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Message to Erdogan - Regime Change in Syria is Off the Agenda

As Syrian army advances Turkish and Saudi threats to intervene in Syria increasingly look like a bluff which has been called

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

A couple of weeks ago I wrote for Russia Insider that I thought it unlikely President Erdogan would send the Turkish army into Syria and that the talk of his doing so in alliance with the Saudis was probably bluff.

For the moment that is how it has turned out. 

As I also predicted fears Erdogan might also close the Straits to Russian ships have also proved groundless.  Though there seems to have been some petty harassment by and large Russian ships en route to Syria have been able to pass through the Straits without difficulty.

Though there remains a remote possibility that Erdogan might decide to intervene that is now looking increasingly unlikely. 

If he has ever considering intervening then his window for doing so is closing fast and he must know it.

That begs the question why did Erdogan not intervene when the opportunity to do so presented itself?

First and most obviously, it is clear that neither he nor the Turkish military were prepared to risk an armed clash with the Russian military.

The recently announced withdrawal of part of the Russian strike force from Syria has not changed that position.

Putting aside the threats that may have been made by the Russians to use tactical nuclear weapons if Turkey attacked their strike force, the Russians have retained their powerful air defence assets - their Su-35 and Su-30 fighters and their S-400, BUK and Pantsir-1 anti aircraft missiles - in Syria, and their powerful cruiser Varyag with its S300 anti aircraft missiles off the Syrian coast.

There are now also known to be an unknown number of Russian Special Forces or Spetsnaz troops on the ground in Syria helping the Syrians with reconnaissance.

This remains a powerful force which is many orders of magnitude more technologically sophisticated than anything the Turks have to throw at it.

The Russians have pointedly reminded everyone that they are able to reinforce this force in Syria in just a few hours. They have also beefed up their air base in Armenia with MiG-29 fighters creating a potential threat to the Turks in their rear.

A Turkish advance into Syria would also encounter stiff opposition from the Syrians themselves and from the Russians’ Kurdish allies, who confusingly are also allies of the US.

This is a powerful array of opponents against whom in an all-out military contest the Turks would be unable to prevail.

Unsurprisingly the Turkish military - with its past history of fraught relations with Erdogan - has categorically ruled out any intervention in Syria, publicly saying it will only intervene in Syria if it is given a mandate to do so by the UN Security Council.

Since Russia has a power of veto on the UN Security Council that simply won’t happen and the Turkish military knows it.

The reality is that a Turkish military intervention in Syria - whether in alliance with Saudi Arabia or not - only makes sense if it is undertaken in alliance with the US.

The military reality of the modern world is that apart from China only the US is able to match Russia militarily.  Any other country crazy enough to go to war with Russia on its own without the backing of the US is setting itself up for inevitable - and catastrophic - defeat.

In the case of Turkey the catastrophe might be very great indeed with Armenia, Syria and the Kurds all having claims on Turkish territory and with Cyprus having claims on Turkish occupied northern Cyprus.  

In the event of Turkey’s military defeat by Russia all these parties might be all only too willing to press their claims in which case the entire future survival of the Turkish state within its existing borders might be in jeopardy and might come to depend on the extent to which Russia decided that the continued survival of the Turkish state within its existing borders was in its own interests.

Needless to say this is not a scenario any genuine Turkish patriot would want to contemplate.

The Turkish military know all this which is why they have so publicly ruled an intervention out.  The fact they have done so publicly may have been intended as much as a warning to Erdogan as anything else.

The big question is why is the US refusing to back Turkey in a military clash with Russia?

The short answer is that US public opinion would strongly oppose any possibility of the US going to war with Russia on Turkey’s behalf in a contest over Syria.  

If anything has been made clear by the US Presidential election it is that the US public’s enthusiasm for more military adventures is exhausted.  

As for the idea the US public would willingly contemplate World War III so Erdogan and the neocons might achieve some geopolitical play in Syria, that is simply fantastic. 

Comments on discussion threads in the US media anyway show significant and unsurprising support by a substantial and vocal part of the US public for what Russia is doing in Syria.

That is the overriding political reality any US President contemplating a confrontation with Russia in Syria must face.

Farther afield, the angry criticism in Europe at the EU’s latest refugee deal with Turkey shows how little support there is for Turkey in Europe on the part of the European public.

The quickest and most certain way of galvanising the European public’s opposition to NATO - and of ensuring Marine Le Pen’s victory in next year’s French Presidential election - would be to threaten to go to war with Russia in Syria on behalf of Turkey.

Beyond that it is now clear from his interviews with The Atlantic that Obama has a tetchy relationship with Erdogan - whom he apparently considers a “failed authoritarian” - and that Obama is fundamentally opposed to further adventures in Syria.

As discussed previously, so far from Obama wanting to stir the Syrian crisis up, all the indications are he wants to close it down.

Lastly - and possibly most important of all - articles Seymour Hersh has published have confirmed the strong opposition to the whole regime change policy in Syria of at least a part of the US uniformed military.

Whilst it seems that most of the higher ranking officers at the forefront of this opposition have been replaced, it is a certainty there are many others who privately share their views and who would be utterly horrified - and would strongly oppose - drifting into an armed confrontation with Russia that might risk World War III so that President Erdogan could achieve his neo-Ottoman ambitions in Syria.

Obama himself is not going to be President for much longer and it is possible the new President who will emerge in November - especially if she is Hillary Clinton - will take a more confrontational line.

However even in that case many of the facts that have prevented a US intervention on Turkey’s behalf up to now will remain in place.  Indeed the probability is that by the time the new President takes over next January more facts will have been created on the ground that will make US backing for a Turkish military intervention in Syria even more difficult.

Ultimately the very fact the US is supporting the Russian truce plan and the Russian dictated negotiations that are now underway in Geneva shows how limited the US’s options have become.  

For a new US President to tear all that up and to switch back to the policy of externally imposed regime change as if the fundamental change in the situation caused by the Russian intervention in September had not happened is probably too dangerous to be practical even if the next US President is Hillary Clinton.

What that means is that the most dangerous point in the Syrian crisis has now probably passed.  

It would be unwise to be complacent.  However as the weeks and months pass it is starting to look increasingly as if Syria has survived and has been saved and that the Syrian government and army and probably President Assad are here to stay.

If so then it is probably only a matter of time before the whole idea of regime change in Syria is finally and once and for all taken off the agenda.

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