- Week Eighteen of the Russian Intervention in Syria: A Dramatic Escalation Appears Imminent
… This strategic Russian and Syrian victory meant that all the nations supporting Daesh, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the USA were facing a complete collapse of their efforts to overthrow Assad and to break-up Syria and turn part of it into a “Jihadistan”. The Americans could not admit this, of course, as for the Saudis, their threats to invade Syria were rather laughable. Which left the main role to Erdogan who was more than happy to provide the West with yet another maniacal ally willing to act in a completely irresponsible way just to deny the “other side” anything looking like a victory.
Erdogan seems to be contemplating two options. The first one is a ground operation into Syria aimed at restoring the supply lines of Daesh and at preventing the Syrian military from controlling the border.
In purely military terms, Russia has taken a number of crucial steps: she declared a large scale “verification” of the “combat readiness” of the Southern and Central military districts. In practical terms, this means that all the Russian forces are on high alert, especially the AeroSpace forces, the Airborne Forces, the Military Transportation Aviation forces and, of course, all the Russian forces in Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet. The first practical effect of such “exercises” is not only to make a lot of forces immediately available, but it is also to make them very difficult to track. This not only protects the mobilized forces, but also makes it very hard for the enemy to figure out what exactly they are doing. There are also report that Russian Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft – A-50M – are now regularly flying over Syria. In other words, Russia has taken the preparations needed to go to war with Turkey.
Needless to say, the Turks and the Saudis have also announced joint military exercises. They have even announced that Saudi aircraft will conduct airstrikes from the Incirlik air base in support of an invasion of Syria.
At the same time, the Russians have also launched a peace initiative centered around a general ceasefire starting on March 1st or even, according to the latest leaks, on February 15th. The goal is is transparent: to break the Turkish momentum towards an invasion of Syria. It is obvious that Russian diplomats are doing everything they can to avert a war with Turkey.
Here again I have to repeat what I have said already a million times in the past: the small Russian contingent in Syria is in a very precarious position: far away from Russia and very close (45km) to Turkey. Not only that, but the Turks have over 200 combat aircraft ready to attack, whereas the Russians probably has less than 20 SU-30/35/34s in total. Yes, these are very advanced aircraft, of the 4++ generation, and they will be supported by S-400 systems, but the force ratio remains a terrible 1:10.
Russia does, however, have one big advantage over Turkey: Russia has plenty of long-range bombers, armed with gravity bombs and cruise missiles, capable of striking the Turks anywhere, in Syria and in Turkey proper. In fact, Russia even has the capability to strike at Turkish airfields, something which the Turks cannot prevent and something which they cannot retaliate in kind for. The big risk for Russia, at this point, would be that NATO would interpret this as a Russian “aggression” against a member-state, especially if the (in)famous Incirlik air base is hit.
What is clear is that in any war between Russia and Turkey NATO will have to make a key decision: is the alliance prepared to go to war with a nuclear power like Russia to protect a lunatic like Erdogan? It is hard to imagine the US/NATO doing something so crazy but, unfortunately, wars always have the potential to very rapidly get out of control. Modern military theory has developed many excellent models of escalation but, unfortunately, no good model of how de-escalation could happen (at least not that I am aware of). How does one de-escalate without appearing to be surrendering or at least admitting to being the weaker side?
The current situation is full of dangerous and unstable asymmetries: the Russian task force in Syria is small and isolated and it cannot protect Syria from NATO or even from Turkey, but in the case of a full-scale war between Russia and Turkey, Turkey has no chance of winning, none at all. In a conventional war opposing NATO and Russia I personally don’t see either side losing (whatever ‘losing’ and ‘winning’ mean in this context) without engaging nuclear weapons first.