Monday, January 09, 2017

Russia Provides Air Support to Turks

Russian planes provided air support for Turkish troops fighting ISIL. What kind of theater is this?

In my last weekend data dump, I noted that Turkey was complaining that America wasn't supplying air support for their troops fighting in Syria. It seemed to be nothing more than an excuse to pave the way to kick America out of the Incirlik air base in Turkey because Turkey has plenty of American-built planes capable of supporting their troops.

Now, despite the fact that Turkey has plenty of American-supplied planes to provide air support for their troops, Turkey went to the trouble of getting Russian air support:

Russian warplanes have carried out airstrikes to support Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria against the Islamic State, an important evolution in a budding Russian-Turkish partnership. The deepening ties threaten to marginalize the United States in the struggle to shape Syria’s ultimate fate.

The air missions, which took place for about a week near the strategically important town of Al Bab, represent the Kremlin’s first use of its military might to help the Turks in their fight against the militant group.

I have to push back against the notion that Russian-Turkish ties threaten to marginalize America's role there. We did that.

From the red line failure over Assad's chemical weapons use that the Kerry-Lavrov deal didn't even stop, to sending Assad's ally Iran massive amounts of money ($10 billion directly paid, apart from economic relief--tip to Instapundit) and getting out of the way of Iran's nuclear program, to incompetence in searching for acceptable Syrian rebels that amounted to searching for the armed wing of the League of Women Voters, America under President Obama has marginalized our role in Syria.

But I digress.

Remember that Turkey long wanted a buffer zone in northern Syria that would help keep out refugees and thus help cut down on jihadi terrorists who could infiltrate in that sea of humanity. Turkey has suffered a lot of casualties from ISIL and Kurdish terrorists.

But America long refused to back Turkey in that goal. So now Turkey has gotten Russian support. Apparently, since Assad has lost control of that territory and a lot more, Assad is willing to go along in order to pry away Turkey from any thoughts of regime change--which Turkey had wanted but which we did not back even when we were arming rebels (bizarrely we sought to build rebel forces willing to fight and die to push Assad to a negotiating table).

Is this just theater? Is Turkey just leveraging the threat of a Russian partnership to pressure America?

The article notes that we did fly a non-strike mission over Turkish troops but have complained that since Turkey banned our recon assets from flying over we would not risk dropping bombs.  Turkey has relented, the article says. So we could see our planes provide such support. Which Turkey clearly wants just for the symbolism.

Certainly, the Russian air support was semi-farcical, consisting of dumb bombs. Lord knows what the Russians hit. If it aided Turkish troops, it was almost by accident, I imagine.

But what is up with the Erdogan-Putin bromance that lies behind this maneuvering and signaling?

Russia and Turkey are now joint guarantors of a nationwide Syria cease-fire that notably excludes the US and United Nations. Along with Iran, they are slated to host peace talks later this month in Kazakhstan, in a bid to cement those gains for Assad.

These swift repositionings, at face value, could risk detaching Turkey from the Western alliance, where it has been the longstanding eastern anchor of NATO. Erdo─čan’s West-leaning orientation earlier provided him with a moderately warm welcome in the Western club, and President Obama called Turkey a “model partner” in 2009.

And yes, recall that President Obama early on embraced Erdogan as a "tame Islamist" who could show Moslem-majority nations how they could embrace political Islam without being raging jihadis with a taste for blood. Yet still Erdogan is angry with America and pushing back against us, their formal NATO ally, in favor of Putin's Russia, the Russia with a long series of wars against Turkey under its belt going back centuries.

But I digress. As I can.

As the article notes, Turkey may be just maneuvering and using Russia to gain American concessions. Turkey would hardly make a complete flip to Russia and kick out America and NATO because then Turkey would be reliant on Russia without America to balance Russia.

On the surface, that is reassuring. And probably right. Russia is close and America is far. It is safer to have a far ally (as long as the far ally has enough power to support you from far away).

But flips do happen. Egypt flipped from the Soviets to America. Ethiopia and Somalia flipped superpower orientation during a war between them. China flipped to an American ally against the Soviets after being a Soviet ally. Ukraine flipped to the West. So this stuff happens.

And when you see how many of those flips were at the expense of Russians, you have to believe that Putin would really like this.

Which helps Turkey to play the Russians, I admit, if that is Turkey's game.

But Russia no longer borders Turkey. Yes, Russian troops are in Armenia which borders Turkey, but that is not a launching point for a ground attack.

If Turkey flips, maybe it will be because Erdogan believes that this is Turkey's moment to stand up as a major regional power, perhaps beginning the rebuilding of Ottoman glory days. Maybe Erdogan believes Turkey doesn't need America to resist Russia. Maybe Turkey believes it can play Russia, America, and Europeans off against each other in an independent foreign policy.

Or maybe Erdogan believes that China could be the distant power to play against Russia. Turkey did flirt with China over a major anti-aircraft missile purchase not so long ago. And maybe China's New Silk Road project to build overland and sea trade routes to Europe would be just the means for China to exert influence in the eastern Mediterranean that could bolster Turkey against both Russia and America.

I know. Russia just dropped a bunch of dumb bombs. But as I said, Lord knows what they hit.

UPDATE: We have responded to the diplomatic dance:

U.S. aircraft have begun regular aerial intelligence surveillance in support of Turkey’s offensive against the Islamic State in northwestern Syria, in anticipation of increased U.S. support for the flailing Turkish military operation around the town of al-Bab.

The increased support comes after weeks of U.S. military and diplomatic talks with Turkish counterparts, and Russian airstrikes backing the Turkish offensive.

So Turkey got our visible support, after all. Which could be considered smart diplomacy.