Russia’s partial withdrawal of its forces from Syria raises the question of why. The reasons usually given, including putting pressure on the Assad government to make a deal, are probably valid. But there is another possibility that has received little attention. Russia could be preparing for a direct military confrontation with Turkey.
An increasingly authoritarian Turkish government faces a deteriorating situation on its southern border. That is a recipe for direct intervention in Syria with ground troops, because an authoritarian government that seems weak abroad will find its legitimacy questioned. Not only does Turkey face a strengthened Assad government, thanks to Russian intervention, the Syrian Kurds have just taken a step toward creating Kurdistan by proclaiming a “federal” Kurdish region. As the March 18 New York Times stated, “For Turkey, which regards Kurdish nationalism as an existential threat, the idea of an autonomous Kurdish territory along its borders is anathema.”
Turkey had previously intervened against the Syrian Kurds with airpower and artillery fire. But Russia’s deployment of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system took away the air power option–Russia would love a chance to shoot down a Turkish warplane in retaliation for the earlier Turkish downing of a Russian aircraft–and artillery has a limited reach. In addition, the Kurds have retaliated for the artillery fire with suicide bombings in Turkey.
The Turks know that effective intervention requires ground forces. The entry of Turkish forces into Syria would be justified by claiming they are there to fight ISIS, but as I noted in an earlier column, Turkey is de facto allied with ISIS. The real targets would be the Kurds, America’s allies, and the Assad government, Russia’s ally. The U.S. will, as usual, bleat, but the Russian reaction could be another story.
If Russia were to intervene militarily against Turkey in response to Turkish intervention in Syria, military realities suggest she would do so not in Syria but along the Russian-Turkish border. For Russia to fight Turkey inside Syria, Russian forces would be at an enormous disadvantage. Turkey would immediately close the Straits, so all supplies and reinforcements would have to come by air via Iranian and Iraqi airspace. That would be sufficient to support only a small force–like the one Russia is now leaving in Syria.
Some reports suggest Russia is already preparing a campaign against Turkey. I suspect Russian military intelligence is better than our own in Russia’s back yard, and Moscow may already have, and have had for some time, knowledge that the Turks do plan to go in. In that case, Stavka is not likely to be caught napping.
Should a Russo-Turkish war break out, the Middle East’s Thirty Years’ War will have done what all parties should not want it to do, namely spread beyond the immediate theater. So long as outside parties fight each other, directly or indirectly, only in the Middle East, the dangers are not too great. But a Russo-Turkish war would immediately fall into NATO’s lap. (Again we see the disadvantages of maintaining obsolete alliances.) Washington, London, and Paris would all reluctantly feel they had no choice but to back Turkey militarily. The maintenance of peace would hang on Berlin. The last time this happened, in 1878, Bismarck kept the peace by calling the Congress of Berlin. But Hausfrau Merkel is no Bismarck.
Let us hope this remains in the camp of possibility, no more. If it does, Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria still counts as an important Russian success. Russia, unlike America, has shown it can not only get in, it can also get out. If the Republican convention this summer deadlocks, might someone nominate President Putin? If he won, we might not be trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan for another eight years.