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February 23, 2017

Syria - A Confused Trump Strategy Lets Erdogan U-Turn Again

There are two new developments on the Syrian front. The Islamic State suddenly changed its tactic and the Turkish President Erdogan again changed his policy course.

In the last 24 hours news announcements about victories against the Islamic state (ISIS) rapidly followed each other:

  • The Kurdish U.S. proxy forces in east Syria (SDF) announced that it had reached the northern bank of the Euphrates between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. This cuts the ISIS communication line between the two cities.
  • Turkish forces and their "Syrian rebel" mercenaries have been attacking Al-Bab east of Aleppo for nearly four month. They made little progress and incurred huge losses. Late yesterday they suddenly broke into the city and today took control of it. Various sources claim that a deal was made between the Turkish forces and ISIS for the later to evacuate Al-Bab unharmed and with its personal weapons. It is not yet known what price Turkey paid in that deal.
  • South of Al-Bab the Syrian Army is moving further east towards the Euphrates and took several villages from ISIS. The Syrian move is largely designed to cut the roads between the Turkish forces around Al-Bab and the Islamic State forces in Raqqa. (This now might become a race.)
  • Further south another Syrian Army group is moving east towards Palmyra.
  • In the eastern city of Deir Ezzor the Syrian army garrison is under siege by Islamic State forces. A few weeks ago the situation there looked very dire. But with reinforcements coming in by helicopter and massive Russian air force interdiction the position held out quite well. In recent days the defenders took several hills from a retreating ISIS.
  • In Iraq the army, police and the various government militia are pushing towards south Mosul. Today the airport south of the city fell into their hands with little fighting. Like everywhere else ISIS had stopped its resistance and pulled back. Only a few rearguards offered tepid resistance.

While ISIS was under pressure everywhere the sudden retreat on all fronts during the last 24 hours is astonishing and suggest some synchronicity. A central order must have been given to pull back to the buildup areas of Raqqa in Syria and south Mosul in Iraq.

But ISIS has nowhere to go from those areas. Mosul is completely surrounded and Raqqa is mostly cut off. After the massacres they committed everywhere ISIS fighters can not expect any mercy. They have made enemies everywhere and aside from a few (Saudi) radical clerics no friends are left to help them. The recent retreats are thereby likely not signs of surrender. ISIS will continue to fight until it is completely destroyed. But for now the ISIS leaders decided to preserve their forces. One wonders what they plan to stage as their last glorious show. A mass atrocity against the civilians in the cities it occupies?

When in late 2016 the defeat of the "Syrian rebels" proxy forces in east-Aleppo city was foreseeable the Turkish President Erdogan switched from supporting the radicals in north-west Syria to a more lenient stand towards Syria and its allies Russia and Iran. The move followed month of on and off prodding from Russia and after several attempts by Erdogan to get more U.S. support had failed. In late December peace talks started between Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran with the U.S. and the EU excluded.

But after the Trump administration took over the Turkish position changed again. Erdogan is now back to betting on a stronger U.S. intervention in Syria that would favor his original plans of installing in Syria an Islamic government under Turkish control:

Ankara understands today that Trump is aggressive toward Iran and gave his blessing to Saudi Arabia. Therefore Erdogan is taking a new position: hiding behind Saudi Arabia, mimicking the US hostility towards Iran and, in consequences, declaring himself once more against the Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The new Turkish position was confirmed by Senator John McCain's visit to the Kurdish YPG and U.S. Special Forces in Kobani. McCain came via Turkey. An earlier visits to the YPK by U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk had been condemned by Ankara. Outside of a wider agreement such McCain's antics would not be allowed.

The U.S. is allied with the Kurdish YPK in Syria who are blood-brothers of the Kurdish PKK group in Turkey which the Turkish government has been fighting for decades. The YPG fighters are good and reliable light infantry fighters. They work together with U.S. special forces and are well regarded.

Turkey offers to send its own ground troops together with Saudi forces to liberate Raqqa from ISIS. <snark>The expertise the Saudi military shows in Yemen combined with the Turkish military prowess in its "Euphrates Shield" operation in Syria will surely will be welcome by the U.S. military. </snark>

But there are bigger strategic issues at stake and some agreement between the U.S., Turkey and the Saudis has been found (adopted machine translation):

[T]he sudden transformation of the Turkish position occurred after a lengthy conversation conducted with the US president, Donald Trump, and the visit by the head of the U.S. intelligence agency (CIA). A re-shuffling of the cards took place which induced another turn in Ankara on the Syrian file.
The new U.S.-Turkish understandings that fixed the bridge between President Erdogan and the old U.S. ally is based on the escalation of hostility to Iran and the (re-)establishment of a "Sunni axis" led by the Turkish president. It includes the establishment of a buffer zone in Syria as a prelude to a partitioning [of Syria] scenario.

This is essentially a fall back to the positions taken by the Obama administration in 2011/12. The lessons learned since will have to be relearned. The signals from the U.S. military now suggest the introduction of additional regular ground troops in support of a U.S. proxy force and an eventual U.S. protected enclave in east-Syria. The YPK is the only reliable proxy force available to the U.S. and it needs heavier weapon support to take on Raqqa. But U.S. boots on ground in the Middle East have never been a solution. They are a guarantee of extended fighting and eventual failure.

The strategic view is contradictory. The U.S. wants to fight the Sunni radical forces that Saudi Arabia grows and pampers. Even while ISIS gets diminished new such forces are already growing in Iraq. Any anti-radical strategy that builds on cooperation with the Saudis will fail.

It is impossible to get Turkey and the YPK/PKK to fight on one side - McCain visit or not. The U.S. would loose its only reliable proxy force in Syria should it make common cause with Erdogan in the fight about Raqqa. Any anti-Kurdish Turkish-U.S. controlled "safe zone" in north Syria will come under fire from all other sides on the ground. Any U.S. base in Syria will be the target of various regular and irregular forces. In the long term the new plans are doomed and Erdogan's latest u-turn is unlikely to be rewarded.

But until then we can expect more bloodshed and more fighting in Syria. As Eljah Magnier comments:

The US policy in Syria seems frantic and far-fetched without efficient powerful allies on the ground, and is unable to retake cities from ISIS with its Kurdish proxies alone. And the “honeymoon” between Washington and Riyadh will certainly have a substantial negative effect on the war in Syria. This will increase the closeness between Russia and Iran, but the tension between US and Russia is also expected to increase: one side (the US) wants partition and the other (Russia) wants a unified Syria without al-Qaida and ISIS, and without Turkey occupying the north of Syria and a Saudi Arabia return to the Bilad al-Sham. At this stage, it is difficult to speculate on what this clash of incompatible objectives will produce on the ground in Syria.

Posted by b on February 23, 2017 at 15:42 UTC | Permalink

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Trump's détente with Russia guy, Flynn, was swiftly shown the door and "urged" to sign himself out and his place at the table was given to H.R. McMaster, war hawk, Russophobe and MIC henchman. Now maybe Trump is playing 4D chess here and the continued animosity towards Russia is Grandmaster Chump masterfully foiling his deep state enemies by faking them is what it looks like and the deep state and Chump are on the same page and there will be no let up in the massive multilayered campaign to bring Russia to its knees and give it the gift of regime change.

And it increasingly looks like Russia and the Syrian government, while sharing the same hymnbook, are not singing from the same page. Why is Israel not slapped down for attacking SAA positions? Why did Putin bring Turkey into the inner circle and let Islamist Erdogan (who Assad, rightly, does not trust) move his army deeper into Syria? Why was BiBi all smiles after meeting with Putin?

What is going on here?

Posted by: Temporarily Sane | Feb 24 2017 22:34 utc | 101

About ISIS strategy: I am guessing that the leaders are (a) true believers and (b) quite clever, perhaps brilliant. From our perspective they are insane, but if assuming their goals, what they do is sensible.

To achieve unified Umma ruled according to "correct principles", roughly their interpretation of Hanafi jurisprudence school, they need a revolution in key Muslim countries, and the revolution needs a convincing current inspiration. Creating a revolutionary state as large as it was and keeping it for as long as they did exceeded everybody's expectation. Details of the endgame are a bit less important. The important aspects is that their valiant fight could be successful without backstabbing by hypocritical Muslim regimes, and not because of their flagging spirit. It is OK to abandoned hopeless positions, but it is also important to have lightning attacks that deliver spectacular successes, even if they are fleeting.

Also, at the very end the revolution needs the preservation of some core cadre. For that, mobile warfare is much better than static one, and it will allow thousands of fighters to disperse and mix with other war refugees. One has to wonder what Jordan, Turkey and other countries will do with tens of thousands of former fighters. Simple extermination of indeterminate detention in concentration camps will probably not happen, but what will happen?

Posted by: Piotr Berman | Feb 24 2017 23:46 utc | 102

  /Why? Why? What is going on here?/
Are you drawing a mind-set path us to follow? Haphazardly.

Posted by: ALAN | Feb 25 2017 0:34 utc | 103

Netanyahu sees in Russia, bowing his head, begging for his country's security from the Russians.

Posted by: ALAN | Feb 25 2017 0:41 utc | 104

@102 What is going on here?

Criminals doing their crimes aka The Dark Side.

Posted by: ALberto | Feb 25 2017 0:44 utc | 105

About ISIS strategy: I am guessing that the leaders are (a) true believers and (b) quite clever, perhaps brilliant. From our perspective they are insane, but if assuming their goals, what they do is sensible.

To achieve unified Umma ruled according to "correct principles", roughly their interpretation of Hanafi jurisprudence school,...blah blah

Ah yes, those noble warriors who, when not busy massacring prisoners and raping Yazidi girls, cultivate their minds by reading the complete jurisprudence works of Uma Hanafi ibn Nasrallah al Usrah.
Who gives a shit about the goals of those nonhumans. To hell with them.

Posted by: hopehely | Feb 25 2017 1:01 utc | 106


I am not sure the Turkish army is that efficient. It has been seriously weakened by the dismissal of key generals after the coup. In addition it is not trained to fight Islamist extremists and IEDs. Thirdly fighting ISIS is not popular among Turks as many are Islamists and IS sympathizers. They rather have the army fight the Kurds. Fourthly Erdogan does not totally trust the army and if it gets too important, he worries about another coup.
More body bags coming from Al Bab may soon start to disturb the Erdogan voters.
Overall the military adventure in Syria, expected to be quick and easy as the capture of Jarabulus, is turning out to be a quagmire.
If it continues, chances for the YES in the referendum may dwindle with very negative consequences on Erdogan.

Posted by: virgile | Feb 25 2017 1:11 utc | 107


If Erdogan leaves, the country will seek more closeness with the West rather than with the dysfunctional Arab Gulf countries.
It will also re-establish good relations with Egypt, Iraq and even Syria.
Turkey will return to be more secular with a free press. It will restart dialog with the PKK to find a solution to the Kurdish issue.

Overall the removal of Erdogan has much more positive consequences than negative.

Posted by: virgile | Feb 25 2017 1:19 utc | 108

@virgile 108, 109

I fully agree about the Turkish army and Erdogan's worries, but it's still strong enough to secure a medium-sized town. From my understanding, it won't push much further after Al-Bab since there's some kind of demarcation line agreed with Moscow/ Damascus.

Good relations with Egypt, Iraq, Syria? I have my doubts since those are pro-Russian, and any post-Erdogan government would be more pro-western imo. Erdogan tries to act independently, foreign-policy-wise, which doesn't work out too grand, but so far he's muddling through.

Posted by: smuks | Feb 25 2017 2:00 utc | 110

@Piotr 103

Good points. The physical 'Caliphate' will disappear, but the idea lives on in people's heads, and maybe resurface when some cadres see its time as having come.

But ISIS can't exist without external funding & supplies of weapons, captagon etc. So even if its leaders have some strategy of their own, they can't refuse letting themselves be used as a tool by their backers. And I'm wondering where they might be sent to next, if or when the Syrian adventure is over...?

Posted by: smuks | Feb 25 2017 2:10 utc | 111

"Who gives a shit about the goals of those nonhumans. To hell with them."

They will not go away just because we do not wish them well. For example, to have more of the followers surviving the end of the Caliphate, they need a three way war in Syria as different parties try to partake different pieces. Turkey is corrupted by ISIS followers: this is pet cobra tragedy. You use secret services to handle people who can wreck havoc upon your opponents, but as a result, true believers in their ideas take hold in those services. Cobras can bite their handlers. Jordan is utterly timorous, living on handouts, largest coming from the Gulf. Iraq lost the "institutional experience" allowing to run a competent police state (Maliki version was both cruel and incompetent), Egypt is just a notch better. Syria will be in shambles, prolonged by Western sanctions.

The West did a lot to foment the civil wars and to let them last longer. It was precious oxygen for that conflagration.

Posted by: Piotr Berman | Feb 25 2017 3:08 utc | 112

Re: Posted by: smuks | Feb 24, 2017 3:44:43 PM | 96

Tulsa Gabbard - well wouldn't that be something.

Posted by: Julian | Feb 25 2017 5:04 utc | 113

@virgile | 110
The comments were made in Bahrain, where paranoia over domestic Shia tensions are easily exploited for political gain. Especially at a time when Turkey is desperate for Arab investment!
Having said that there is truth to what Cavusoglu said. Iran is without doubt trying to forge a Shia corridor to the Med; nothing new there.
Turkey really is not in an enviable position. Energy wise it is heavily dependent on Iran and Russia - and even the latest Israeli gas deal is hardly going to change that.
In addition there is escalating rivalry for regional supremacy between Iran and Turkey, with Turkey very much losing its once lauded potential.
The article reflects more of the considerable frustration that Turkey feels about its situation. It is lashing out. But no amount of Israeli gas or northern territory will reduce its long term reliance on Iran and Russia.
By contrast Iranian press is often very relaxed and jokey about Turkey's predicament ...

As for Erdogan's 'departure', as much as I hate the man, I disagree that it would be a positive thing at the moment. What is needed is strong domestic opposition and strong international dimplomacy to 'manage' his ambitions. His power needs to be tempered not exploited - in my opinion Merkel, Rouhani and Putin understand this and have managed to do just this to some degree.

Posted by: AtaBrit | Feb 25 2017 7:57 utc | 114

@ AtaBrit | 115

Having said that there is truth to what Cavusoglu said. Iran is without doubt trying to forge a Shia corridor to the Med; nothing new there.

Paranoia isnt new here, but not only you wont be able to prove "Shia corridor" claim, it doesnt even make sense.

Iran is using soft power to expand its influence (much like China), and its of high importance to them to have a friendly route Iraq-Syria-Lebanon.

That said, its absolutely against Iran's interests to break those countries apart, and if it happens - among other things it loses the route too. There arent anywhere near enough Shia's on the path to even entertain the idea of carving out "Shia corridor", nor Iran ever showed interest. Its simply impossible from any point of view.

Posted by: Harry | Feb 25 2017 8:37 utc | 115

103 Piotr
What is Hanafi jurisprudence doing here? Salaf are usually Hanbalis

Posted by: Mina | Feb 25 2017 10:01 utc | 116

Harry | 116
Iran needs and wants controlled access to the med. This is not difficult to understand. As for Iran supporting break up, I agree it does not. But, also I am sure it will not forgo its ambitions of reaching the med to ensure territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq.

Posted by: AtaBrit | Feb 25 2017 10:41 utc | 117

@Harry | 116 Aha ... The word corridor is the sticking point. I am talking in terms of influnce, alliance, control. And for Shia interests to dominate does not require a soley Shia population, lets not forget.

Posted by: AtaBrit | Feb 25 2017 10:48 utc | 118

America! please, deal with your own monsters, warmongers, bankers, MIC companies, media, rotting Zionism, deep state .. the whole world became sick and tired of!!!

Posted by: ALAN | Feb 25 2017 13:12 utc | 119

103 Piotr
What is Hanafi jurisprudence doing here? Salaf are usually Hanbalis

Sorry, I keep mixing Hanbali and Hanafi. But I read that it makes a huge difference for ISIS.

Posted by: Piotr Berman | Feb 25 2017 13:34 utc | 120

Sic Semper Tyrannis today. "this has resulted in more US casualties. IMO this is the cost of doing business." That is just so offensive & demeaning to human life.

Posted by: Daisee | Feb 25 2017 16:15 utc | 121

@ ALAN comment # 120 wrote
America! please, deal with your own monsters, warmongers, bankers, MIC companies, media, rotting Zionism, deep state .. the whole world became sick and tired of!!!
The rest of the whole world needs to stop buying US Treasuries which is funding the carnage.

I am beginning to believe that this may happen and that Trump has been put in place to negotiate with the world on the default of US debt. Wouldn't that be a hoot.

Posted by: psychohistorian | Feb 25 2017 18:42 utc | 122

you bet it makes a big difference for IS: most Hanafis authorize alcohol!

Posted by: Mina | Feb 25 2017 20:16 utc | 123

@ Posted by: Peter AU | Feb 24, 2017 12:52:25 AM | 65

Deep State (0.01%) don't give a shit what the Trump-faction does policy wise as long as there is a continuance of direct & indirect Empire for exploitative profit(1) & sustained global hegemony(2), hence the ongoing multi-faceted influence campaign against Trump-faction. KSA & the GCC is not an issue of morality, law, rights, or any other such considerations to them, only and always, merely the former, (1) & (2).

Hence nationalism(Sovereignty) for the Deep State means abandonment of Empire, the needs of the Empire (Globalism) even out-way the needs of the primary State (The US of A). Yep, triggers an illogical, irrational & emotive response in many, IMV.

If one considers a scenario such as the ludicrous 'Red Dawn' remake, where North Korea invades mainland US, anyone who collaborates, such as an interpreter(?), with the Evil NKs, and then flees back to NK with them, would be unequivocally seen as a traitor almost without exception ... so why are traitors to their own communities, people, (other) nations, who flee back with us, the aggressor nation, the 'invader', A-OK ?

Indoctrination and deeply ingrained false beliefs re, western faux democracy wearing the 'White Hats', being the faux default Good Guys ... 'Exceptionalism' run very deep ... hence no accident the naming of the, 'White Helmets', an intensely venal, egregious and amoral sustained fraud on humanity of the first order. dare not check how they went at the Oscars re the 'Short Documentary' category :(

@ Posted by: Curtis | Feb 24, 2017 4:52:08 PM | 101

Perfidious Albion created KSA and the House of Al-Saud, they were merely handed-off to us during/after WWII as the baton of global hegemony was passed to us. As long as we don't bleed, lives count for nothing. It's probably amusing to them that the beholden KSA wahhabists pay for the proxies to be our boots, whilst at the same time we kill them when convenient and will ruthlessly destroy them when they inevitably have outlived their usefulness. KSA is a beholden vassal, we hold by the balls, and the house of Al-Saud fears our capriciousness, but it's own spawn, greatest of all, IMV.

Ustinov was a great actor. Must say enjoyed the novel much more than the film, usually the case ... hollywood rarely beats ones own powers of imagination ...

Posted by: Outraged | Feb 26 2017 12:10 utc | 124

"(Russia) wants a unified Syria (..) and without Turkey occupying the north of Syria"

Lol! Magnier is a bit wrong or doesn´t he noticed that there is some deal? The proudly announced cooperation of Turk and Russ Airforces around al-Bab?
However, there was a russian official quoted by TASS last week, saying when the war is over, Hezbollah and IRGC will LEAVE Syria. Some kind of backstab, isn´t it?

So pls anyone be careful with those one-sided Magnier stuff!

Posted by: Klaus-Peter | Feb 26 2017 13:32 utc | 125

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