Turkey, Russia tiptoe toward ‘unnecessary war’

The Russian destruction of Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinop on 30th November 1853 sparked the Crimean War. (Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky, Russian Romantic painter who is considered one of the greatest masters of marine art.)

A military confrontation between Turkey and Syria has erupted in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. Latest reports say that at least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed on Thursday in a Syrian air attack. A Turkish retaliation commenced last night itself. 

The Syrian airstrike in Idlib took place in an area between the towns Baluon and Al-Bara, and was in response to Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military recapturing the strategic town of Saraqeb earlier on Thursday. 

Earlier in the week, through the past 3-day period, Syrian forces had seized about 60 towns and villages in the southern Idlib area and the adjoining province of Hama. 

The backdrop is the warning by Turkey that by end-February, Syria should vacate the territories in Idlib captured from the terrorist groups in the recent months and retreat to the ceasefire line agreed between Turkey and Russia as per the Sochi agreements of 2018, failing which it will be pushed back by force. 

The denial by the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday that any meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish President was being scheduled over Idlib was a definitive signal that Moscow anticipated  that a showdown with the Turkish military was imminent. Erdogan had claimed that a meeting with Putin was on cards on March 4. 

Evidently, Moscow has taken note of Erdogan’s increasingly belligerent statements, especially his assertion that Turkish intervention in Idlib is in accordance with the Adana Agreement of 1998 between Ankara and Damascus on the mutual commitments regarding border security, which is of course an ingenious interpretation of the 21-year old accord that neither Russia nor Syria will accept.

The Russian line has perceptibly hardened, based on assessment that the ongoing Syrian military operations in Idlib must be taken to their logical conclusion, namely, the defeat of the al-Qaeda affiliates ensconced in the province, which is also what Damascus demands. 

Turkey senses that the ongoing consultations with Russia are only providing time for Moscow and Damascus to advance their operations in Idlib. 

The eruption on Thursday adds a new dimension to the military balance. Russia will back Syria. The air space over Idlib is under Russian control.

On the other hand, Turkey lately deployed anti-aircraft guns in Idlib that threaten Russian and Syrian jets supporting the ground operations. 

Turkey feels emboldened by the assessment that the killing of General Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January has thrown the Iran-backed militia groups into disarray while Syrian government forces are overstretched. 

Turkey also assumes that Russian forces will not get involved in the fighting on the ground. These Turkish assumptions are going to be put to severe test in the coming days and weeks. 

However, the big question is about the extent to which the US is prepared to support Turkey militarily. Washington did not accede to a recent Turkish request for deploying the Patriot missile system in Turkey as deterrent against Russia. Will there be a rethink on this? Ankara and Washington are in constant touch with each other. 

The US state department is yet to react on the clashes in Idlib on Thursday. But unnamed US officials told the Turkish news agency Anadolu, “We stand by our NATO Ally Turkey and continue to call for an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia and Iranian-backed forces. As the President and the Secretary have said, we are looking at options on how we can best support Turkey in this crisis.” 

Following the latest developments on Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke to the NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg over the phone. Possibly, Turkey proposes to seeking NATO support / intervention. Will Turkey invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all of its members? 

The Turkish ruling party’s spokesman has said, “We call on NATO to [start] consultations. This is not [an attack] on Turkey only, it is an attack on the international community. A common reaction is needed. The attack was also against NATO.”

However, as things stand, the probability is low, since a NATO and / or US intervention, would mean military confrontation with Russia, which neither the Trump administration nor the western alliance would want. The Russian assessment also seems to be that the West will huff and puff for a while but will eventually calm down and desist from getting entangled with Erdogan’s Syrian project. 

The point is, the western world also has its grievances against Erdogan and is wary of his mercurial nature. The Trump administration has far from forgiven Erdogan’s strategic defiance to buy the S-400 AMB system from Russia. 

Having said that, Turkey can always leverage the Syrian refugee flow to compel an EU intervention, especially by Germany. 

The crunch time comes if a direct Turkish-Russian military conflict ensues. Of course, in such an eventuality, the NATO will be hard-pressed to ignore that an important member country of the alliance being at war. 

Erdogan believes that he’s holding a strong hand. Russia on the other hand cannot afford a retreat in Idlib, as that could well lead to a quagmire in Syria with assorted foreign powers using the al-Qaeda groups as proxies to challenge the Russian bases. 

The complex alignments bring to mind the Crimean War (1853-1856) which was also a geopolitical struggle like the Syrian conflict. 

The Crimean War had its genesis in Russia pressuring the Ottomans with a view to winning control of the Black Sea so that it could gain access to the Mediterranean Sea, which in turn threatened British commercial and strategic interests in the Middle East and India and prompted France to cement an alliance with Britain and to reassert its military power.   

The Crimean War was a classic example of an unnecessary conflict   bearing out A.J.P. Taylor’s thesis of wars caused by blundering politicians and diplomats — where the causes are trivial but the consequences aren’t. The Jamestown Foundation, which is wired into the US intelligence and defence establishment, has a commentary titled Russia and Turkey Drift Toward War, here.