SAA Advancing on Jihadi Supply Lines to Turkey, Turks Rattle Sabres in the Skies Against Russia, US SecDef Ash Carter Wants 101st Airborne in N. Iraq 'to Fight ISIS'

The position of Turkey's jihadist proxies is growing more desperate by the day, as combined Syrian Arab Army (SAA)/Russian artillery and air strikes blast them out of strongholds along the mountainous Turkish border with Syria. The rapid fall of the Syrian rebels junction  town of Salma and advances of the SAA are putting the jihadists' supply lines to Turkey through the al-Ghab plain and to their fortified cities Idlib and Aleppo in jeapardy. So too, is the planned Syrian Army assault on suburbs of Aleppo using TOW-resistant T-90 main battle tanks which are expected to tie down the jihadis' manpower there, while the real pincers close in to the northwest. If there's one thing the Russians know how to plan, whether it's Saur Mogila or Debaltsevo in the Donbass or Stalingrad during WWII, it's an encirclement battle that cripples and demoralizes the enemy.

The Syrian Jihadis and their Neocon Backers in the U.S./UK As Well as the Turkish/GCC Coalition Are Staring at Defeat

Regardless of how many TOW missiles the CIA tries to ship in or how many jihadis are still willing to die for their cause, when cut off from resupply takfiri terror cells whither on the vine like other military organizations. The dispersal of rebel pockets east of Damascus and Daraya, and the recent surrender of Syrian rebels in Homs to the government as part of a negotiated amnesty testify to the de-moralization of the U.S., Saudi and Qatar backed jihadists fighting Assad.

Contrary to the expectations of former U.S. Amb. Robert Ford and other hardcore Washington backers of the Syrian Al-Qaeda terrorists, the pool of Sunni cannon fodder with which to fight Assad and his Iranian/Hezbollah backers has not proven to be limitless. Thanks to the Russian Air Force, neither has the SAA crumbled in the face of attrition and several years of grinding urban combat that would've broken any other force in the Arab world. Today even the Washington (com)Post admits Assad's army is winning:

Russia’s military intervention in Syria is finally generating gains on the ground for Syrian government forces, tilting the battlefield in favor of President Bashar al-Assad to such an extent that the Obama administration’s quest for a negotiated settlement to the war suddenly looks a lot less likely to succeed.

The gains are small-scale, hard-won and in terms of territory overall don’t add up to much, in keeping with the incremental nature of war.

But after 3½ months of relentless airstrikes that have mostly targeted the Western-backed opposition to Assad’s rule, they have proved sufficient to push beyond doubt any likelihood that Assad will be removed from power by the nearly five-year-old revolt against his rule. The gains on the ground are also calling into question whether there can be meaningful negotiations to end a conflict Assad and his allies now seem convinced they can win.

SAA encircling jihadists at Daraya, and making steady advances in the Aleppo outskirts attempting to choke off supply lines to enemies in the city

The Neo-Ottoman Empire is Now Caught Between the Russian Hammer and the Kurdish Anvil

Given these distressing facts for the Turks, who have invested so much in carving out a reborn Ottoman Empire statelet in northern Syria and Iraq, taking drastic action may become more tempting. Last week we asked the question whether Turkey was preparing to invade northern Syria in order to carve out a Russian and Kurdish free 'buffer zone' where the Sunni jihadists including ISIS would fall under Turkey's protection. The answer appears to be, for now, 'no'. At least not before the Turks have triggered some sort of incident with the Russians that they and those whispering in their ear from Washington could cite as a pretext to close the Dardanelles to Russia's 'Syria Express'.

Many in the alternative media believed that the premeditated Turkish ambush of Russia's SU-24 bomber back on November 24 was designed to provoke a reaction from the Russians to rationalize precisely that step, or would start 'World War 3' when NATO backed the Turks against Moscow. Only Russian President Vladimir Putin again frustrated his adversaries by not taking the 'escalate or back down' binary bait.

Instead of engaging in tit for tat retaliation and shooting down a Turkish plane inside Turkey, Putin ordered the deployment of the world's most advanced operational air defense system the S400 as well as the guided missile cruiser Varyag to the Syrian coastal region. Putin also slapped sanctions on the Turkish economy and withdrew tourism income from the NATO member country that will cost the Turks an estimated $10 billion per year. Putin also sent the Syrians and their Hezbollah allies more advanced weaponry, such as T90s, Urugan MLRS manned with Russian crews, and Kornet ATGMs, that have begun to turn the tide against the Saudi-supplied TOWs provided to the jihadists. The result has been the devastation of the jihadists in northern Latakia and their steady retreat to the east along the Turkish border. The problem for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government is that its proxies are caught between the Russian/SAA hammer from the west and the Kurdish YPG anvil from the East.

Given the YPG's sympathies for the PKK Erdoğan is trying to eradicate on his side of the border, the likelihood of any cooperation or the U.S. being able to overcome Turkish objections to arming them to the teeth against Daesh remains low. No amount of speechifying coming from the multiple-strokes addled brain of Vice President Joe Biden while boasting about a U.S. 'military option' against the Islamic State can change these facts. And the more belligerence the Turks show towards the YPG, condemning them as terrorists synonymous with the PKK inside Turkey, the more the Kurds get driven into Assad and Moscow's camp. Not for nothing did the Russian Foreign Ministry insist on the YPG being at any peace talks in Geneva over the fierce objections of the Turks, in order to pry open the wedge that now exists between Washington and Ankara.

Will the Turks Provoke an Air to Air Altercation with Russia In Order to Divert Attention from their Poor Economy, War with the Kurds?

In light of these distressing (if you're a neo-Ottoman imperialist) facts, Erdoğan and his underlings seem to be growing increasingly desperate and erratic. Not for nothing is Patrick Cockburn wondering aloud in the pages of The Independent whether Turkey will roll the dice on an invasion of northern Syria.

Back in mid-December around the same time that Vladimir Putin taunted the Turks with a challenge to enter Syrian air space and see what happens to their F-16 jets, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu responded by threatening the Russians with bluster. Cavusoglu reportedly told Turkish television that his country's military could occupy some parts of Russia (presumably Crimea or maybe Kransodar region on the Black Sea) in less than seven days. How Turkey's alleged crack troops would pull off such a feat without getting incinerated by Russian missiles or tactical nuclear weapons, Mr. Cavusoglu did not elaborate.

An example of Turkish braggodocio and idiocy: 'we can occupy you in seven days' -- where, Crimea? Good luck with that Turks. Below: Putin in December 2015 telling the Turks 'go ahead and try' to violate Syrian air space and see what happens to their jets

Such comments are worrying to the Russia Analyst, because they speak to a certain Turkish willingness to believe their own bulls--t about being able to fight and win a war with the Russians anywhere but on Turkish soil. Such bravado makes us wonder if the Turks have either been drinking their own koolaid or are getting whispers in their ear from the type of forces in Washington and London that would love to fight Mother Russia to the last Turk (or in oil race to the bottom terms, the last Saudi prince).

Flashback to October 2015: Russian electronic jamming has flummoxed NATO and Turkish ELINT specialists operating out of Incirlik AFB

This weekend the Turks complained that Russian fighters again violated their air space as they were last autumn before the SU-24 shoot down. The Turks also announced via their domestic news agencies that they've put their air force on 'Orange Alert' which gives pilots authorization to deal with any threat to them while paroling near the Syrian border. This time instead of apologizing or stating that the violation occurred for only a few seconds and was inadvertent as before November 24, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman basically told the Turks to shut up and stop lying. The Pentagon, for its part, meekly asserted that the Turkish claim of an airspace violation was true:

The US Department of Defense “can confirm” that a Russian Su-34 strike fighter violated Turkish airspace on Friday, the Pentagon’s spokesman said in a statement. Yet Washington has called on both Moscow and Ankara to “take measures to prevent escalation.”

“We are aware of reports and can confirm that yesterday another Russian combat aircraft violated Turkish — and NATO – airspace,” Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told RIA Novosti in a written statement Saturday.

“We call on Russia to respect Turkish airspace and cease activities that risk further heightening instability in the region,”Wright’s statement goes on.

Taking the side of its NATO ally, Pentagon also stressed that it was important that Russia and Turkey “talk to each other and take measures to prevent escalation.”

Moscow has clearly had enough of Erdoğan's crap and the Russian aerospace forces inside Syria are more than capable of making Turkey's U.S.-equipped air force regret flying in their skies or even along the border in case the Turks attempt another sucker punch ambush. To that end, Russia recently gave international reporters including those from CBS News a tour of its guided missile destroyer off the coast of Latakia. Moscow also let it be known to the Russian media that its sending an additional 4 Su-35 4th generation plus air superiority fighter jets to Syria.

Writing for Kuwait's Al-Rai news, Elijah J. Magnier cites Syrian military sources as saying that Moscow is also helping modernize and upgrade the Syrian Air Force's MiG-29s for air combat:

The source further explains “that Russia since the downing of its plane, brought in Sukhoi Su-30 (and SU-35 series - JWS), which will deliver to the Russians air-supremacy that was missing before, also posting the anti-aircraft S400 missile system, Russia has further deployed heavier assault weapons and regained most of the Latakia governate, it has broken the Syrian Turkmen militias that’s considered the military arm of Turkey, most importantly it has given the SAA a moral boost, having upgraded the MiG-29 to MiG29-SM, installing them with ZHUK-M radar that is able to track 10 targets, and engage with 4 at one particular moment, covering 120Km having 5Km width, it is now able to launch the lethal R77 missiles, also installed on these air crafts along with other gadgets is a radio jamming device, and the upgrading enables it to carry other highly developed missiles and bombs such as the KAB-500S-E. These upgrades make the MiG39-SM the most advanced in the fourth generation line up”.

The senior source confirms “Russia has requested from Syria to conduct around the clock patrols on the Syrian-Turkish border, to ensure the safety of the Russian bombers, Russia having established new rules of engagement have authorized the Syrian air force, specifically the MiG29-SM squadron, to engage with any Turkish targets that have violated Syrian air space or attempts to violate.

By doing this Russia has given Syria its sovereignty back having lost it in 1998, and completely losing it in 2011 at the start of the revolution in Syria, as of today Syria air forces have a mandate to strike any violation without confirming with HQ, this in turn has given the Syrians a boost of morale, especially as they have been given a mandate by a super power like Russia that is physically present in Syria”

S300s offshore on Russian naval vessels and the S400 and Syrian BUK systems on shore make Syrian air space a nightmare for the Turkish air force

Clearly if the Turks are ready to throw down, Moscow is ready to bloody their faces, but would prefer that the counterpunch be thrown by its Syrian allies. And the only people that are going to give a damn in the West about Turkish jets going down in flames and/or the humiliating rout of a Turkish force invading northern Syria are going to be the neoconservatives and their pet GOP/Hillary candidates who would back anybody against the Russians, no matter who started the fight. By cynically starting an immi-vasion of Europe and using millions of refugees as pawns in his game, Erdoğan has burned his bridges with all but the Ukrainians and the most anti-Russian members of NATO. The Israelis may have recently re-established diplomatic relations with Turkey broken off after the 2010 Mavi Marmara provocation, but that didn't stop the Israeli Defense Minister from throwing the Turks under the bus, confirming the 'Kremlin propaganda' that Turkey has indeed, profited from the illicit and illegal sale of ISIS crude oil.

The best Erdoğan can now hope for to stop the rout of his proxies in northern Syria is to trigger some sort of incident with the Russian Air Force and then exploit the clash his forces initiated to close the Bosporus to Russian shipping. The neocons will then cheer that someone has finally given their hated enemy Putin a shot to the ribs, while ignoring the fact that Moscow's 'Syria Express' is more than capable of shifting from the Black to the Baltic Sea and thence the Mediterranean. The closure of the Bosporus will severely anger Russia while at best, forcing a halt to the SAA/Russian offensives for approximately 3 or 4 weeks. The Syrian Arab Army could also in a pinch, receive ammunition and fuel supplies from Gen. Sisi's Egyptian Army via the Med. A resupply for which the Egyptians would be amply compensated by Russia's quiet supporter in the Syrian operation, China. The Chinese have already warned Erdoğan to respect Iraq's sovereign borders and should the Turkish army launch a general land war for northern Syraq, China is more than capable of applying its own bit of punishment to Turkey's staggering economy.

U.S. Options for Syraq in Obama's Lame Duck Year Are Also Limited

Turning the page from Turkish provocations to what Washington intends to do about the Syraq theater, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter followed up on Joe Biden's hawkish 'military option' rambling by statements that the Kentucky-based 101st Airborne will be deployed to fight ISIS soon. One possibility Carter's remarks strongly hinted at is that the 101st will 'advise' from the front an Iraqi Army offensive on Mosul. The timing for U.S. intervention, coming as it would during an election year in which President Obama's failure to stop the rise of ISIS would be a major Republican talking point for any GOP nominee, is seen as auspicious by Russian observers such as Col. Cassad (aka Boris Rozhin). They believe Obama wants to show Americans and the world that the Democrats are just as willing to commit U.S. 'boots on the ground' in the Mideast to if need be bleed and die fighting ISIS as the Republicans. However, the Turks launching an offensive of their own into northern Syria in the name of 'fighting ISIS' but in practice attacking the YPG while the Daesh bags melted away would greately complicate any U.S. effort. In the meantime, even setting aside events in Syria, Mosul as an Iraqi Sunni city with a pre-Daesh occupation population of over one million people is surely going to be a tougher nut to crack than Ramadi.

My friend Andre Raevsky aka The Saker is skeptical that the 101st will be deployed in sufficient numbers to constitute a real U.S. offensive into the heart of the Daesh 'caliphate': is rather unlikely that the entire 101st will be deployed in the region. At most we are talking about a few battalions, maybe a ‘combat team’, but hardly enough to constitute an invasion force. Besides, the 101st is a light infantry division which simply is not suited for a land invasion role. In a conventional war, the 101st would support regular ground forces, but not replace them. In a counter-insurgency war, the 101st could do many things, including security, anti-terrorist operations, training of local forces, intelligence gathering, etc. But to imagine that the 101st will drive down from northern Syria to Damascus to overthrow Assad is simply not realistic. As for the airfield the USA supposedly took over in northern Iraq, take a look at a map to see for yourself where it is located: far away in the northeastern corner of the country, close to the Turkish and Iraqi borders, but very, very far from the city of Damascus or from the Russian radars in the Mediterranean or Latakia.

The Americans have announced that they are planning a two pronged offensive, one towards Mosul and another towards Raqqa. Considering that the US already has airbases in Turkey and Iraq, the only thing which this rather primitive airstrip (used for “agricultural purposes” in the past, i.e. crop dusting) would give them is a convenient place to bring specialized personnel in and out of the region, but hardly the hub for a major invasion force. Besides, it is still unclear whether the elements from the 101st will be deployed only in Iraq or also in Syria. At least one US magazine seems to think that rather than a combat force, the Rmeilan air base in Syria will be used by various type of US special forces including combat controllers, pararescue jumpers, special operations weathermen and other JSOC personnel. If so, then we are talking about a small and specialized force, not a ground invasion of any kind.

I think that regardless of the public statements made by Biden and Carter, it is too early to determine what Uncle Sam plans to do in Syria next. The airfield in Rmeilan is most likely just seen by the US as a good place to establish a presence and keep options open. I don’t believe for one second that the US has any intention of invading Syria, but if it did, we would see a much bigger logistical effort and the concentration of several large formations coming from different directions (Turkey and Jordan, possibly Iraq). In that case, Rmeilan could be used for US helicopters but not for fixed wing-aircraft, at least not without a major upgrade of the runway(s) and infrastructure.

What about the bigger question of whether the US has a “military solution” for Syria – is that really a possibility? I don’t think so for a very simple reason: the only force out there which can fight Daesh on the ground is the Syrian military. Even the Iranians and Hezbollah do not, at least right now, have the force levels needed to take on Daesh by themselves. In purely military terms, Turkey or Iran could, I suppose, launch a full scale invasion, but the political costs would be prohibitive. Plus the Turks probably don’t have the stomach for such a bloody war with no clear exit strategy. At most, the Turks want to seize a strip of land in northern Syria and keep the Kurds down. Unlike the Turks, the Iranians could at least be legally invited by the Syrians, but that would hardly assuage the USA, the KSA or the Turks which would be absolutely enraged by such an Iranian move. Having just won a major diplomatic victory over the USA and Israel, Iran probably has no desire at all to create yet another major crisis. Finally, as I said it a gazillion times ‘the Russians are *not* coming’. So that means that the only force capable of taking on Daesh is the Syrian military and I don’t see the US being able to provide anywhere near the kind of force levels to become a credible actor in this war.

The Syrians on the ground, the Russians in the skies, and some special assistance from Iran and Hezbollah – this is the only alliance which can take on Daesh and slowly squeeze them out of most of Syria. The Americans seem to want to use the Kurds in a role similar to the one played by the Syrian military, ‘boot on the ground’, but that completely ignores the fact that the Kurds are not a single force, that they do not have a regular army, that they are not Arabs and that Turkey, a key ally in any US operation, will never allow the Kurds to play a major regional role.

Palmyra, the ancient caravan city under Daesh occupation, could be the target of a Syrian/Russian spetsnaz offensive in the next few weeks