Why is This Happening Now? Someone Is Trying to Bleed the Turks and Russians
It's noteworthy that despite tens of thousands of sorties, the Russian Air Force has suffered only its second jet loss of the war, after a SU24 bomber was ambushed and shot down by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015. While the SU25 is a ground attack aircraft designed in the Soviet Union to fly and fight at lower altitudes closer to the front lines, for two and a half years the jihadists were unable to shoot a RuAF plane down with both anti-aircraft guns mounted on flatbed trucks nor the limited supply of MANPADs they allegedly received funded by Saudi Arabia. The state-sponsored New Year's Day and Orthodox Christmas timed jihadi drone swarm attacks on Russia's Kheimmim air base outside Latakia allegedly destroyed multiple aircraft on the ground, yet only photos of a damaged SU24 appeared online as proof.
While a one time downing may indicate the jihadis simply got lucky and the former Ukrainian citizen Russian pilot's use of flares and maneuvering failed to throw off a heat seeking missile, it's also possible that the jihadists received more modern upgraded MANPADs from a certain former Soviet Bloc country (Ukraine, cough cough), paid for by Russia's deep state enemies. Certainly, the timing of the shoot down and the neocons unsurprising glee about it comes just days after the Russian security services chiefs of the FSB, SVR, and GRU (domestic, foreign and military intelligence) visited Washington to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation.
Meanwhile, in Afrin, Turkey's cynically named Operation 'Olive Branch' has run into more fierce resistance from the YPG Kurds than during the initial seizure of border towns. The jihadists Turkey supports were caught on video singing Al-Qaeda songs glorifying the jihad against the Russians in Chechnya and the Americans in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Another group of neo-Ottoman Syrian cannon fodder filmed themselves mutilating the body of a female YPG fighter. Still another group filmed themselves trashing a liquor store in a 'liberated' Kurdish town while aloha snackbaring.
Despite relying heavily on its bearded riff raff Syrian mercenaries to do most of the fighting, on Saturday Ankara's troops were met with a well aimed anti-tank missile shot that claimed the lives of at least seven Turkish servicemen. This attack happened after a significant Turkish Army convoy attempted a rapid advance to the town of Al-Eis through Al-Qaeda/HTS held territory, only to turn back when the Syrian Arab Army fired warning blasts of artillery fire and Russian Air Force strikes landed nearby. A vehicle born IED struck and destroyed a Turkish Army truck, claiming the life of at least two Turkish servicemen. The incident strongly suggests that, despite rumors that the Turks were basically abandoning support for their jihadist proxies not fighting directly along the anti-Kurdish Afrin axis, that Ankara and Damascus do not have a 'Afrin for Idlib' deal.
Where the Missiles Are Coming from Used to Kill Turkish Soldiers Invading Afrin
The usual pro-jihadi propagandists like Bellingcat's Eliot Higgins like to point out that both the MANPAD used to bring down the Russian jet and the anti-tank missile that killed the Turkish servicemen in or on their tank were Soviet designed and Russian made. However, not only have anti-tank missiles captured by the jihadists from the Syrian Arab Army and later seized by the YPG been used by the Kurds, but hundreds if not thousands of ATGMs were shipped into Syria for use by the rebels as part of the CIA-supported Saudi and Qatari arming program from 2012-2016. In other words, Turkey is suffering blowback from its own previous policies -- at least some of the weaponry now being used against Turks and their allies was hardware Erdogan turned a blind eye to or supported being shipped into Syria earlier.
The Syria jihadists' supporters on Twitter usually insist that every missile fired by the jihadis -- except for the American designed TOWs drawn from Saudi stocks -- has been 'seized from the regime' when in reality, many of these missiles were shipped into Syria through Turkey or Jordan from former Yugoslav and Eastern Bloc countries like Croatia and Bulgaria. Nonetheless, it is possible that many of the weapons Erdogan's government previously cooperated with the CIA and Saudis to ship into Syria for use against Assad's troops are now in YPG hands, having been liberated by the Kurds from ISIS who in turn got them via the al-CIA-eda cutouts of 'moderate vetted rebels'.
If 'blame Assad and the Russians' for Turkish losses in combat with the YPG is the neocons' propaganda gambit here, it doesn't appear to be working. Judging by the strongly patriotic sentiment Erdogan's government and state-friendly media have whipped up in Turkey, many Turks are blaming Uncle Sam for arming and training the Kurds rather than the Russians. Turks are well aware that to secure its own interests in Syria, Moscow maintains cordial relations with the YPG and invited their representatives to the Sochi conference for peace talks, yet Russia never became and never will be the Kurds superpower patron.
Greater Kurdistan is a distinctly American and Israeli project, which Damascus, the Turks, Iranians and most Iraqis all agree must be prevented. Therefore like just about every other neocon project the likes of Julian Roepcke and Michael Weiss have backed, the lets you Turks and Russians fight game is likely doomed to failure...at least for the foreseeable future. However, there is no sign Ankara is at the point of simply ordering the Americans out of Incirlik, despite many populists in Erdogan's ruling AKP coalition and the Turkish press demanding that NATO breaking step. The Turks also seem to have backed off their threats to march on Manbij and tell the American special forces based there to get the hell out of their way.
SAA Offensive Still Many Weeks or More Likely Months to Go Before Getting to Idlib
According to the Syria journalist who goes by the Russian handle Ivan Sidorenko, the Syrian Arab Army's elite Tiger Forces are well aware that their military advances may be slowed by the behind the scenes bargaining Moscow is facilitating between until very recently sworn enemies Damascus and Ankara. The SAA and especially its Iranian backed Hezbollah and allied miltias wish to press on to the besieged Shia cities of Foa and Kefraya, which have been desperately holding out against the jihadis thanks only to air dropped food and ammo supplies for a few years.
The fact that Turkey's Afrin offensive is drawing thousands of jihadists off the already thinly held lines in Idlib province, however, means the SAA can afford to be patient in encircling its enemies until the 'boilers' full of jihadis are all cooked. In this sense, the SAA and Turkish offensives are feeding off each other, and a recent Turkish attempt to send its troops to Al Eis represented a feeble effort to make up for the manpower drain on its jihadist allies.
Viewed from this perspective, Saturday's MANPAD shoot down of a Russian jet near Saraqeb where the jihadists are barely holding on under SAA pressure was likely intended as a delaying action, and to deter Russia from providing more direct fire support to the Tigers advance. If deterring the Russians from intensifying their air raids was the objective though, the operation failed, because the Russian Air Force and Navy responded by furiously pummeling the area near the crash with cluster munitions and a cruise missile strike. Nonetheless the Russian Air Force may have to operate for the foreseeable future at higher altitudes and perform more night strikes to avoid the MANPADs threat. Moscow's forces may also employ more heavy and rocket artillery in lieu of air strikes to displace the jihadis, with the Tiger Forces reportedly pressing their attack on Saraqeb's outskirts Sunday.
Will the U.S. Strike Syrian Government Forces Again Using a Chemical Weapons Pretext?
In late January chlorine gas munitions were used against the last rebel pocket in the Ghouta area east of Damascus. This attack was very similar to others that have taken place during the Syria war, in which jihadists have been caught manufacturing chlorine and mustard gas time and again, yet the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) insists only Damascus is capable of using sarin nerve agent. On Saturday the Syrian government rejected the latest U.S. allegations of gassing its own people, blaming terrorist groups for staging the chemical attacks to give Washington another pretext to attack the SAA:
Given Turkey's increasing alienation from its NATO allies and Russian determination to see through their successful campaign to bolster the legitimate Syrian government, another cruise missile strike on Syrian forces is unlikely to make any difference in the final settlement of the war. For Washington, the era of victories achieved on the cheap and especially Libya style regime changes using jihadist proxies is over, and the only question is whether neocons in the Trump Administration and Congress can cope with this Russian and Chinese ushered in end to the unipolar world. The newly announced national security policy and re-emphasis on nuclear weapons in Pentagon doctrine suggests the hardliners are far from giving up strategies of confrontation, which could include disavowed support for groups like HTS/AlQaeda/ISIS/USUS or the Kurdish PKK which the U.S. officially labels terrorist.