The escalating conflict in Syria, which is spiralling border tensions with Turkey, has reached a decisive stage with government forces and the armed opposition locked in a high intensity battle over control of the city of Aleppo, the country’s largest.
The Syrian daily Al Watan is reporting that a “mother of all battles” has commenced in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, not far from the border with Turkey, which is an active supporter of the anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA). The daily, citing a western diplomat, claims that Syrian security forces are battling around 12,000 militants, originating mainly from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Afghanistan. Given the opacity of the conflict, the figure could not be independently confirmed. The daily said the opposition fighters were using “advanced European and Turkish arms” to gain military advantage, in anticipation of establishing Aleppo as a “secure area” to which the Syrian refugees that had crossed the border into Turkey could return. Fighting over Aleppo is acquiring a particularly sharp edge after government troops flushed out most of the fighters from Damascus, which was rocked to the core last week when a devastating bomb blast wiped out the top layer of security establishment.
Meanwhile, Syria-Turkey relations are plummeting, with the famed “Kurdish question” emerging as the likely flashpoint. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slammed Syria for allowing separatist PKK fighters to establish sanctuaries on its soil from where they could launch cross-border raids into Turkey. “In the north, it [President Bashar al-Assad’s regime] has allotted five provinces to the Kurds, to the terrorist organisation,” said Mr. Erdogan, in reference to the PKK.
On Friday Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stepped up the rhetoric, inflaming tensions. “Whether it is the PKK or al-Qaeda, we will not allow a terrorist organisation to set up at our borders,” he told Turkish television channel Kanal 24.
“It has nothing to do with ethnicity, religious belief or faith. We consider al-Qaeda is a threat, we consider the PKK a threat” he said.
Tensions between Syria and Turkey had risen appreciably after Syrian forces recently shot down a low flying Turkish fighter jet, which had apparently strayed into their airspace. Analysts say the standoff is extremely worrisome, as it could drag the western collective security alliance NATO, of which Turkey is a member into a dangerous confrontation in the Levant.
With Russia, China, Iran and the Lebanese Hizbollah standing by in support of the Syrian regime, the shadow of a broader international conflict has begun to loom large over Syria. Signalling the possibility of a greater international involvement, 10 Russian warships, with Marines on board and an equal number of escort vessels, are in Mediterranean waters, not far from the Syrian coastline. The Americans and their allies are also likely to hold military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean code-named Cougar 12.
With its growing internationalisation, an early solution to the Syrian crisis appears unlikely. The former head of the U.N. monitoring mission, Gen. Robert Mood said on Friday there was no silver bullet available to end the conflict. Many think that if “[President] Bashar al-Assad falls or that if he is given an honourable exit... the problem will be solved. That is an oversimplification one should be wary of,” he said at a news conference. “Sooner or later, the regime will fall,” said the Norwegian general, but refused to speculate when this might happen.