WILL PUTIN STRIKE BACK AT TURKEY FROM THE SHADOWS?
One of Vladimir Putin’s rules of life is to get mad, then get even. Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian Su-24 bomber in the 17 seconds it was allegedly zipping across a little tooth of Turkish territory jutting into Syria certainly appears to have got him very angry indeed. People close to him have described him as coldly furious, and although his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is trying to balance outrage and diplomacy, Putin — who described this as a “stab in the back” — is unlikely to feel existing economic and political sanctions are retaliation enough. And Putin is not one to forgive and forget.
There is already some hint of Moscow’s response in the renewed and redoubled pounding of Turkish proxies in Syria. After all, Ankara is very heavily and directly involved in the civil war, not just arming and training but mobilizing and protecting rebel forces as it seeks to build a renewed role as a regional power. The MIT, Turkey’s preeminent intelligence agency, is infamously aggressive, long known for its links with both gangsters and fascist terrorists. By some accounts one of the leaders of the main Turcoman rebel forces is Alparslan Çelik, a member of the Turkish fascist Grey Wolves movement, as well as an MIT ally.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost certainly intended to warn Russia off from attacking Turcoman rebels by ordering the plane shot down. It was bombing those rebels as it allegedly crossed Turkish territory. If so, one strongman leader appears to have misread another. Now escorted by interceptors and under the umbrella of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles, Russian bombers are hitting harder than before, including attacking an aid convoy possibly bringing in weapons under the guise of aid.
The question is whether Putin will be content to hammer Ankara’s proxies and enact sanctions on Turkish imports and tourism. Both of the latter are certainly a big deal for Turkey, and Russia is Turkey’s second-largest trading partner. But these measures lack the visceral appeal of more direct operations. However, Turkey is a NATO member, and while its allies are often unenthusiastic about Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions and are eager to calm this latest spat, they would feel obliged to involve themselves if Russia moved any more directly against Ankara. Besides, any open confrontation raises the risk that Turkey would try to close the Turkish Straits, which connect the Black Sea to the world’s sea links. This passage is vital to Russia’s resupply chain to its expeditionary force in Syria. Not least — and here’s an irony of today’s “hot peace” — using cargo ships chartered from the Turks.
So, in this age of covert and indirect conflict, will the Russians be tempted to turn to their extensive options in the shadows? There is, after all, much Moscow could do to punish and warn Ankara, if it is willing to risk escalating the situation.
The first and most obvious option would be to provide more support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist-Leninist and ethnic group whom the Soviets enthusiastically supported during the Cold War, and Kurdish fighters in Syria, who are among the most effective forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).Syrian Kurds aligned with the PKK have set up statelets along the northern border with Turkey; the longer these persist, the more the pressure on Ankara from Turkey’s own
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