Russia vs Turkey in a Middle East arms race


Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

10th December, 2015 – Yury Barmin

The incident with the Russian su-24 bomber has led to a local arms race between Russia and Turkey. The parties are trying to intimidate each other, and their actions are less and less about the fight against ISIL.

Go for broke

Just three weeks after the incident with the Russian su-24 , which was shot down by a Turkish F-16 in mid-November, the balance of power has radically changed in Syria. Russia and Turkey, supported by their NATO partners, have decided to increase troops and begin a tough military rhetoric. While Ankara was limited to deployment of ground forces to the border with Syria and plans to deploy air defense systems, Moscow went for broke and used their available options all at once.

Thus, Moscow has decided to increase the number of fighter jets delivering air strikes on targets of the armed opposition and ISIS (an organization banned in Russia) in Syria. The total number of Russian fighters based at Khmeimim, in the province of Latakia, stood at 44, but after the terrorist act on Board the Russian A321 over Sinai, it was decided to increase this number by another ten. Thus, the Russian airforce, located in Syria, can conduct military actions on several fronts — in the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor against ISIS, but also against insurgents in the North-West of the country. This phase of the Russian operation is characterized by the fact that it involved long-range strategic aircraft which greatly extends the set of problems that Russia can solved in Syria. The long-range fleet is actively used for bombing oil infrastructure in ISIS, which, according to Russian officials, was the reason why Turkey shot down the su-24.

A no-fly zone for Assad

The most important decision of the Russian leadership, which defines this stage as a military escalation, was the deployment of the s-400 to Latakia and the anti-aircraft defense system “Fort” (based on the s-300) on the cruiser “Moscow” off the coast of Syria. Such a move negates many months of Turkey’s planning to create a no-fly zone in Northern Syria.

With s-400 and “Fort” present, a shield is created over the whole territory of Syria, including Damascus, parts of Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. They are fundamentally changing the balance of power in the region of the Levant and actually create a no-fly zone, but under the control of Assad and Russian forces, and not Ankara’s. The effect of such actions were evident immediately, as Turkey has completely ceased operations and airstrikes on Syrian territory. Russian and Syrian aircraft can now fly freely over the territory of the country, while the air forces of other countries, whether it be Israel, USA or France, which want to strike ISIL, will be forced to coordinate its actions with Russia. According to some information, the Russian air defense system could enable Assad to soon announce a no-fly zone over the entire territory of the country that actually makes the countries involved in the coalition resort to direct contact with Damascus for queries on air corridors over the country.

Moscow’s reasons for the decision to deploy s-400 in Latakia and s-300 are also evident. Two countries, which the Russian air defense system has affected more than most (Israel and Turkey), probably have had to explore the possibilities of the s-300 while they were on the base on the Greek island of Crete since 1999. Features of the s-400 to neither Israel nor Turkey are not fully known. But both countries have confidence that the system will not be in the hands of Assad’s military who also do not know how to work with it.

Turkey and NATO’s Answer

In fact, Turkey has nothing to counter the Russian s-400. After the deployment of systems based in Khmeimim, Turkey moved its electronic warfare (EW) system “Koral” to the Syrian border, whose range can cover the space up to the Russian base. However, Russian experts are skeptical about the ability of “Koral” to dazzle the s-400, whose anti-aircraft missiles can be countered only by EW systems that are airborne. Such systems — e.g., Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT), which is installed on the plane “Boeing EA-18G Growler” belong to NATO and the United States. But it is unlikely to be exported.

Turkey also urgently started negotiations with the European group “Eurosam” for the supply of anti-aircraft missile systems “SAMP/T”. Ankara insists on the transfer of European technology to Turkey, and if an agreement is reached, these systems can be temporarily placed on the Syrian-Turkish border.

According to Turkish officials, the F-16, one of which shot down a Russian su-24, was equipped with AN/ALE-47, which is able to confuse air defence radars. However, these systems were never tested against Russian s-400, so it’s hard to judge their effectiveness.

The main mission to counter Russian systems in Turkey can be performed by NATO. In 2013, the Alliance placed Patriot missiles at the Syrian border, but the US and Germany recently removed their air defense system in Turkey. After a recent meeting of NATO in Brussels, it was decided to strengthen the air defense of the southern borders of Turkey. Patriot missiles may soon return to the Syrian-Turkish border, and the air base “Incirlik” may accept new fighter jets of the Alliance.

In addition, Germany and the Netherlands decided to place systems of Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) on the bases of Turkish aviation, which can also be used for combat, and sent onboard the ships in the Mediterranean sea to support the French aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle”.

New Russian airbase

In connection with the likely increase in activity of NATO in Turkey, the reports that Moscow will expand their operation and use two additional airbases in Central Syria look credible. Khmeimim base in Latakia, which is the main base in the country, is near the rebel-controlled territories, where often there are combat operations, and is also near the Syrian-Turkish border. At the same time, the new base “Shayrat” in the province of Homs, which, according to some, is already being used by Russian forces, provides the best access to the provinces of Raqqa, Deir-ez-Zor and Palmyra, where the forces of ISIL reside. At the same time, under the worst case scenario, in which armed rebels will begin to move closer to the Russian base in Latakia or the open confrontation between Turkey and the Russian Federation were to begin, the Russian air force will be able to quickly relocate to the more spacious and better protected airbase of “Shayrat”.

The Russian naval group off the coast of Syria also plays a vital role in changing the balance of the military forces. In October, the number of warships of the Navy of the Russian Federation was reduced from ten to six. They carry out the delivery of ammunition and other materiel for the Russian contingent. The main element of this group is the cruiser “Moscow” with the air defense system “Fort”, which provides protection of the air space and cover for the Khmeimim base. The launching of missiles at targets in Syria from the Caspian sea in October was a signal to the coalition that Moscow has available to it a wide set of tools to achieve the tactical goals of the Syrian campaign, and that the limited presence of Russian forces on earth does not indicate a weakness. The participation of the Russian submarine “Rostov-on-don” deserves special attention as it launched missiles at targets in Syria from the Mediterranean on 8th December. Such an unconventional method reaffirms Moscow’s attempts to demonstrate their strength at sea and in the sky.

Who is stronger?

In General, Russia has an advantage over the Turkish forces in quality and quantity of weapons. But if a conflict were to unfold between the two countries, whether in Syria or in the Mediterranean, Ankara will have a distinct advantage in fighting in their own region, where she doesn’t need to wait for new ships and weapons. In addition, with its decision to close the Straits, Turkey can seriously disrupt the logistics of the entire Russian forces in the Mediterranean, and in Syria.

For Moscow, the intense fighting in Syria and a return to the Middle East, was wanted by many in the military after the collapse of the USSR. After just a few months, creating a fully-fledged military base, Russia was considered to be a serious player in the region. However, this title was obtained at the expense of worsening relations with regional powers, tensions with NATO, as well as the cost of the lives of Russian citizens and the increased terrorist threat in the territory of Russia itself.

After the incident with the Russian su-24 the situation in the Syrian theater was strained to the limit. The impression is that the decisions taken in Ankara and Moscow are relevant not so much to fighting ISIL, but to intimidate each other. However, an open military conflict between Russia and Turkey is extremely undesirable for both countries. Russia risks a showdown with NATO when she’s not ready. For Ankara, the conflict with Russia in Syria could lead to an unprecedented escalation in the neighborhood and, consequently, to a full-scale war in the Middle East.

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