February 28, 2020

Russian airstrike on Turkish troops in Syria - predictable and avoidable. Now what?

Turkish military convoy in northwestern Syria

An airstrike by Russian Air Force fighter-bombers on a Turkish supply convoy in Syria's Idlib governorate on February 27 resulted in the deaths of 33 Turkish troops, and the wounding of at least 30 others. This represents a major escalation in the confrontation between Russian forces supporting Syrian troops attempting to re-establish Syrian government control over the area held by primarily Islamist opposition forces - those forces are backed by Turkey. In recent weeks, Turkish support has escalated from logistics and supplies to air, artillery, and special operations forces support.

I will leave the blow-by-blow coverage of the actual operation to the media. Suffice it to say, the Russian Air Force has determined that it will no longer tolerate Turkish or Turkish-backed opposition groups firing man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) at their aircraft operating in support of Syrian troops. There has been a marked increase in the use of these systems, forcing Russian pilots to alter their tactics, to include the use of flares and other countermeasures, and flying at higher altitudes.

Although there have been tensions between the Russians and Turks in the past in northwestern Syria, including the shootdown of a Russian SU-24 fighter-bomber in November 2015, and smaller exchanges of artillery fire between Syrian and proxy forces and the Turks and Turkish-backed forces in the past, this airstrike is a major escalation of tensions that have been brewing for years.

The obvious questions - why are the Turks and Russians in Syria?

The short answers: the Russians have been in Syria since September 2015 when it became obvious to Moscow that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad was incapable of surviving the threats posed by either the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the various opposition groups, including al-Qa'idah affiliated or other Islamist groups supported by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Were the Russians "true believers" in the Ba'ath Party ideology of the Syrian regime? No - the Russians were there for much more pragmatic reasons. Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East, influence that had been lacking since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The obvious choice of venue was Syria - the country was wracked by civil war, and in need of help beyond that offered by the bevy of Iranian-supported militias from Lebanon, Iraq, and even Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The prize for the Russians? Re-entry to the Mediterranean in the form of access to Syrain military facilities - Humaymim (often incorrectly rendered as Khmeimim) air base on the northwest coast near the port city of Latakia, and the former Soviet naval facility at the port of Tartus. Putin was able to secure renewable 49-year leases on both facilities, creating a permanent Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Russians claim they deployed military forces to Syria to combat ISIS, but their actions showed they they were there for one reason - the survival of the al-Asad regime. The vast majority of the airstrikes and operations were focused on opposition forces, not ISIS.

The Russian vision of a permanent presence in the eastern Mediterranean depends on a government in Syria that the Russians can influence, if not outright control. Watching how Putin treats al-Asad in both Syria and Russia lend me to believe it is the latter, not the former. When the civil war eventually ends, the key power broker in Syria will be the Russians and Vladimir Putin.

Why are the Turks in Syria? That is a really good question, for which there are plenty of answers, just not good ones.

The Turks became nominal members of the US-led coalition formed to defeat ISIS, but were never really committed to the fight. It took years before Erdoğan allowed the coalition to fully use the Incirlik air base just north of Syria to conduct offensive operations against ISIS. It was not until ISIS launched lethal attacks inside Turkey that the Turks relented.

Two curious things here - it was always suspected that the Turks were supporters of many of the Islamist groups that were part of the anti-al-Asad alliance under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. That support at times probably included ISIS. Of course, the primary route for the thousands of Middle Eastern and European jihadis that came to Syria to fight for ISIS came via Turkey. I have spent a lot of time on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border - I would never attempt to cross the mined, fenced, and heavily-guarded frontier without the acquiescence or support of Turkish officials.

Turkey's role in the coalition continued to be obstructionist and unhelpful. As the US-led coalition armed and trained the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to be the "boots on the ground" to fight ISIS, the Turks vehemently objected to the presence of the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG, believing them to be nothing more than an extension of the Turkish PKK separatist group, a designated terrorist group. As the coalition began the fight against ISIS, the Turks often obstructed SDF movements, even to the point of armed confrontation. Despite this, the SDF was successful, pushing ISIS back to its self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah.

As part of Turkey's "contribution" to the anti-ISIS effort, it invaded northern Syria in two operations and two locations. Operation Euphrates Shield moved into the are northeast of Aleppo, mostly in support of the Islamist and opposition elements which had relocated there following successful Syrian (albeit Russian and Iranian backed) military operations as the Syrians began to retake those areas that had previously fallen to the opposition.

Operation Olive Branch moved against Kurdish elements in the 'Afrin area of northwest Syria. As in Euphrates Shield, much of the fighting was done by Turkish proxy forces.

At this point, Erdoğan demanded that the coalition allow Turkish troops to liberate al-Raqqah. This was a ridiculous demand - Turkish troops were over 100 miles from al-Raqqah. To liberate al-Raqqah would have required the Turks to traverse SDF-controlled territory, something the Kurds in the coalition found unacceptable, given Turkey's recent obstruction of the fight against ISIS.

After the successful SDF liberation of al-Raqqah and the almost complete expulsion of ISIS fighters from Syria, Erdoğan then demanded that the coalition agree to a "security zone" almost 20 miles deep all along the Syrian border with Turkey. To the Turks, security zone is a euphemism for a Kurdish-free zone. Inexplicably, the United States went along with Erdoğan's petulance and basically created a small security zone in previously Arab areas along the border.

As the Syrian government continued to recover more of its territory, opposition elements were removed to opposition-controlled areas, culminating in the creation of a large enclave of the remaining Islamist and opposition groups in Idlib governorate, setting up the final battle between these elements and the Syrian regime.

Fearing that his allies were about to be soundly defeated, Erdoğan moved Turkish troops into Idlib, ostensibly to provide safe areas to prevent civilian casualties. In my opinion, Turkey's commitment to prevent civilian casualties in Idlib was about as sincere as Russian efforts to combat ISIS.

Although there was a face-saving agreement - the Astana agreement - between the Turks and the Russians to legitimize the presence of Turkish "observation posts" in Idlib, this was merely setting up the inevitable clash between the the foreign powers.

The battle of Idlib is in full swing. Backed by overwhelming Russian airpower, the Syrians are steadily progressing against the Turkish-backed militias. The Turks have responded by providing weapons and fire support to the Islamist and opposition groups, striking not only Iranian-backed militias, but Syrian regime forces as well. Of course, as is the nature of combat, the fighting has spilled over, directly involving the Turks and Russians.

Now we have the Russians and Turks engaging each other. Despite the claims by the Russians that since the Turks have provided armored vehicles and other weapons to the opposition, it is impossible for them to distinguish between the Turkish-supported groups and the Turks themselves. I don't get the impressions the Russians really care.

Now we come to nascent East-West crisis brewing in northern Syria.

Now that Erdoğan's Ottoman revanchism has backed Turkey into a corner in which it is suffering serious casualties - which will not play well at home - the Turkish leader wants to play the NATO card. He wants to rely on the alliance he has basically turned his back on over the last year to bail him out.

Ironically, his first request was to the United States to deploy Patriot air defense systems to Turkey to defend his forces and facilities from potential Russian or Syrian attacks. This is the same system he refused to buy in favor of the Russian S-400. This move resulted in the United States removing Turkey from the F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter program. It appeared that Turkey was drifting more towards the Russians to replace aging Turkish military equipment.

The NATO charter has two articles that might apply here - Article 4 and Article 5. Article 4 can be invoked by any member state "whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." This has happened numerous times in the past, including several requests from Turkey. It does not trigger a NATO military response.

Article 5 is the key to the alliance. The key passage: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all...." What has happened does not meet the threshold of Article 5 - the Russians or Syrians would have to launch an attack on Turkish territory. The Russians are well aware of the NATO charter and Article 5 - they have lived with it for decades. Conversely, if the Turks launch attacks on Russian forces in Syria from Turkish soil, will this trigger a Russian response against targets in Turkey?

This is where Erdoğan's adventurism, always dangerous and unnecessary, risks expanding the crisis in Syria into an East-West confrontation neither side wants or needs.