The leaders of Russia and Israel have moved to defuse tensions after a Russian aircraft was shot down by Syrian air defenses in the middle of an Israeli airstrike on a target inside of Syria’s Latakia region on Monday evening. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the telephone. Netanyahu expressed sorrow for the deaths of 15 Russian airmen, although he placed the blame for the incident squarely on Syria’s shoulders. Putin blamed it on a ‘chain of tragic accidental circumstances.’ The descriptions put forward by both men are quite correct, and highlight the deconfliction issues, and crowded skies in and around Syrian airspace. Putin urged the Israeli leader not to allow another incident like this to happen again in the future, and reminded him that Israeli air operations have frequently violated Syria’s sovereignty.
To put it simply, what happened Monday night was a friendly fire incident. A flight of four Israeli F-16s was moving to strike a site being used by Iran to transfer weapons to Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. Israel informed Russia of the impending attack roughly one minute before it started. This was not enough time for Russia to clear the airspace. An Il-20 Coot, a Russian ELINT/SIGINT aircraft which is comparable to the US EP-3 ARIES II, was engaged and destroyed by a Syrian SA-5 surface-to-air missile site, which mistook it for an Israeli intruder. Russian defense officials claim that the Israelis used the Coot to mask their movements, knowingly placing it in the line of fire. Israel, of course, has denied this.
Russia’s anger is understandable. It cannot condemn its Syrian ally for the inadvertent attack thanks to the intricacies of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Therefore, Israel received the brunt of Russia’s frustration before Putin and Netanyahu moved to mend fences. Do not expect this situation to provide the spark for a larger conflict. Neither Israel or Russia will want this incident to have a negative effect on relations between the two countries, or the situation in the crowded skies around Syria.
Turkey finds itself in an unenviable position at the moment. The nation is in the midst of a currency crisis that appears set to worsen before it improves. On its southern border Turkey is facing a new influx of refugees as Syrian government forces prepare to retake Idlib. On the international front, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been unable to get Russia, Syria, and Iran to agree to postpone the coming Idlib offensive. To complicate geopolitical matters even more, relations between Ankara and some of its closest allies such as the United States and Germany remain severely strained. This issue is bringing concerns about Turkey’s future role in NATO, and relationship with the European Union.
Right now, the situation in Idlib presents the biggest challenge for the Turkish government. A Syrian offensive in the near future will most likely bring a new wave of refugees to southern Turkey. There is widespread fear that more refugees will only serve to worsen the economic, and infrastructural problems in the area. Beyond this, there is the matter of what to do with the refugees as they arrive. The EU is no longer taking in refugees at the pace it was a few years ago. The welcome mat European powers extended to Syrian refugees in 2015 has become a political liability, and energized right-wing populists movements across the continent.
Those concerns played a large role in Erdogan’s trip to Tehran last week, and his request for a ceasefire. Russia, Iran, and Syria largely dismissed his concerns, though the fact that the Idlib offensive has yet to begin suggests Erdogan may have won a brief reprieve. The Turkish president is now warning European nations that the next wave of refugees will cause a new crisis for the Europe, as well as Turkey.
For the near future, Idlib will take the center stage. When the offensive begins there, Turkey could find its problems becoming worse at home and abroad, with Ankara able to do very little to influence the situation.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis will travel to Macedonia this weekend as Macedonians prepare to vote on a referendum at the end of the month. If passed, it would change the name of the country from Macedonia to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, and open the door to EU and NATO membership for the Balkan nation. Macedonia, and Greece have been locked in a dispute over the former’s name for decades. In June, the two nations reached an agreement to settle the matter. The referendum set for 30 September will determine if Macedonian voters will support the measure or not. Mattis is the latest US official to visit Macedonia. A number of politicians and government officials from the US, and European nations have been visited in recent weeks, encouraging Macedonians to approve the referendum. Nationalists in Macedonia and Greece have bitterly opposed the name change. Last weekend riots broke out in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki as nationalist groups gathered there and demonstrated.
Mattis is concerned about ‘the kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia.’ Russia is less than pleased about Macedonia’s pivot to the West, viewing the referendum as an attempt by NATO and the US to interfere in an area that has traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence. Over the summer, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats after accusing them of bribing an unnamed official to undermine the deal that was agreed to between Skopje and Athens. Russia’s ambassador in Macedonia has recently warned that the country could become a legitimate target if relations between the NATO and Russia do not improve. In July, Macedonia was formally invited to begin the process towards NATO membership. Moscow has opposed the move and this opposition has helped bring about concerns of Soviet mischief aimed at influencing voters in the days leading up to the referendum.
The looming Syrian offensive into Idlib presents a challenge to the United States. If Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, as he has done twice so far during the tenure of President Donald Trump, how should the US react? The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in April, 2017, and the Douma attack one year later both brought about US military action. The 2017 US response was a unilateral Tomahawk missile strike against Shayrat airbase. One year later in April, 2018, the US, Great Britain, and France carried out a series of air and missile strikes against targets in Syria in retaliation for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Douma. If Assad’s forces chose to employ chemical weapons in Idlib will it provoke another US military action? If so, what shape will it take? More importantly, will it run the risk of provoking a Russian response?
The Pentagon and White House are already weighing these questions, and the Pentagon is starting to examine what military options the US will have available if Assad uses chemical weapons in Idlib. Given the Syrian leader’s track record it’s only prudent for the US to begin planning now. If chemical weapons are used again, the White House will want to move swiftly and decisively.
Unfortunately, Assad may not be able to be dissuaded. Idlib province is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. When it is pacified, it will leave the rebels with just a few isolated pockets of territory. An end to the seven-year old conflict will finally be in sight with Assad’s control of Syria all but guaranteed. International concern that the coming offensive could trigger a humanitarian disaster have done nothing to deter the Syrian government, or its Russian and Iranian backers.
With that in mind, any US threats of military action should Syria use chemical weapons are unlikely to dissuade Assad once hostilities begin in Idlib.
The fate of Idlib could very well be determined Friday when the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet in Tehran to discuss the upcoming offensive against the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. Bashr al Assad’s forces are massed around the borders of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and preparations for offensive operations are underway. Air strikes against rebel positions have already begun, leading to speculation that the Syrian offensive could be just days away from jumping off.
The UN, various non-government organizations, and relief groups have warned that a full scale Syrian offensive could lead to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Unfortunately, the human consequences are unlikely to make Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad reconsider intended course of action. They might be influencing Turkey’s position, however.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will come into the summit meeting with serious reservations. Turkey has been a supporter of the non-Islamic State Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad and has called for an end to the bombing now underway in Idlib. Another concern for Erdogan is the border Turkey shares with Idlib. A Syrian offensive has the potential to create an influx of refugees from Idlib into Turkey, adding to the more than 3 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey now.
Moscow, on the other hand, shares none of Turkey’s reservations. Russia is largely in agreement with the idea of the Syrian army moving into the province. Roughly 60% of Idlib is controlled by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and ISIS. Russia remains committed to destroying these groups. In fact, Russian warplanes have begun flying missions against Islamist targets in Idlib once again. When Syrian troops do begin operations in Idlib, they will do so with unfettered Russian support.