Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan clearly took a calculated risk when he ordered a two-hour cross-border artillery bombardment Saturday, Feb. 13 of Syrian army forces positioned around the northern Syrian town of Azaz and the Kurdish YPG militia units which two days earlier took control of the former Syrian military air base of Minagh some six kilometers from the Turkish border.
Kurdish troops backed by the Russian air force seized that base last week from rebel militias as part of the operation for cutting the rebel groups under siege in Aleppo from their supply routes. The Turkish bombardment was therefore an indirect attack on the Russian forces backing pro-Assad forces against the rebels in the Syria war.
Erdogan knows that Moscow hasn’t finished settling accounts with Turkey for the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 on Nov. 24 and is spoiling for more punishment. After that incident, the Russians deployed top-of-line S-400 ground-to-air missile batteries and advanced Sukhoi Su-35 warplanes to their base in Latakia near the Turkish border. Ankara therefore limited its strike to a two-hour artillery bombardment from Turkish soil, reasoning that a Turkish warplane anywhere near the Syrian border would be shot down instantly.
Emboldened by the delay in the Russian response, the Turks took another step: Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu threatened the Kurdish YPG militia with more attacks if they failed to withdraw from the Menagh air base.
Although the Turkish prime minister had called on “allies and supporters” to back the operation against the Russian-backed Syrian Kurds, Washington took the opposite line by urging Turkey, a fellow member of NATO, to desist from any further attacks.
Washington’s concern is obvious. An outright clash between Turkey and Russia would entitle Ankara to invoke the NATO charter and demand allied protection for a member state under attack.
The Obama administration would have had to spurn this appeal for three reasons:
1. To avoid getting mixed up in a military clash between two countries, just as the US kept its powder dry in the Russian-Ukraine confrontation after Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in February 2014.
2. To avoid upsetting the secret Obama-Putin deal on the allocation of spheres of influence in Syria: the Americans have taken the regions east of the Euphrates River, and the Russians, the west.
The Kurdish YPG militia forces near Aleppo and the city itself come under the Russian area of influence.
3. Regional tensions were tightened another notch Saturday by Russian comments: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that his country and the West have “slid into a new Cold War period,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a third World War is actually underway -“I call this struggle a third World War by other means.,” he said.
Washington will avoid any action that risks further stoking this high state of international tension, but will act instead to de-escalate the cross-border Turkish-Russian confrontation over Syria.
All eyes are now on Moscow, Much depends on Russia’s response to the artillery bombardment of its Syrian and Kurdish allies. It is up to Putin to decide when and how to strike back – if at all.