Putin’s Winning Hand in Syria, as Turkey Apologizes and Obama Deals

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Vladimir Putin was the skunk at the party in the West after his annexation (or repossession, depending on how you look at it) of Crimea. Europe declared that borders cannot be changed by fiat or troops. The US pressed for heavy sanctions.

The Russian intervention in Syria, primarily against al-Qaeda and to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Asad, substantially changed the conversation. The intervention was criticized for not focusing on Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) but rather on the northwestern front that is dominated by al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front) and its allies. Some of those de facto allies are “vetted” groups that receive CIA arms via Saudi Arabia, and Russia occasionally bombed them along with al-Qaeda.

Then last fall as Russian airstrikes coordinated with the Syrian Arab Army pushed al-Qaeda to the far north of Latakia Province toward the rugged Turkish border, and endangered Turkmen rebels against the Syrian regime that had made a battlefield alliance with al-Qaeda.

Turkey is backing these Turkmen rebels, who speak a language close to that of Turkey itself and who have adopted a strong Muslim fundamentalist ideology. It was unacceptable to Ankara that Russia was bombing them to smithereens and defending the al-Assad regime. So the Turkish air force shot down a Russian bomber.

In the meantime, the US CIA and its Saudi ally continued to funnel weapons to the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, most of them Muslim Brotherhood, even as at least a few of them continued to cooperate with al-Qaeda on the battlefield.

Putin reacted to Turkey’s startling attack on its air force by pulling out Russian tourists and forbidding charter flights to Turkey. Some 5% of the Turkish economy is tourism, and some important portion of that is Russian tourists. Suddenly, Antalya on the Mediterranean coast was a ghost town. Putin also cancelled some other forms of economic interchange, even down to vegetables.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, seemed surprised that Putin would react this way to the shoot-down (Russia also suffered from these forms of economic boycott). But he persevered in his Syria policy, of trying to overthrow al-Assad and of supporting fundamentalist rebels.

This week both Turkey and the US came to Putin to deal.

Turkey apologized for shooting down the Russian bomber. And in response, Putin lifted the ban on tourist charter flights. All this was in the works already, possibly brokered by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But Russians’ return to the beaches is now especially important. If any Russian tourists now come back to Turkey, they will be especially welcome given the Istanbul airport attack, which will drop tourism like a stone.

Then President Obama offered to share US intelligence on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front, if Russia would promise to stop bombing US-backed rebels. (Russia maintains that the latter are so closely intertwined with al-Qaeda that it can’t distinguish the two from the air).

All this does raise the question of why, if the US has such good intelligence on al-Qaeda in Syria, it isn’t bombing the group itself. After all it pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Sec. Kerry has admitted that it has proved difficult to separate the US-backed fundamentalists from al-Qaeda. Maybe it is just me, but maybe that is an indication that the US should change its policy.

In the poker game being played in Syria, Russia now has the winning hand.


Related video:

Euronews: “Putin rejects new arms race and builds bridges with Turkey”

26 Responses

  1. Turkey just regretted, not apologized for downing the Russian bomber which violated Turkish air space. Turkey is not going to pay for the plane. Looks like Putin softened his conditions.

    As always, the CIA is incompetent.

  2. This lends more evidence to the theory that most of the “rebels” and “terrorists” there are actually mercenaries on the books of Western intelligence.

  3. It’s a Russian chess grandmaster versus American 11th-dimensional checkers, but with a more evenly matched hybrid meta game of Risk on The Grand Chessboard.

    It’s amazing how blinded by propaganda are Americans to the U.S.-led western hegemonic geopolitical encirclement campaign against Russia, which began long before the Syrian tragedy and also before the CIA/State Department Ukraine coup. Again, chess versus checkers. American King took Ukraine, and Russian Queen took back Crimea.

  4. Something I thought I’d never see: Netanyahu as deal-broker for anybody.
    Did Russia and Turkey make a sub rosa alliance against the Kurds?
    Russia won-except, how can anyone “win” in the desolation that afflicts Syria?

  5. At Military.com they are reporting the US has trained less than 100 combatants and the ones they have trained at a base in Turkey have returned to Syria, dropped out of the army and gave their weapons to the opposition. We can only speculate how much this fiasco cost the US taxpayer. Joining forces with Putin is a good move…link to military.com

  6. Well laid out, Juan. Putin’s tactics and strategy in Syria have seemed quite coherent. Not something that can be said about US policy, with its imaginary “moderate” rebels. Hillary’s presumptive Defense Sec recently said she wanted to go into Syria with more US ground troops, “push back” the Russians, whatever that means, and fight Assad’s army at the same time, presumably alongside our al Nusra pals. Something to look forward to, yes?

  7. The game analogy is perhaps a shade misleading. Russia has serious practical concerns about which it has been perfectly clear, the resolution of which it pursues with singular consistency. I don’t believe Putin thinks of it as a game. There is nothing he can do about the US and it’s coterie, euphemistically termed ‘the coalition’, but tack this way and that trying to work around them. What the whole thing has illustrated beyond doubt is that if peace in Syria were really the US purpose it would be far better. if it couldn’t keep out of the fray altogether, to work with Putin and Assad and clear Syria of all foreign combatants and other armed groups, whether for or against the regime, and then back off and let the Syrians decide how they want to proceed in the future. The US, of course, has a different agenda which is very largely responsible for the protracted loss of life, starvation, and despairing migration of the long suffering population. The US constitution displays many of the weaknesses of late republican Rome in that it evolved to serve the domestic population and proved quite unsuited for running an empire, hence grotesque financial inequality, then anarchy leading to a period of what one might term benevolent fascism, etc. etc…

  8. All along many pundits and I have been saying that Putin was right on Syria. Ok Assad is a criminal but so are the Saudis and so many other countries (the USA with its killing list also). Putin is a statesman, Obama does not even reach rookie status. And that Samantha Power interview on PBS was really amateurish to an extreme. Very sad indeed

      • That depends what you consider the role of the Saudis in 9/11 and Al-Queda was/is.

      • Perhaps because Saudi Arabia is not in a civil war. I rarely hear how Abraham Lincoln killed 650,000 Americans in our very deadly civil war, but every death in Syria is blamed on Assad.

  9. “All this does raise the question of why, if the US has such good intelligence on al-Qaeda in Syria, it isn’t bombing the group itself”

    This question has presented itself from the outset of US involvement in Syria — the 7500 ineffectual air sorties, the refusal to bomb ISIS oil infrastructure or the miles-long oil-truck convoys, etc, etc.

  10. “The Russian intervention in Syria, primarily against al-Qaeda and to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Asad” – Why this demeaning language? Whatever al-Asad may be, and no doubt he is pretty bad (and damned by us as he is not “Our SOB” any longer), Russian intervention to assist him is in response to the appeal of the government of Syria, attacked by rebel troops backed by, i.a., the US – thank you Hillary Clinton and the neocons! We are assisting Al-Queda-associated groups in order to overthrow a government. What is to like about this?? Why is it OK for the US to attempt another regime change – granted it is apparently just about part of the national DNA, beginning more than a century ago in Hawaii – tradition makes it OK? As for the Saudis not killing a fraction of the number of people that the Assad regime has, are you counting those killed outside Saudi Arabia by fundamentalist groups supported by Saudi money? Yemenis???

    • “Whatever al-Asad may be, and no doubt he is pretty bad (and damned by us as he is not “Our SOB” any longer)”

      Bashar al-Asad was never “Our SOB.” For 45 years, under Hafez al-Asad and his son Bashar, Syria has been first a Soviet then a Russian client state. Frankly, the U.S. managed our interests in the Near East without much difficulty from Syria under al-Asad rule. Syria was never a friend of the U.S., but it didn’t strenuously oppose our pursuit of wider interests in the region either. But, to be sure, the al-Asad family was never “Our SOB.”

  11. Juan Cole writes: “The Saudis haven’t killed a fraction of the number of people al-Assad’s regime has.” Now I would like to see some sourcing for this statement. Not because I don’t trust Juan Cole, but because a major problem with the Syrian war has been a lack of accurate, on the ground journalistic coverage of both sides.

    We get told by the opposition, or the “Syrian Observatory” (some guy in London) that Assad is using barrel bombs against civlians. We get told by others that ISIS is attempting to kill entire ethnic groups and beheading people left and right. I have seen very little in the way of attempts to actually sort out what the actual casualty figures are on both sides, what is actually happening on the ground. Most of the stuff we see in major media repeats what the U.S. government is saying or what the British government is saying. As I.F. Stone used to say, governments lie. All governments lie. We really do not have the whole story here.

    • Let’s say al-Assad’s forces have killed 130,000, the majority of them citizens. That is certainly too low, but for the sake of argument. In what way do you attribute anywhere near that number to Saudi Arabia, which until Yemen hadn’t even been at war?

      • Is it a stretch to suggest the thousands of deaths by sectarian and extremist militants in countries like Pakistan the Saudis helped produce since the 80’s maybe?

        But yes, Al Assad is ahead and has committed genocide. While non-interventionists make some decent arguments, its unfortunate they don’t recognize this reality and overlook it.

  12. I disagree. The first letter was sent to Putin a few weeks ago. I believe that since then at least, conditions have been negotiated for the raprochment between turkey and israel and turkey, and russia.
    i would suggest that it is russian diplomacy not israeli that is the driving force behind this.

  13. “Europe” and Turkey are ones to talk about the sanctity of borders. Ask Serbia how it feels about having Kosovo forcibly removed. Ask why Turkey continues to occupy militarily a third of Cyprus and backs a puppet government there. Does the UN sanction Israel to force a return to its 1967 borders?

    Borders are man-made things and inherently transitory. The issue is when and how borders are changed, not pretending that they are established by divine fiat and eternal.

  14. The most effective way for the west to counter Assad/Putin is with air power. We need to take control of the air over Syria. Surely U.S. and NATO air forces have the ability to do that and it would certainly result in some loss of aircraft and crews. But it would stop barrel bombing once and for all and perhaps give pro-western forces (who ever they are – I can’t keep up with the names) a fighting chance on the ground. And it would be a punch in the nose of Putin which is long over due.

    • Great idea! The US, which under international law has absolutely no right to do such a thing, would get to find out how effectively the S-400 can shoot down US planes and missiles. And we would all get to see whether such fighting between US and Russian forces would be limited or whether it would eventually go nuclear.

      All that fun is certainly worthwhile in order to pursue the removal of Bashir al-Asad. It should be quite a show. Don’t forget the popcorn!

  15. “Maybe it is just me, but maybe that is an indication that the US should change its policy.”

    Does it even have a policy?

  16. Peter Tracy – Russia is the only country actually in Syria with the permission of the “elected” Assad govt.
    The US has a deal with the Iraqi govt to operate in their airspace, but does not have any “official” permission to fly missions over Syria. Not that the US has ever bothered about such things.

  17. yes we have a policy. fund warfare and bomb. our policy is specifically not to barrel bomb. but we do have a revitalized fleet of b-52’s. rest assured that they are no longer used for carpet bombing napalm, they now use precision targeting systems that only hit organisms that hate our way of life.

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