Rebel fighters ride a tank in an artillery academy of Aleppo
Rebel fighters ride a tank in an artillery academy of Aleppo, Syria, August 6, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Certainly, it can’t be Turkey and Russia – or Iran. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the US seems to be feeling unnerved by the Russian-Turkish rapprochement and President Recep Erdogan’s proposed visit to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on August 9.

President Barack Obama’s reputation as “prudent retrencher” in America’s foreign entanglements stands corrected in the recent weeks.

Rebel fighters ride a tank in an artillery academy of Aleppo
Rebel fighters ride a tank in an artillery academy of Aleppo, Syria, August 6, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Once again Obama went by the military commanders’ wish and agreed to keep American troop level in Afghanistan in such a way to allow an open-ended US occupation.

Again, he just resumed bombing Libya – without any UN mandate and although Hillary Clinton is no longer coaxing him to do that – in a futile campaign that could easily morph into full-fledged military intervention if the next president feels so.

But it is in Syria that the “alter-ego” is surging. Obama is displaying willingness to escalate the war and keep it at a threshold where a plausible option is open to the next president to seek “regime change” through use of force.

As a matter of fact, Dennis Ross, former senior Middle East advisor to Obama, wrote only last week in the New York Times that by using drones and cruise missiles to hit the Assad government’s military resources, US could begin “speaking in a language that Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin understand.”

Curiously, three things happened in Syria in the past week alone – shooting down of a Russian helicopter in Idlib, capture of the northern town of Majib from Islamic State, and the counterattack to break the siege of Aleppo – all of which have varying degrees of US involvement.

The stunning thing is that the uncertainties in Turkish policies do not seem to have come in the way. Can it be that these uncertainties have prompted Washington to accelerate to create new conditions in Syria?

The capture of Manjib by Syrian Kurdish militia in the weekend was only possible with the direct participation of US Special Forces and ferocious US airstrikes (plainly disregarding international criticism about large-scale civilian casualties).

The Russian reports just stopped short of accusing that the MANPADS – shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles – used for shooting down the helicopter last Monday would have originated from the US (or transferred by its allies with its knowledge and approval).

The MANPADS would be a ‘game changer’ in the hands of the US-backed rebel forces – much like the famous Stinger missiles in the Afghan ‘jihad’ against the Red Army in the eighties. Reuters pointed out that in the area in Idlib near Aleppo where the Russian helicopter was shot down, Islamic State fighters are not active, “but there are other Islamist rebel groups there, as well as moderates backed by the United States and its allies”.

The report added,
• That raises the prospect — which could cause a major diplomatic incident — of the helicopter having been brought down by a U.S.-supplied weapon. The United States has equipped some rebel groups with TOW anti-tank missiles, which can also be used against helicopters.

Moscow obviously chose to play down the incident. However, with regard to the current rebel counter-offensive in Aleppo, Russian reports are explicit that these “al-Nusra Front and allied anti-Assad Islamist rebel groups… are strangely backed by the United States”. Sputnik reported:

• Washington-backed ‘moderate’ rebels, including a freshly re-branded al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda) and the violent Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham breached the Syrian government siege in the city of Aleppo on Saturday opening a corridor in the south marking a major setback for the Syrian Army supported by Russian air power.

This is not to suggest that Russia is gearing up for a confrontation with the Obama administration. Rather, the US seems to be creating new ground realities where Dennis Ross’s prognosis can become a viable action point at a future date if a future US president decides on those lines.

The Russian reports are cautiously optimistic that the US-backed rebel attacks in Aleppo will be “short-lived”. The Syrian government and Hezbollah have rushed in reinforcements, according to Iranian reports.

But the Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat has boasted that “it will take only hours to liberate eastern areas (of Aleppo) and rebels have crossed halfway through liberating the whole city”. The daily reported on Saturday that “news about liberalizing (sic) Aleppo will be announced in hours.”

Clearly, a do-or-die battle is shaping up in Aleppo. What introduces an element of intrigue here is that the US-backed rebel offensive got under way hardly 48 hours before the trip by Turkish President Recep Erdogan to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on August 9.

On Friday, Erdogan had received Kazakhstan President Nurusultan Nazarbayev who came to Turkey on an announced visit. Nazarbayev is a trusted friend and associate of Putin in regional politics.

Erdogan told the media that Nazarbayev made a “big contribution to re-establishing concord” between Turkey and Russia. He said they held “similar views on relations with Russia”.

Again, on Saturday, Erdogan told TASS in an interview: “It will be a historical visit (to Russia), a new start. I believe talks with my friend Vladimir will open up a new page in bilateral relations. Our countries have a lot to do together.”

He stressed, “It is impossible to find solution to the Syrian problem without Russia’s participation. We can settle the crisis in Syria only in cooperation with Russia”.

All things considered, the big question is: Who stands to gain by pushing the envelope in Aleppo at this point? Certainly, it can’t be Turkey and Russia – or Iran. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that certain quarters seem to be feeling unnerved by the Russian-Turkish rapprochement.

To be sure, Obama’s “alter-ego” will get noticed in Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

Interestingly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani disclosed that at a meeting with Putin in Baku today (Monday), he hoped to discuss regional security and stability in the Middle East with emphasis on strengthening the fight against terrorism.

Put differently, Iran and Moscow will work out a coordinated response in Syria.

Significantly, the influential foreign policy advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati warned the Obama administration on Sunday not to underestimate Iran’s will to safeguard its national interests.

“Iran is always free to act based on its national interests in the region, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other different places”, Velayati said.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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