Two things differentiate the downing of a Russian Su-25 ground-attack jet in the western province of Idlib on February 3 from the drone attacks on the Russian air base at Hmeimim a month earlier.
One, Russia could thwart the attack on January 5 by a wave of drone aircraft but singularly failed to anticipate the use of man-portable air defense systems by extremists operating in Idlib under Turkish watch. Russia lost an ace fighter pilot in the latter attack.
Two, Moscow sensed an American hand in the drone attack on January 5, but this time around Russia’s Tass news agency promptly highlighted an American denial on record. The Kremlin’s Dmitry Peskov made a point of cautioning against speculations “before one gets precise information as to how terrorists in Syria got that particular man-portable air defense system and other weapons that they have.”
Notably, however, an influential lawmaker – Dmitry Sablin, coordinator of the Russia-Syria parliamentary friendship group – went ahead to “speculate,” saying: “We have information that the MANPADS used to bring down our jet was brought into Syria from a neighboring country several days ago. Countries from whose territory weapons arrive, that are then used against Russian servicemen, must understand that this will not go unpunished.”
Idlib province is situated right on Syria’s border with Turkey. It is supposed to be a “sealed border” under strict surveillance by Turkish security agencies. If what Sablin alleged was based on factual information, Russian intelligence recently monitored the transfer of MANPADS from Turkey to extremists.
Curiously, the day after Sablin spoke, Turkey came out with a counter-allegation of its own, attributed to “security sources,” to the effect that the weaponry used in the attack against a Turkish army tank on February 3 by Kurds in Afrin “might have been a Russian-made 9M113 Konkurs” and that the “claim is being evaluated.” Five Turkish soldiers were killed in that attack.
Suffice to say, the air is thick with innuendos and dark hints that Russia and Turkey may have drawn each other’s blood on February 3, despite notionally being allies in Syria’s hybrid war.
In January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached out to President Vladimir Putin to clarify the situation. But over the latest incident, no such exchange has so far taken place, even though Erdogan is under obligation to initiate one – according to the understanding reached in talks in Astana last year following the Syrian ceasefire, Turkey is entrusted with setting up “observation posts” in Idlib to monitor the activities of extremist groups.
Meanwhile, on February 5, Putin sent an effusive message to Nicos Anastasiades congratulating him on his re-election as the President of the Republic of Cyprus. Putin’s message expressed confidence that the “constructive dialogue” and “joint work” by the two countries are in the mutual interests of both and “in keeping with efforts to improve stability and security in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.” Cyprus’ relations with Turkey have been unfriendly ever since the Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of the country in 1974.
For Turkey, the knot is three-fold. Firstly, it cannot come to terms with the new reality that Russia (which has civilizational ties with Greece and Cyprus) has today become the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, it disapproves of ongoing Syrian military operations, supported by air power, to regain control of Idlib from opposition groups that have enjoyed Turkish support. And, above all, thirdly, Erdogan’s grand design to establish a permanent Turkish foothold in Syria (which was ruled by the Ottomans), will remain a pipedream so long as Russia underpins Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. Turkey has all along viewed Moscow’s links with the Kurds in Afrin suspiciously.
Erdogan is well aware that the US will see advantages in the developing situation to push its containment strategy against Iran more effectively in Syria and to isolate the Assad regime
Typically, therefore, Erdogan will now seek a modus vivendi with the US. Of course, it will be a dream come true for the US if the hairline crack in the Russian-Turkish axis in Syria widens and becomes a rift in the coming weeks. In their opposition to the establishment of Russian bases in Syria, Washington and Ankara are on the same page.
On the other hand, the Pentagon will expect Erdogan to give up his plans to launch any military operation to attack the Kurds in Manbij. The US simply cannot accede to the Turkish demand that it break its alliance with Syria’s Kurds. US Defence Secretary James Mattis hinted on Friday that talks are going on with Turkey to dissuade Erdogan from ordering an operation on Manbij.
For his part, Erdogan will seek a tradeoff with the Trump administration to create conditions for a broader rapprochement with the US. He is well aware that the US will see advantages in the developing situation to push its containment strategy against Iran more effectively in Syria and to isolate the Assad regime. Indeed, a rift in the Russian-Turkish axis in Syria opens an entirely new ball game in the country, one that enables the US to create new facts on the ground and negotiate harder on the terms of a future Syrian settlement. Israel is also a stakeholder here.
Erdogan all along hankered for an enhanced role for Turkey as the flag carrier in the West’s strategies in Syria, fancying himself to be the role model for the Muslim Middle East. But President Barack Obama was disinterested in any such dalliance with the mercurial Sultan in Ankara.
Things are very much in flux, though. Erdogan met Pope Francis on Monday. It was the first time in 59 years that a Turkish President had visited the Vatican.