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"It's A Friggin' Mess": The Pentagon Sums Up Syria Fight

On Monday, nine people were killed across Turkey in a wave of attacks that included a shooting at the US Consulate, a bombing at a police station, a gun battle at the same police station, an attack on a military helicopter by "Kurdish rebels", and a roadside bombing. 

The violence is the latest escalation in hostilities between Ankara and various "extremist" groups and for President Tayyip Erdogan, each new attack serves as still more evidence of the incipient threat posed by the PKK and other "terrorists" he says are operating within and around the country’s borders. 

Of course what Erdogan really cares about is undermining the pro-Kurdish HDP prior to snap elections which he hopes will restore his absolute majority in parliament. Lumping the PKK in with ISIS has allowed Ankara to obtain NATO’s blessing for an offensive which has so far been focused on the Kurds but which Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu swears will shift towards ISIS as soon as newly-arrived US F-16s are prepared to fly missions from Incirlik which, as noted here last week, will supposedly serve as the hub for a new comprehensive fight against Islamic State. It’s been suggested that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan may contribute to the effort. 

All of this is of course designed to provide everyone involved (the US, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) with an excuse to remove Bashar al-Assad from Damascus. Russia isn’t so keen on this, as removing Assad threatens to undermine Moscow’s influence in the region but more importantly, could clear the way for the long-delayed Turkey-Qatar natural gas pipeline which would be an outright disaster for Gazprom and could serve to break the Kremlin’s leverage over Europe by freeing it from its dependence on Russian energy. 

Realizing that Assad’s badly depleted forces are likely to face defeat sooner or later, either at the hands of the various militants "freedom fighters" vying for control of the country or else at the hands of the US military which we imagine could "accidentally" end up engaging Assad’s forces directly once the air campaign against ISIS picks up, Moscow has gone back and forth between suggesting that it’s willing to negotiate for an "alternative" to Assad and saying that Russia is willing to lend military support to Damascus if it means helping to eradicate "terrorists." Again we see that both sides are prepared to use ISIS as an excuse to turn what has so far been a thinly-veiled proxy war into an actual confrontation between East and West and although Russia may be willing to "go there" if all options are exhausted, the economic realities of collapsing crude and Western sanctions are all too real which is presumably why the Kremlin entertained Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss next steps for Syria. In the end, it all came down to the fate of Assad and both sides are apparently willing to stand their ground - for now. Here’s Al Jazeera:

Russia and Saudi Arabia have failed in talks held in Moscow to overcome their differences on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a central dispute in Syria's civil war that shows no sign of abating despite renewed diplomacy.

 

Moscow has called for coordination between the Syrian government and members of an international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which controls swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

 

Speaking after talks in Moscow on Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reiterated Riyadh's stance that Assad must go.

 

"A key reason behind the emergence of Islamic State was the actions of Assad who directed his arms at his nation, not Islamic State," Jubeir told a news conference after talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

 

"Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution to the Syrian crisis. There is no place for Assad in the future of Syria," he said.

 

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said anti-ISIL forces united on the ground should have wide international backing. But Jubeir specifically ruled out any coalition with Assad and tension between the ministers was often visible during the conference.

Here's Lavrov (translated):

For anyone not willing to sit through the audio, here is the operative quote: "I would not want any powerful state involved in attempts to solve the Syrian crisis to believe that Assad issue may be solved militarily, because the only way of such a military solution is the seizure of power [in Syria] by Islamic State and other terrorists."

Of course Lavrov surely realizes that ISIS seizing power in Syria would likely be just fine with the US and its regional allies. After all, when it comes to "boots on the ground" excuses that will fly with the American voter, "ISIS captures entire country" has to be right near the top of the list. 

Meanwhile, the US and Turkey are pressing ahead with efforts to establish a so-called "ISIS-free zone" along what is virtually the only stretch of the latter's border with Syria not under the control of the Kurdish YPG. As we discussed at length in "Why Turkey's 'ISIS-Free Zone' Is The Most Ridiculous US Foreign Policy Outcome In History," this swath of territory would likely fall under the control of the Syrian Kurds in relatiely short order (which, at least in the context of fighting ISIS, would be a good thing), were it not for the fact that they are affiliated with the PKK which means that Turkey (and by extension, the US) will have no part of it.

Another group who won't be helping to rout ISIS in the north is al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, which apparently thinks the effort to prevent the Kurds from capturing the remaining terriroty along the northern border with Turkey is just as absurd as we do. Here's The New York Times:

The Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda has announced its withdrawal from front-line positions against the Islamic State extremist group in northern Syria, saying that it disagrees with plans by Turkey and the United States to clear the extremists from an area along the Turkish border.

 

In a statement on Monday, the Qaeda group, the Nusra Front, said the proposed plan was intended primarily to protect "Turkish national security" and not to advance the Syrian rebel cause.

 

Syrian activists in the area reported the withdrawal of the Nusra Front in recent days, saying that other rebel groups had taken up their vacated positions to prevent an advance by Islamic State forces.

 

The Nusra Front’s withdrawal from rural positions northeast of the Syrian city of Aleppo came amid newly announced steps by Turkey and the United States to fight the Islamic State in Syria.

 

American and Turkish officials last month described plans to provide military support to Syrian rebels to clear the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, from a roughly 60-mile strip of territory along the Turkish border. Nusra said that Turkey was interested in what its officials call a "safe zone" because it was worried about Kurdish forces that have seized much of the land across its border in Syria.

As The Times goes on to note, one thing Nusra did not mention in the purported statement is whatever happened to all of the US-trained "freedom fighters" the group has captured over the past month or so, including those form Division 30 and, more recently, the commander and deputy of the newest group of Pentagon trainees. On that note, we'll close with the following bit from CBS because ... well ... because it underscores how comically absurd this has all become.

Late last month, the Nusra Front battled the U.S.-backed rebel faction known as Division 30 and killed, wounded or captured dozens of its fighters.

 

Last week, U.S. officials said five Pentagon-trained fighters had been captured, probably by the Nusra Front branch in Syria. The Pentagon has lost track of some of the fighters who apparently have scattered, reported CBS News' David Martin.

 

"It's a friggin' mess," one official said.

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Bonus: summing up the above in four seconds