One Russian Airbase Could Take Down Turkey’s Entire Fighter Fleet? New Assessment Shows a Favourable Military Balance in Syria Underlying Moscow’s Success
by Aspelta for The Saker Blog
While much uncertainty remains surrounding what exactly was agreed to in Moscow regarding the ceasefire agreement in Syria’s Idlib province, or how long Turkey intends to adhere to the new ceasefire agreement, it is clear that despite its bellicosity towards Damascus, Ankara has been extremely cautious about provoking Russia or undermining the strong relationship built over the past three years. Positive relations with Russia have remained particularly critical to Turkish interests since 2016 for a number of reasons. Increasingly alienated from the Western Bloc and its Gulf Arab allies, which are strongly suspected of having at least tacitly supported an attempted military coup that year, Turkey needed to quickly diversify its sources of economic and military security. Moving quickly to make amends for the downing of a Russian Su-24 strike fighter a year prior in November 2015, Turkey arrested the F-16 pilots responsible for the attack. Ankara subsequently saw its relations with Moscow quickly improve to the benefit of both sates – from the S-400 deal to growing exchange of tourists.
Russia for its part has a big stick to complement the carrot of positive defence and economic ties, and is capable of reigning in Turkish ambitions over Syria to a large extent accordingly. Alongside sanctions, cutting the flow of tourists and other economic measures, Russia has heavily fortified its position in Syria since November 2015 to deter attacks by Turkey and other potentially hostile parties. It has capitalised on this asset in a number of ways, more conspicuously by deploying Su-35 fighters to intercept Turkish incursions into Syrian airspace and more recently by deploying its Military Police to guard the strategically critical M4 and M5 highways and the city of Sarakeb. These targets were directly in the path of advancing Turkish backed Islamist militias in the first week of March, and with these militants relying heavily on Turkish air and artillery support to advance and take ground from the Syrian Arab Army, deployment of Russian personnel in tandem with the opening of negotiations drew a line under how much Moscow was willing to tolerate the jihadist push into Syrian territory.
What it is important to keep in mind is not only that Turkey needs Russia far more than vice versa – but also that, in regards to Syria, the balance of power between the two parties remains extremely one-sided. While NATO’s willingness to overtly support Turkey should it provoke an armed conflict with Russian forces remains highly questionable, an assessment of the military capabilities of both parties shows a tremendous Russian advantage in the field in the event of an armed conflict – with the far smaller size of Russian units in Syria compensated for by overwhelming technological supremacy. Underlining this often-missed point, I would strongly recommend the following video which assesses the outcome of a potential air war between Russian units at Khmeimim Airbase and the entire Turkish Air Force. This includes assets deployed to the airbase from December 2015 in response to the Turkish attack on the Russian strike fighter, such as Su-35 air superiority fighters and S-400 and S-300V4 surface to air missile systems.
A further lesson one can take from this assessment is why Turkey appears so eager to upgrade its air fleet in short order – either with the F-35 or with some combination of Russian Su-57, Su-35 and MiG-35 jets, having shown interest in all three. Negotiations to acquire the Su-35 in particular, the oldest of the three designs which has been in service since 2014, was reported in October 2019 to have reached its final stages. Given the precedent set by Russia’s Su-35 deal with Egypt, which was signed in 2018 but not announced until March the following year, it remains possible that a deal has already been made for transfer of the fighters to the Turkish Air Force to complement its S-400s.