MOSCOW BLOG: Syria conflict has become an accident waiting to happen

MOSCOW BLOG: Syria conflict has become an accident waiting to happen
By Ben Aris in Moscow December 7, 2015

“Think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think,” Thucydides wrote in his classic “The Peloponnesian War”.

There has been plenty of action and little thinking in the last few weeks. And the possibility is growing that all parties involved in the Syrian conflict are stumbling into a region-wide conflagration by following short-term goals.

Tensions have been escalating since Turkey shot down a Russian plane on November 24, and both Russia and Nato have begun moving warships around in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea. Then things took a dramatic turn when Turkey sent a “protective” force of several hundred troops and including 30 tanks and APCs into Iraqi territory to set up a base near Mosul. Iraq’s government called on December 6 for the troops to be withdrawn within 48 hours. “No matter the size of the force entering Iraq, it is rejected,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement. “It was possible to undertake this sort of prior coordination without creating circumstances which contributed to a crisis between the two countries.”

With the increasing concentration of military assets in the region, but with the players largely still refusing to cooperate with each other, the odds of a really bad incident happening look increasingly likely.

Plane talking

Tensions were ratcheted up dramatically after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on November 24 that was in its airspace for a mere 17 seconds, provoking an outpouring of rage from the Kremlin, shortly followed by a raft of sanctions that will cost Turkey billions of dollars in income it can ill afford. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that more economic, but not military, reprisals are to come in his state of the nation speech on December 3.

Russia will also pay a heavy economic price for estranging yet another European nation, as the number of countries Russia does business with – and, more importantly, imports food from – continues to dwindle at an alarming rate.

Ankara seems surprised at the venom with which the Kremlin has reacted and appeared to attempt to walk the row backwards at the weekend. Russia’s decision to suspend visa-free travel with Turkey from January 1 is a mistake, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with TASS on December 6, and called on Russia to undo its economic sanctions. “Turkey is a safe country for all,” Cavusoglu said. “The economy and trade have always taken special positions in our bilateral relations… Instead of the escalation of the current tension, we should in cold blood and as soon as possible overcome this period and return our relations into the former trend.”

The Turkish embassy in Moscow told the local press that it has no intention of making tit-for-tat changes to its visa-free regime with Russia despite the worsening ties between the countries, RIA Novosti news agency reported at the weekend.

The Kremlin has been crystal clear that there will be no military retaliation against Turkey, which can shelter under its Nato membership. However, all Russian bombers in Syria are now being accompanied by Russia’s state-of-the-art Sukhoi fighter jets, which are a match for Turkey’s US-supplied F-16s. If there is another border incident between the Russian and Turkish air forces, it will likely end with the downing of a Turkish plane and that would trigger the question of whether Turkey will invoke Nato’s Article 5 clause, which would bring other Nato members to its defence.

Bosphorus tensions

Tensions are building in the Bosphorus too. Turkish media reported the first Russian warship after the bomber incident passed through the straights on November 30, a cargo ship from the auxiliary forces of the Russian navy. Since then, several Russian warships have appeared in the historic channel between Asia and Europe, with one seaman on board apparently brandishing a rocket launcher, according to the Turkish government.

In the last ten days, warships from 13 countries have been sent to the waters in the area. A US warship entered the Black Sea and three more Nato ships docked in Istanbul, to “show support” for Turkey.

The two sides are already striking out at each other on the sea. Russian authorities reportedly nixed the paperwork of four Turkish cargo ships in the port of Samsun on their way to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk on December 5. Turkey has threatened to close the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles, which it is allowed to do under the Montreux Convention signed in 1936 “in times of war”. The straits are vital to Russia’s navy, which is based in the Crimea, one of the main motivations for Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsular last year. If Turkey were to close the Bosphorus to Russian shipping, there is a good chance the Kremlin would regard that as an act of war due to its significant military implications for the Russian navy. Tensions here too are escalating fast.

“Russian media have reported that Turkey is deliberately slowing down the passage of Russian ships through the straits,” reports the Bug Pit, a military blog run by “The website of the Russian Ministry of Defense's television station, Zvezda, published a report Saturday speculating on who would win a naval war between Turkey and Russia.”

Troops in Iraq

On December 4 it emerged that Turkey had sent “a training mission” of soldiers into Iraq to allegedly set up a base with Iraqi Kurds. 

“Turkey deployed an armoured battalion northeast of Mosul, ostensibly as part of a training mission for Kurdish Peshmerga and a local anti-ISIS militia. Turkey’s forces bolster Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a primary rival to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) active in Syria, Turkey, and parts of Iraq,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported on its blog.

Turkey said on December 6 it would halt further transfers of troops to the area near Mosul after Baghdad threatened to appeal to the UN to force Turkey to withdraw its soldiers. There is little else the Iraqi government can do, as it is not in control of the north of the country. ISW speculates that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is moving the forces in to position himself to “maintain influence over any future operation to recapture Mosul and Ninewa from ISIS”.

Turkish military forces have been present in northern Iraq since 1997, but ISW analysts say this latest move has raised Turkey’s game in Iraq and inflamed feelings and heightened tensions between the Sunni and Shia factions in the country. In particular, it will “make it even harder for Iraq’s Prime Minister Abadi to publicly support any additional coalition deployment, such as the US Special Operations forces that [US] Defence Secretary Ashton Carter announced on December 1,” ISW says.

As an aside, Turkey’s blatant disregard for the Iraqi border has only exacerbated Russian anger over the downing of its plane, as the Turkish military has already spent a lot longer than 17 seconds in someone else’s country.

Nato concerns

So far, the only response from the US was defence officials in Washington saying it was aware of the Turkish deployment, but the move is not part of the US-led coalition's activities, Reuters reported. It’s clear the West mistrusts Russia more than it worries about Turkey, but it is being put in an increasingly difficult position by Erdogan’s tactics.

“I think Moscow is misreading Turkey very badly at present because: a) Erdogan is safe, almost unassailable in terms of his domestic position of power in Turkey: b) Turkey's strategic alliance with Nato and the West is very durable, and the US/West is certainly not going to drop Turkey for Russia – Turkey is an absolute lynchpin of Nato, and loyal Nato member of 60-odd years,” Nomura International credit strategist Tim Ash said in an emailed note.

However, privately European diplomats in particular are becoming increasingly alarmed, according to bne IntelliNews sources. In a sign of the need to head off the growing danger of stumbling into armed conflict with Russia in Syria, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced on December 2 that the alliance has made a decision to reactivate the Nato-Russia Council meetings that have been frozen since March 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea. “We decided also to keep at the same time channels for political contact open. And the Nato-Russia Council is part of these channels for political contact and dialogue… And I will now explore how we can use the council as a tool for political engagement,” Stoltenberg told journalists.

The decision to restart regular interaction is a backing off from Nato’s usual firm tone when it comes to Russia. And maybe Erdogan has overplayed his hand here. Following Turkey’s downing of the Russian bomber, the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) released a provocative paper arguing that Erdogan’s motive was an attempt to break up a possible alliance between the West/Nato and Russia in Syria.

“The deliberate shooting down of the Russian bomber, which took place on the day of President [Francois] Hollande’s visit to Washington, and just before the talks between the leaders of the USA & France and Putin, is most likely an attempt by Ankara to reverse the adverse trends in the game around Syria,” OSW analyst Mateusz Chudziak speculated. “Its aim is to show Russia and the West that Ankara is a player whose interests should not only be acknowledged, but which also should participate in all considerations concerning Syria… Turkey is also most likely seeking to break up the prospect of an emerging Russian-Western alliance on the Syrian issue. At the same time, it puts the West in a very difficult situation (the need to support an unpredictable ally) and shows its own destabilising potential, which could also be used in the future. This is particularly important for the European Union, because Turkey is a key country in the context of the migration crisis in Europe.”

As bne IntelliNews reported herehere and here, Russia has been actively preparing for a possible war with the West since 2012, or at least to better provide itself with enough military firepower to give the Kremlin some serious leverage when arguing for a place at the top global table of international geopolitics.

While Nato still massively out-spends, out-mans and out-guns Russia, and would clearly win any protracted war, the problem with Nato is its configuration is all wrong. Except for the US, Estonia, Poland, Greece and UK, the other Nato members have cut their spending to below the mandatory 2% of GDP in recent years. More importantly, its forces are not deployed for a classic front-based showdown, whereas Russia’s smaller forces are.

Putin has run a series of large-scale rapid-response military exercises this year, all designed to get the Russian military reaction time down. The result is Russia could deploy over 100,000 troops in less than seven days whereas Nato would take a lot longer to mass this number of troops and get them anywhere. If Russia invaded the Baltics, then Russia would beat Nato to the coast.  According to some analysts, Russia would probably take control of many of the strategic positions in Europe long before Nato could rally its forces to protect them. In simple terms, Russia’s forces are configured for a blitzkreig that Nato would be unable to stop in the short run.

And that is the calculus: Putin doesn't need to be able to defeat Nato; he just needs to make the prospect of going to war sufficiently unpalatable to give him a very strong hand in any negotiation with the West. Both the Russians and even the Estonian ambassador to Moscow say there is no prospect of a Russian invasion in the Baltics. But Syria is a different kettle of fish, as the theatre of operations is already full of troops, planes and battleships. And accidents do happen.