Heating up the New Cold War: Turkey and Russia in Syria

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Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber [image via rt.com]

The recent downing of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish air force F16s in a provocative test of alliances in the volatile Syrian War region is an indication of what is at stake not only for the West but for the other nations and interests piling into the conflict. This new meeting of eastern and western alliances in Syria bears more than a superficial resemblance to the Imperial house of cards that was on the verge of collapse in Central Europe a little over a century ago. Now, with the eyes of the world on the Syrian War, Turkish fighter jets on patrol near the Syrian border shot down the Russian warplane in November after claiming it violated Turkey’s airspace, in what has become a long-feared escalation that is straining relations between Russia and the West and bringing the spectre of NATO military action to the scenario.

Escalating Tensions

The Syrian War – for the Western anti-Assad coalition – is being waged as a multidimensional chessboard proxy war spearheaded in part by Turkey itself, amid Russia’s joint military operations with Syria against the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) and supporting terrorist factions. An escalation of tensions particularly with Russia has been expected not because the Turkish government actually fears Russian warplanes crossing parts of their borders pose a distinct threat to its security or national sovereignty, but because it has been obvious particularly since NATO’s aggressive stance toward Russia over eastern Ukraine, that once Moscow sent aircraft to Syria another shootdown shrouded in mystery would be an opportunity for geopolitical leverage to good to miss.

In addition to Turkish military having cameras rolling as the Russian Su-24 bomber went down in flames, terrorists operating in the region had allegedly rushed to the scene of the crash shortly after the incident, according to Reuters. One of the pilots was killed by ground arms fire as they tried to eject to safety, in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. Turkish President Racciyp Erdogan it then went on to demand that the NATO Council convene, although not only wasn’t Turkey attacked, but rather itself committed an act of aggression. While Turkey maintains that it was only reacting in self-defense – it was against aircraft that were not engaged in actions over Turkish airspace or against the Turkish national military.

In order to justify its actions the Turkish Army has made radar footage public, footage that was supposed to have confirmed a breach of national sovereignty. The release, however, clearly shows that the Russian jets passed over what amounts to a sliver of Turkish territory, a small Turkish strip inside the Syrian mainland. The Turkish state broadcaster Haberturk TV showed footage of the downed Russian jet, trailing a long plume of smoke trailing behind it as it crashed in a wooded part of an area apparently known as ‘Turkmen Mountain.’

Pan-Turkism in the Middle East

In Turkey, the Anatolian Agency released images of two pilots parachuting out of the jet before its crash. The Turkish media have since commenced a tirade of coverage stressing that the affected area inside Syrian territory is held by Turkmen opposition groups, and not anti-Assad terrorists. Hence, the story being sold is that the Russian campaign is not aimed at rooting out ISIS, but rather at protecting the Assad regime against its opponents, the alleged ‘moderate opposition’.

The shootdown of a Russian jet con­duct­ing oper­a­tions against Turk­men mili­tia pulls back the cur­tain on known Pan-Turkist militant ele­ments such as the Grey Wolves that con­sti­tute part of the so-called ‘mod­er­ate’ rebel forces being armed by the West and Turkey. It now seems they were the mili­tia unit responsible for the killing of the Russ­ian pilot of the SU-24. Grey Wolf ele­ments have also been active in sup­port of the Mus­lim Turkish Uighurs in resource-rich Xin­jiang Province in northwestern China which shares part of its borders with Russia. After Thai­land extra­dited some ethnic Uighurs to China to face crim­i­nal charges, the Grey Wolves demon­strated against China in Turkey by det­o­nating a bomb in Bangkok on 17 August 2015, tar­get­ing Chinese tourists.

From Turkey to Ukraine, Crimean Tatars are sup­ported by Erdo­gan, who has been attempt­ing to real­ize a neo-Ottoman agenda. Now, the Tatars are work­ing with the OUN/B heirs in Ukraine’s Pravy Sek­tor to sab­o­tage the Crimean power grid. The attack on the elec­tri­cal grid came after a Tatar/Pravy Sek­tor col­lab­o­ra­tion in block­ing over­land truck deliv­er­ies to Crimea, as well as the Crimean water supply.

Threat of use of nuclear ordnance

The type of combat scenario seen in Syria inevitably raises the prospect of the someone in the region resorting to the use of nuclear ordnance. Not only are there American nuclear weapons in Turkey, with up to fifty B61 nuclear bombs in Erdogan’s hands with limited oversight, Turkey is the other nuclear power in the Middle East along with Israel, and the two have been working closely together since the 1940s.

In the context of the Syrian conflict it is a critical consideration – these B61 bombs, dangerous as they already are, have been slated for what the nuclear non-proliferation community has termed an illegal modification. From The Guardian:

“… In non-proliferation terms however the only thing worse than a useless bomb is a ‘usable’ bomb. Apart from the stratospheric price, the most controversial element of the B61 upgrade is the replacement of the existing rigid tail with one that has moving fins that will make the bomb smarter and allow it to be guided more accurately to a target. Furthermore, the yield can be adjusted before launch, according to the target.

“The modifications are at the centre of a row between anti-proliferation advocates and the government over whether the new improved B61-12 bomb is in fact a new weapon, and therefore a violation of President Obama’s undertaking not to make new nuclear weapons. His administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said life extension upgrades to the US arsenal would ‘not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.’

“The issue has a particular significance for Europe where a stockpile of 180 B61s is held in six bases in five countries. If there is no change in that deployment by the time the upgraded B61-12s enter the stockpile in 2024, many of them will be flown out to the bases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.“

In early 2015, Turkey had 117 of its F16 aircraft modified. These upgrades included avionics, electronic warfare and targeting, but also included upgrades for some of their aircraft to nuclear capability.

The United States keeps its nuclear inventory in Turkey at Incirlik Air Force Base, where specially modified NATO F16s are intended to carry these weapons against Russian cities. However, by agreement, none of America’s specially modified planes are actually stationed in Turkey.

The alternative that Erdogan and select NATO commanders found was a simple: as Turkish and Israeli pilots already trained together against the ‘common enemy’ – Iran – Israel could train Turkish crews to deliver the newly modified and much more lethal B61 guided warhead and could complete the modification on some of the upgraded Turkish aircraft to full nuclear capability.

These aircraft with targeting intelligence allegedly stolen from the US by Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, are ready to be deployed at any time or as part of a yet to be determined cabal of other ‘unannounced nuclear states,’ such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel or Germany, could prove a first strike capability.

Analysis of Russian response

In recent weeks with Russian air support, Syrian troops have retaken large swaths of territory from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist fighters. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has even begun approaching the Euphrates River east of Aleppo, which would effectively cut off ISIS from its supply lines leading out of Turkish territory.

From there, Syrian troops could move north, into the safe zone the US and its Turkish partners have long-sought but have so far failed to establish within Syria’s borders. This ‘safe’ or ‘no-fly’ zone includes a region of northern Syrian stretching from Jarabulus near the west bank of the Euphrates to Afrin and Ad Dana approximately 100 kilometers west. Taking the Jarabulus-Afrin corridor and fortifying it against NATO incursions while simultaneously cutting off ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist factions deeper within Syria would be perhaps the most decisive of all possible actions. With Syria secured, an alternative arc of influence will exist within the Middle East, one that will inevitably work against Saudi and other GCC efforts in Yemen, and in a wider sense begin an eviction of Western military hegemony from the region.

If Syrian coalition troops retake this territory, the prospect of the West ever making an incursion into Syria, holding territory, or compromising Syria’s territorial integrity would be lost forever. Western ambitions toward regime change in Damascus would be indefinitely suspended.

For Turkey’s government – which has been consistent only in its constant failure regarding its proxy war against its neighbouring Syria and now alleged to be supporting ISIS – the prospect of Russian retaliation either directly or indirectly will leave it increasingly isolated.

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