A Game-Changer in Syria and Turkey

First concrete evidence has emerged of the use MANPADS in the broader Syrian war—most distressingly, in Turkey itself. The Washington Post has the story:

On Saturday, media affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist militant group battling the Turkish state, posted a video purporting to show a fighter downing a Cobra attack helicopter with a man-portable air-defense system — or MANPADS — in the mountains of southeastern Turkey on Friday morning. Arms observers said this is the first time they have seen PKK fighters successfully using MANPADS in their four-decade fight against the Turks. […]

But the use of a surface-to-air missile — which arms experts said is likely a Russian-made 9K38 Igla — is a new and troubling development. It’s unclear where the militants, who maintain bases in both Turkey and Iraq, would have obtained the weapon system. But former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was known to have acquired the same Russian-made system in the 1980s, as did Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi.

The U.S. has been doing its utmost to keep MANPADS out of the conflict for fears of them falling into terrorists’ hands, and eventually have them be used on civilian aircraft. In the kind of chaos bred by the festering Syrian slaughter, it was probably only a matter of time before unsecured stockpiles from Iraq or Libya made their way into the hands of one of the factions.

But one possibility not hinted at by the Post article is that the Russian weapons somehow made it to the Kurds with Moscow’s full blessing. A quick capsule history of Soviet-Kurdish relations, as recounted by our own Adam Garfinkle a few months back, is useful:

The PKK was, to a considerable extent, a Soviet creation. When Soviet agents found Abdullah Öcalan et al., they weren’t much to look at. But at the price of espousing Marxism-Leninism, meager PKK cadres soon found themselves awash in weapons, bombs, money, intelligence, and networking aid to ideologically like-minded groups elsewhere in the region and beyond (for example, the East German and Czech secret services).

Now pay attention, please, because this is where things get pointedly relevant to current matters. Of course there have always been Kurds in Syria. During the Cold War the Soviets set out to use these Kurds, living in a state with which the USSR was closely allied by the 1960s, to “liaise” with PKK-affiliated Kurds inside of Turkey. That is how the PYD got created, and that it why it has long been “ideologically” associated with the PKK. Soviet aid to the PKK via its Syrian Kurdish agents worked very well. It was designed to create violent havoc up to and including civil war in Turkey (as earlier in Greece), or, failing that to prompt military intervention into Turkish politics, the better to roil relations between the United States and its NATO ally.

The PYD today has a liaison office in Moscow, and there’s no shortage of spite still sloshing around in the halls of the Kremlin after Turkey very publicly bloodied Russia’s nose by shooting down one of their fighters last November. Furthermore, the inchoate mess on the ground in Syria, coupled with various other plausible alternative sources for the weapons, provides Putin with plausible deniability.

Whatever the provenance of the rockets, of course, this is potentially a serious escalation of the broader Syrian war. Some in the White House’s situation room may have convinced themselves that there was nothing they could have done to prevent half a million civilian casualties and refugee crisis of historic proportions. Will they be able to make the same kinds of arguments with equanimity when a NATO ally is fully drawn into the war?

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