The Russian infringement of Turkish airspace is bigger than it seems

One of the many dangers of the grotesque lack of leadership shown by the Obama administration is that it gets a lot of people killed and raises the risk of a multi-national armed conflict breaking out for not particular policy end. This is not a case of Napoleon’s dictum about it being necessary to break eggs to make an omelet. Rather this what the Obama administration is engaged in is the equivalent of randomly throwing eggs from a speeding car because you are bored.

Just as a refresher, this is the rough outline of areas controlled by the various factions in Syria. Keep in mind that the Kurds are supposed to be friendly forces.

syria-russian-airstrikes-dataThe Setup

Over the weekend one of the Russian aircraft based in western Syria somehow ‘strayed’ over Turkey. Turkey, a NATO ally of the US, is also a member of the US assembled Coalition of the Listless and is supposedly involved in attacking ISIS. Via CNN:

Turkey said it intercepted a Russian jet that violated its airspace over the weekend.

The country called in the Russian ambassador and lodged a strong condemnation of the violation, Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement Monday.

“The Russian Federation will be responsible for any undesired incident that may occur,” the ministry warned.

The incident occurred Saturday in the Yayladagi region of Turkey’s southern Hatay province.

“The Russian aircraft exited Turkish airspace into Syria after it was intercepted by two F-16s from the Turkish air force, which were conducting patrols in the region.”

A spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry dismissed any idea that the incident was anything nefarious, stating flight patterns that change “under certain weather conditions” might help explain what happened.

“This current incident is a result of bad weather conditions in this region,” spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters. “You shouldn’t look for conspiracy theories.”

Okay… Right.

As we’ve already postulated, the roll of Russia in Syria has little to do with either Syria or ISIS but is a part of a larger strategy to roll back US influence in virtually every region where Russia has interests. One of those interests would be the Bosporus and Dardanelles that allow Russian warships to reach the Mediterranean from the Black Sea.

How does a violation of Turkish airspace aid that?

Obama’s suave qui peut strategy

Fans of France’s military history will recognize the term suave qui peut as ‘every man for himself’. This is what happens when people are directed into combat with no apparent plan and even less leadership. Turkey is the only one of our alleged coalition partners with skin in the game because of its border with Syria. Turkey’s bigger concern is not ISIS, it is Kurdish separatism. Syria is bordered by Turkish Kurdistan and the presence of an incipient independent Syrian Kurdistan is unsettling. So while much attention has been given to Russia bombing our alleged allies who are allegedly fighting Assad and ISIS, the Turks have been bombing the Kurds who are fighting ISIS but not Assad.

Turkish war planes on Wednesday unleashed some of the heaviest bombing to date on Kurdish rebel strongholds in Turkey and Iraq, as the fallout from Ankara’s stepped-up anti-terror campaign reverberated in the nation’s political arena.

The latest strikes hit at least half a dozen targets linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, according to Turkish media accounts citing official statements.

Last week, Ankara announced with great fanfare that it was joining the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway group that has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq, two of Turkey’s neighbors. Previously, Turkey had been hesitant to join the coalition, despite the nation’s front-line status in the conflict.

But Turkey has focused its firepower since then not on the Islamic extremists but on its longtime adversary — the secular PKK, whose allied forces have been at the vanguard of the fight against the Islamic State.

Turkey claims that they are only hitting PKK enclaves in Syria but the fact is that the lines between the PKK and the other two main Kurdish groups, PYD and YPG, are hardly clear on the ground and even less so from the cockpit of a jet fighter. Add that in with a “the only good Kurd is a dead Kurd” policy that emanates from Ankara and you have substantial collateral damage.

The coalition Obama has assembled is either a) doing nothing, b) cozying up to the Iranians, or c) settling old scores. This is not unsurprising to anyone outside of Washington.

Where do the Kurds turn for protection?

To the coalition partner or Turkey who is bombing the snot out of them? Probably not.

Syrian Kurds have publically welcomed the recent Russian military intervention in Syria and have shown willingness to fight ISIS with them. In a private interview, Salih Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the dominant Kurdish actor on the ground in Syria — said: “We will fight alongside whoever fights Daesh [ISIS].” Sipan Hemo, general commander of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), also showed readiness to cooperate with Russia and asked for military support: “We want Russian air support against ISIS. We want weapons. We can work together with Russia against ISIS.”

While Russia’s priority in Syria is to protect the Assad regime, this doesn’t seem to concern the YPG, which is focusing on enhancing their power and extending their territory. The withdrawal of Syrian security forces in the summer of 2012 allowed them to rule their regions locally and become the main power there without a fight, and they are not interested in fighting Assad unless he attacks them and tries to take back territory they hold.

Syrian Kurds might be inclined toward Russian support since it’s unlikely that Moscow would show much consideration for Turkish interests. Russia considers the Kurdish-governed territories near its border a security threat. The Kurds also feel that the support they get from the US is insufficient in their fight against ISIS and they lay the blame for this on Turkish influence.

Syrian Kurds also view Russian intervention as a means by which to stop Turkey from attacking them in Syria. The PYD and YPG are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting Turkish authorities for more than 30 years. Tension between the PYD and Turkey has increased since Turkey started their recent attacks on the PKK in August 2015.

What is Russia up to?

Back to the CNN article:

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the airspace violation was “unacceptable.”

Stoltenberg said he met Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu on Monday to discuss Russia’s moves.

“Russia’s actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region,” he said in a statement. “I call on Russia to fully respect NATO airspace and to avoid escalating tensions with the Alliance.”

No sh**. Thanks for those insights, Captain Obvious.

Turkey has been a Russian target for about 3oo years. Turkey is in NATO because of its fear of Russia and because NATO wanted to keep the Soviet Navy out of the eastern Mediterranean in times of crisis.  Earlier this year, Russia and China conducted a joint naval exercise in… the eastern Mediterranean

On May 21, Russia and China concluded ten days of joint naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, which included live-fire drills. Although the militaries of the two countries claimed that the naval exercise was meant only to improve interoperability, their presence in the sea has far broader political implications.

For some years, Russia and China have been participating in bilateral and multilateral exercises in Asia, mostly with other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This is the first time that Russian and Chinese naval forces have conducted joint tactical exercises in Europe and the first major exercise for China in such distant waters.

This was an exercise in jerking Ankara’s chain more than anything else.

No serious person believes that the Russian violation of Turkish airspace was anything more than a test of Turkish response time. Russian military aircraft operate under a command system that is very centralized and managed from ground control facilities. There is no way a Russian aircraft strayed over Turkey.

The New York Times reports

“An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” Mr. Erdogan said at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday.

What is clear, though, is that Russia is willing to confront Turkey. By violating Turkey’s airspace twice in recent days – not a mistake, as Russia said, but a deliberate move, according to NATO – Russia seemed intent on forewarning any of Mr. Assad’s foes not to violate Syrian sovereignty.

This view, I think is mostly wrong. Russia isn’t going to “attack” Turkey in any sense that will provoke invocation of the mutual defense requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty. During the Cold War there were numerous incidents of US military aircraft being shot down by the USSR with no military response. The same will be true with Turkey.

What next?

A formal agreement between Russia and the Syrian Kurds is probably in the offing. This will present all kinds of diplomatic challenges for Obama. Turkey will want to continue striking the PKK in Syria. Russia will probably establish a no-fly zone. Russia, Turkey and the Kurds are supposed to be our partners in the fight against ISIS. What happens if Turkish and Russian fighters tangle over Syria? Who knows, but it will be damned interesting.