Russian-Made, S-400
The first shipment of the Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system lands at the Murted Military Air Base Camp in Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. Photo credit: © Depo Photos via ZUMA Wire

Turkey's willingness to risk the stability of NATO with a provocative pivot to Russia is rooted in the tangled web of alliances in war-torn Syria.

The first components of a formidable Russian air-defense system arrived in NATO-allied Turkey on Friday, triggering a slide in the local currency amid a growing rift with the US.

The powerful S-400 system could potentially thwart American stealth capabilities by gathering sensitive information on the F-35 combat aircraft program, officials say. It could also turn out to be a Trojan horse of sorts, in that Russia, NATO’s main adversary, may be able to turn it off at will in the event of a conflict. But most experts agree that the real issue is political, and far more serious: Turkey is jockeying for position between Washington and Moscow — and threatening to rip NATO apart.

The Syrian civil war plays a major part in that crisis.

The deal Turkey signed with Russia — for the acquisition of the most advanced long-range air-defense system in Moscow’s arsenal — is valued at $2.5 billion. The system is particularly effective against aircraft, and will temporarily fill the gap left by a shortage of pilots in the Turkish air force, Ege Seckin told WhoWhatWhy. He is a senior Turkey analyst at the London-based global analysis firm IHS. Hundreds of pilots were dismissed or arrested following a failed coup in 2016 that many in Turkey blame on the US.

Nevertheless, the S-400’s military significance on the ground is likely to be limited, partly because it will be difficult to integrate into the rest of NATO’s defense network, and not least because US sanctions could deprive the Turkish air force of other weapons systems.

The Trump administration has repeatedly threatened to exclude Turkey from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, and to impose unspecified sanctions on its ally as soon as the S-400 arrives in Turkey. The rest of the system is expected in the next days or weeks.

It is the latest in a series of rows between the NATO heavyweights in recent years. Analysts say the friction is partly the result of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing pivot toward authoritarian rule at home, but is mostly due to differences between the US and Turkey concerning the war against ISIS.

The main bone of contention for Turkey is the role of Syrian Kurds, who are an important ally of the West against ISIS. In recent years, they have proven to be the most effective local ground force against the ultra-hardline group and have sought to implement a vision of democratic self-rule in the parts of northern Syria they hold. However, Turkey has fought a decades-long war at home against Kurdish separatists closely linked to the Syrian Kurdish force.

And, defying the US, Turkey has also launched several invasions in Syria to drive the Kurds away from areas near the border. International recognition of a Kurdish statelet in northern Syria is an existential red-line for Turkey — so much so that the country can’t even stomach a UN-backed agreement signed with the Kurds that prohibits the use of child soldiers.

The other problem for the West is that the rebel allies Turkey supports in Syria are dominated by extremist groups whose ideology is only a few shades of interpretation milder than that of ISIS.

Turkey has long sought to establish a buffer zone for refugees and rebels inside Syria. In a utopian scenario, such a free Syrian statelet would be a democratic alternative to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has all but won a brutal civil war raging since 2012. However, with its Western allies disillusioned by the jihadist takeover of the Syrian revolution, that dream has bogged down in a protracted standoff with the Syrian government that Turkey is struggling to manage.

In recent months, Russia, a main backer of the Syrian government, has apparently helped restrain Assad from taking over parts of the last remaining rebel enclave, in Idlib province. The US, meanwhile, has largely watched from the sidelines.

“Turkey needs Russia’s continued approval in order to hold on to its territorial (and by extension, political) gains [in Syria] after two successive cross-border military operations,” Seckin said, explaining that this is one of several key considerations behind the S-400 purchase.

By restraining the Syrian government from launching an offensive into the opposition stronghold of Idlib, Russia is doing Erdogan a favor, Secklin added: “If realised, such an operation would create a huge headache for Turkey, not least in the form of hundreds of thousands of more refugees massing [at] its borders.”

With observers tensely watching for the US reaction to the delivery of the S-400 system to Turkey, many eyes are turned on Syria, too.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted from President of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0) and MNICK / Wikimedia.


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