Russians Tag Along With Assad's Forces To Deter Turkish Strikes As Syrian Air War Heats Up

This comes a day after Turkey announced a new intervention into the country, which included shooting down two Syrian Air Force Su-24 combat jets.

Dmitriy Vinogradov / Sputnik via AP

The conflict in Syria has entered a new, dangerous, and uncertain phase as Russian troops have escorted forces aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad into the country's hotly contested Idlib province. This comes a day after Turkey officially declared a major intervention in that region, shooting down multiple Syrian Air Force combat jets in its opening stages.

Turkey formally announced the beginning of Operation Spring Shield in Idlib on Mar. 1, 2020. This came soon after the regime in Damascus attempted to declare airspace over the war-torn province a no-go zone for foreign military aircraft. The Turkish military quickly responded by shooting down two Syrian Air Force Su-24 Fencer combat jets, though it has not formally declared its own no-fly zone over the region. Turkey's own domestically developed unmanned aircraft, as well as artillery in the region, launched withering strikes on Assad's forces on the ground. 

It's not clear how many Su-24s the Syrian Air Force still has on hand or what their availability looks like after years of conflict. Syria took delivery of 20 Su-24MK export variants from the Soviet Union in 1990 and acquired two additional examples from Libya later in that decade. A contract with Russia to upgrade 21 Fencers to the newer Su-24M2 configuration in 2010 implies that this was the size of the fleet at that time. The Syrian Air Force has reportedly lost at least eight Su-24s since 2012, but began receiving some replacement aircraft in 2017. Regardless, the loss of two more in one day, and the obvious risk that Turkey poses to the rest of Syria's air arm, could significantly hamper Assad's aerial capabilities.

Syrian Air Force

A Syrian Air Force Su-24.

Beyond that, Ankara had already been prosecuting a devastating campaign against Assad in the wake of airstrikes that killed dozens of Turkish troops in Idlib on Feb. 27. Since then, Turkey has destroyed dozens of the regime's armored vehicles and artillery pieces and killed thousands of its troops and militiamen. Ankara's drones have been star players in this campaign so far, though Turkish Air Force F-16 Viper fighter jets and Turkish Army artillery have also been part of the operations. The Syrian government claims that its forces have been able to shoot down a number of Turkish drones over the course of the recent fighting.

There has also been an explosion in the use of shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, against fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and drones that the Syrian government, as well as its allies, have been operating. Just today, anti-regime forces announced that an Iranian-made drone had gotten shot down.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to launch this operation if Assad's forces did not withdraw from Idlib following the Feb. 27 airstrikes, which Ankara blames on Damascus. Whether or not the Russians were actually responsible for those strikes remains murky. The Turkish government has ostensibly limited its massive retaliatory efforts entirely to the regime, including strikes on at least one of its air bases and facilities in Al Safira, which has served as a production center for its infamous barrel bombs and, at least prior to 2014, of chemical weapons.

"Turkey does not take aim at either Russia or Iran in Syria. We are only destroying the elements of the [Assad] regime," Erdogan said in televised remarks on Mar. 3, 2020. "I appeal to Russia and Iran once again. Turkey has no problems with these countries in Syria. We do not set sights on Syria’s territory. Nor do we have plans to gain a foothold there."

Russia has avoided any public involvement in the fighting in Idlib since Feb. 27, while Iran has threatened to retaliate against Turkish forces. On Mar. 1, the Russian Ministry of Defense did issue a statement saying that it could not "guarantee the safety of Turkish aviation in the skies of Syria."

At the same time, Moscow has already rejected Ankara's previous calls to step aside in Idlib. On Mar. 2, the Russian military also sent forces to accompany Assad's troops into the Saraqib. This city has been the scene of particularly heavy fighting between the regime and Turkish-supported anti-regime groups since the beginning of the Syrian government's latest offensive into the province earlier this year. Russia's deployment into the area is clearly meant to deter further Turkish air and artillery strikes.

This can only increase the risk of mistakes and miscalculations, which in turn could cause a further serious escalation in the conflict. While Turkey and Russia have been able to avoid overtly fighting each other in northwestern Syria, including blaming what have very likely been at least some Russian airstrikes on Turkish positions in recent weeks on Assad, the size or significance of future incidents may simply be too big to explain away in this manner. The U.S. government has called the idea that the Syrian Air Force has the capacity to conduct meaningful and sustained operations in Idlib "laughable."

Fears of escalation have been a persistent concern in the region for years now and Russia and Turkey, together with Iran, first brokered a deal to designate Idlib as a neutral "safe zone" in 2017. Assad, with Russian support, moved to launch a major offensive into the province the following year as anti-regime forces continued to use it as a base of operations. This led to a ceasefire deal in 2018, known as the Sochi agreements after the Black Sea resort town in southern Russia where the negotiations took place. Turkey was subsequently allowed to establish dozens of observation posts ostensibly to monitor compliance with that arrangement. 

“We know that under the Sochi agreements from a year ago, it was the Turkish side which was required to ensure a regime of inactivity by these terrorist elements," Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's top spokesperson, told reporters on Mar. 1. "Unfortunately, Turkey has not fulfilled these obligations, and the terrorists went on the offensive against Syria’s armed forces."

For the moment, Russia and Turkey do appear invested in finding a way to end the present crisis in a way that serves both of their interests, though not necessarily those of Assad. Russia's main goals in Syria center on continued access to geopolitically strategic naval and air base facilities on or near the country's Eastern Mediterranean shores. The Turkish government also continues to see Russia as a valuable partner of convenience in blocking the aspirations of various Kurdish groups that are operating with the backing of the United States in northeastern Syria. Putin is undoubtedly interested in being able to continue selling Turkey advanced weapons, cooperating with it economically, and otherwise pulling its government away from the West.

Highlighting the complexities of Russian-Turkish ties, despite the very serious situation in Idlib, Turkish and Russian troops continue to conduct joint patrols on the other side of the country. Despite reports that authorities in Ankara might have been considering it, they have not closed off the Bosphorus Strait, which links the Black Sea the Mediterranean, to either Russian or Syrian ships. Russia also recently conducted a surveillance mission without issue over Turkey under the Open Skies Treaty and Turkey is now set to do the same over Russian territory. Most importantly, Erdogan and Putin are still set to meet on Mar. 5-6, during which the two leaders could agree to yet another arrangement regarding Idlib. 

For his part, the Turkish president, who has been moving closer toward Russia's sphere of influence in recent years, has also made strong appeals to NATO for support over the crisis. This is despite Turkey's frosty relations with the other members of the alliance, especially the United States, over a host of issues, including its purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, which got the Turkish military ejected from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and its unilateral intervention into northeastern Syria last year.

So far, the offers of support seem to have been primarily rhetorical. The U.S. government has offered more tangible assistance, which could include intelligence sharing or logistical support. However, American officials have said there will be no deployments of troops to northwestern Syria or of Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries to boost Turkish air defenses. It seems highly unlikely that any other NATO member would be interested in placing itself in a position where there could be a need to shoot down Russian military aircraft.

“We call on the Russian Federation to immediately ground its warplanes," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft had said at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 28, though there remains no indication that the United States is looking to take any action to enforce that demand. "And we call for all Syrian forces and their Russian backers to withdraw to the ceasefire lines first established in 2018."

In the meantime, fighting continues in Idlib, which has also become the scene of a major humanitarian catastrophe. Turkey has also stopped preventing Syrian refugees and other migrants from seeking to cross by land or sea into Europe, especially Greece, in what appears to be an effort to force European nations to support its policies by leveraging anti-immigrant fears. 

What happens in the coming days, ahead of Erogdan and Putin's meeting, could have a significant impact on the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. If those talks fail to produce a new deal of some kind, the danger of escalation, intentional or otherwise, will only continue to rise.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com