Russia Bombs Turkish Troops in Syria

Because you needed one more thing to worry about.

Carlotta Gall, reporting for the NYT (“Airstrike Hits Turkish Forces in Syria, Raising Fears of Escalation“):

The Turkish Army suffered mass casualties in an airstrike in northwest Syria late Thursday, an attack that could dramatically change the course of the Syrian war as fears grow of a direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.

At least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed and more than 30 wounded, said Rahmi Dogan, the Turkish governor of the southern province of Hatay, where the Turkish casualties were arriving.

Turkish officials said the strike had been carried out by Syrian government forces, but Russian jets have been conducting most of the airstrikes in the area in recent weeks. Turkish protesters in Istanbul converged on the Russian Consulate there early Friday, chanting “Murderer Russia! Murderer Putin!”

Turkish officials have avoided blaming the Russian government for aggression against their forces in Syria, hoping to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia’s much stronger military and to keep a line open for talks with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Russian officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey convened an emergency meeting Thursday evening in Ankara, Turkish media reported. And Turkish forces began retaliating Thursday against Syrian forces in northeastern Idlib Province.

Having multiple military forces operating at cross purposes in the midst of a bloody conflict is inherently dangerous. That’s why US and Russian forces worked so hard to keep lines of communications open—we wanted to avoid exactly this sort of incident. It’s unclear at this juncture whether the Turkish troops were deliberately targeted or they were merely caught in the crossfire.

That Turkey is a NATO ally makes the situation more awkward. But there is zero Article 5 obligation to intervene on their behalf. They weren’t subject to an armed attack within their borders—which would require the allies to treat it as though it were an attack on us all—but while they were operating in Syria.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Russia, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. R.Dave says:

    Stupid question, but what value does Turkey bring to NATO these days? Is there any particular reason – apart from generic disruption effects (which admittedly could be serious and unpredictable) – not to just boot them out of NATO at this point?

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  2. EddieInCA says:

    It’s smart. Ruthless and immoral, but smart.

    Take advantage of the world’s preoccupation with coronavirus and global market crash and get your shots (bombs) in while no one is paying attention.

    Smart. More of this sort of realpolitik is going to happen. And soon.

    Gonna get ugly. And dangerous.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    @R.Dave:
    They bring the same value they always brought: they control the Bosporus. They keep the Russian navy from being able to operate in the Med.

    This should be interesting. Which beloved authoritarian thug will our authoritarian thug of a president support? It’s so hard for the children when parents fight. Who has the most leverage? Who represents the best shot at Trump lining his pockets? Who will some random diner at Mar a Lago tell him to support?

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  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    I apologize for the digression, but that photo of a tank on a trailer has me mezmerized. Not just because of the concept of a tank on a trailer, but also because the trailer looks so wrong. I’m sure that I’m wrong about it, but it looks like it would put so much weight on the back wheels of the towing vehicle that it would pop its front wheels in the air. Obviously, that doesn’t happen, but that must be due to principles I don’t understand, or things that aren’t visible in the photo.

    Thinking about it a bit more, the placement of the wheels on the trailer must be to facilitate driving the tank off the back of the trailer without dangling the front of the trailer (and the towing vehicle!) in the air due to overbalancing. I’m just kind of amazed that you can tow the thing, though.

    More on topic. I think of Putin as a strategic thinker. Is there any strategic value for Russian jets to be bombing Turkish troops? Other than solidifying the alliance with Syria?

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  5. R.Dave says:

    @Michael Reynolds: They bring the same value they always brought: they control the Bosporus. They keep the Russian navy from being able to operate in the Med.

    Sure, but how important is that these days? Russia’s navy is a shadow of what it once was, they have access to the Med through their Atlantic fleet anyway, and relocating naval resources to the Black Sea to take advantage of the situation if Turkey left NATO wouldn’t exactly be a quick or easy matter. And even if they did beef up their Black Sea fleet, couldn’t the Bosporus just as easily become a dangerous bottleneck for that fleet in a shooting war?

    To be clear, these are genuine questions, not leading ones. I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to naval strategy, so for all I know, gaining more secure access to the Bosporus in a post-NATO Turkey could be a huge benefit to Russia.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @R.Dave:
    I think the value of bottling up the Russian Navy is nowhere near as important as it once was, but it’s not nothing, either. Russia isn’t the USSR, and even running free in the Med the Russian navy could be sunk within hours of hostilities. But they do represent a threat insofar as they can place subs or cruise missile capable surface ships within a few minutes of major European centers and US bases. It would be suicide for their ships, but it would nevertheless be a threat.

    But there is also the question of Incirlik. Big, long runway, hardened sites, pre-positioned nukes and other ordnance? That’s not nothing.

    Is that enough for us to toe the Turkish line in all things? IMO, no. Or turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s authoritarianism? No. Turkey is better inside the tent pissing out.

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  7. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I really wish we would get those pre-positioned nukes out of Incirlik. They are basically obsolete anyway, in the form of B52 size plane-dropped bombs, and they aren’t penetrating Russian or Chinese airspace anyway. Far more concerned about Erdogan just grabbing them as Turkey gets more and more isolated from the West.

    I can’t help but feel a bit of schadenfreude though-Erdogan has been snuggling up to Russia for years to tweak the US and Europe, not to mention being brazenly defiant of US concerns (firing artillery at targets very near our troops in Syria, for example). Then the idiot Erdogan underestimated Trump’s idiocy and actually ended up in the front lines in Syria opposite his Russian friends, and now this.

    Hope he likes those air defense missiles Russia is selling him that have cost him the F35’s from us…I’m SURE the Russian AA won’t be compromised against Russian planes at all…

    Sometimes it takes way longer than you would expect, but eventually stupidity and blatant denial of reality hurts.

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  8. just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I don’t know anymore, but I’m not willing to bet that a tank weighs more than a 20 foot container full of… say 50 kilo sacks of rice, for example. Additionally, the trailer seems to be connected to some kind of torsion bar device that looks more sophisticated than a typical 5th wheel/kingpin set up. But it would be interesting to see how the drive off happens. 🙂

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: We haul tracked vehicles around on trucks all the time. Tracks are way better than wheels in certain terrain but not others. And they’re hell on paved surfaces.

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  10. dazedandconfused says:

    @R.Dave:

    NATO has always been for the collective defense against one, and only one foe: Russia. Turkey is obviously geographically key. After the fall of the Soviets, vested interests of this organization did a remarkable job of pretending there is some other threat which requires there be a NATO. It worked splendidly.

    Erdo guessed Putin was bluffing. Whoopsies.

  11. Matt says:

    @just nutha ignint cracker: It’s rather quite boring actually as the tank just drives off the trailer. Those style of transports are generally quite capable of driving off road with a tank on the trailer.

  12. Jay L Gischer says:

    @James Joyner: Thanks. It’s all logical, I just didn’t know. I’m most familiar with WW2-era military technology, because of when I was a kid, and because of the wargames I tend to play. I don’t think they used a lot of trailers then. But it does make sense.

  13. Kathy says:

    @R.Dave:

    They keep the Greeks from getting ideas? 😛

    Seriously, what Michael Reynolds said.

    I’d add Erdogan should not count on NATO support. “We were attacked by another country while illegally invading a third country,” is a flimsy pretext for invoking Article V.

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  14. Kathy says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    If you want another such type of photo, look up images of ships that are used to ferry other ships.

    About tanks on trucks, when traveling through Israel by bus in 82, we got to see plenty.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Jay L Gischer: @James Joyner: I was surprised to realize that’s an M60, the main US tank in the 60s and 70s. WIKI notes that as of 2015 Turkey had 866 upgraded M60s in service.

    As well as on trucks, as James notes, in WWII tanks moved by rail a lot. Tanks aren’t reliable for long road trips. Particularly the German Tiger. The Tiger was almost invincible, but not reliable. There’s a line that the best way to destroy a Tiger was to make the Germans move the Tiger.

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  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Matt: Oh I’m sure that it’s mostly uneventful, but I was in logistics based businesses for almost 20 years, so anything like this is something I want to see just for the experience of seeing how the tech works.

  17. Matt says:

    @gVOR08: Yeah they updated the crap out of the M60 tanks. They were still in service in the USA military until around 2005ish. It’s still a good bang for the buck tank for smaller countries.

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Alright here’s a similar trailer with a T-55 driving off it.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qb9ZhcMllcc

  18. Matt says:

    @gVOR08: I definitely wouldn’t call the tiger tank “almost invincible”.

    Mechanically the tank was actually pretty reliable outside of some specific track problems. One of those track problems being the road wheel’s tendency to jam solid when mud/gunk froze between them. Of course the Russian front was mud ice and snow so that wasn’t a good environment for that design (which is where almost all Tigers were deployed). It also liked to break tracks at a higher rate than average.

    The tigers had excellent optics which matched well with the 88 KwK L/56’s long range capability. That gun could reach out reliably to 1km with non heat ammo. The German’s stabilization system for their HEAT round was pretty poor so at 1km accuracy was around 62%. These tests were of course done in ideal circumstances. In a battle effective range was much lower due to environment and war time operations. Also of note the Tiger did not have a stabilizer so shooting on the move was strongly discouraged.

    In theory the armor setup is pretty good especially in a defensive fight. The problem is that by the time the Tiger was being deployed Germany’s tank armor quality was barely passable. The Russians did plenty of testing on captured Tigers (including at least one brand new one) and they found the armor to be D quality at best. Meaning the armor had a tendency to shatter when it should of absorbed the impact.

    Assuming the tiger has properly made armor a M4 with the 75mm using the proper AP ammo could still pen the front plate at 500ish meters. With D grade armor the m4 could pen the tiger at much greater distances. Fun fact a tiger will have great difficulty penning the glacis of a m4 angled at 30 degrees. The tiger would have to get in close under 400m to pen. Of course there are much better places to be shooting the m4 in that scenario. Oh and M4s had gun stabilization so they could shoot reliably on the move.

    The whole M4 vs tiger thing is something that grabbed my interest a while back. The m4 was a much better tank then people tend to give it credit for and the German tanks weren’t nearly as invincible as people give them credit for.

    EDIT : Oh yeah and the tiger guzzled fuel…

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  19. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    Tracks are way better than wheels in certain terrain but not others. And they’re hell on paved surfaces.

    According to some reports that’s a fact of life that ended up (thankfully) preventing the military parade with tanks that Trump wanted for the 4th of July.

  20. Matt says:

    The “tiger battle” in Fury was really really dumb. Having all the M4s approaching the front of the tiger is downright stupid and no one with half a brain would of done that in ww2. The fury’s 76mm was more than capable of penning the tiger through the front at range. Hell the regular m4s 75mm would of most likely penned the tiger after the first shot from the tiger. The tiger moving out of cover to do whatever it was the writers thought it was going to do was equally stupid…

    The writer of the movie has stated he was influenced by Belton Y. Cooper’s Death Traps which explains the stupidity. Cooper’s book was full of technical inaccuracies and “a friend of a friend said this….” crap. Despite cooper being a mechanic he still gets basic mechanical facts wrong about the tanks he worked on. The perspective of the book is severely limited to basically Cooper’s experience (reverse survivorship bias?) and a few stories he was told by others. He never takes a real big picture view of the tanks he’s discussing. It’s an infuriating book to read if you’re already well informed and was the main propagator of a bunch of very wrong stereotypes that still float around today about the m4.