraq, no Turkish government has ever actively intervened to bring about the downfall of another government, let alone one in a neighboring country, let alone one with which it had good ‘brotherly’ relations at the very moment it decided to intervene.

Apart from other dire consequences, the destruction of the Syrian government’s authority in the north created the very problem which Erdogan is now determined to solve, the perceived ‘national security’ threat from the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the Kurdish militia.

Before 2011 the Syrian government had supported Turkish military action against the Kurds in northern Iraq. It had also cracked down on the YPG’s parent political organization, the PYD (Democratic Union Party), breaking up demonstrations and sending leading activists for trial before security courts. Syria was just as strongly opposed to Kurdish separatism as the government of Turkey.

It was the US, Turkey’s partner in the collective calling itself ‘The Friends of the Syrian People,’ which enhanced opportunities for the Syrian Kurds, irrespective of Turkey’s interests. It established military bases in the predominantly Kurdish northeast and created a largely Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces. It refused to accept Turkey’s designation of the YPG as a ‘terrorist’ group and by all of its actions, it fostered Kurdish attempts to set up autonomous enclaves along the Turkish border. Had the Syrian government not come under such a ferocious attack from 2011, none of this would have happened.

Apart from the widespread destruction in Syria caused by foreign intervention, the consequences for Turkey have included an influx of 3.6 million refugees. According to opinion polls, the Turkish public now regards their presence as a problem second only to the faltering state of the economy.

The ‘safe zone’ or ‘peace corridor’ as it is now being called allows Turkey to aim at two targets simultaneously. One is the YPG, whose presence Turkey is determined to remove from the border area. The second is rising public disquiet inside Turkey at the visible presence of so many Syrians, the cost of maintaining them and their impact on daily life. According to press reports, large numbers of the refugees will now be resettled in this ‘safe zone’, easing domestic pressure on the Turkish government. Whether Syrians who come from other parts of their country will want to stay, if conditions in their home towns and villages are safe, is doubtful. The influx of so many Syrian Arabs into this strip of territory would water down the Kurdish population and inevitably lead to accusations of demographic engineering.

How Turkey and the US will ‘police’ this safe zone is far from clear. They have been wrangling over it for months. The ‘safe zone’ would run from Jarabulus in the west to the Iraqi border. Turkey wants (or wanted) a zone 32 kms deep, while the US argued for 14 kms, the first five kilometres a DMZ, patrolled jointly by Turkish and US forces, the remaining nine kilometres only to be cleared of heavy weaponry and not necessarily the YPG. The two sides say they have now agreed and have launched the first phase of this operation but no details apart from air coordination are known.

Joint patrols would take Turkish troops deep into the Syrian Kurdish heartland, just across the border from the Kurdish heartland in Turkey’s southeast and not far from Kurdish northern Iraq. This latest initiative is fraught with many dangers, including the likelihood of Kurdish resistance to the Turkish presence. How the US intends to balance out its strategic support for the Kurds against its strategic relationship with Turkey is only one of many unknowns.

In the domestic Turkish background the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major blow in the March local elections when it lost control of Istanbul and Ankara as well as other major cities. Its situation since then has only deteriorated. Senior figures in the party, including former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan, a co-founder of the AKP and former Economy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, have broken away and are forming their own political parties. These are certain to make inroads into the AKP inside and outside parliament. In short, Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic base, for the first time in 18 years, is beginning to fracture.

The recent dismissal of Kurdish mayors in the southeast – the latest in a long line of such dismissals – and their replacement by government trustees has attracted widespread public criticism, well beyond the ranks of the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP). The domestic political climate is changing rapidly and the arrests are being openly criticized as further blows to an already severely weakened democratic base. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is totally opposed to Turkey’s intervention in Syria, where the Syrian army is now encircling Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib, heightening the danger of direct clashes.

Were the CHP to take government, it could be counted on to withdraw from Syria without delay. However, elections are not due until 2023 and while there have been unfavourable shifts on the domestic landscape, Erdogan is wily and resilient and perfectly capable of reversing these setbacks. Syria is a different picture. It is full of dangerous variables which he can neither avert nor necessarily control but it is not his style to back off. Rather, he is more likely to double down and seek victory in his public’s eyes, whatever the risks this will involve.

Jeremy Salt has taught at the University of Melbourne, Bosporus University (Istanbul) and Bilkent University (Ankara), specialising in the modern history of the Middle East. His most recent book is “The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.)

August 23, 2019 - Posted by | Illegal Occupation | , , ,


  1. I stopped reading this about half way through. Too much info – finish it later.
    Question – who the hell is the US fighting with and for. It sounded on first reading that we were with al Nusra and other weirdos. I have to read this again and look up more of the characters.
    Question – Is Turkey trying to annex Syria or part of it, is the US. Still want that pipeline I guess.


    Comment by GGH | August 23, 2019 | Reply

    • It appears to be straight Oded Yinon plan for Balkanizing Israels enemies.

      It’s not about the US attempting to achieve any American aim at all. Just like Iraq and Libya. The only consideration is Israel’s continued dominance.


      Comment by aletho | August 23, 2019 | Reply

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