In repeated interviews and articles on the deepening tragedy that is Syria, many carried by the Huffington Post, I have argued that a necessary element for peace in Syria is an initial partition or zones of influence from neighbouring states. This has not been a fashionable view in diplomatic circles in most countries wedded to the concept of keeping Syria as a unified country. Turkey in particular was understandably very reluctant to move militarily across the border into Syria. When Russia extended an airfield close to Latakia not far from the naval port they had had in Syria since 1971 and put sophisticated airplanes in to protect the the Assad forces, everything changed. Turkey shot down a Russian plane and felt threatened by Kurdish forces pushing along their border with Syria. Turkish relations also became very strained within NATO, particularly with the US over strategies for dealing with ISIL and Germany over refugee policies and human rights. Turkey responded by defusing tensions with Russia.
In this period the Russian militarily achieved their objective, reinforced by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Iranian forces, in winning back for President Assad control of the key roads linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea. These forces, as a consequence, are back in control of this area and it has become a Russian zone of influence. It reaches now to include Hama and its combined forces are now abusing every humanitarian principle in a bid to take Aleppo by force and they are still using chlorine gas.
Only Turkey is in a political and military position to intervene on the ground in Syria and they have demonstrated this by a limited cross border initiative this summer against ISIL. But Turkish tanks were also pre-empting a planned Kurdish advance. Turkey can now because of changed circumstances create a crucial balancing factor in Syria by taking urgent humanitarian action with their troops and air power in relieving the siege of Aleppo. Under the UN Charter, even if the Security Council is blocked by a Russian veto, Turkey has a regional locus and a measure of legitimacy having taken large numbers of Syrian refugees.
Potentially in NATO there is the necessary support for such an intervention by Turkey. But since the failed military coup against President Erdogan in Turkey, a very damaging strain emerged in NATO's relations with their fellow member, namely the role in this latest coup of the Iman Fethullah Gulen. Gulen was born in 1941 in eastern Turkey and now lives in Pennsylvania USA, having left Turkey in 1999.
The Gulen Movement or Cemaat, which he inspires, is an Islamic community in Turkey and overseas. It operates both openly and underground in Turkey and while once it favoured Erdogan it is now very opposed to him. Erdogan has alleged that Gulen was responsible for the coup and Turkey asked for his extradition from the US. Importantly the US is now ready to return Gulen for trial in Turkey.
On Friday 23 September Bekir Bozdag Turkey's Justice Minister announced in Istanbul that Vice President Joe Biden had accepted that there is "concrete evidence" that Gulen was behind the failed coup. Assuming there is substantive evidence in relation to Gulen the political path is therefore open for early and decisive action over Syria between Washington and Ankara.
Turkish military action should and could be mounted within hours of a decision by President Erdogan to move a considerable number of Turkish tanks, artillery and ground to air missiles into Syria within range of Assad forces around Aleppo. They would have the power to implement a No Fly Zone crucially given what is already happening in the air from the ground with protected land corridors for humanitarian aid and the flow of people both ways into Aleppo. This should be accompanied by a demand for the withdrawal of Assad forces to a line between Hama and Aleppo.
NATO forces would guard Turkey as they conducted this humanitarian operation. Air activity outside the NFZ would continue against ISIL in Syria and Iraq by Russia, NATO and Assad forces. A Kurdish area of influence in Syria in relation to ISIL would continue de facto. Areas of influence would apply, if they are prepared to exercise them, by Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan over the borders of Syria predominantly against ISIL. This whole initiative should be discussed at the highest military level in the NATO-Russian Council before going to the Security Council.
When the time is ripe UN supervised elections should take place in Syria and a single government be chosen for a unified but probably federal country. To try to anticipate when this can happen is at present impossible given the complexity of the conflict between anti-Assad Syrian fighters and the nature of ISIL. The humanitarian imperative is for the region to act and the world to help.