While American foreign policy pundits are focused on ISIS as the toxic byproduct of four years of the Syrian Civil War, there is a much more important issue developing. As more international actors join the fray in Syria, tensions between some of the world’s largest militaries are escalating at an alarming rate.
On one hand, we have the Russia/Iran axis that has been supporting the Assad regime since long before the outbreak of Civil War. The introduction of Russian ground and air forces (along with the continued Iranian ground support) has begun to turn the tide in favor of Syria’s dynastic ruler. And, of course, Vladimir Putin leads the way.
On the other hand, we have the Turkish side. Backed by NATO (on paper) and recently joined by Saudi Arabia, the Turks have been heavily involved in Syria. Now, it appears that a Turkish/Saudi coalition might also send ground troops into the mess that has become the Syrian landscape. Aggressive Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan leads this side.
While many experts have described the past several years in the Middle East as a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the introduction of the Russia/Turkey rivalry has created a dangerous alignment of forces. Until now, the Saudis and Iranians were able to use terrorist and civil war proxies (such as Yemen) to fight their battles. Now, there is the possibility of Saudi and Iranian ground forces fighting in the same conflict – with Russian and Turkish forces right behind them.
To say that the situation is tense would be a gross understatement.
After Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet that was allegedly violating Turkey’s airspace in November of last year, Russia retaliated. Putin started with economic sanctions, the cancellation of the proposed “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline, and harsh rhetoric; all in reaction to the perceived Turkish “stab in the back.”
Now, as Turkey continues to suffer from the issues created by Syrian refugees and terrorist spillover, tensions continue to rise. This week, after a suicide bombing that killed 28 Turkish soldiers in Ankara, the Turks are firing back. While Turkey was quick to blame the PKK (who denied any involvement), Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu didn’t hesitate to condemn Russia as well: “I am warning Russia once more […] if these terror attacks continue, they will be as responsible as the YPG.”
Russia, for its part, has made it clear that Turkish ground troops in Syria would not be greeted well. In a somewhat ironic statement, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared: “we view Syria’s territory as the territory of a sovereign state. Any incursion into the territory of a sovereign state is illegal.”
In an apparent attempt to further outrage the Turks, Russia has also threatened to respond to any Turkish invasion that would attack the Kurds.
Furthermore, Russia has expressed its disappointment with Israel’s recent rapprochement with Turkey. Israel, for its part, was irate at the Russian shipment of S-300 missiles to Iran after the sanctions were lifted as part of the nuclear deal.
So while American politicians and presidential candidates blabber on about ISIS and Muslims, the rest of the world nervously watches as events unfold in and around the failed Syrian state. After Russian PM Dmitri Medvedev seriously mentioned the possibility of “sparking a world war,” world leaders are getting more and more desperate.
Meanwhile, the United States’ contribution to the Syrian conflict has simply served to provoke both the Saudi/Turkish and the Russian/Iranian sides. As the US-backed Kurds gain ground along the Turkish border, Turkey is growing more and more irate. As the US funds anti-Assad rebels, the Russians suffer.
The United States State Department has also been disappointingly quiet on the matter. This week, a State Department spokesperson blandly stated: “it is important that the Russians and Turks speak directly, and take measures to prevent escalation.” However, the United States must take a more direct approach in order to truly prevent what some are predicting may turn into World War Three.
The prospects of Turkish (and therefore NATO) ground forces engaging with Russian forces in a military attempt to overthrow the Assad regime is well within the range of possibility. While Erdogan believes he is throwing around his perceived Turkish military might, he must be careful not to take the power of the NATO treaty lightly. For Vladimir Putin, this could mark the final straw in a long list of grievances he has against the alliance.
The situation in Syria has gotten out of hand, and direct military intervention from Saudi Arabia and Turkey may be imminent. While ISIS has been grabbing headlines, the Turkey/Russia story carries much greater implications. The US would be wise to mediate this dispute and take it more seriously before Turkey and Russia pass the point of no return in this conflict.