NEW YORK -- Belligerents on both sides of Syria’s civil war are positioning themselves for a major escalation of the conflict, including dual advances into the heartland of Islamic State, despite US efforts to broker a nationwide cessation of hostilities by the end of next week.
Just one day after American and Russian officials negotiated the temporary cease-fire plan, foreign governments supporting rebel groups increased their shipments of ground-to-ground missiles to fighters in and around Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, currently nearly surrounded by Assad government forces.
Any temporary cessation of hostilities or more formal ceasefire will not include Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey confirmed they are preparing to invade Syria on the ground, ostensibly in support of the US-led coalition against Islamic State. And Turkish media stated the military had shelled regime positions in northwestern Syria on Saturday.
The introduction of Saudi and Turkish ground forces in Syria would risk direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia in Syria’s west, between Turkish and Kurdish fighters in its north, and between Saudi and Iranian forces across the nation as Tehran continues its efforts to bolster the Assad regime.
“Russia’s target is supporting Assad, we all know that,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday, confirming that Riyadh had deployed troops and fighter jets to its base in Incirlik, Turkey.
Relations between Ankara and Moscow rapidly deteriorated after Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet operating in Syria last November.
“The question is this,” Cavusoglu continued: “Who will stop Russia doing that?”
According to Cavusoglu – who said a ground campaign was possible, but not operable – the rapid deployment would focus on the Raqqa province, whose capital, Raqqa city, is also the nominal capital of Islamic State. For months, the Obama administration has been shopping for non-US troops that would take the fight to Islamic State on the ground – a force that would be able to both win and then hold territory.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also confirmed on Friday that commandos from Saudi Arabia, as well as from the United Arab Emirates, are prepared to aid in an assault on the city.
But moves by Riyadh and Ankara prompted an equally rapid advance by Syrian government forces toward Raqqa province on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“They are on the provincial borders of Raqqa,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory.
A Syrian military source also spoke to the advance: “It is an indication of the direction of coming operations toward Raqqa,” he said. “In general, the Raqqa front is open...starting in the direction of the Tabqa area.”
Tabqa is the location of an air base captured by Islamic State two years ago, and the source said the army had moved to within 35 km. of the base.
A march on Raqqa by forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad – the first since 2014 – may complicate Washington’s air campaign in the region, which exclusively targets Islamic State terrorists and infrastructure, if it begins to serve the interests of Damascus.
The battle now appears to be over which side in Syria’s war – the axis of Assad, Russia and Iran, or those opposed to Assad in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf – will reach the Islamic State-held city first.
Further complicating Turkey’s direct involvement is the potential for conflict with Syria’s Kurds – American allies in the campaign against Islamic State both in Syria and Iraq. Fighting between Turkish and Kurdish troops may result in Ankara losing some of its own territory, former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakıs warned over the weekend.
But that fight may have already begun on Saturday, according to one Turkish official who said Ankara had shelled Kurdish positions along its border.
“The Turkish Armed Forces fired shells at PYD positions in the Azaz area,” a Turkish government source said on Saturday, referring to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which Ankara regards as a terrorist organization. News of the shelling came after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would not hesitate to act in Syria if it faced a threat from Syrian Kurdish forces.
On that same border, further west, between 30,000 and 50,000 residents of Aleppo are seeking refuge after Assad forces – backed by Russian air power – aggressively moved on the city last week.
The fall of Aleppo would be a heavy blow to the cause of rebel fighters who have been battling Assad since 2011. The war has turned dramatically in Assad’s favor since Moscow agreed to directly intervene in the conflict last year, providing air cover and ground support for the Iran-funded pro-Assad campaign.
The conflagration in Syria has only worsened since diplomatic efforts intensified last week toward a “cessation of hostilities” – a temporary pause in fighting.
At a security conference in Munich, where Russian diplomats agreed to the cease-fire in principle, US Secretary of State John Kerry repeated his belief that the Syrian conflict has no military solution.
Assad disagreed, asserting in a rare interview on Friday that he intends to take back all of Syria’s territory.
“The solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price,” he said, but “this is a goal we are seeking to achieve, without any hesitation.”
Assad also said he was prepared for an invasion of Turkish forces, which he said would be “at odds with logic.”
“I don’t rule that out for a simple reason: [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is a fanatical person with Muslim Brotherhood inclinations,” Assad told Agence France-Presse. “He is living the Ottoman dream.
“For him, the collapse [during World War I of Turkish power] which took place in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria is something personal,” Assad continued. “This threatens his political future, on the one hand, and his fanatical Islamist ambitions, on the other.He believes that he has an Islamist mission in our region. The same applies to Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the terrorists in Syria is a collapse of their policies.”
Speaking at the same conference in Munich, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rejected accusations by world powers and human rights organizations that his country’s air campaign has intentionally targeted and besieged Syrian civilians.
“There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this,” he said, warning of a new “cold war” with the West over its “unfriendly and opaque” policies toward Moscow.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put the odds of successfully implementing a cessation of hostilities at 49 percent. Kerry, in the meantime, defended his decision to allow a week’s time to pass before the fighting stops.
“Why in a week? Why not yesterday? For the simple reason that the modalities have to be worked out,” Kerry said, “and for the simple reason that people have to be communicated to in order to not have it start with failure.”Reuters contributed to this report.