World War 5
While the world media cheer the taking of Ramadi in Iraq—supposedly by government troops, but in fact spearheaded by sectarian Shi'ite militias—comparatively little note is made of advances against ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). An alliance of revolutionary Kurds and secular Arab militias, the SDF continues to take ground from ISIS in Syria's north. On Dec. 27, the SDF announced the taking of the strategic Tishreen Dam, which had been held by ISIS for over a year, and generates electricity for much of Syria's north. Its taking will ease electricity and water shortages in Kobani, the Kurdish town where the tide was first turned against ISIS in the region a year ago. SDF officer Rami Abdel Rahman told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the eastern Euphrates Valley is now cleared of ISIS and "the battles are now on the western bank of the river." (Rudaw, Dec. 27)
It is looking like the supposed diplomatic breakthrough on Syria could actually end up only escalating the war. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin last week to hash out a common position. (AFP, Dec. 15) This came just days after Kerry explicitly disavowed that the US is seeking "regime change" in Syria—making the US tilt to Assad clearer than ever, and vindicating Putin in his move to start bombing Syira. On Dec. 18, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution establishing a six-month time-table for "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" in Syria. "Free and fair" elections are to be held within 18 months under UN supervision with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to vote. However, the official press release on the resolution made no mention of dictator Bashar Assad—and the notion that he will preside over such a transition defies five years of horrific reality.
Disturbing reports emerged Dec. 14 that the Russian navy forced a Turkish merchant ship to change course in a brief confrontation in the Black Sea. Russian naval forces were apparently protecting vessles that were towing two oil drilling platforms that are being disputed between Russia-annexed Crimea and Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea last year, the Chernomorneftegaz drilling company—a subsidiary of Ukraine's parastatal Naftogaz—was seized by the Crimean regional parliament. Ukraine says it will challenge the seizure before international arbitrators. Chernomorneftegaz's drilling platforms, operating in international waters off the Ukrainian port of Odessa, were being relocated to Russian territorial waters when they were bocked by a Turkish merchant ship. Moscow's Defense Ministry said the incident was "resolved" when a Russian missile cruiser chased the Turkish vessel off. In another incident reported one day earlier, the Defense Ministry said its destroyer Smetlivy "fired warning shots" to deter a Turkish fishing vessel in the Aegean Sea "to avoid a collision." Turkey's military attaché in Moscow was summoned to the Ministry over the incident. (Daily Sabah, Dec. 15; RT, Dec. 14; RT, Dec. 13)
The mutual hypocrisy of the Russo-Turkish game for control of Syria continues to become more grimly amusing. Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu today accused Russia of attempting "ethnic cleansing" with its air-strikes in northern Syria. "Russia is trying to make ethnic cleansing in the northern Latakia [region] to force [out] all Turkmen and Sunni populations who do not have good relations with the [Syrian] regime," Davutoglu told reporters in Istanbul, according to the BBC News. He added that the Russian air-strikes are "strengthening" ISIS. Turkmen areas in Latakia have indeed been coming under vicious Russian aerial bombardment, and it is plausible that these air-strikes are ethnically taregted. But Turkey has also been conniving with ISIS and other jihadist forces that are bent on "cleansing" Kurds, Yazidis and Assyrians. The fact that Moscow (for its own propagandistic purposes) is now making such charges doesn't mean that they aren't true! And Turkey's plans for a "buffer zone" in northern Syria are clearly aimed at expunging the Kurdish autonmous zone in the region. What's more, Turkey is arguably already commiting ethnic cleansing in its renewed counter-insurgency campaign against Kurdish rebels within its own territory.
A split in the Syrian rebel forces could actually be salubrious. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a broad and very loose alliance that includes both secular pro-democratic elements and "moderate" (sic) Islamists—the latter considerably more hostile to the very secular-minded Kurds. A clean break between those who support or oppose a multi-ethnic secular post-Assad Syria is inevitable and would clear the political air. Unfortunately, this split is also breaking down along ethnic lines—and is embroiled with the Russo-Turkish game being played for northern Syria. The specter of ethnic warfare and Great Power intrigues threatens to further derail the Syrian revolution and escalate the already confused civil war.
With Moscow threatening sanctions against Turkey in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border, plans for a Russo-Turkish free trade zone appear be on hold—along with key energy projects. Foremost among these is the TurkStream gas pipeline, which Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said Moscow could "restrict." (Reuters) TurkStream is being developed by GazProm, the Russian energy giant, to export Russian (and potentially Central Asian) natural gas through Turkey via the Black Sea. Ulyukayev's hedging is understandable: this has long been a strategic project for Moscow, which has long nurtured a grudge over the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline—linking the Caucasus to Turkish port of Ceyhan through a route that by-passes Russia.
The situation on Turkey's Syrian border has only escalated since Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane two days ago. A Russian rescue helicopter was shot down by Syrian rebels while searching for the two pilots of the downed warplane. The helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in a regime-held area of Syria's Latakia governorate. The rebels were using (possibly CIA-supplied) US-made TOW missiles. (The Mirror) One pilot was rescued in the joint Russian-Syrian operation and brought to a base in Latakia, Moscow says. A Russian marine was also reported killed during the rescue mission. The other pilot was shot by rebels as he parachuted from the hit plane, according to Moscow. (AP)
Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border Nov. 24, aparenently after it violated Turkish airspace. Vladimir Putin said the Su-24 was hit by air-to-air missiles fired by Turkish F-16s while it was flying over Syrian territory. A military statement from Ankara said the plane violated Turkish airspace in Hatay province and was warned "10 times in five minutes." Reports indicate the plane crashed in Syrian territory, near Yamadi village of Latakia governorate. (Al Jazeera, BBC News) The two pilots reportedly survived the crash but were captured and summarily executed by members of a Turkmen rebel militia. (Reuters) There is some ambiguity about what actually constitutes the border in this area, as Turkey has established a military-controlled buffer zone in Latakia.