Over the past week, the Moldovan region of Transnistria has become a focal point of attention. As the war in eastern Ukraine continues on, concern is growing that the breakaway Russian-backed region of Moldova could be the next flashpoint. Transnistria is a prototypical “oppressed Russian-speaking populations” region. A de-facto independent, but unrecognized breakaway state on Moldova’s eastern border, it has co-existed with the remainder of Moldova since the end of the Cold War. Russia has over 1,000 troops stationed there ostensibly as peacekeepers.
A number of attacks in Transnistria over the past week has put the region on edge. On Monday, it was the state’s security headquarters in Tiraspol, the region’s main city. The next day, a military barracks in Parcani and a radio transmitter in Maiac were hit. On Wednesday, the interior ministry reported that a number of drones were launched from Ukrainian territory and flew over the town of Cobasna, home to a large ammunition depot. Also, according to the ministry, ‘shots were fired’ from the Ukrainian side of the border in the direction of Cobasna. Following the attacks, Transnistria’s government announced a number of new measures intended to raise security across the region. New checkpoints at strategic points on roadways and in towns, increased power for militia and security forces, and Transnistria’s Defense Ministry has ordered the mobilization of all men between the ages of 18 to 55 to “replenish the peacekeeping contingent.”
The attacks have sparked concern in Moldova and around Europe that Russia is setting the stage for military action there, based on the pretense of defending the Moscow-backed breakaway republic of Transnistria. Moldovan citizens and politicians alike are increasingly worried about the direction events might take their small, pro-western nation in. Many people there are also quite aware that the future of Moldova is inextricably tied to the war in Ukraine. Right now, the war there appears to be perilously close to spilling over into Moldova. After two months of heavy fighting, and high casualties, Russia has little to show for its Ukrainian adventure. Unrest in, or a foreign attempt to destabilize Transnistria offers a variety of enticing opportunities for Russia. The Moldovan government and its citizens understand this as well, and are quite worried. Russia is clearly prepared to use the Transnistria for more attacks into Ukraine, or possibly for aggression against Moldova.
Tensions in the Middle East are heightened this Saturday after Israel launched air strikes against Syrian air defense sites, and Iranian targets inside of Syria following an earlier incident when an Iranian UAV entered Israeli air space and was shot down. During the Israeli raids one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel. The pilots ejected safely, however, one sustained serious injuries according to reports. The incident marks the first time since the 1980s that an Israeli warplane has been shot down as a result of enemy action. Even more disconcerting is the fact that drone incident, and air strikes mark the first direct clash between Israeli and Iranian forces inside of Syria.
Israeli fighters struck the site where the drone was launched first. Subsequent strikes were made against other Iranian military targets in Syria, as well as Syrian air defense batteries. IDF reports do not indicate whether the F-16 was downed by AAA fire, or a SAM. The fighter carried a two man crew, indicating that was likely a type of F-16 that Israel uses in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, leading to the conclusion that the Israelis were probably targeting SAM batteries. (note: Right before posting I learned the aircraft was in fact struck by an SA-5 SAM)
Today’s shootdown is the third one to take place in the Syrian skies this week. A Russian Su-25 Frogfoot was downed by FSA forces last Saturday, and earlier today it was confirmed that a Turkish helicopter over northern Syria was attacked and destroyed by Kurdish forces sometime in the past 24 hours.
The consequences of the action in Syria and northern Israel remain to be seen. There is a strong possibility that Israel’s response could be heavier air strikes against targets in Syria, possibly as part of a bigger effort to put more pressure on Iran.
Although the Olympic games are supposed to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, it would appear somebody forgot to tell that to Iran and Syria.
On Saturday, a MiG-29 Fulcrum violated Turkish airspace. Turkey responded by scrambling its own fighter aircraft. F-16s intercepted the MiG and escorted it out of Turkish airspace. On the surface, this seems to be a fairly open and shut case. Russia has apologized for the incursion and blamed weather conditions for the intercept and promised Ankara it would not happen again.
Then today, NATO released a statement on the “Recent dangerous military activities of the Russian Federation in and around Syria.” NATO has claimed that there were multiple incursions of Turkish airspace by Russian Su-30 Flanker and Su-24 Fencer aircraft on Saturday and Sunday. The statement follows a report by the Turkish military claiming that the MiG-29 placed two of its F-16s under radar lock for nearly six minutes. It is still unclear what nation the MiG belonged to, but in all likelihood it was Syrian. The nationality of the pilot is another story entirely.
The danger of an inadvertent confrontation in the skies over Syria or Turkey should not be taken lightly. There are large numbers of warplanes operating over Syria. The aircraft belong to a host of nations. I’ve talked about the chances of an encounter before. It’s a very real possibility with so many aircraft operation in such close proximity. One mistake can lead to an accident that quickly escalates into an international situation or worse. Tensions are high enough right now. It wouldn’t take much to bring on a situation where Russian and Coalition aircraft are engaging and firing on each other.
This past weekend should serve as a warning. Unfortunately, the chances that Moscow will see it as such are slim. Russia has the initiative in this crisis for the moment. The US, Turkey, NATO and other parties opposed to Bashar al-Assad are reacting to Russian actions. That does not seem like it will be changing anytime soon.
Make no mistake about it, the situation in the skies over Syria is a dangerous one, and bound to deteriorate even more unless something changes fast.