In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet engaged and destroyed a Russian Su-24 Sukhoi that Ankara accused of violating its airspace. Moscow protested, claiming the aircraft remained over Syrian territory where the Russian military has been supporting the Assad regime with direct combat power since 2014. Though the drama of that incident led to a tense discussion, the relationship between the two countries returned quickly to reasonably good terms until recently. Last week, a Russian airstrike in support of Syrian Army forces in Idlib province killed 33 Turkish soldiers that probably made up a Turkish special operations command post there. Though Russia denied their air force was operating in the area, in the same breath they accused the Turks of breaking the 2018 ceasefire, which was designed to create a demilitarized zone in the Idlib region. As the world pleaded for de-escalation, Turkey vowed a vengeful response.
Ankara has since backed up its threat. On March 1st, Turkish jets began systematically attacking the Syrian Army and its proxies in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Turkish airpower is relentlessly and very effectively targeting the armor, artillery, aircraft, and other heavy equipment of the Syrian Army, which seems completely unprepared to deal with a threat from the air. The destruction has been so complete that it is raising questions about the efficacy of the Russian equipment fielded by the Syrian Army. Still, many say Turkey should act more firmly enough against Russia itself. They argue Turkey could put its substantial military power onto a full wartime footing much easier than Russia. Though this is true, Ankara’s long experience in the region cautions that the key to winning a clash there is by playing the long game and not jumping to conclusions.
Turkey has learned extensively from these battles and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. Turkey isn’t the only one with expertise in complicated disputes close to home. Russia also has similar ongoing conflicts and is applying those lessons in Syria. But there are differences. Syria is far from the Russian frontier, and its value to Russian power and prestige is not as apparent to the Russian public as other battlefields in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine). For Russia’s Syrian campaign to be successful, Moscow needs to keep casualties to an absolute minimum. Russian public opinion will not support yet another war of attrition like the Soviet-Afghan war without a clear Russian interest.
To keep casualties to a minimum, Russia isolates its soldiers on bases protected by their allies and limits its use of force to Special Operations or fighter aviation, both of which are hard for the Turkey-affiliated Free Syrian Army to combat. As a second layer of defense, Russia provides its proxies, specifically the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with advanced surface-to-air systems, anti-artillery radars, artillery, and different types of armored vehicles. These measures ensure that the “meatshield” keeping Russian forces safe from Free Syrian Army attacks remains in place. These tactics worked well thus far. Since Russia entered the region, rebel-controlled territory has shrunk continuously, and areas where the Free Syrian Army did manage to gain ground were quickly reconquered.
However, Turkey has learned extensively from its decades-long battle with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. A quick study of Turkish targeting shows Turkey is attacking the technical advantage Russia gave to the SAA, enabling the Free Syrian Army to advance and putting Russian forces in potential danger. By peeling back the layers of protection provided by SAA equipment instead of attacking the Russian soldiers that equipment protects, Turkey avoids turning the Russian public against Ankara and makes it very hard for Putin to justify a decision to escalate. At the same time, it transforms the entire conflict into a slow, persistent competition rather than an unbearably costly direct between two powerful contenders.
Playing the Long Game
The Turkish strategy demonstrates a nuanced reading of the history of the region in which no invading force has ever won such a competition. If Russia, Assad, and the SAA fail to quickly implement a serious countermeasure to Turkish airpower, the technically inferior rebels will begin advancing on all fronts, and the Russian body count will rise. This will have the effect of eroding Russian public opinion in support of Assad and force Putin to push for accommodation, not unlike the one that ended the Chechen war.
Though it will take some time before this strategy bears fruit, short-term gains by the Free Syrian Army are already visible along the northern, western, and southwestern fronts. Aleppo is once again in danger, an unbelievable consideration just a couple of weeks ago. Putin and Erdogan both know Russia is at a disadvantage in Turkey’s back yard and will most likely discuss a deal when they meet in Moscow on Thursday, March 5th. Until then, or until Russia can field an effective anti-air capability to the SAA in Idlib, Syrian, and possibly Russian, soldiers will continue to die in a war Russia just cannot win.
Mike Skillt is a former combat veteran and analyst now advising tomorrow’s leaders. Follow him on Twitter @MikaelSkillt.