Mideast conflicts have a nasty habit of occurring all at once. And while all eyes have been on Gaza and Israel this past week, several major diplomatic and military developments have occurred on the Syrian front — some of which may prove decisive to the end game of a 20-month old crisis.
The rebels are winning. The insurgents on the ground in Syria appear to be winning more and more territory and confiscating more and more high-grade materiel from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Just as Operation Pillar of Defense was kicking off over Gaza on Nov. 14, the Free Syrian Army took the entire city of al-Bukamal along the Iraqi border, where they also sacked two major airbases, giving the opposition a strong military foothold in Syria’s easternmost province, a vital smuggling route for weapons.
The rebels then claimed a massive victory on the night of Nov. 18, sacking the Syrian Army’s 46th Regiment, 15 miles west of Aleppo, after a 50 day-long siege. The real score, though, was in confiscated materiel: Rebels made off with tanks, armored vehicles, Type-63 multiple rocket launchers, artillery shells, howitzers, mortars, and even SA-16 surface-to-air missiles. Gen. Ahmed al-Faj of the Joint Command, a consortium of different rebel battalions, told the Associated Press: “There has never been a battle before with this much booty.” (For a seemingly comprehensive video accounting of the rebel haul, check out Brown Moses’s blog.)
The gains have only continued in the past week. On Nov. 20, rebels hit the Syrian Information Ministry in Damascus with two mortar rounds and stormed an air defense base at Sheikh Suleiman, about 11 miles from the Turkish border, where they seized stocks of explosives before withdrawing to elude retaliatory air strikes. “Assad’s forces use the base to shell many villages and towns in the countryside,” one rebel said. “It is now neutralized.”
Just two years ago, as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Turkey removed visa requirements with several countries, including Syria, its neighbor to the south. Thousands of middle class Syrians flooded the 500-mile border, visiting the malls of Gaziantep or scouting for business partners amongst Turkey’s vibrant merchant class. It was a time of great enthusiasm about Turkey across the Middle East, the heyday of the Mavi Marmara affair, when the Eastern-looking Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to be standing up to Israel, even the United States. Arabs embraced Turkish soap operas and named their baby boys Tayyip. Erdogan was best friend to everyone, and on especially good terms with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The two were photographed palling around in the sunny Aegean town of Bodrum. Erdogan called Assad “brother.”
Then the Arab Spring started. After months of carnage, Erdogan took a stand. With characteristically dramatic flair, he called for his old friend Assad to step down. “Bashar al-Assad comes out and says ‘I will fight to the death’. For the love of God, who are you fighting with?” Erdogan said. “If you want to see someone who has fought until death against his own people, just look at Nazi Germany, just look at Hitler, at Mussolini, at Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. If you cannot draw any lessons from these, then look at the Libyan leader who was killed just 32 days ago.” Back then, it seemed like Assad might suffer the same fate as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi.
That was almost a year ago. Today, an estimated 30,000 Syrians have been killed, towns and cities destroyed. One hundred thousand civilians have fled the violence to refugee camps over the Turkish border. Syrian bombs fall increasingly close to Turkish villages where, in some places, only a narrow river separates the two countries. In June, the Syrians shot down a Turkish fighter jet. By that time, Erdogan had already become one of the loudest critics of the Assad, vowing to take whatever steps necessary to protect his people.
The Air War in Aleppo: The battle for Syria’s north is not a fair fight. But the rebels are winning anyway.
For insurgents that are outgunned and lacking support, Syria’s rebels are a consistently cheerful lot. It’s not hard to see why: Here in the country’s northern Aleppo province, they have largely driven Syrian troops out of the countryside, and are forcefully challenging President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on the city of Aleppo.
The green, white, and black flag of the Syrian opposition flies at the Bab Salama border crossing with Turkey, which the rebels captured on July 22. A few weeks after it was taken, the Turkish government agreed to reopen the crossing as if the rebels were the recognized government. Even now, though, it is possible to walk through the border gates between Turkey and Syria, get your passport stamped by a grinning rebel at an immigration post, and hitch a ride south in the back of a truck. It may not be luxurious, but it is a far cry from the illegal and dangerous hike across the Turkish frontier that many reporters and activists were previously forced to take to enter Syria.
Syrian rebels have largely cleared regime troops from the area between the Turkish border and Aleppo, the country’s economic hub and largest city. Abdul Nasser al-Khatib, a rebel commander in the newly formed al-Tawhid (“Unity”) Brigade, an organization of rebel groups around Aleppo, claimed that opposition forces hold an approximately 125- by 25-mile area in the north.
Turkey has scrambled six F-16 fighter jets near its border with Syria after Syrian helicopters came close to the border, the country’s army says.
Six jets were sent to the area in response to three such incidents on Saturday, the statement said, adding that there was no violation of Turkish airspace.
Last month, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet in the border area.
The incident further strained already tense relations between former allies.
Turkey’s government has been outspoken in its condemnation of Syria’s response to the 16-month anti-government uprising, which has seen more than 30,000 Syrian refugees enter Turkey.
Turkey’s military has more than 500 miles of border with Syria to defend. It has now decided to treat everything that happens on the Syrian side of the border with extreme suspicion.
The scrambling of the jets is a sign of continuing tensions. A little over a week ago, Syria shot down a Turkish warplane. Syria says that the aircraft was flying inside Syrian airspace - a charge denied by Turkey.
Following this incident, the Turkish government announced that it had revised its military rules of engagement towards Syria. From now on, every military element that approached the Turkish border from Syria would be considered as a threat. The military has now acted on its new rules.
Turkey is keen to show that it’s protecting its territory. The government allows its southern border region of Hatay to be used as a staging ground for Syrian opposition rebels. But it doesn’t want this region to become an actual battleground.
On Friday, Turkey said it had begun deploying rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns along the border in response to the downing of its F-4 Phantom jet on 22 June.
A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said. The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to the rebels, but it has also acknowledged that Syria’s neighbors would do so.
The clandestine intelligence-gathering effort is the most detailed known instance of the limited American support for the military campaign against the Syrian government. It is also part of Washington’s attempt to increase the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has recently escalated his government’s deadly crackdown on civilians and the militias battling his rule. With Russia blocking more aggressive steps against the Assad government, the United States and its allies have instead turned to diplomacy and aiding allied efforts to arm the rebels to force Mr. Assad from power.
By helping to vet rebel groups, American intelligence operatives in Turkey hope to learn more about a growing, changing opposition network inside of Syria and to establish new ties. “C.I.A. officers are there and they are trying to make new sources and recruit people,” said one Arab intelligence official who is briefed regularly by American counterparts.
Turkish fighter jets have carried out air strikes on three targets in northern Iraq in an ongoing campaign to counter terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members hiding in camps there, Turkish army said on Wednesday.
Turkey has been conducting air raids against camps of the PKK hidden in Iraq’s northern mountains since August last year following the breakdown of a ceasefire and an increase in attacks on Turkish troops and civilians by the PKK.
A military statement said the jets hit the suspected PKK shelters in Iraq’s Zap region on Friday near the Turkish border, then returned safely after an “effective” operation.
The military did not provide details about damage or casualties on the ground and there was no immediate confirmation from the PKK.
The PKK members have long used northern Iraq as a springboard for hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets. This year, Turkey’s air force has launched dozens of air raids on suspected PKK bases and other targets in northern Iraq and along the Turkish side of the mountainous border.
In December, the warplanes targeted smugglers they mistook for PKK members, killing 34 of them in one of the largest one-day civilian death tolls during Turkey’s 27-year drive against the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The attack sparked demonstrations across Turkey.
The group has been fighting for autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The PKK is labeled a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States, which has supplied Predator drones to Turkey to assist its fight.
Syrian security forces determined to quell a three-month uprising stormed the northern village of Badama, near the Turkish border, a witness and an activist said Saturday.
Units entered the village equipped with at least six tanks, 21 armed personnel carriers, 10 security buses and randomly fired at houses, the Syrian activist said, adding that security forces also closed the road to the village of Khirbet Aljooz.