Following weeks of reports that the Russian air force was quietly providing air support to the Turkish army fighting ISIS in the strategic Syrian town of Al-Bab, confirmation has now finally come from Russia that this is indeed happening.
Indeed the Russians have confirmed that the Russian and Turkish air forces for the first time engaged in a joint air strike.
Confirmation of the joint air strike has come from the Head of the Main Operations Department of Russia’s General Staff, Lieutenant-General Sergey Rudskoi, who is reported by the official Russian news agency TASS to have said the following
The air operation, agreed on with the Syrian government, involves nine warplanes of the Russian Aerospace Force, including four Sukhoi Su-24M, four Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft and one Sukhoi Su-34 bomber, as well as four F-16 and four F-4 fighters of the Turkey’s Air Force. A total of 36 targets are planned to be hit.
In the past two days, a reconnaissance mission involving unmanned aircraft and cosmic reconnaissance equipment was carried out in order to help fix the targets,In the past two days, a reconnaissance mission involving unmanned aircraft and cosmic reconnaissance equipment was carried out in order to help fix the targets.
The joint airstrikes against the ISIS facilities, delivered by Russia and Turkey, have already proven highly effective
This is a huge air strike, involving no fewer than 16 aircraft (9 Russian, 8 Turkish). Not only is it the first joint air strike carried out by the Russian and Turkish air forces. To my knowledge, it is the first air strike carried out jointly by Russia with a NATO country. As such it is bound to ring more alarms at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in Washington.
As to the reasons for this joint air strike, I have already discussed how the Turkish army’s recent defeat at ISIS’s hands at Al-Bab was for Turkish President Erdogan a humiliating blow, and how he has been incensed by the US refusal to provide his troops with air support, and how this has led him to turn to the Russians and to threaten the US with a discontinuation of its use of the air base at Incirlik in Turkey for its operations against ISIS.
At one level the Russians have quietly moved to exploit the differences between Turkey and the US. However from the Russian point of view there is more to it than this.
The Russians need Turkey’s continued cooperation to ensure that the ceasefire they recently agreed with Turkey in Syria holds, and they also need Turkey’s cooperation to ensure the success of the peace conference in Astana, which is due to start later this month. These are by themselves sufficient reasons to explain why the Russians might want to keep President Erdogan onside, by helping him win his battle with ISIS at Al-Bab.
However it is also possible that the Russians are genuinely want Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against ISIS.
ISIS’s capture of Palmyra in December, and its threatened capture of Deir Ezzor, exposes the weakness of the Syrian army in eastern Syria. With the Russians ruling out commitment of their own ground troops, it is conceivable that they might be looking to Turkey to fill the gap with its own troops. With President Erdogan already under pressure from ISIS within Turkey itself, it is just possible to see how there might be the basis for cooperation between Russia and Turkey on this issue.
If there are any people in Moscow who are thinking in this way then they need to be extremely careful.
President Erdogan’s career shows that he is very much his own man, and that he is someone who is extremely difficult to control.
Given the extraordinary scale of his ambitions, there have to be concerns that allowing Turkish troops to penetrate further into Syria will simply result in them staying there.
Beyond that it is not clear how the Russians would explain working together with the Turks in Syria to the Syrian government or to the Kurds, who have been Russia’s allies in the conflict, and who have for very good reasons both come to see Turkey as an enemy.
Like every other aspect of the Syrian conflict, this is an exceptional complex situation, which will test the skills of Russia’s and Turkey’s diplomats and of the two countries’ respective leaders to the uttermost. It has every potential to go horribly wrong.
Time will tell whether the two leaders – Putin and Erdogan – can keep their volatile relationship on track, and whether the two countries’ diplomats can succeed in keeping the two countries’ relations on track. Both countries it should be said have a cadre of exceptionally well trained diplomats, and both can draw on long traditions of successful diplomacy, but the challenge will be enormous.
In the meantime there is no doubt that with this first joint military operation by Russia and a NATO country a hugely important milestone has been crossed.