• Tensions between Syria, Turkey threaten to suck Russia, West into military conflict
By Richard Walker
The growing military tension between Turkey and Syria has the real potential to drag United States-backed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russian military forces into the fighting. Exchanges of artillery fire between Turkey and Syria have led to Turkey moving heavy weapons toward its border with Syria. It has even warned it has the right to launch major attacks deep within Syria.
Turkey, a NATO member that shares a border with Russia, too, has received support for its tough talk from Washington, Paris and London, which have been engaged with it in trying to topple the Syrian government. Their strategy has involved training anti-Syrian militias at a base in Turkey and arming Syrian rebels. Some observers have warned that most of the rebels are made up of fighters who do not live within Syria.
Through diplomatic channels, Russia has made it clear NATO risks a wider conflict by encouraging Turkey to play a primary role in toppling Syria’s government. Moscow has also told Ankara it would be unwise to think Russia would abandon its ally, Syria.
Deteriorating relations between Turkey and Syria risk confrontation with Russian forces based in Syria. Turkey has been aware of credible reports it was Russian forces based in Syria, and not the Syrian military, that shot down a Turkish F4 Phantom as it entered Syrian airspace on June 22, 2012. Turkish leaders have been careful not to point an accusing finger at Russia over the issue.
Russia has an important base on the Syrian island of Tartus which not only serves Russian naval forces but is Moscow’s major listening post in the region. Russian generals have told Russian President Vladimir Putin he must guarantee the continued existence of the Tartus facility. Without it, Russia would have no presence in the Mediterranean.
Another growing dispute between Moscow and Ankara is the 2011 discovery of a massive natural gas field off the Cyprus coast. Russia considers Cyprus an ally and was angered when Turkey sent ships to the area, claiming Cyprus had no rights to exploit the gas find. Since 1974 the Turks have ruled the northern 37% of Cyprus and believe they also own the seas around it. Russia thinks otherwise and has Cypriot approval to use its energy giant, Gazprom, to handle the gas extraction. Such a move could provide yet another dangerous flashpoint between Russia and NATO member, Turkey.
At this stage, however, the most obvious risk of a clash between Russia and NATO lies in Turkey’s willingness to threaten an escalation of military action against Syria. Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are partners with Washington in arming militias to topple the Syrian government, have been encouraging Turkey to take the fight to the Syrians.
Recently, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov warned that radicals within rebel groups might exploit tensions between Turkey and Syria by launching cross-border attacks. He said Russia opposed NATO’s intervention in the Syrian conflict and believed NATO buffer zones within Syria would represent a clear interference with its sovereignty.
Gatilov criticized the Obama administration and its allies for using what he called their professed concern for Syrian civilians and false claims Syria had weapons of mass destruction as a means to further their “bomb diplomacy.”
It was Israel that first fed the false stories to the media about Syria having weapons of mass destruction and threatened to bomb the facilities that stored them.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.