The View From Olympus: The Russian Pull-out

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. favicon

3 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: The Russian Pull-out”

  1. And now we see the wisdom in a recent speech by a particular presidential candidate about maintaining such alliances, or at least forcing the members to pay for them; given the budget situations in Europe, this may have the same effect as dissolving that alliance.

    The cheaper option is to disavow Turkey and eject them from said alliance for whatever reason can be contrived. Either way, victory to Putin.

    And lest anyone think, Oh noes, general war in Europe, it will not happen. Because Iskander. And everyone knows it.

  2. Russia’s withdrawal is consistent with the established pattern we know from the crisis in Ukraine or even in Georgia. Contrary to claims made by western msm, Putin is not unpredictable at all, you can read him like an open book.

    Putin seems to have come to terms with Russia’s role as regional-peripheral power which is unable to challenge US hegemony, so he will only act to secure immediate Russian interests and exercise damage control in the face of US provocations. That’s why he stopped in 2008 and didn’t occupy Tbilisi in Georgia. That’s why stopped in Crimea as he was only interested in securing the naval base there and he let down the Donbass uprising that could potentially give him at least 1/3 of Ukraine. That’s why now with the opposition in disarray, the Syrian forces on the march and American policy in a dead end he withdrew and put both parties back in the picture as players.

    Putin’s aim is simple. Come to a sort of compromise, make concessions to the opponent even when Russia has the advantage and the reality on the ground is in its favour, expecting first that the immediate and vital Russian interests be respected and that all parties are interested in stabilizing the situation, even at the expense of greater Russian national interests. This results in leaving things half-finished with open wounds that the US can fully exploit.

  3. Yes, the “wisdom” of those illiterate in regards to international politics. Pay for allainces? That’s not how an alliance works, kiddo. You know, on top of those little things our alliance system grants us. Like the global web of bases that allows the US to project power around the globe. The politial soft power and influence we can bring to bear on events all over the world. The very stability of much of the globe that our systems of trade and economy derive wealth from. Only a blind fool would ever willingly risk all these over some harebrained scheme for protection money – and only a blind and ignorant fool would call our web of allainces “obsolete”.

    The cheaper option, eh? Yeah, that’s also something that anyone with the faintest clue about international politics is rightfully wary of. Because all too often these “cheaper options” tend to be anything but in the long run. Ruining the US’ trustworthiness in diplomacy and destabilising the globe on a grand scale is not going to benefit the United States in the slightest beyond making the ignorant feel good about it. For however long that lasts until the consequences set in. And that is before we get into the potential results of allowing a wannabe-dictator to run rampage willy-nilly in the modern age, out of nothing but insipid penny-pinching. Robert Goodloe Harper put it nicely: Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.

    As for Putins invasion of Turkey, that’s not gonna happen. Because NATO. Even if the US were actually so goddamned stupid as to try and bail out, that’d still leave two nuclear powers who ensured that Mr. Putin would get Istanbul only a the price of seeing his own nation wiped off the face of the planet.

    (Also, Mr. Linds knowledge seems to be rather… outdated in some other details, too. Really, Stavka? That’s not been the name for a looooooooong time. Oh, and it seems he is entirely unaware of more recent events given his claims that the US cannot “get out” of regional conflicts.)

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