October 25, 2016

Russia and Turkey: On the edge of military confrontation


Russia’s new combat readiness drills could be sending a political message to Turkey – or it could be early preparations for a full-scale war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a conference call with Russian military commanders involved in war drills in southwestern Russia, in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Feb. 11. The maneuvers involve up to 8,500 troops, 900 ground weapons, 200 warplanes and about 50 warships. Photo: Sputnik

Last week, Russian troops stationed in the Southern Federal District were put on full combat readiness to conduct military drills. Special attention will be paid to testing the anti-missile defense system and the maneuvering capabilities of various units.

Since military units of the Central Federal District are also participating in the exercise, some experts immediately labeled it "a warning to Turkey and Ukraine." At the same time, given the rapid development of the situation in the Middle East, the Kremlin's maneuvers may not just be a political move, but a necessary measure aimed at preparing for a full-scale military action.

Alongside the news of the surprise Russian readiness drills, the media reported on the British Shamal Storm training exercise in Jordan, which is about to receive 1,600 troops and 300 armored vehicles from Britain. According to official press releases, the UK military stationed in Jordan will be performing military exercises aimed at protecting NATO countries from potential Russian aggression and, therefore, work on rapid deployment of troops across large distances.

London claims that the maneuvers have nothing to do with the events in Syria. Still, as the UK launched its Shamal Storm, Saudi Arabia is reported to have sent its troops and fighter jets into Turkey and confirmed its readiness to participate in the operation in Syria. Moreover, Riyadh initiated some of the largest maneuvers on Feb. 14, in the vicinity of Hafar Al-Batin, located in the northern part of Saudi Arabia and close to its border with Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad announced on Feb. 12 that his army could take control of the entire country, but "since regional powers interfered, conflict resolution will take a long time, and we will have to pay a high price for it." He also doesn't rule out that Saudi Arabia and Turkey could invade Syria directly.

Also read: "Russia and Turkey, on the slippery slope to direct confrontation"

The main goal of the Syrian military and the Russian Air Force group could be to cut the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) off from Turkey. This may disrupt the supply lines of the radical Islamist quasi-state and deprive it of the opportunity to sell crude oil.

That is what Russian pilots are trying to accomplish by providing air support to the Syrian army, which is pressing on slowly but steadily with the military support from the Kurdish community living in the northeast of Syria. The Kurdish involvement is of particular concern to Ankara. In fact, Turkey is anxious that, in the case of his victory, Assad will reward the Kurds for their support and let them create their autonomous state next to the Turkish border.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has yet another problem. Recently, Russian intelligence openly accused his family of their complicity in the ISIS oil trade business. The Turkish side refuted these allegations, but there is no denying that almost all oil controlled by radical Islamists goes through Turkey.

Estimates of Ankara's revenue from oil transit and resale vary greatly. Still, ISIS simply does not have any other channels for moving its "black gold," and Erdogan and his entourage are just turning a deaf ear to UN recommendations on stopping terrorist oil transit.

Moreover, Ankara and Riyadh are clearly disappointed that "moderate Islamists," i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, were unable to seize power in Syria. Assad turned out to be relatively tough and did not just manage to maintain control over a part of Syria, but with the Kremlin's support launched a counter-offensive. At the same time, the Syrian opposition split into several groups over the past four years and has long since stopped being a major threat to the current regime.

In the absence of an outside intervention and with Russian military support, Assad might gradually regain control over the entire territory of Syria. Moreover, now the President will hold the high ground in suppressing the Islamist resistance and will get rid of his most odious political rivals. As for the Kremlin, it could assume that Syria will ally with Russia and become its stronghold in the Mediterranean.

Recommended: "Buzz about World War III only fuels Russia's confrontation with the West"

And when it comes to Western sanctions and putting political pressure on Damascus in order to force Assad to resign or implement democratic reforms, the tone might have to change dramatically if the Syrian President comes out on top after the end of the brutal civil war. However, the EU and Turkey are not interested in the victory of official Damascus, even though they could gain from Assad's victory. After all, the triumph of the Syrian President may lead to the return of refugees from Turkey to Syria, it could bring stability in the Middle East region and weaken ISIS.

On Feb. 14, Turkey started shelling the territory of Syria, which is technically not controlled by Damascus and is not even completely occupied by pro-government Kurdish forces. Still, such actions are absolutely unacceptable under international law, unless they are sanctioned by the Syrian authorities or the UN Security Council.

The next step might involve air strikes on targets that are currently being determined by Saudi Arabia and Turkey as part of their joint strategy. Damascus is resolutely against any anti-ISIS operation without Syria's prior approval.

Yet Ankara, Riyadh and their Western and Eastern allies could proceed by bombing not just targets controlled by radical Islamists, but also pro-government objects and the positions of the Syrian army.

Since Russia started supplying Assad's troops with air defense systems, Syrians are well equipped to respond to such air strikes and maybe even shoot down unsanctioned aircraft over their territory. That can push the forming alliance to enact counter-measures, such as a land rescue mission aimed at retrieving downed pilots, which could cause a clash on the ground.

Under such circumstances, Damascus will clearly ask Moscow for support. And what kind of instructions will Russian pilots receive then? Beware of provocations? When in jeopardy, open fire? Or do whatever it takes to secure the Syrian air space?

In any case, if the sides do not agree to coordinate their efforts on fighting ISIS in Syria (which is not likely after the downing of the Russian Air Force fighter over Syria), an open confrontation between Syria and the Turkey-Saudi Arabia alliance is only a matter of time. It remains to be seen how Russia will respond given it supports Assad very extensively.

Then the Kremlin would have to either admit its geopolitical defeat and hastily withdraw from Syria or engage in full-scale military operations. Moscow's latest actions, including the deployment of a small-sized missile ship equipped and the sudden combat readiness drills in the Southern Federal District, indicate that Russia is not going to back down.

In case of direct military confrontation between Ankara, its allies and the Syrian army supported by the Russian military, would it be possible to contain the conflict within the borders of one Middle Eastern country?

Unfortunately, that prospect is highly questionable because such military activities inevitably include strikes on air and supply bases, so Russian missiles for the first time in history may hit NATO territory. Another possible development involves the Turkish fleet perpetrating a preventive attack on Russian naval bases.

Also read: "Why can't Turkey and Russia get along in Syria?"

The testing of the anti-missile defense system and the maneuvering capabilities of its units in the south of Russia indicates that Moscow is prepared for a full-scale war, a worst-case scenario, or at the very least, for a peacekeeping operation against Ankara. It is also clear that any such actions on Russia's part aimed at defending its own or Syria's interests will be perceived as an act of aggression against a NATO member.

Historically, there is a precedent for the localization of a large-scale conflict between the two blocs – the Korean War of 1950-53, when American pilots were ordered to observe the border with China, and the Kremlin instructed its pilots not to cross the front lines. But things were different then.

The next several weeks will show what scenario will play out in Syria. Nevertheless, one has to admit that any actions aimed at escalating the Middle Eastern conflict push humanity towards a global military confrontation, and then everybody loses.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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