There was scarcely any news value in Vladimir Putin’s claim today that Russia is busy fighting “terrorists” in Syria. As he has long defined the term, terrorists include not only the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda but all American-backed Syrian rebel outfits seeking to overthrow the regime of his teetering client, Bashar al-Assad.
What was newsworthy, however, was that one of these “terrorist” groups today managed to kill a Russian pilot as he parachuted from a damaged Su-24 bomber, while yet another blew up a crash-landed Russian Mi-8 helicopter as it lay helpless on the ground, possibly killing a Russian Marine in the cockpit.
To make matters more interesting, the Su-24 was struck with a missile fired from two American-made Turkish F-16 fighter jets, after the former allegedly penetrated Turkish airspace, defying 10 warnings against doing so which were supposedly issued by Ankara within the space of five minutes.
Did I mention that the Russian helicopter was immolated by an American-made TOW anti-tank missile?
So, to slightly rephrase the day’s headlines out of the Levant, for the first time since 1953 a NATO member has engaged a Russian military asset in combat, and for the first time since 1989 an American-armed Muslim insurgency has made a scrap heap of Russian-operated hardware in the Middle East.
You’ll be reassured to learn that we are not, as President Obama continually reminds us, embroiled in a second Cold War, because if we were this would be a very alarming turn of events indeed.
Putin went one step further in denouncing Turkey’s actions, calling it a “stab in the back” perpetrated by “accomplices of terrorists.”
Article V of the NATO charter doesn’t account for rhetorical attacks on one being an attack on all, but it seems clear that the Russian president has just offered his starkest appraisal of the multifaceted proxy conflict that is the Syrian war in late 2015.
Quite apart from being in any way aligned with the West in a common struggle against head-lopping fundamentalists, Moscow and its allies in Damascus, Tehran, and Beirut see themselves as ranged against a Western conspiracy to prop up those selfsame fundamentalists. (This is especially ironic given that ISIS sees it exactly the other way around, with themselves alone fending off a global conspiracy led by the United States and Russia, behind whom of course stand the Jews and now the Shia, to murder and dispossess Sunni Muslims.) Gone for now are the overtures, however shambolic they were to begin with, that Russia and the United States should fashion a World War II-style alliance against ISIS.
And it’s almost too convenient that the NATO-Russian confrontation should come by way of Turkey. For the fact is that neither Putin nor Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been particularly eager or interested in fighting or “containing” ISIS so much as using it as a cudgel for advancing their own geopolitical interest in the Middle East. Even ISIS has begun to notice.
Senior leaders of the jihadist organization “have confided to the Guardian that Turkey preferred to stay out of their way and rarely tackled them directly,” according to that newspaper’s brilliant correspondent Martin Chulov, who adds that evidence uncovered from the U.S. Special Forces raid on ISIS’s oil baron Abu Sayyaf “detailed connections between senior ISIS figures and some Turkish officials.”
At all events, as one defector from ISIS’s state security apparatus told me in Istanbul, the Syrian-Turkish border has been a sieve for the takfiris, some of whom took a breather during the battle for Kobani earlier this year by hitting up Turkish McDonald’s. The caliphate, it seems, exercises Erdogan much less than another would-be “state,” that of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan, the architects of which are affiliates of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.- and Turkish-designated terrorist entity, against whom Ankara has expended more ammunition in the last year than it has against ISIS.
Also, Erdogan sees Syria as not just a humanitarian crisis brought about by his erstwhile chum Assad, but as a crisis that shouldn’t go to waste. It represents the last remaining country of a five-year-old convulsion mistakenly called the Arab Spring that might still see an Islamist government emerge on the ruins of dictatorship. Not taking any chances this time, he’s underwriting his foreign policy legacy with fire and steel, not mere ideological signposting.
But Erdogan isn’t alone. Contra the elaborate presentations by Russia’s General Staff, including reams of (doctored) video footage, Putin’s bombers have mainly targeted non-ISIS positions in the Levant, including field hospitals, ambulances, and the military headquarters of the very rebel groups now responsible for paying those bombers back in their own coin.
President Obama pointed out this awkward state of affairs this afternoon at a White House press conference following his meeting with French President François Hollande, who evidently agrees with him. And it has now so much become the conventional wisdom outside of Kremlin troll farms on Twitter that in the latest issue of ISIS’s propaganda magazine Dabiq, the jihadists themselves mock the “drunken brown bear” that “clumsily strikes here and there” and mostly against the “Sahwah allies of America.” (Sahwah is Arabic for “Awakening,” as in the Anbar variety, now used broadly to refer to any and all Sunni rebel groups in Syria or Iraq that are devotedly anti-ISIS.)
Still more embarrassing is the investigative spadework done several months ago by Russia’s still relatively independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, showing that Putin’s domestic intelligence arm, the Federal Security Service, has been sending jihadists in Dagestan into Syria so that they might join ISIS, al Nusra, and other franchises, the easier for them to blow stuff up over there than over here.
The trouble is, thanks to Putin’s adventurism, over there has now become over here for ordinary Russians. See the skies of Sharm el-Sheikh. And see now the mountain passes of Latakia. Some Syrian friends seem hopeful that today’s one-two punch will make Putin rethink his war. I’m less optimistic. The butcher’s bill thus far strikes me as negligible for the man who shrugged off the sinking of the Kursk and transformed the Beslan and Moscow theater sieges into Spetsnaz-conducted Jonestowns. Russian ground forces have already reportedly been deployed in Syria. Expect more of these now.
Moreover, Putin is nowhere near attaining his objective of having Russia supplant Washington as both the great power interlocutor for the conduct of all future diplomatic and military business in the Middle East, from Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad, and as the more serious-minded and capable executor of a 15-year-old war on terror, all the foregoing evidence notwithstanding.
In hindsight, it seems surprising that it’s taken this long for the new czar and the new pasha to come to blows, even if this was no Battle of Balaclava. Both have consolidated their media to inoculate them against uncomfortable realities and any meaningful consequences for excesses of their expansionist aims. Both enjoy unchallengeable holds on power. And both are in open competition in a part of the world where the West inexorably gets drawn in.