What to Make of Turkey’s Recent Dust-Up in Syria
Brandon C. Patrick
As Russian-made S-400 missile system components began arriving at air bases in Turkey last year, the world watched and wondered as Turkey’s future in NATO seemed to hang in the balance. Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent years testing the limits of NATO’s resolve, probing weaknesses and assessing opportunities for cooperation which might lead to a weaker – or even divided – NATO alliance. A career KGB officer, Putin was in peak recruitment mode when he zeroed in on Erdogan as an exploitable potential asset: Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies and strongman persona put him at odds with his NATO counterparts in Europe, while his proximity to both Europe and Syria held important strategic implications for the Russian President.
But Putin’s effort to divide NATO through the recruitment of Erdogan has run aground in Syria, where the Russian-backed forces of Bashar al-Assad were recently battered by superior Turkish aircraft and weaponry. After Syrian and Russian aircraft attacked a Turkish column and killed 33 (some report as many as 100) Turkish troops, Erdogan’s forces downed Syrian fighter planes, destroyed Syrian tanks and artillery pieces and killed Syrian soldiers. These and the other Syrian forces in Idlib province constitute the vanguard of Putin’s effort in Syria, but Putin’s strategic goals rely on the idea that adversaries will back down, attempt to reason and negotiate in the face of aggression. The qualities which first endeared Erdogan to Putin were the very qualities which prevented Erdogan from backing down, and Putin had inadvertently found a partner who was willing to dance.
On March 5th, Putin and Erdogan sat for talks in Moscow which resulted in a ceasefire agreement and reportedly began with an offer of condolences from the Russian President. While the six-hour discussion yielded a break in the violence, it did not produce a requirement that Syrian, Russian or Iranian forces withdraw to their pre-offensive boundaries. This outcome – whatever its import turns out to be – was a predictable one and follows an established pattern for Putin. Onlookers can only guess at the durability of the ceasefire (similar agreements have collapsed before and Mr. Putin is a remorseless liar), but NATO leaders can learn from the abuse which Erdogan’s forces unleashed against Russian equipment, personnel and proxies.
First, it is now apparent that Mr. Putin is willing to tolerate a great deal in order to maintain Turkey and Erdogan as targets for recruitment. The Russian President’s commitment of resources to Syria served several purposes, but its main goal – that of preserving the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad – has been accomplished. Russian support of Syrian operations in Idlib province serve objectives which fall far beneath his strategic goal of cleaving Turkey from NATO and wreaking the division which would ensue. And although Putin’s call for negotiations does fit with his known pattern of behavior in such instances, the circumstances in Idlib were unique: Erdogan’s campaign against Russia and its proxies was compromising the veneer of military capability and competency which Mr. Putin and others have worked to maintain. Faced with the prospect of mopping up an accomplished objective at the expense of a future one, its unsurprising that Mr. Putin sought de-escalation.
The aforementioned “veneer of military capability” deserves further exploration and leads directly into a second important takeaway: for all of Russia’s boasts of military prowess, Turkey just demonstrated the ongoing superiority of NATO technology and doctrine. Conclusions along this line should be drawn with the understanding that this wasn’t Russia’s main force, but Turkey isn’t NATO’s top-tier force, either. Even accounting for the relative gap in capabilities between Russia’s and NATO’s full potential and that of the participants in Idlib, the scales still tip in favor of NATO personnel and equipment. The Syrian regime has relatively little to show for a months-long advance in Idlib province (one would imagine that the side which is directly backed by a great-power military would have overcome the Syrian rebellion long ago). Technologically, Turkish forces have torn through Russian-sponsored equipment (and training) with little in the way of Russian or Syrian opposition. In one already-famous case, Turkish UAVs recorded overhead as a Russian-made SA-22 air defense system was destroyed by an air to ground missile, while its radar was actively searching for enemy aircraft.
The SA-22 is only one example, but it illustrates a larger point because Turkey does not yet operate any stealth aircraft. That active SA-22’s are being destroyed in Syria by the very non-stealth aircraft they’re failing to acquire is revealing, and speaks to the ongoing disparity between the quality and capability of Russian arms and those of NATO counterparts. It isn’t difficult to imagine how a full-on NATO air war against Russian forces could unfold when the same and similar Russian ADS networks are forced to tangle with fleets of stealth aircraft from across Europe.
It’s difficult to know how Putin assesses, rationalizes or dismisses these facts or the kind of drubbing Russia received in Syria in the beginning of March. The Russian president rarely acknowledges the full scope of Russian involvement in his chosen escapades, but it seems unlikely that whatever deniability he believes he maintains is doing anything to camouflage the limited nature of Russian military capability in the eyes of NATO decisionmakers. It seems more apparent than ever that, at least as far as doctrine and technology are concerned, Russia has a long way to go before it can hope to match NATO’s battlefield capabilities. The practical limits of the Russian economy make it all the less likely that Putin’s military will achieve that parity.
To be sure, Russia remains a considerable adversary and the Russian military has made advances since the overhaul initiative which launched in 2008. There are some basic economic realities which help explain the seemingly faster pace at which the Russian armed forces are developing and why they seem to be “catching up.” But if Russia’s recent tangle with Turkey shows policymakers anything, it is that the Russian military continues to be hampered by the structural, doctrinal and technological limitations which it has traditionally grappled with.
Western realism about Putin and his geopolitical intentions – to say nothing of his near-obsessive national ambitions – have maintained western dominance of the military and technological spheres. Russia’s nuclear capability alone means this wariness should continue. But given what we’ve seen of the Russian military and its proxies, more attention should be paid to the likelihood that open and conventional war with Russia isn’t coming. The interaction between the NATO states and Russia has thus far been decided by calculated Russian rhetoric, gamesmanship and action, but a realistic understanding of actual Russian military power suggests that Putin will maintain that posture and avoid large-scale conflict. If this notion holds true, it won’t be NATO’s military might which saves the world from Putin’s brand of provocation, nor will it likely get the chance. In a period of declining American leadership and diplomatic capacity, U.S. and NATO officials must prepare for a post-adversarial future with Russia brought about by similarly clinical decision making on the western side. The 2020 U.S. presidential election may herald a renewal of diplomatic leadership to counter Russian antics. If not, the NATO states must all do more with less.