Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to meet in Moscow with Vladimir Putin ostensibly to arrange a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province. But much more is involved than a ceasefire.
The Syrian Army has been trying to regain control of Idlib and chase out Turkish-backed anti-Kurdish Sunni rebels. But as the Syrians have found, these rebels are part and parcel of the Turkish army; they just don’t wear Turkish army uniforms.
They have air support from Turkey’s Air Force, primarily F-16s and killer drones, and heavy ground forces support from strategic outposts set up by the Turks and featuring heavy artillery and a host of other modern weapons.
The Russian Air Force based in Syria right now is sitting and not assisting Syria”s ground forces or countering Turkey’s air superiority. At the start of the effort to retake Idlib, Russian aircraft did hit rebel installations, but the hostile Turkish reaction led Putin to call off supporting the Syrian forces. Russia claimed that it never used its fighter planes at all and that the damage caused to the Turkish-backed rebel forces (and the loss of some 34 Turkish soldiers who supported them) was caused by Syrian artillery, not Russian aircraft.
The Turks let the Russian “explanation” stand and instead focused their retaliation on Syrian air and ground forces. So far they have knocked off eight Syrian (Russian supplied) helicopters and three fighter planes: two Russian-built Su-24s and one Czech L-39 Albatross trainer.
The Russian aircraft were easy prey for F-16s because the Su-24s have very poor quality missile warning systems and the old Czech L-39 Albatross trainer has none at all. Turkish F-16s can fire American AIM-9X series missiles and AIM-120 AMRAAMs.
Syria has a number of different types of helicopters, but the most numerous are older Mi-17s and Aérospatiale Gazelle SA-342 five seat models, mainly used for reconnaissance. The Mi-17 is a troop carrier, and if it was deployed in Idlib it would have been carrying soldiers.
So far at least the Syrian government has claimed that the pilots and co-pilots of these aircraft were able to escape by parachuting after the planes were hit, although the videos of two of the shoot downs do not show any open parachutes. There is no word about the troops on board if the helicopters were Mi-17s, leading to the surmise that many airborne forces may have been killed.
The Syrian helicopters were shot down by the famous US Stinger MANPADS shoulder-fired ground to air missile (FIM-92). More than a thousand of these missiles have been co-produced in Turkey by Rokestan Radar Systems. These are the same missiles that famously destroyed Russian helicopter gunships in Afghanistan and helped drive the Russians out of the country.
It may be that Turkey has supplied Stingers to the rebels, if so probably violating arms agreements with the United States.
With the Russians now sitting on their hands and not challenging the Turkish Air Force, Erdogan has turned up the heat because he wants to end up with control over the entire Idlib province. The question is, will Putin grant this demand.
If the Russians let the fight continue there is little doubt that the Syrian army will be defeated in Idlib, a major blow to the Assad regime. It will also be a clear setback to the Iranians and Hezbollah, whose fighters are also under Turkish attack and have suffered an unknown number of casualties.
But Russia has little choice. Putin and his military have to worry that directly challenging the Turkish Air Force could turn out badly for Russia, since there are only a small number of advanced Russian fighters in Syria – primarily the Su-35, the only plane ready to challenge Turkey’s F-16s.
But beyond the possibility of losing air battles to the Turks, inevitably any conflict in Idlib could rapidly spread to a general war, something the Russians would try to avoid at all costs.
Russia is very far away from Syria, and Putin has never directly committed Russian ground forces to Syria. Instead he has used mercenary forces – most notably Wagner Group, which is a Moscow tool. Wagner Group forces have taken heavy casualties in Syria, most recently in an encounter with American troops. But Wagner Group is no match for a modern army that can be easily reinforced.
Turkey has already shown its willingness to pour front line troops into the Idlib conflict. Therefore, it is not exactly a cease fire that is on the table in Moscow. Rather, what is on the table is a major concession giving control of Idlib to Turkey.
No matter how the deal is packaged, if that is the outcome it could be fatal for Assad’s government. If Assad is incapable of defending his territory and has lost the practical support of Russia in defending his borders, his government could collapse as Assad’s supporters will start running for cover or deposing him to cut a deal with the opposition forces in the country.
Is Putin cynical enough to concede Idlib to the Turks? Or is it the only practical alternative for Russia?