Streetwise Professor

November 25, 2015

Let’s You and Him Fight

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:28 am

There should be no shock or surprise at Turkey’s destruction of a Russian Su-24. Russia and Turkey have been in a state of undeclared war for a long time. Turkey has long supported rebels, most notably Islamist rebels, fighting to topple Assad. Russia intervened to prop up a tottering Assad, and has directed the bulk of its operations against the rebels Turkey supports. Many of these airstrikes have occurred close to the border, and are directed specifically at rebel ratlines running back into Turkey and at the front lines of the fighters Turkey supports.

This has made Erdogan furious. The shootdown was, as Lavrov said, clearly deliberate. Just as Putin’s intervention was a clear signal that Assad was losing, this incident is a clear signal that Erdogan believes that his forces are now losing. This is his way of hitting back and trying to get Putin to back off.

Russia says that it is striking ISIS. This is largely, though not completely, a lie. But Russia is striking Islamists. Today Putin pointedly criticized Erdogan, saying that he is Islamizing Turkey. Putin is correct.

To see the kind of people Erdogan is supporting, consider the fact that the rebels shot at the Russian air crew as they were parachuting after bailing out, killing one of them. They then gloated over the corpse.

All of this makes it beyond strange that so many on the right in the US are apoplectic about Russian intervention in Syria, and that this apoplexy has only intensified with the destruction of the Su-24. Senator Tom Cotton (and others) claim that we are in a proxy war in Syria, and that Russia has intervened against our “allies” in this war.

Why are we in a proxy war? What compelling US interests exist in Syria? And why are we allying ourselves with Salafists who are just branded affiliates of either Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, and who are striving to kill us everywhere else in the world? If “our side” “wins”, what do we get? A Salafist stronghold and safe haven from which to attack us? If “our side” “loses”, what does it cost us? We’ve lived with the Assads  for almost 50 years. They are not going to be much of a threat to anyone, given the wreck the country has become (not that it was ever anything but a typically shambolic Arab dictatorship).

People like Cotton also speak in concerned tones about Turkey as a Nato ally under threat from Russia. This should be turned on its head: we need to reconsider quite seriously whether an Islamist country that provides material support to Islamist groups (including Hamas), and which is led by an increasingly erratic autocrat, is a suitable member of Nato.

This is particularly true given that Erdogan does not have clean hands, by any means, in the fight against ISIS. Erdogan has unleashed his air force against the Kurds, but not against ISIS. ISIS supply lines stretch into Turkey. ISIS members use Turkey as a safe area and a transit zone (including to Europe). He fought mightily to deny aid to the Kurds in Kobani when they were fighting for their lives. Furthermore, there is considerable reason to believe that Erdogan’s family facilitates the sale of ISIS oil. (This last detail raises questions about the US forbearance in attacking ISIS oil convoys, despite the fact that oil revenues are vital to ISIS’s financing. We have given excuses like protecting innocent truck drivers’ lives, or even “environmental concerns“, FFS, to explain the lack of attacks on the oil rat line. The Erdogan connection quite plausibly is a more important reason.)

The main issue for the United States is that this greatly complicates the US air campaign against ISIS, especially in Syria. In response to the downing of its jet, Russia has announced that it is deploying long range S-400 surface-to-air missiles to Syria to protect its aircraft. (Russia denied earlier reports that it had already deployed the missiles. There was some photographic evidence–of the distinctive radars–that they had, so perhaps they are using this as an excuse to announce something they had done before but denied.) Russia does not want to shoot down US planes, but accidents will happen, and the greater the envelope of the missiles, the more scope for accidents, especially given that US aircraft are operating out of Turkish bases.

There are reasons to be concerned about Putin and Russia. But Syria is not among them. Better to devote our efforts to proving a bulwark and deterrent against Putin where it matters to us, than tangling with him in a place where it doesn’t. As I’ve said, if anything, it’s better to have him stuck in Syria than running amok in eastern Europe.

There’s an old joke about “let’s you and him fight.” That seems about right here. Let Putin and Erdogan fight, if that’s what they want. We should want no part of it.

Further thoughts: There has been much blather post-Sharm al Sheik and post-Paris about a “grand alliance” between Russia and the West to fight ISIS. This was always a chimerical hope. First, Russia’s priority has never been ISIS, and even though it did intensify strikes on ISIS post-Metrojet, its efforts were still focused on the non-ISIS groups fighting Assad.

Second, what was the basis for  a bargain? What really can Russia contribute to an anti-ISIS campaign that the US (aided by France and maybe the UK) could not do without its help? The lame Western effort has not been due to lack of capability: it has been due to a lack of will. And if Russia rally desires to strike ISIS (because is it is allegedly in its own interest), why would the West feel obliged to offer it any inducement?  In particular, why would they offer what Putin really wants (concession on Assad, and in particular, elimination of sanctions and a free hand in Ukraine) when Putin really can’t offer anything material in return, especially since these concessions would be humiliating for Obama and the Europeans, and completely undermine Western credibility?

Third, differences over Assad’s fate appear reconcilable. The West–including Hollande, who has been most insistent (and pathetic) importuning Russia for help–has continued its insistence that Assad must go. Russia has been most insistent that he must stay. That gap cannot be bridged.

The downing of the Su-24 and the subsequent escalation (Putin has intensified the bombing of the groups Turkey supports, including the Turkmen) make any deal even less likely. This would involve throwing a Nato member over the side, and although Nato should be looking for ways to reduce commitments to Turkey, to do so under the current circumstances would be disastrous to the alliance, and would likely goad Erdogan (who doesn’t need much goading) into taking more provocative actions in Syria, and against Europe and the US. (For instance, if Europe thinks it is overwhelmed by refugees now, just think of what could happen if Erdogan put his mind to pushing Syrians into Europe.)

This may well be part of Erdogan’s thinking. If his action makes an already unlikely deal impossible, he wins.

Hollande is in Moscow today, looking awkward as Putin blasts Turkey. Putin also blamed the US for providing the intelligence about the aircraft that the Turkish F16s shot down. Especially with accusations like that, there is no way that there is going to be any deal. There may be words and promises, but nothing of substance, and Putin will certainly not be able to leverage the situation to his advantage.

If anything, he is in a weak position. Most of the non-military retaliatory actions he can take (e.g., cutting off food imports from Turkey, and shutting down tourism) are very damaging to an already economically isolated Russia. Cutting off gas sales would hurt Turkey, but at a large cost to Russia and Gazprom, which is already in bad shape. (The cancellation of Turkish Stream would be a potential benefit, as it would prevent Gazprom from wasting $10 billion.)

Militarily, Putin can intensify action against Turkish creatures in Syria, but Turkey can respond by escalating against the Syrian regime. What’s more, Turkey has a trump card: control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles. In the event of conflict between Russia and Turkey, Erdogan could close the Straits and leave Russian forces in Syria high and dry. Putin’s only escalatory option after that would be the unthinkable one.

In sum, I didn’t see much possibility for Putin to leverage Paris into a deal that would give him sanction relief or Western acquiescence on Assad before, and see even less now. Moreover, Putin’s position in the struggle with Turkey is relatively weak. In particular, he does not possess escalation dominance. Within the range of the thinkable, Erdogan does.

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  1. Agreed, but what about Article V? If we abandon Turkey now, that will split NATO exactly how Putin has been trying to do for years now, will it not?

    Seems like our trigger-happy “ally” has put us in quite the tough spot here

    Comment by bryan paris — November 25, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

  2. Yes, Erdogan’s role is very doubtful here. However, the shooting down of the russian jet is a great development. It will tie Russian relative meagre forces and give breathing room to Ukraine. I’m all for a proxy war against Russia in Syria.Let’s strangle the bear.

    Comment by Krzys — November 25, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

  3. @bryan-That’s exactly the point. Erdogan has put us in a tough spot. The problem with any insurance policy (and you can look at Article V like an insurance policy) is moral hazard. Countries that believe that they can rely on others bailing them out have an incentive to take on excessive risk. We don’t have to worry about that with the UK or the Netherlands, for instance, but we do now with Turkey.

    The problem is that keeping Turkey in Nato is what could really split the core of the alliance: who is going to want to come to the rescue of a madman? If that choice has to be made, that’s when the alliance could crack. Better to let him know he’s on his own, rather than backed up by the US and the rest of Nato.

    More problematic are the Baltics, Poland, etc. They are a core interest of Nato, in its primary theater. But the skittishness of Germany in particular means that Nato may be hard pressed to invoke Article V if they are attacked.

    This is related to my point that we focus on Putin’s threat to Nato’s core, and shore up solidarity there, rather than tie its fate to Erdogan.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 25, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

  4. Prof – That would be ideal if we could do that, but a treaty is a treaty, and setting the precedent of bailing out on a signatory due to political expediency (even if it’s for good reason in this case) is not particularly optimal, especially with our craven Commander-in-Chief in office for another year. What sort of signal does that send to our allies?

    Might be a golden opportunity for Putin to finally split the alliance, although he’s also in an unenviable spot, having to escalate a conflict Russia can’t afford in order to save face domestically. It seems like there are no winners here.

    Comment by bryan paris — November 25, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

  5. Actually, the Middle East does matter to the West as we’ll belatedly recognize. However,
    it’s too late to do anything effective about it. So we’ll have to bear the consequences,
    which will be significant over the next decade–economically and militarily. The die is cast!

    Comment by eric — November 25, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

  6. NATO is and hasbeen BANKRUPT IMPOTENT

    Comment by t c phillips — November 25, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

  7. Brent crude is at $43. How long does Putin have to screw around in the Middle East until domestic economic issues start chipping away at his ability to be expending resources in foreign entanglements instead of focusing his attention (and financial resources) on domestic priorities, 18 months?

    A stalemate in Syria works to the favor of the West because of Putin’s economic weakness. I don’t see how the West needs to be brought into any pissing match between Turkey and Russia. Russia doesn’t have the ability to effect a decisive victory in Syria in the next 24 months and everyone who matters in the equation knows it.

    Comment by Charles — November 25, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

  8. All I can figure is that Putin has been correct all along in Syria. Our best (least worst, actually) outcome is for Assad to win. In the Middle East, the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. We would be better off if Q Daffy were still in power. Same with Mubarak. Baathist Iraq would have been better than what we have now. We have sold out the Kurds for almost 50 years. I am skeptical how much actual value NATO got from Turkey.

    I recall a number of Democrat Party intellectuals criticizing Reagan as grand standing against terrorism because he didn’t take on Hafaz Assad. Reagan had it right, for all the proxy wars we got into with Syria, Reagan decided it wasn’t worth our lives and treasure.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — November 25, 2015 @ 8:30 pm

  9. Given that ISIS was formed by radical Islamists released from prison by Assad and seems to have mainly avoided combat with Assad’s forces while hitting the opposition hard, I’m not at all surprised the Russians are not bombing them much except for the odd token raid. Russia has a long history of supporting extreme Islamic terrorism. See Hamas and Hizbollah for details. Also that WSO in the Flanker was one of the Russians bombing Georgian civilians in 2008 so I’m glad he got his. There is quite a bit of film online of Russian troops torturing and murdering Georgian POWs in 2008. Who are Christians BTW…..

    Comment by Andrew — November 25, 2015 @ 10:07 pm

  10. There is a certain irony in all of this. Russia annexed Crimea and intervened in East Ukraine on the pretext of supporting ethnic Russians, to the point of arming the rebels such that they could inflict serious damage on the Ukrainian army. Have a guess what? Turkey has intervened in Syria on behalf of their ethnic brethren, to the point of shooting down a Russian plane. Sure, the violation of airspace was the official justification, but had Turkey and Russia’s interests in Syria been aligned, this plane would never have been shot down. I’m sure Ergodan is well aware of the parallels, which is why Putin is thrashing around and issuing empty threats (seriously, what’s he going to do to Turkey on their own doorstep? He could arm the Kurds, but I doubt he will), what is sauce for the East Ukrainian goose is sauce for the North Syrian gander. Turkey wants Assad out, Russia is preventing that and bombing Turkmen, Turkey was looking for an opportunity to hurt Russia: and they duly served one up by violating Turkish airspace. How the Russian military didn’t foresee this I don’t know, but Putin is looking less like a Grand Master Strategist now, isn’t he? Bogged down in East Ukraine, Crimea without electricity, and losing planes and pilots in an unwinnable war in Syria while oil sits at $43 and nobody wants his gas.

    Not that I have any truck for Ergodan either. Both him and Putin are assholes. SWP has it right: let ’em both fight, and the winner can have Syria.

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 26, 2015 @ 1:32 am

  11. I only wish you could use sources other than William Engdahl, an RT columnist, and John Helmer, a Kremlin-friendly veteran (you quoted him on Applebaum a few posts back). I understand that Bilal Erdogan was first accused of dealing in ISIS’ crude by the opposition in Turkey, so Engdahl could be merely reporting those allegations (just as Putin is stating the obvious about Erdogan’s Islamization policies) but he’s still a suspicious source.

    Comment by Alex K. — November 26, 2015 @ 3:17 am

  12. @Tim-The analogy is very apt. Furthermore, Russia has shot down multiple Ukrainian planes, including at least one Su-24, the exact same type of plane the Turks splashed.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 26, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

  13. France has bounced in and out of NATO like a ping pong ball, so suspending Turkey doesn’t seem the end of the world.
    When Hollande did his “we are at war” schtick I thought invoking a toothless mutual EU defence pact instead of NATO was imbecilic. But I’m beginning to see where he’s going with this one.

    Comment by James Harries — November 26, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

  14. Anyone with farming experience would not be surprised that a turkey would attack a intruding pig.

    On another note, at the G 20 meeting in Turkey recently, wasn’t it strange how Erdogan patted Obama’s face, as if “good boy, (or poorboy), you’ve done your job”. This friendliness is very unusual. Wild speculation here, could Obama have stayed mostly out of the middle east mess on Erdogan’s request.

    Comment by traveler — November 26, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

  15. Putins inner cirkel are involved in the trade of oil with IS . Like in Saddams corrupted UN oil for food program .

    Comment by Anders — November 27, 2015 @ 5:05 am

  16. – WASHINGTON—The Obama administration accused Syria’s government of purchasing oil from Islamic State and blacklisted a Syrian-Russian businessman suspected of facilitating those transactions.

    The U.S. Treasury Department also penalized Russian and Cypriot businessmen and companies suspected of helping the Syrian central bank evade international sanctions through a web of companies based in Russia, Cyprus and Belize.

    Among those blacklisted is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former president of the autonomous Russian Republic of Kalmykia. Mr. Ilyumzhinov is a long-serving president of the World Chess Federation, according to the Treasury Department.

    The Treasury’s actions bar U.S. nationals from doing business with the designated entities and freeze any assets they hold in the U.S. financial system.

    U.S. officials have long voiced concerns that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was strengthening Islamic State’s finances by purchasing oil produced by the militant group on territory that used to be controlled by Damascus. However, Wednesday’s charges are the most explicit and direct accusations by the U.S., and the first time sanctions have been imposed over the regime’s oil trade.-

    Comment by Anders — November 27, 2015 @ 5:05 am

  17. cutting off food imports from Turkey, and shutting down tourism

    I don’t see how the first would help Russia’s cause any more than banning EU cheese did: the stuff would come in via Kazakhstan anyway, at three times the price. As for the second, what can Russia do here? Ban its citizens from travelling to Turkey? Good luck with that. They could ban direct flights between the two countries, but Russians would still be able to go via third countries, which a lot of them do anyway. If Russia wants to go after Turkey, they ought to target the huge construction companies like Enka who do so much of the construction work in Russia. But if they did that, who would do the construction work? Russians? Heh!

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 27, 2015 @ 5:15 am

  18. Two details missing:

    1) one particular previous conflict, continuing & increasing to this very day, are the Crimean Tatars. Erdogan vowed to use his influence for their protection. Got screwed left and right, so that’s a darn sharp axe to grind.

    2) closing the Turkish Straits is much much worse than just cutting Russian supplies to Syria. It means creating a land-locked Sebastopol. Making the invasion & occupation of Crimea totally useless.
    And leaving only Koenigsberg as an icefree naval base (but also land-locked, and impossible to defend, in terms of free access to the Atlantic, without crossing territorial waters, of Danmark/Sweden).

    Comment by Wilhelmus Janus — November 27, 2015 @ 9:35 pm

  19. Going a step farther back in alternate history-Carter’s muddled destabilization of the Shah was an enormous mistake.

    Comment by pahoben — November 28, 2015 @ 4:47 am

  20. US foreign policy suffers from chronic unintended consequences since not based on reality but rather on liberal Utopian ideals. The paved road to Hell must be near completion surely.

    Comment by pahoben — November 28, 2015 @ 4:57 am

  21. Among those blacklisted is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a former president of the autonomous Russian Republic of Kalmykia. Mr. Ilyumzhinov is a long-serving president of the World Chess Federation, according to the Treasury Department.

    Comment by Anders — November 28, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

  22. I appreciate there are many (including some commenters here) for whom Russia is in some deep sense “the other”, forever malign and untrustworthy.

    I’m a little surprised, however, at some of your assumptions about Russia’s intentions.

    – “Russia’s priority has never been ISIS”. In the short term that’s true but then Russia never made any secret of its priorities in Syria. The first and most important is preventing the collapse of the Syrian state, which necessitates tackling those parts of the insurgency which most directly threaten it. Presuming they and their allies succeed in this first goal, ISIS is next on the target list. Even so, it’s not as if they aren’t giving it the occasional touchup.

    – You seem convinced that Russia is committed to Assad personally. It’s true that in the short term Russia sees matters as too fraught to risk any sort of substantive change in the Syrian government. Medium term, however, my impression is they’re committed to two things: the continuation of a functioning Syrian government; and, an evolutionary, negotiated process aimed at producing a more inclusive and lasting government, with the Syrians themselves primarily responsible for its form.

    – “The lame Western effort has not been due to lack of capability: it has been due to a lack of will.” True, but isn’t it more than simply a “lack of will”? Isn’t it mostly due to profound strategic confusion? The US obsession with getting rid of the Syrian government (which is mostly an offshoot of its decades long obsession with hobbling Iran) has led it into an ever more incoherent position. Russia intervened (as you rightly point out at great potential risk to itself) because the resulting policies threatened the imminent collapse of the Syrian state and its replacement by a jihadist free for all. Is it unreasonable to fear that such a “success” might soon have threatened Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and who knows what else in time?

    A small aside to finish. The common perception about Russia seems to be that it’s inscrutable, devious, Machiavellian. No doubt it’s capable of being all of these things, but in recent years the easiest way to work out what Russia’s going to do is simply to listen to Putin and Lavrov. They appear to set relatively open long-term goals and then consistently pursue them.

    Comment by Ingolf — November 28, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

  23. @ingolf. I think your critique is mainly quibbles.

    1. I have said from the outset of the Russian foray into Syria that it was aimed at saving the Syrian state, and that ISIS is not the most immediate threat. That’s another way of saying ISIS is not Putin’s priority.

    2. “Assad” is shorthand for the Syrian regime. In any autocratic, personalized regime like Syria’s, drawing the line between the dictator and the state is hair-splitting. As a practical matter, the nature of such regimes is to create structures that make subordinates dependent on the ruler: Putin is doing the same in Russia. Putin may have no love for Assad, but that’s who he has to deal with to keep the Syrian state going. And the idea that Russia gives a crap about an “inclusive and lasting government” in Syria, based on a popular mandate, is hilarious.

    3. The failure to follow through on the alleged obsession with deposing the Syrian government is an indication of the lack of will. And anyways, my point regarding lack of will relates mainly to the alleged campaign against ISIS.

    I have not been deceived at all by Russia’s actions in Syria, despite its attempts to portray them as an anti-ISIS (as opposed to a pro-Assad) campaign.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 29, 2015 @ 11:55 am

  24. Quibbles? I don’t think so.

    1. The question of whether ISIS is a longer-term priority for Russia is vitally important. You seem to think it isn’t, whereas to my mind the evidence points the other way.

    2. Separating Assad from the Syrian state without undermining the latter would be difficult, but I don’t think it’s a matter of “hair-splitting”. Russia probably doesn’t much care either way but if the initial military objectives are met and negotiations about governance in Syria get bogged down because of Assad, it’s unlikely to waste much energy on trying to keep him around. As to whether Russia “gives a crap” about the form of Syria’s eventual government, how could it not? The whole high risk effort would have been largely wasted if something durable doesn’t result.

    3. Fair enough. Still, that doesn’t tackle the larger issue of strategic incoherence.

    When you say “I have not been deceived etc etc”, I’m puzzled. As I noted in my earlier comment, Russia has been perfectly open about its intentions. It’s always been about saving the Syrian government and eradicating the various jihadist groups intent on bringing it down.

    Comment by Ingolf — November 29, 2015 @ 9:18 pm

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