Unlike President Obama’s nonresponse to al-Qaeda’s act of war in Benghazi, Libya, it wasn’t a surprise when the Russian President demonstrated steadfast leadership after Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 jet after claiming it wandered into the disputed Syria/Turkish border. The aggressive Turkish aerial attack shocked NATO allies and shattered hope for a unified front against ISIS and an orderly transition from embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
An analysis of the clash highlights both Putin’s and Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s shared expansionist dreams. If Erdogan’s recent moves to consolidate power are an indicator of true allegiances, then NATO should be reassessing Turkey’s future in the alliance or possibly risk Erdogan sharing the NATO arsenal with its Islamist Sunni playmates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE.
As this reporter wrote in 2013, “There can be little doubt that Syria is the battleground state between the Sunni and Shiite factions of Islam. Iran, the largest Shia nation and the natural threat to Saudi Arabia, is too big and powerful to attack, so the war begins in Syria – the Iranian ally.”
This conclusion was ratified when Erdogan joined the US-led coalition against ISIS, but instead of attacking Sunni-ISIS targets, Erdogan proceeded to mercilessness attack the PKK “Kurds” who are the only militia group successfully fighting ISIS. On the other hand, Russia intervened on the side of Shia-Iran and Syria to fight ISIS, which is reportedly composed of 7,000 Russian jihadis, to keep them from returning to Russia to lead an anti-Russian insurrection. In choosing sides that suit their political objectives, Turkey and Russia further the prospect of a wider regional war between the Sunni and Shia.
Meanwhile, taking a page from Obama’s playbook, the Russian leader wasted no time in implementing financial sanctions, that will not make all Russians happy, but will provide a swift response to Islamist Erdogan’s bold move.
Putin is also preparing a range of retaliatory economic sanctions against Turkey. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Russia would look to the Israelis and promised others would benefit from Moscow’s substitute trading and tourism partners.
“The government has been ordered to work out a system of response measures to this act of aggression in the economic and humanitarian spheres,” Medvedev said at a televised cabinet meeting. He also claimed under Russian law “the broad punitive steps could include halting joint economic projects, restricting financial and trade transactions and changing customs duties. Measures could also target the tourism and transport sectors, labor markets and humanitarian contacts,” he said. But the measures would be directly signed by a Putin decree.
Despite its geographic proximity to the Middle East, Turkey is relatively energy-poor and it imports more than half of its natural gas. After the provocative shoot down of a Russian fighter jet, Putin elucidated that the pipelines may be shut off as they were during the Ukrainian crisis. Plus Moscow committed to building a fuel pipeline under the Black Sea and started building Turkey’s first nuclear power station. Both projects are under Putin’s scrutiny and could be in jeopardy.
Further sanctions involve barring Turkey’s lifeblood – tourism and agricultural imports, which could also undermine Turkey’s fragile economy.
In response to Russia’s planned boycott, Turkish President Erdogan warned Putin “It is playing with fire to go as far as mistreating our citizens who have gone to Russia,” Erdogan said at a speech in Bayburt, Turkey. “We really attach a lot of importance to our relations with Russia … We don’t want these relations to suffer harm in any way.”
And that fire could be the US stockpile of nuclear weapons stored inside Turkey that Russian officials have warned the US about upgrading. According to a report from Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit group that monitors nuclear activities, the U.S. Air Force appears to be upgrading two of its bases, including Incirlik, only 60 miles from the Turkish/Syrian border, to enhance security of the B61 nuclear weapons purportedly stored there. “Commercial satellite imagery shows the work underway at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy, according to the report.
In September, the Defense Department announced it would offer voluntary evacuations to Air Force family members from Incirlik area. The move came after the Turkish government finally agreed to let the US military use the base to launch air strikes against ISIS in Syria a few months ago.
A Defense Department official told San Diego 6 News Monday: “The United States can neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of U.S. nuclear weapons forward deployed to Europe. The decision to allow for voluntary departure of US dependent personnel from Incirlik Air Base a couple of months ago was taken out of an abundance of caution. The US constantly monitors threats to its military personnel, facilities, and assets overseas and takes appropriate measures to ensure their safety and security. It’s no secret that Turkey and Russia have disagreed about the growing Islamic State situation – both accusing the other of being soft on terrorism.”
Meanwhile back in Russia, Sergi Lavrov, the country’s foreign minister, told reporters “Russia had more and more questions” concerning Ankara’s commitment to ending ISIS terrorism based on reports Turkey is buying Syrian oil on the black market. Erdogan denied Russia’s accusations and called them slanderous.
Nevertheless, on the military front, Russia has deployed long-range S-400 air defense missile systems at its Syrian airbase just 30 miles south of the Turkish/Syria border. So Putin has effectively created a no-fly zone of his own inside Syria.
One final point, the Turkish President is trying to set a referendum vote early next year and if he is successful in consolidating a majority, he will begin the final steps to turn the NATO country into an Islamic State, where he will rule for life.
“NATO is nothing more than a paper tiger upon which its enemies do not take it seriously,” Army Colonel Doug Macgregor (ret) explained. “The Obama administration’s strategy to fight ISIS is lacking any serious effort. It’s comparable to a doctor telling a heart failure patient he needs a haircut and shave.”
Macgregor explained “the bottom line is the Turks aren’t our friends, but neither is Putin and they both know it’s beneficial to drag the US into another fruitless war albeit for different reasons. Turkey wants the US to fight for Turkey and the Sunnis of KSA, Qatar and UAE and Russia wants to humiliate the US by supporting Iran and the Shia Muslims.”