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Putin Is the New Sheriff in Town

Lee Smith

Today, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that Russia has violated Turkish airspace for a second time. On Saturday, a Russian plane crossed into Turkish airspace near the Syrian border, and in response the Turks scrambled two F-16s. In a subsequent incident, Ankara said that a MiG-29—flown either by Russia or its client Syria—locked its radar on to two more Turkish F-16s Sunday as they patrolled the border.

Russia’s actions against NATO member Turkey, says the Obama administration, are worrisome. “We’re very concerned about it,” said John Kerry, “and it is precisely the kind of thing we warned about.” The Russians say it’s a mistake, but that’s nonsense. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is simply telling everyone he’s the new sheriff in town. 

The weekend’s stand-off is the latest episode in the international air war over Syria, starring a large cast that includes Turkey, Russia, Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces, the Syrian opposition, and the United States, with an arsenal including drones, fighter jets, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, helicopters, missiles, and perhaps someday—given that there are already 2 nuclear powers and one-soon-to-be nuclear state with a vital interest in the outcome—nuclear weapons.

The relevant prior confrontation occurred in June 2012 when the Syrian army was believed to have brought down a Turkish reconnaissance jet killing both pilots. A Turkish official claimed that the plane was downed not by anti-aircraft fire, as the Syrians said, but rather by a missile fired from a Russian warship off the Syrian coast. In fact, leaked Syrian intelligence documents later showed that the Turkish “jet was shot down in coordination with the Russian naval base in (the Syrian city of) Tartus.” The pilots were captured by Syrian Air Force intelligence and then executed “based on … guidance from the Russian leadership.”

At the time the jet was downed, the White House was eager to contain the damage, and therefore backed the Syrian version of events, perhaps for several likely reasons. First, the Obama administration was eager to show that Syrian anti-air defenses would make it dangerous to set up the no-fly zone that some administration officials and Republican opponents argued for. Second, no one in NATO, and certainly not the Obama administration, had any stomach for joint military action in support of Turkey, especially not if it meant going up against Russia. Finally, the White House wanted to prevent Ankara from taking too strong a position against Assad, so it was happy someone, anyone, bloodied the nose of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

None of these factors have changed over the last three years.

Obama will cite Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace as exhibit A of why establishing a no-fly zone is an even worse idea now than it was three years ago. A possible confrontation with Russian fighter jets that may bring the United States into a shooting war with Putin in Syria? Obama will say. That idea isn’t even worthy of Hillary Clinton’s half-baked cookbook.

Putin’s war with Ukraine and his unanswered threats against the Baltic states have simply underscored that NATO is a paper tiger that will never come to the defense of Turkey, or any other of its members. Perhaps the Russian strongman is thinking that his Soviet ancestors were fools to let themselves get hemmed in by a make-believe military coalition.

And Obama still wants to block Erdogan’s support of the anti-Assad rebels.

The administration has worked with the Syrian Kurdish militia PYD against ISIS only in part because it is an effective fighting unit—in Kobani, for instance, the PYD would’ve had very little success without U.S. air support. The PYD is useful because it is the Syrian branch of PKK, which has waged war on Ankara for three decades. In other words, the White House extorted a NATO member by collaborating with a Stalinist terrorist group until it agreed to direct its resources to attacking ISIS rather than Assad.

Now Putin is operating in support of Obama’s policy by attacking what have been lately described as CIA-vetted rebel groups but are essentially Turkish proxies in the war against Assad. As the White House has explained, Obama never wanted to back the Syrian rebels — especially not against Assad — which highlights the fact that the administration has given relatively little support to rebel groups. Turkey, on the other hand, is the main reason why the rebels are still able to wage war against Assad. Obama wants Erdogan to stop, and so does Putin, which is why he’s bombing rebel positions—and flying into Turkish airspace to scare off Erdogan and remind him that neither NATO or America will stand with him no matter how much he threatens to shoot down Russian planes.

Presumably, Israel is keeping tabs on recent developments as closely as anyone. After all, last weekend’s stand-off is ample proof that no matter how well Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit with Putin supposedly went, there is in reality no “mechanism” for “deconfliction” of Israeli and Russian forces. Russia’s very presence in Syria has established the conditions for conflict, either between Israel and Russia or Israel and Hezbollah. Otherwise, you’d need to believe that the only reason Putin has escalated in Syria is to ensure Israel’s prerogative to strike against Iranian arms convoys headed to Hezbollah at any time or place of its choosing. But of course that’s not why Putin has planted troops in the Levant.

Unlike the Department of State, the Russian premier isn’t going to spend valuable resources to play the honest broker between Israel and the Iranian axis. He’s there to collect rent and augment Russian political and diplomatic power, but he can’t last very long if his Iranian and Syrian partners think he’s selling them out by letting the Israelis hit anytime they want.

Putin’s position clashes with Israel’s, as Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explains. “Israel cannot afford to have Putin set limits on its freedom of operation against Iran in Syria,” says Badran. “If it concedes that, it opens itself up to a dangerous and costly scenario with regard to Iran and Hezbollah, who would effectively enjoy a Russian protective umbrella. On the other hand, if Israel strikes targets in Damascus, or on the Lebanon-Syria border, Putin could well understand that as a direct challenge.” 

Many Israeli officials and analysts are confident they can come to an agreement with Putin, citing the fact that Putin likes Jews, he’s a businessman, there are many Russians in Israel, etc. The notion that Putin is the kind of corrupt thug the Israelis know how to deal with is evidence of a dangerous cynicism that ignores how profoundly Israel’s strategic position has changed in the very short period since the White House signed a nuclear agreement with Iran. The responsible members of Israel’s political and military echelons aren’t gnashing their teeth publicly because they understand that they can’t project panic. Others are merely traumatized into self-delusion. Yes, Israel has dealt with the Russians before and handed them a beating, but that was when the United States was in its corner. It’s different today. No matter how much the White House says it seeks to bolster Israeli security after striking a badly flawed nuclear deal with Iran, the point of Obama’s regional realignment is to balance Israel off Iran. In that view, Israel is not an ally, but just a part of Obama’s math equation.

Only three months after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was struck in Vienna, the full consequences of the Iran Deal are starting to become clear. Yes, the White House gifted the Islamic Republic with a $150 billion signing bonus, and Tehran has already pledged to spend $21 billion on Russian aircraft; the U.N. arms and missile embargoes on Iran will expire within a decade, as will U.N. sanctions on Iranian terrorists and their institutions that have American blood on their hands as well as the blood of longtime American allies. Not surprisingly, the JCPOA signaled that the White House had forsaken our traditional friends for the sake of a “new geopolitical equilibrium”—a balance of power that, in Obama’s understanding, would not distinguish between friend and foe, but would keep the conflict to a minimum.

In the real world, what this means for NATO member Turkey is the threat of conflict with Russia and the reality of renewed war with the PKK, perhaps under Russian sponsorship. What it means for Israel is that an Iran with an industrial-scale nuclear weapons program within 15 years is no longer its main concern. The more pressing concern is a nightmare scenario in which Israel may have to choose between conflict with Russia, or renewed war with Hezbollah, which under Russian protection will have more missiles pointed at Israeli cities.

Obama and the rest of the White House continue to whistle past the graveyard. “Putin can’t be very smart to double-down in Syria,” they say. “It’s a quagmire, let him have it, etc.” Maybe Putin isn’t a strategic genius, but you don’t have to be a professor of constitutional law to see the stakes in Syria. This is where the Middle East has resolved to wage a generational war—a conflict exorcising a region’s worth of historical, cultural, religious, ethnic, and political furies. It’s an unforgiving and brutal part of the world, and Americans are right to be tired of it, and sickened by it. The fact remains that it still supplies most of the world’s energy resources and nearly a billion and a half people—and more importantly, their rulers—are anxious for its fate. In the end, it doesn’t take that much of a stomach to wait it out, because if you’ve put yourself in the middle of it as Putin has, the payoff is obvious and enormous: money, power, and prestige. America and our allies are likely to lose as much, or more.

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