Support from the Russian Aerospace Force of the Russian Federation turned the tide of military operations in Syria. Bashar Asad used this chance to the full, and his Turkish neighbor, having shot down a Russian plane, made a wrong bet.
The onset of the Syrian army and its allies under Aleppo and the attacks of Syrian Kurds on the positions of the Islamic State banned in Russia in the Azaz region threatening to break the corridor between Turkey and the IG controlled territories is vital for the oil business of the Islamists with the Erdogan clan and for the influx to them money weapons and militants, have threatened the plans of Ankara, Riyadh and Doha in Syria. They clearly fail to overthrow President Assad by force.
Support from the Russian Aerospace Forces turned the tide of hostilities. Bashar al-Assad used this chance to the full, and his neighbor Erdogan, having shot down a Russian plane, made an incorrect bet. He was too used to compliant Europeans and did not calculate Moscow’s reaction to his actions. As a result of which aviation Turkey cannot be supported by the artillery shelling of Syrian Kurdish positions without the risk of being destroyed, nor the land operation announced by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Ankara, in which the United States and other NATO allies tried to drag in for a long time and unsuccessfully. Against this background, the battles in Geneva acquired a particularly fierce character. There, Western diplomats and UN officials tried to recapture what was lost by jihadists on the battlefield, seeking an immediate ceasefire, primarily by Russian aircraft. But here, the opponents of Assad did not succeed.
Who is with whom and against whom
Significant changes occurred in Iraq, where Turkey’s inability to achieve its goal led to the re-evaluation of Erdogan by his oil export partner, head of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani, forcing him to start a dialogue with Baghdad. This in itself speaks of the weakening positions in the region of the Turkish president. Angela Merkel is the only EU politician who supported Erdogan’s idea of a no-fly buffer zone in Syria. And it looks like its capitulation to the Turkish special services, which organized the flow of refugees, flooded Germany in 2015 year. In this case, the Bundeswehr will not fight in Syria for Turkey. Currently, events on the border of the two countries may unfold as they please, depending on the degree of Erdogan’s adventurism, but no matter what happens, he is cornered.
“If Assad and his allies seize Aleppo, the chances of the opposition to an equal share of power in the future coalition government tend to zero”
Consider the situation in the north of Syria and Iraq, based on the materials of A. A. Kuznetsov and Yu. B. Shcheglovina, prepared for the Institute of the Middle East.
The offensive of the Syrian army with its allies deployed in Aleppo: Lebanese Hezbollah units, Iraqi Hezbollah en-Nujaba units and Afghan Hazaras — was the most powerful in the city during the entire conflict. The anti-government armed forces resisted with difficulty, despite the fact that they had anti-tank TOW missiles. The onset of the Syrian army was preceded by long-term aviation and artillery preparation in accordance with classical military science.
It depends on how the events will develop in the next two to three months, who will be the winner in the civil war. If Assad and his allies seize Aleppo, the chances of the opposition to an equal share of power in the future coalition government tend to zero. With the exception of Raqqa in the north-east, which is under the control of the IS prohibited in Russia, only Idlib will remain in the hands of the anti-Assad forces, who after taking Aleppo will end up in the ticks of the Syrian Arab army. Thus, before the militants it became an urgent task not to further expansion, but to keep the conquered.
Due to the changed circumstances, the nine anti-government groups in Aleppo, which were hostile to each other, joined forces. The commander of the new front was one of the leaders of Ahrar al-Sham, Hashem ash-Sheikh (aka Abu Jaber), who headed the organization from 2014 to September 2015, when Abu Yahya Hamaui gave way. The largest factions united in the new coalition are Ahrar al-Sham, Liva sukkur ash-Sham and the 16-division of the Syrian Free Army (SSA).
Another news - the appearance in Aleppo of the “Dzhebhat an-Nusra” detachments. They were active in the city in 2012 – 2013, but in the summer 2014 went away because of the fighting with the “Islamic State”. As a result of the strong blows inflicted on Dzhebhat en-Nusra from the east by the IS militants, the organization was forced to regroup and transferred activities to Ham and Idlib. Currently, its supporters have installed a checkpoint in the north of the city, on the “Castello road” connecting Aleppo with Turkey, entrenched in the areas of al-Mashhad and al-Firdaus.
Why did the Jabhat al-Nusra militants return to Aleppo? It should be noted that she was not invited to the conference of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh in December 2015. Former allies and patrons of the group, declaring it a terrorist, blamed it for war crimes, in which all anti-government groups were equally involved. After that, the leader of the “Dzhebhat al-Nusra”, Abu Mohammed al-Giulani, called the opposition peace talks with Bashar Asad “a betrayal of the blood shed by the Mujahideen” and denounced the participants of the Riyad conference. The failure of the armed opposition in Aleppo gives Dzhebhat en-Nusra a chance to show its irreplaceability, and with a favorable outcome, discourage a number of territories from its competitors.
Now the group seeks to acquire new allies and strengthen the ranks, including through the Jund al-Aqsa, active in Aleppo and Hama. There was a split in its ranks: part of the militants led by Abu Abdel Rahman Mackey and Abu Shaymah Sahl leaned toward an alliance with the IG, and the main group led by the Sharia judge Abu Darr Najdi and Abu al-Farouq preferred the alliance with “Dzhebhat al-Nusroy” . The number of Islamist groups and movements is decreasing. The main ones were “Ahrar al-Sham”, IG and “Dzhebhat al-Nusra”, and small ones are absorbed by them or disappear. In the northern and central Syria, the Syrian Free Army is falling apart. Its radical wing retreats to “Dzhebhat an-Nusra” or “Ahrar ash-Sham”, while the rest join the Syrian democratic forces and fight together with local Kurds and Christian pro-Assad militias.
Ankara is very concerned about the success of the people's self-defense detachments (ONS). The prospect of creating autonomy under Turkey’s leadership under the leadership of the Allies of the Kurdistan Workers Party cannot but disturb Erdogan. The advance of the Kurds to the border controlled by the IS fighters, from Jarablus to Azaz, their seizure of the former Syrian air force base "Menag" and participation in the battles in the Aleppo area was very disturbing news for Ankara. It is indicative that the Turkish army does not bombard Kurds from the PDS. The raids on their territory are excluded due to the presence of Russian systems С-400 in SAR.
Erbil at the Crossroads
Relations with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS are supported not only by Moscow, but also by Washington, which helps the OST with armaments. February 1 was visited in Kobani by the envoy of the US-led coalition Brett McGurk. The trip of the American diplomat to the territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds caused an outburst of anger from Erdogan. He urged the United States to choose either Turkey or "Cobany terrorists" as a partner. However, Erdogan will not quarrel with the United States. Ankara wants to improve relations with Washington without compromising its own interests.
“By disrupting the smuggling of oil, the Russian VKS unexpectedly made a significant contribution to the preservation of Iraq as a single state”
What are his goals in this conflict? And how tactics will be built up in a relationship with a difficult partner? Apparently, today there are three goals in the Syrian-Turkish direction. First, to consolidate the conflict with Russia, becoming the “arbitrator” in the dispute between Moscow and Ankara. Secondly, by the end of the presidential term of Obama with the IG, that means: the support of the Syrian Kurds as the most efficient force opposing him will continue, and Turkey will be ignored. Thirdly, the possible goal of the United States is to remove Erdogan from power. The capricious leader, unpredictable in his actions and trying to establish Turkey as an independent center of power in the region, causes irritation in Washington.
In the meantime, taking into account Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish policy, the risks in his relations with Iraqi Kurdistan are growing. The rapprochement of the parties intensified in 2009, when Erdogan gave the go-ahead for investments in the regional economy and allowed the export of oil from autonomy to Turkey. In response, Erbil created the most favorable conditions for construction and energy companies representing Ankara. It was then that the foundation of the Turkish-Kurdish symbiosis, sealed by oil exports at dumping prices, was laid. The situation on the world market and the complicated transit of “black gold” through Syrian territory makes this union fragile. In addition, Ankara fears the rhetoric of the President of the Kurdistan Region Barzani on independence. The idea of turning autonomy into a state activates separatism in Turkey itself.
The anti-Kurdish topic in Erdogan’s policy is aimed at creating the necessary attitude in Turkish society in order to carry out his plan for a presidential republic through a referendum - with the authority to dissolve parliament, appoint and remove ministers, and impose a veto on laws. At the same time, there is no consensus within the AKP on this issue. Erdogan abruptly swung to the nationalist segment of the electorate, trying to rely on him in transforming the constitution. The destruction of the Russian Su-24 is the same part of the struggle for nationalists, as well as a sharp turn from the policy of negotiations with the PKK to the intensification of armed confrontation with it.
Among other things, at the initiative of Erdogan, the limitation and reduction of administrative budgets of the provinces populated by Kurds, the introduction of a curfew are occurring. Mayors of cities with a predominant Kurdish population are urged to use illegal methods of combating terrorism, including death squads from nationalists. Barzani cannot ignore all this. With his secret support on the eve of the most recent parliamentary elections, consultations were held with a number of Turkish Kurdish clans on support for the AKP. As a result, part of the Kurds did not vote for their party, but abstained or cast votes for the AKP. If Erdogan goes for tough anti-Kurdish actions, Barzani will have to make a choice and voice it publicly.
Oil leaking south
Barzani’s recent statements about the readiness to export oil through Basra on the conditions of Baghdad indicate that he is beginning to view the Turkish hydrocarbon transit channel as unreliable. Both because of the attacks of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the successes of Syrian government forces on the ground, and due to Erdogan’s policy in the Kurdish sector and the attendant risks Barzani takes into account several factors. Including the decline of its popularity within the autonomy and the absence of legitimate reasons for the prolongation of the presidency. He heads the Kurdistan Region with 2009. In August I had to leave the post, especially since social problems began to appear in the autonomy, salary was not paid chronically, and the budget was in fact defaulted.
A return to Baghdad’s womb is thus a necessary measure, with the hope that the central Iraqi government will agree to compensate for the results of inefficient economic activities. In any case, with the end of the winter, Barzani is facing hard times: the influential Kurdish party Gorran intends to end its era as the permanent leader of autonomy. If “Gorran” brings the case to the end, it will mean a revision of Erbil’s relations with Ankara regarding the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq and support for the PKK.
February 15 Iraqi Prime Minister H. al-Abadi in a television interview offered to take payments to Kurdish officials in exchange for oil from the autonomy. There was a hint at the corruption of Barzani, but in Erbil they pretended to accept the proposal as an official invitation to resume the dialogue. The situation is different from the 2014 year, when both parties agreed on a tranche of 17 percent of the Iraqi national budget in exchange for a strictly defined amount of Kurdish oil. That contract existed for several months - Erbil broke the conditions. The Kurdish leadership then, with the filing of Ankara, went to a more profitable way of transportation through Syria, which at the same time made it possible to camouflage the smuggled oil of the IG and the main thing is to make the delivery completely opaque.
The deal with Baghdad implies official tranches that are easy to take into account and control. Syrian flows at dumping prices allowed to steal almost everything. Payment schemes were not fixed anywhere, as, however, and export volumes. The entire “Kurdish part” of the proceeds went into Barzani’s pocket personally, and he distributed it among ministries and departments. This scheme, in addition to personal enrichment, allowed to provide the means of loyal to him people in the government and the power structure of autonomy. That is, the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria, disrupting smuggling supplies, unexpectedly made a significant contribution to preserving the unity of Iraq as a state ...
How big are the chances of reaching a compromise between Erbil and Baghdad, what are the prospects for its long-term? The Kurdistan Region now officially exports 600 thousand barrels per day, which, at a price of 30 dollars per barrel, gives approximately 550 million per month. At the same time, in February the salary of Kurdish officials and security officials was 890 dollars per month (excluding the reduction from 25 to 75 percent). This decision of the Kurdish authorities provoked serious social unrest and nearly ended with the resignation of Barzani from the presidency of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
If forecasts of hydrocarbon prices come true, Erbil has no prospects for independently overcoming the economic crisis. On the other hand, Baghdad also completely depends on the cost of exported oil and its own budget is bursting at the seams. Iraq owes the United States for the weapons it supplies and is currently in difficult negotiations with the IMF for urgent financial assistance. This circumstance may make it difficult for Baghdad to fulfill its obligations if a new money-for-oil transaction is concluded with Erbil. However, the guarantees are not based on the ability to pay tranches to the Kurds (the level of 890 dollars was true for the price of 46, not 35 dollars per barrel), but on other considerations. The Kurdish bureaucracy in any case will be forced to reduce the size of the salary. And there are no other ways for export from Erbil. Here the principle of “anything better than nothing” works. In addition, international companies that produce oil in the Kurdish autonomy, are interested in maintaining the old internationally recognized logistics export channels through Basra. The operational situation in Syria has changed, and continued smuggling could trigger Baghdad’s claims in international courts. Which repeatedly narrows the field for maneuvers of Barzani.
Accordingly, his idea of obtaining state independence for the region, which he had long declared at all levels, was postponed for a long time, despite the promised referendums. It is rather a reason to put pressure on Baghdad in the negotiation process about a compromise, an attempt to raise the personal rating and redistribute in its favor a part of the allocated state funds. No more. These are the consequences of the economic crisis in the global hydrocarbon market. Independence, from which none of the Kurdish parties will not give up in theory, in practice is postponed until the stabilization of oil prices. The situation in this matter may change the settlement in Syria and the resumption of exports through it to Turkey, but this is extremely unlikely in the medium term.
Of course, it is theoretically possible for Tehran to play in the conditions of the withdrawal from the Western sanctions of the "Kurdish card" in the format of financing political parties and movements for oppositional Barzani. But this is still visible only in perspective, and it is rather uncertain. The IRGC is only preparing the militia of the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, J. Talabani. In addition, Iran is not ready to sponsor the Kurdish autonomy in principle - to incite separatism in the rear of the obstinate, but nevertheless Shiite ally, H. al-Abadi, does not need Tehran. He will not refuse to remove pro-Turkish Barzani from power, but he has no need to change the situation radically. And since the Kurdistan Region does not have a chance to reach an independent state orbit, this testifies in favor of the success of the upcoming deal between Erbil and Baghdad.
The latter is bad news for Erdogan, who is threatened by the loss of the colossal funds that his family clan and he personally had with him to terminate his oil business with Barzani. Of course, the independence and state status of the Kurdistan Region could not help but provoke unrest in Kurdish-populated Turkish vilayets, but the economy completely dependent on Ankara and the connection with Erdogan meant too much for Barzani to “rock the boat” in the neighboring country. Today, Kurdish nationalists have their hands on Turkey completely untied. Taking into account how sharply Baghdad reacts to the presence of the Turkish military in Iraqi territory, Erdogan has many surprises in this direction.