Damascus and Moscow in a Fight Against Terrorism in Syria
New Eastern Outlook / Виктор Титов
Despite the fact that the combat potential of the “Islamic State” (IS) in Iraq and Syria remains high enough, the process of regrouping of the troops has started, they are moving from the SAR to Iraq, and what is more important, their financial support by revenues from smuggling oil to Turkey has weakened. Currently, there are more and more deserters from the IS troops and tensions with local communities are growing. There is evidence that IS followers prevent residents of Al-Raqqah escaping from the city by threatening them with repression. And, for the IS, Al-Raqqah is sacred. This city, the capital of this “Islamic Caliphate”, in the past was one of the centers of the Iraqi Abbasid Caliphate. But now, the fact that it is used as a major transit point for the smuggling of oil is more important. And as the strikes by the RF airspace forces and the SAR air forces intensify, disappointment of the population in IS will grow, especially due to the large-scale destruction of the oil smuggling infrastructure facilities and channels of its distribution. And it is not just that the cash ‘revenues’ of the IS militants (the monthly amount has dropped from 600 to 300 USD) is reduced, but, above all, the personal income of those who profit from smuggling, including the leadership of the IS, the Kurdish leader M. Barzani and Turkish President R.T.Erdogan, has fallen.
More and more Sunnis, who form the basis of the IS, have become followers of Bashar al-Assad. Besides, they formed the armed opposition groups of Qatar and Turkey. All of this challenges the prospects for Turkish-Qatari influence in Syria. It is obvious, that IS, which was supported by many of those who oppose Bashar al-Assad, in the end, will be expelled from Syria. Groups of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ in Syria are still very weak. Besides, in this situation Saudi Arabia would do everything possible to make such groups disappear from the political scene in Syria. And, the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ is considered a global threat in Riyadh.
The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently torn. His urgent visit to Qatar was an attempt to create a united anti-Russian front in the SAR. In Doha, he negotiated a program of support for the loyal groups of rebels, which Qatar was to continue to finance.
Thus, all talks about Qatari gas, which allegedly was to replace the Russian gas, are just empty talks. With one low capacity terminal for liquefied natural gas in Turkey, it is technically hardly probable.
And, nevertheless, Ankara (including the pressure of Turkish business circles) is interested in establishing bilateral relations with Russia and will try to achieve it by any means, including informal diplomatic channels.
However this does not prevent Turkey from intensifying its military efforts in Syria. Back, since 2011, in addition to the land border area it has been using the city port of İskenderun (Hatay Province) for the clandestine transfer of arms and military equipment to Syria from the ravaged depots of the Libyan Armed Forces. On the military bases in the city’s vicinity, British and French military instructors trained future anti-governmental Syrian militants; and the CIA and the United States Special Operations Command equipped them with communications systems and supplied the future militants with intelligence information. Training of the Syrian anti-governmental groups and of the active units of the Turkish Armed Forces were carried out simultaneously, thus ensuring the required level of understanding between the warlords in Syria and the Turkish military.
In addition, the official Ankara has established a training center near the Turkish city of Adana (the military base ‘Adana’ is also used to move armaments to Turkey) which is located 130 km from the border with Syria. And there is a center for distribution of illegal deliveries of armaments, communication systems and other military equipment for the militants of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), located in Istanbul. The peak of the ‘active defense’ of Turkish interests in the Syrian conflict became the destruction of the Russian bomber by the Turkish fighter plane. Probably, the Turkish special services in coordination with their counterparts from NATO were planning to seize the Russian pilots, but the Islamists, supported by official Ankara, failed to complete the ground part of the operation.
The Turkish authorities supported the IS for two main reasons: the desire to destroy Syria and its legitimately elected authorities and to cash in on the oil smuggling. Just from two oil field sites, “al-Tank” and “Al-Omar” (and the IS has about 10 oil fields at their disposal), IS extracts from 20 to 40 thousand barrels per day, i.e. at a cost of $ 10 USD per barrel the terrorists earn between 200 and 400 thousand USD; and the Turkish businessmen get a real ‘margin’, which is two to three times more than the said amount, as the average world price of oil reaches $ 39 USD per barrel. The salary of the average IS militant is 300 USD, and to support 30,000 soldiers (the minimum effective number) it is enough to have only two oil fields operating continuously just one week per month. It is obvious that the Turkish side, even at the lowest volumes of Syrian oil deliveries earns hundreds of millions of US dollars annually.
In the context of the Syrian advance and the intensification of air strikes against the armed opposition groups, as well as the uncertainty of what Ankara might do, the ranks of the so-called ‘moderate opposition’ have shown signs of activity, as well as those who are fighting against al-Assad with arms, but are not as radical as the extremist or terrorist organizations.
So, on the threshold of the meeting of the opponents of the legitimate Damascus government, organized by the Saudis, the leaders of a number of parties and establishments of the internal patriotic opposition announced their intention to hold their own event with the same agenda simultaneously in the capital of the SAR. According to the General Secretary of the Syrian Arab Solidarity Party Abu Qassem, a large part of the opposition will not be presented in Riyadh. The Head of the Committee for Patriotic Democratic Action, Mr. Marai, said that the meeting in Riyadh did not make any sense, since all decisions of its participants have been made long ago by the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on behalf of the Syrian participants, who will simply rubber stamp them.
Since the Saudis did not invite the Kurds, the latter have also announced their intention to hold their own event under the slogan ‘For the Construction of a Free and Democratic Syria’. The meeting, according to the leader of the Democratic Union Party, will be held in the province of Hasakah in Malyakiya.
In any case, it is clear that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States, when they saw the success of the Syrian army and the RF airspace forces, have decided to head out of the intra-Syrian dialogue on reconciliation under international supervision, in which Iran became involved in addition to Russia. And talks with representatives of Damascus, which is slowly but obviously moving towards victory, have lost meaning for them, since it is clear that Bashar al- Assad is not going to leave, but intends to participate in the elections after the end of the conflict in the SAR with all chances to win.
Then the question arises: what is the benefit for Russia in this dialogue, whether it is in the Geneva or Vienna format, even though the US offered the next round to be held in New York? Especially, since Moscow’s reaction was a signal: there are no objections, but first some conditions should be met. Dialogue of the winning party with the losing one to replace the leader of the winning side is harmful and dangerous. Instead of shallow talks with representatives of those, who were abroad all the time or with arms in the hands were fighting against their own people for money from the external sponsors, it is better to step up the advance on all fronts, destroying terrorists and their followers.
Furthermore, there is nothing for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to do there also, considering they do not even have a common border with the SAR, but for 4 years have been stoking the fire of civil war in the country. If they want to meet with the renegades of the Syrian people in Riyadh – that’s their business. But then the Saudis have no place in the Vienna format.
In this situation, Ankara has begun an active search for new partners in the fight against Russia. It is notable, that Turkish and Ukrainian defense-industrial companies have engaged in the combined effort of developing armored vehicles. Thus, Turkish design engineers invited Ukrainian experts to cooperate in developing an active protection system AKKOR for the new Turkish tank “Altay”. The main problem of this system is the low efficiency of its radar detection of rockets. Recently it became known, that for the Qatari money, the Turks have bought “Igla” MANPADs in Ukraine (around 170 units), some of which were transferred to the Syrian Turkomen. One of them, by the way, was used to destroy the Russian helicopter that flew in the search and rescue mission of the SU-24 air navigator. So, Kiev and Ankara could be prosecuted for the supply of MANPADs to terrorist organizations that is strictly forbidden by the corresponding international convention.
So far, it might be concluded that the Turkish political elite will continue the policy of exacerbation of relations with Russia, and thus eventually force itself into a corner, as NATO understands the real level of Russia’s military potential, and would most probably reject the idea of military confrontation with Moscow, although it may continue to push Ankara to do this. In the West, they are dreaming of how by just one shot to get rid of the two main competitors in the Middle East: Russia, headed by V. V. Putin, and Turkey, headed by R.T.Erdogan. However, Moscow understands this. It’s a pity that this is not yet understood by Ankara.
Viktor Titov, Ph.D in History and political commentator on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.