The Stage is Set for an Escalation: The Meaning of Syria’s Attack on Turkish Forces
On November 24, 2016, the Baathist regime of Syria attempted an escalatory plot by attacking the Turkish contingent in Syria on the anniversary of the downing of the Russian Su-24. Press sources reported that the attack was carried out by one or more Albatros aircrafts and that three Turkish soldiers were killed. At the time of writing, Turkish media marked the fourth casualty from the attack.
The Assad regime’s rancor stems from Turkey’s tangible military achievements on the ground that could be translated into permanent policy gains by a further push into the key town of al-Bab. Clearly, despite all drawbacks, especially the challenges emanating from anti-tank guided missiles and divisions among different opposition factions, Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield managed to successfully secure considerable depth in northern Syria, up to the very edge of al-Bab within three months. Moreover, Ankara’s diplomatic efforts enabled rapprochement with Moscow, and thereby, made it possible to support ground units with airpower, free of Russian molestation.
Discerning the meaning of the recent attack — its intent and the signal it was meant to send — in the context of other developments remains crucial to understand the Baathist regime’s next escalation patterns, as well as the trajectory of the northern front in the Syrian civil war. It seems clear that the regime has been preparing for such a provocative move since no later than the end of September 2016.
Two Clues: Albatros and the Kuweires Airbase
Let’s begin with the weapon and the crime scene. First developed in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, the Albatros is widely used by several nations around the world. Although the Albatros is primarily known as a light trainer jet, it also has the “Z” — referring to armed — variants with gun pod and four underwing hardpoints. Open-source military databases report some 70 Albatros “Z variants” in the Syrian Arab Air Force inventory, albeit impossible to know the exact numbers and status. Generally, the Syrian Arab Air Force operates its L-39 Albatros aircrafts from the Kuweires Airbase, located some 20 kilometers south of al-Bab.
The Baathist regime has been using the L-39Z variants for ground-attack since the outset of the civil war. This gave the Syrian Arab Air Force a tactical edge. First, these platforms are easier to maintain compared to the MiG jets. Second, they are better suit to the low-altitude/low-speed attack roles that low intensity conflicts mostly demand. And finally, Albatros light jets require less advanced skills from their pilots in comparison to more advanced fighter and tactical bomber platforms.
During the civil war, the regime has faced several problems in keeping its Albatros squadrons running. Of the three main airbases hosting Syria`s L-39s — Abu Duhur, Jarrah, and Kuweires — the first two were overrun by the armed opposition and the latter came under siege for a long time. Although the regime relocated some of its surviving L-39s to other bases, visual evidence from the battleground suggest that the opposition managed to hit some of the aircraft with anti-tank missiles, and captured others in their hangars.
The Kuweires Airbase was recaptured by the Baathist regime’s elite Tiger Forces in November 2015. The recapture campaign gifted a swift promotion to — at the time — Colonel Suhail al Hassan, commander of the Tiger Forces, and made him the youngest major general in the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. The regime tried to turn the Kuweires victory into a propaganda campaign, inaugurating Hassan, who was reported to be responsible for many of the regime’s war crimes, as a “national hero”. This episode hints at the strategic importance of the airbase for the regime. Clearly, Hasan’s men form much more than an elite commando unit in the Syrian military’s doctrinal order of battle. The Tiger Forces, and their commander, are the Syrian Baath Party’s embodied state on the battlefield.
The Kuweires Airbase is a key asset for Assad’s forces in their northern offensives that target the rebel lines of communication, as well as for providing air support to the siege of Aleppo. Apparently, the regime also considers this strategic military base as a tool of undermining Turkey’s ongoing operation.
As Turkey and the pro-Turkey armed opposition — mainly Free Syrian Army and Turkoman groups — progressed towards al-Bab by clearing ISIL pockets along the border territories, pro-regime sources stated that Assad’s forces deployed Pantsir S1 (NATO designation SA-22) short-to-medium range air defense systems to the Kuweires Airbase. In addition, military sources reported SA-17 medium range, mobile air defense systems being deployed at the base. In other words, without relying on longer range Russian air defenses, the Baathist regime itself has already generated layered disruptive capabilities at short and medium altitudes centered on Kuweires.
The Regime’s Problematic Wings
For investigating the regime’s recent attack on Turkish Forces, developing a good understanding of the current situation of Syrian military personnel issues is equally important.
Prior to the civil war, the Syrian Arab Air Force’s combat readiness level was already a problematic issue for Damascus. Technically, force generation for manning cockpits is one of the most demanding tasks for modern militaries. Any active air branch needs sustainable pools of pilots with adequate flight hours and combat experience. This process is based on a three-stage plan of managing the pilot inventory. First is production — training new pilots. Second is absorption — commissioning pilots in operational units and providing enough flight hours. The last is sustainment — keeping the pool of pilots. The overall process boils down to the pilot-to-cockpit ratio which remains vital especially for warfighting air forces.
Militarily, during prolonged conflicts with high operational tempo, it is not only platforms and munitions that suffer from attrition, but also the “pilot-to-cockpit” ratio. In other words, while any nation with adequate defense economics or sustainable foreign assistance could replace platforms and munitions within reasonable period, claiming the same for pilots is not that easy. In this regard, the Assad regime’s air power is no exception. The Syrian Arab Air Force witnessed its first fixed-wing casualty on August 13, 2012, when a MiG-23 was shot down at low altitude by possibly anti-aircraft gun fire. Since then, dozens of incidents have been reported, ranging from successful MANPADS hits on helicopters to airbase raids, and crashes.
It is estimated that these losses caused a serious pilot shortage in the Syrian Arab Air Force, something that is more complicated to address compared to shortcomings in platforms and munitions inventory. Furthermore, many of the Syrian Arab Air Force’s Sunni pilots were “grounded” at outset of the civil war, while some other pilots defected as a reaction to the Assad regime’s orders of targeting civilian population intentionally.
To compensate for the shortcomings in the pilot-to-cockpit ratio, the regime has been using pilots from its allies. In this respect, open-source intelligence suggests that Iran has not only delivered some of its Su-22s to the regime, but also provided pilots to fly them. North Korea — a key supplier of Syria’s several strategic weapons programs — reportedly transferred pilots to the Syrian Arab Air Force. Although such operational North Korean support to the regime may surprise some readers, Pyongyang already has a record of sending pilots to Syria, including back in 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Surprisingly, at the time of writing, pro-regime sources reported the presence of Egyptian helicopter pilots at the Hama Airbase for operations. Finally, there is no good reason to rule out the possibility that Damascus has hired mercenary pilots as Qaddafi’s Libya reportedly did in 2011.
In sum, although there is no open-source intel available about which pilots were used by Assad’s forces in the November 24th attack, without a doubt, finding it out would tell a lot about the Baathist regime’s intentions for air operations from Kuweires and how it balances the complex relations between its protectors, allies, and indigenous capabilities.
Under the Tiger Forces’ Ominous Shadow
As Turkey’s cross-border efforts progressed deeper into Syria territory, the Baathist regime has become more aggressive. On October 21, 2016, the regime threatened Turkey that it would shoot down Turkish aircrafts when Ankara extended its air campaign to target Kurdish YPG militants. A few weeks later, on November 14th, Assad`s forces dropped leaflets over al-Bab warning the locals that the regime would soon initiate an operation to recapture the town.
Notably, as recently as November 17th, Iran’s “semi-official” Fars News Agency reported that Assad’s forces had troop concentrations at the Kuweires Airbase for shifting military operations into al-Bab and adjacent areas. Furthermore, pro-regime outlets also stressed that units from the Tiger Forces equipped with heavy arms were deployed to Aleppo in late October. Furthermore, according to the same sources, al-Hassan was with his troops for operations in northern Aleppo in November 2016. Most probably, these detachments were sent as reinforcements to the initial deployments of the Tiger Forces from Hama to the Kuweires Airbase in late September.
In other words, Assad might have tasked Baathist military elements to reach al-Bab before the Turkey-backed campaign can. In this respect, the regime already hinted its intentions by concentrating the Tiger Forces near the town. Even more importantly, there is a non-negligible possibility that the Kuweires Airbase, and its operations, were under the Tiger Forces’ de facto control when the Albatros aircraft(s) attacked Turkish positions.
Though we don’t know further details about the incident, we might be sure about one thing: The underlying reason of the regime’s insidious aggression revolves around al-Bab.
Taking al-Bab: A Geopolitical Gordion Knot
The ISIL-held town of al-Bab, which few people outside of Syria ever thought about even six months ago, is now a key factor in determining the northern trajectory of the Syrian civil war. At the time of writing, Turkey’s forces, and the armed opposition consisting of the Free Syrian Army and Turkomen, were only a few kilometers away from the town’s northern outskirts, the regime forces were deployed ten kilometers away in the south, and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces was some 20 kilometers in the east. The stage might be set for a major clash.
Located at the choke point between Aleppo, Manbij, and Raqqa, the town is game-changer for nearly all stakeholders. It is in close proximity of some key assets for Assad’s forces, such as the Aleppo Airport, al-Safira military base, and the Kuweires Airbase. Besides, the Baathist regime considers al-Bab critical for operational security in Aleppo.
Furthermore, the town is also strategically important for Kurdish separatist calculations, especially for establishing a de facto autonomous corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border ranging from Manbij to Afrin. Turkey’s incursion into Syria has driven a wedge between Kurdish-held cantons and the PKK-affiliated YPG aims to reverse that. Ankara’s counter-terrorism efforts have long focused on preventing the emergence of such a menacing corridor at its doorstep.
Moreover, as stated by President Erdogan himself, one of the Turkish aims in Syria is to clear ISIL from al-Bab. This very objective would serve two purposes for Ankara. First, from a military geostrategic standpoint, clearing al-Bab would consolidate the swift territorial gains of Operation Euphrates Shield while providing key defensive advantages to the Turkish units and pro-Turkey elements on the ground. Second, it would mitigate the risks of a recurring rocket threat towards Turkey’s border towns. Clearly, al-Bab is the last major ISIL-held town west of Raqqa. ISIL primarily uses 122mm BM-21 Grad variants mounted on highly mobile 4×4 or 6×6 platforms for rocket strikes, so they need to approach some 20 kilometers to the Turkish territory — around Dabiq that was previously captured by Turkey — for gaining effective firing range. Thus, fall of al-Bab would mark a certain depth in protecting Turkey’s borders.
The Baathist Regime Playing the Its Tricks
From Bashar al-Assad’s standpoint, there is no united front, formed by his regime, Russia, and Iran in Syria, but a set of alliances and alignments. Put simply, while the Baathist regime depends on Russian airpower for further territorial gains, it relies on Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militia to hold onto power in Damascus.
Russia and Iran, the two primary supporters of the regime, also have different interests and gains in Syria. On the one hand, the Kremlin has managed to establish a permanent bastion in the Levant, which is equipped with robust anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that already caused serious concerns among NATO circles. Besides, Moscow imposed itself as a major playmaker in the Middle East and gained a bargaining chip to use in Ukraine. On the other hand, Iran has consolidated its influence in Syria, making Assad an Iranian dependent. More importantly, Tehran has managed to keep the regime alive by committing the minimum necessary force in Syria. In doing so, Iran used its diplomatic capabilities to convince Moscow for the military intervention and commissioned the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces to mobilize Shiite militia from Afghanistan to Iraq.
As Russia and Iran are cooperating in Syria, a tacit competition is also ongoing. Harbingers of this competition surfaced in several occasions. In August 2016, Iran’s Defense Minister General Hossein Dehghan accused Russia about publicizing the deal between the two countries that enabled Russian aircraft to use Iranian bases. Tehran revoked the agreement. Likewise, Russia runs cease-fire negotiations sometimes without informing Iran.
The Baathist regime’s freedom of movement depends on the abovementioned competition and cooperation balance between its two patrons. In other words, Assad’s forces cannot launch a massive strike on Turkish troops disregarding the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, but they can attempt provocations like the recent attack. According to Turkish press sources, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Russia made it very clear that they were not behind it and entered into intelligence cooperation with Turkey. As a matter of fact, Ankara did not halt Operation Euphrates Shield and even launched further airstrikes around al-Bab. It seems that the Baathist regime tried a tricky game to play Turkey against Russia by targeting the forward-deployed Turkish troops on the anniversary of the downing of the Russian Su-24. It does not seem to have worked. Recovering bilateral relations means a lot for both Ankara and Moscow. Both nations responded soberly.
In the meantime, Ankara made it very clear that it would retaliate such hostilities against Turkish forces in Syria. The Turkish Air Force scrambled F-16s from the Incirlik Air Base which entered into Syrian airspace following the attack. At the time of writing, Turkey has Atilgan mounted Stinger systems on the Syrian border. Mounted on a M113A2 armored personnel carrier chassis, the Atilgan systems will probably join the Turkish contingent in Syria for low altitude air defense missions against regime helicopters and low-flying attack aircraft.
It seems Turkey called the Assad regime’s escalation bluff. Operation Euphrates Shield has not lost its momentum and the Turkish diplomatic efforts are focusing on Russia. As the situation develops, we should keep an eye on the regime’s military presence near the Kuweires Airbase as a potential flashpoint between Turkish and Syrian forces.
Ankara is clearly intent on ousting ISIL from al-Bab, preventing the emergence of a PKK–dominated autonomous corridor along its borders, and consolidating friendly Free Syrian Army and Turkomen groups. At this point, the critical issue for Turkey boils down to taking advantage of rapprochement with Russia to sustain airpower for its cross-border campaign. In doing so, diplomacy will enable military progress.
Some experts assess that Russia does not want to see Turkish troops so close to Aleppo, which Damascus is intent on recapturing with Russian support. However, the Kremlin’s view of Turkey goes well beyond the final battle for Aleppo and even the future of Syria. Turkey is important to many Russian interests including the Turkish Straits, Central Asia, the Black Sea, the balance of power in Europe, and trade. Moreover, Turkish Prime Minister Mr. Binali Yildirim recently assured Moscow, stating that the Turkey has no ambitions to advance on Aleppo. It is a known fact that Ankara and Moscow have diverging views on many issues in Syria, including the fate of Assad and the Baathist regime. Yet, if Turkey can successfully compartmentalize its foreign policy agenda with Russia, then further progress towards al-Bab, and even its capture, is a feasible objective for Operation Euphrates Shield.
Dr. Can Kasapoglu is a defense analyst at the Istanbul-based think-tank, the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). He holds a Ph.D. degree from the Strategic Researches Institute at the Turkish War College, and an M.Sc. degree from the Defense Sciences Institute at the Turkish Military Academy. Dr. Kasapoglu held strategic research positions at the NATO Defense College, the French think-tank FRS, and the Israeli think-tank the BESA Center.