Syria: The Turkish -Iranian Battleground

In the Syrian war which has been going on since March 2011 and  while some observers say the end is in sight,  in reality it is only about to begin a new phase. The ISIS has been defeated or contained, depending on one’s  viewpoint.   Assad’s loyalists appear to be on the cusp of victory and  exerting control over most of Syria, with some portions under  Turkish control along the northwestern Turkish- Syrian borders, and the northeast under Kurdish where a small American contingent is present. The ISIS still controls small parcels in the mostly uninhabited southeast desert and on the Jordanian border while assorted anti Assad rebels ( most of whom are Islamist  organizations) still maintain  a territory north of Aleppo and around Idlib in northwest Syria.


present approximate situation on the ground

The primary antagonists on the ground are the Syrian Assad loyalists, their allies the Iranians and Russians, with help from Shi’a  organizations such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Hezbollah, pitted against The ISIS, ( ISIL) assorted Sunni Islamist groups,  and most importantly, the Turks. The Kurds are primarily oriented on the Turks as their enemy but also against the various Islamist organizations, and only a tacit agreement with the Syrian government. Some where in this melange of  militias, armies, and terrorists is a small American force, located near Manjib primarily involved in training Kurds. This puts the Americans basically without any allies other than the Kurds.

Recently a upsurge of fighting has featured Syrian government forces clashing with   Turkish troops near  Idlib. According to news reports 33 Turkish troops were killed in a Syrian  air strike. Turkey will not allow this to go without a significant response. The Turks do not want to initiate a conflict with Russia but they are itching to confront Iran and their surrogate, Assad’s Syria.

The Syrians and Turks have many longstanding  issues, some historical, some religious, some political, but all serious. they are:

1.The Arab independence movement during World War I in which a certain number of Arab leaders sided with the British to undermine the Ottoman empire. While the primary leaders  and military forces of the Arab revolt were primarily from the Hejaz, the intellectual heart was in the Levant,  Syria and Lebanon.  The Sultan of the Ottoman empire was the titular head of the  final caliphate of the Islamic Empire and the connivance of the  Muslim Arabs  with British infidels to destroy the Ottoman empire dividing it into squabbling Arab states still rankles the Turkish elite. Although my very popular professor at the American University, Zeine N. Zeine  ( The Struggle for Arab  Independence) averred that the vast majority of the Arab Sunni Muslims  were proud to be part of the Ottoman empire, however the Christians,  Druze, Alawis, and the Shi’a were not. Toward the end of the Ottoman empire, the corruption and brutality  of Ottoman governors turned many Sunni Arabs against them as well.

Ottoman empire map

The Ottoman empire at its greatest extent



Hatay in Red

2.The Sanjak of Alexandretta. On the Mediterranean southern coast of Turkey is the Hatay province, once called the Sanjak of Alexandretta under the Ottoman empire. I visited there in the nineties and it is a beautiful area,  formerly inhabited with a majority of non -Turks,  primarily Arabs  and Armenians plus many other smaller sectarian groups. Through a tortuous process of international deals and heavy handed Turkish intervention, a plebiscite in 1938 was held to determine the future of Hatay in which  the Turks, as they have done in Cyprus, imported a massive influx of Turks, and the vote ( of dubious legitimacy) resulted in the province being awarded to the Turks. In actuality the real reason was that as WWII loomed on the horizon, the French and British, remembering the role of Turkey in World War I, wanted Turkey on the Allies side and Hatay was the sweetener.  The Syrians have never officially accepted that referendum and still maintain a star on their flag representing the Province as part of greater Syria.

hatay antakya

Antakya formerly Iskanderun

Orentes river

Orentes River

3. The Euphrates River Project Turkey beginning in the 1980’s began what is called the Southeastern Anatolia Project  which includes 22 dams on the tributaries of the Euphrates River basically in Hafez Assad’s view , turning northern Syria  into a desert. Hafez came up with the idea of supporting the PKK terrorist/freedom fighter organization against the Turkish government. When the Turks threatened to invade Syria, Assad dropped support of the PKK. The issue continues as the water problem escalates.


The Euphrates project

4.The Alevi Issue. Frequently  even the “experts” confuse the  Alevis of Turkey with the Alawis of Syria. They are both distinct off shoots of Shi’ism, though some  would opine that the Alevis are not really Muslim  at all and identify themselves as Turks, while  the Alawis of Syria  are Arabs and do have some tenuous claim to be Muslims. Despite their  differences, there is a cultural affinity between the two groups and Turkish rulers have accused the Syrians of fomenting trouble among the Turkish Alevis who are found mostly along the Syrian border and in the big cities. The Alevis of Turkey tend to be more secular in outlook and are an anathema to the fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam instilled by Erdogan. See  my     on the Alevi issue in Turkey

syrian troops

Syrian troops

5. The Turkish -Iranian clash. The antipathy between the Ottoman empire and the Persians dates back some  500 years. In an eerie prelude to the present situation in the Middle East,  Turkish sultan was made of aware of intense Persian propaganda and proselytizing  of his subjects on his eastern flank converting them to Shi’ism. As the renown American Islamic scholar, Norman Itzkowitz wrote, “It is characteristic of Islamic society that social, economic, and political problems are fought out using the rhetoric of religion, and so it was, in great part with irreconcilable enmity  between the Ottomans and the Safavids.” In fact the first Safavid ruler of Iran, Ismail I,  initiated his people’s conversion to Shi’ism, partly to differentiate them from the Sunni Turks and  ingrain a sense of separate identity  into the Iranians. For almost 150 years  the Ottoman-Persian wars  seesawed back and forth across Iraq until  about 1639 when another treaty was signed. The distinctive ways of war then is precursor of the Turkish and Iranian preferred ways of war  today. The Turks  general use of brute force and decisive military battles to achieve objectives is polar opposite to the traditional Persian use of guile, propaganda,  and indirection.  The Turks are very aware that their country is a target rich environment for sedition and trouble-making among the Alevis and Kurds. The Turks very much distrust the Iranian rulers, viewing the Iranians, as they have always have, as  duplicitous, and messianic. They firmly believe in the expansionist nature of the Iranian regime. In this view, Syria has become the primary battleground.


Turkish troops

So what of the Russians and Americans?  Of all the Arab countries the Russians have dabbled in over the past half century, Syria has been the most favored. The Syrian ports,  modern history of their political system , the Ba’ath party aping the Russian communist structure, and geographic location has endeared the Syrians to the Russian  imperial designs.  In 1957 The Soviets threatened to intervene if Turkey invaded Syria ( which the Turks suspected of becoming a communist state). The entrance of Russians in 2015 into the Syrian civil war did not change the direction of the war but it rapidly expedited Syrian military victories. When they entered  the war it was already  clear that the Assad government  had turned the corner. But their support is now critical.

Russian mecenaries

Russian mercenaries

The Turks and Russians will work hard to avoid a clash  but there are a number of Turkish young officer hot heads who are loose cannons on the deck and may precipitate  a wider conflict they are not looking for.  The long historical enmity between Turk and Russian lingers and is not forgotten. Turks frequently recall  the Russian Czars stated designs on the Dardanelles or that most of the Russian empire was created at the expense of the Turkish speaking peoples. Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov in a note to the  German Ambassador in Moscow ( 1939) wrote that German terms were acceptable, ” providing that the area south of Baku and Batum in the general direction of the Persian Gulf  is recognized as the center of aspirations of the Soviet Union. ”

Fast forwarding to the present time, the Russians will not eject the Turks from the Kurdish areas in Syria they now occupy. They are not interested in controlling all Syria, only in maintaining thier naval port and airbases in which to further their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern designs. But on their side the Russians are using a number of contract soldiers and their discipline is suspect. They too may precipitate a conflict. The Russians will attempt to rein in Bashar from further attacks on the Turks, but Bashar is no Hafiz, with his father’s cautious, well thought out maneuvers, based on careful assessments. He is likely to misstep and embroil Syria in a more serious regional war. Also there are numerous bands of thugs in the pay of other middle eastern countries roaming about the Syrian  countryside who ignite clashes between the major antagonists.   Meanwhile the Iranian Quds force of the IRGC are hard at work instigating  tribal, religious, and national conflict.

Some observers  advocating are advocating that the US step in and assist Turkey with military weaponry. Why I wonder?  Erdogan is not our friend and the Turkish population  evidences  a higher degree of  anti American  attitude than the Arab nations. I have seen that with my own eyes in my visits there. We will receive no  gratitude, and what  strategic  advantage  would we obtain by doing so? How much gratitude did we get for abducting the Kurdish leader Ocalan and turning him over to the Turks?

kurd scary map

Kurdistan map as envisioned by Kurds. Scares the hell out of all their neighbors

The American military mission in Syria- as best I can ascertain it- is to continue to train Kurdish forces and act as a sort of trip wire, symbolizing that we still have an interest in what happens there.  It is a very ambiguous  mission. It reminds me of the American debacle  in Beirut with our ‘peace keeping” mission there. We are not sure who the enemy is, and other than the Kurds  ( who have a different interest than we do) we have no friends there. Our force is much too small to resist a major attack and with the Iraqi militia government attempting to force us out of Iraq  our back is not secure.  Perhaps we should use the wisdom of George Patton who believed the US forces should have stopped at the  Rhine and let the Russians and Germans kill each other. In this case let the   Syrians, Russians, Iranians, and Turks beat each other up. What is the dog we have in this fight?



About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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