Last week Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian helicopter that had crossed into Turkish air space over the southern border, writes Abdel Bari Atwan.
Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz was quoted as congratulating the personnel who fulfilled their duty; he described how the helicopter ‘violated the border for a period of five minutes within an 11 kilometre limit’.
The Syrians denied it was a piloted helicopter, claiming the aircraft was a surveillance drone.
The significance of this incident however, lies not in the nature of the aircraft but the timing and context given all that is happening in north-west Syria at the moment.
The new coalition of armed opposition forces under the umbrella of Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, consisting mostly of hardline Islamists has been enjoying unprecedented military success and taken many towns and villages.
Washington, however, is alarmed because the coalition comprises jihadist groups including the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
Even more alarmingly, Saudi Arabi and Turkey are vigorously championing, aiding and financing Jaish al-Fatah .
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The reason for this new rush to take territory may be due to the increased volume of talk about partitioning Syria. This might see Assad remaining in control of the area round Damascus and the mountainous coastal regions that surround Tartus – Russia’s only Mediterranean port.
The North is currently dominated by Islamic State and Jaish al-Fatah.
History is full of such divisions – take Korea, Vietnam, Ireland, Cyprus, Yugoslavia and right now, Libya which is devolving into two state entities – one based around Benghazi, the other round Tripoli .
The impetus towards partition has been accelerating, it seems to me, since King Salman Ibn Abdul Aziz took the throne in Saudi Arabia and began a rapprochement with Qatar (they had fallen out over support for the Muslim Brotherhood) turning away from the al-Sisi military regime in Egypt and returning to the Turkish fold.
KSA, Qatar and Turkey have been arming Jaish al-Fatah with advanced weapons and anti-tank missiles which enabled them to seize the major city of Idlib and the surrounding area in a matter of weeks; they now stand at the threshold of Latakia province, Assad’s own homeland.
While it is true that the three countries have differing motives for this intervention – Turkey and Qatar hope to see the Islamists come to political power in Syria, while KSA wants to limit Iran’s power and influence in the region – they have agreed to put aside their differences for now and unite behind the common goal of exhausting the Assad regime and its army in preparation for the establishment of a new State of the North as a prelude to the division of Syria.
Washington appears to be on board with this project – possibly as compensation for the White House brokered Iranian nuclear agreement due to be signed next month.
The question that arises is what is the likelihood of success for partition and would the state in the north be able to survive ultimately?
The fresh flow of Saudi Arabian and Turkish armaments would enhance the chances of survival as would the substantial financial investment the Saudis can offer which would promote economic recovery.
However, it would face a serious existential threat not only from the Assad regime in the south and its army but also the Islamic State which currently holds large territory within the putative northern borders.
Nothing is certain these days in the Middle East but in our opinion the outcome of the ongoing battle for Aleppo which has been fiercely contested by Islamists and the regime for more than two years will be a decisive factor in determining the future map of Syria.