When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter last week the perils of so many military and political forces operating at cross purposes in the fragmented and dangerous situation that is Syria and Iraq became abundantly clear.
In Syria, especially, the politics are stark. Assad, the Syrian dictator, remains one of Russia’s only close allies left in the Middle East, and thus Russia wants to preserve Assad’s, and by virtue of that their own, influence in the region. Russia has been bombing ISIL, but it has also taken the opportunity to bomb non-ISIL forces who are against the Assad government. The Turkman minority in Syria, Turkish speaking peoples who live on that border region between the two nations, is almost as anti-Russian as they come and has even allowed Chechnyan fighters the Russians deem terrorists to fight alongside them, united in their mutual hatred of Mother Russia.
Turkey and Russia also have a long and bloody history on their own going back to the days the Crimean War in the 1850s. The Turks were also Russia’s enemy in World War I and have continued their animosity through the Cold War era well into the present day. The embers of that old hatred have been blown into a fierce flame in recent years as the Assad government, staunchly supported by Russia, has made war against the Turkmans.
A few months ago Russia began a direct involvement in that war by beginning to bomb targets deemed enemies of Assad. Russia has been making bombing sorties for weeks in Turkman held territory while the Turks could do nothing but watch on impotently from their side of the border. So when a Russian fighter strayed contemptuously across that border for a few seconds the Turks were finally given an opportunity to respond and do some damage. They did so with gusto.
The problem here is not what Turkey did or what Russia did. In fact it is not entirely surprising given their animosity toward one another. The problem is this current war has brought into close proximity these two age old enemies both armed to the teeth. And they are sitting on top of a powder keg situation.
Another wrinkle is Turkey is a member of NATO. It’s a double edged sword in this case. Had Turkey not been a member of NATO Russia would have taken the destruction of one of its bombers, justifiably, as an act of war and would have had troops flooding across the border in another era. Since Turkey is a NATO country, which means it could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter and draw all its allies, including Canada, to its defence, Russia has taken a more cautious approach to the situation. However with NATO countries doing sorties over Syria, and with the upgraded missile defences Russia has brought in as a result of Turkish actions, we could see our own allied bombers being brought down in the near future, escalating tensions to a breaking point.
Given the potential for something to go dangerously amiss with this new situation on the air war front, it is probably wise Canada is withdrawing its CF-18s. The problem with fighter bombing campaigns is they do not win wars; they are meant to support a ground-based advance. Or they are used to inflict infrastructure and morale damage on the enemy. But just as often, sadly, they kill civilians who happen to be in proximity to where the falling bombs explode. If you want to win a war, you need the surgical application of force on the ground and the bodies to take and hold strategic positions which further a military advance. What you need is special forces backed by regular military forces; which, effectively, is what Canada will be signing on for more and more after our fighter planes come home in March with our renewed “training” mission.
Let’s hope cooler heads prevail in Russia and Turkey or Canada could be faced with the prospect of going to war against Russia. And that is decidely not the mission we have signed up for in the ongoing war against ISIL.