Turkey and Russia have avoided all-out war, despite Turkey's full-scale offensive against the Moscow-backed Syrian regime.
Why did Russia think twice about escalating the Syrian conflict into a direct confrontation with Turkey?
It turns out that Turkey has a cheap and effective new drone program.
Peace in Syria will no doubt be welcomed. And military analysts are raising their eyebrows at the news that there are some wars that Russia is apparently not willing to fight.
The Turkish military's devastating display of power against the Syrian army last week — which saw the destruction of hundreds of regime tanks, artillery pieces and armored vehicles — came from a cheap but effective domestic drone program that NATO officials say has changed the military equation against Russia in Syria's Idlib Province.
The confrontation began in late February. Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian air support and "special forces advisors", began to push into Idlib, the last major area held by rebels against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's regime. Syria's civil war has lasted nearly a decade.
After regime forces took control of the critical crossroad town of Saraqeb, the Idlib rebel "pocket" began to collapse, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees trudging north through the snow towards safety in Turkey.
In theory, Turkey and Russia could have gone into an all-out war
Turkey's response was to send thousands of regular army units into Idlib to prevent the pocket's collapse. That sparked a battle between the Syrian regime and Turkey. Hundreds of regime troops were killed. There were scores of nightly airstrikes on Syria's tanks, artillery and armored vehicles.
The conflict was a dramatic turning point: Turkey's actions were more than a mere exchange of fire with hostiles just across the border. It looked more like a full-fledged act of war. Turkey using multiple assets in its military, and inflicted heavy damage on the Syrian military.
The mini-war was, in theory, a dangerous gamble, because it threatened to pit Turkey's military — the largest among NATO's European partners — directly against the formidable Russian military and air force, which backs Syria. That conflict, if escalated to its logical extent, could have resulted in all-out war between Turkey and Russia.
Russia should have won this one — but it didn't
In theory, Russia would win such a conflict.
Yet Turkey won this round.
Turkey has a new ace up its sleeve, one that forced Russia to think twice about escalating against President Recep Erdogan's government, military sources told Insider.
Turkey's offensive was conducted with about 100 domestically produced drones launching cheap guided munitions with deadly efficiency.
"The Turks have been developing their own drone program for almost a decade now and Idlib highlights how successful they have been," said a NATO military official who has been regularly based in the region over the past ten years.
"By domestically producing them with commercially available technology, they managed to build a very large and effective fleet far more cheaply than purchasing them from the US or other allies," the official said. "And because of their conflict with the [Kudish separatist movement] PKK, they've had years to practice and hone their capability without concerns about human rights conditions."
A US ban on drones somehow worked to Turkey's advantage
The source points to the US policies restricting sales of armed drone technology to Turkey out of concerns the technology would be used on Kurdish targets as critical to the development of a domestic program. By 2007 the Turkish military had tired of limitations on what it could buy from the Americans. Disappointed by the poor performance of Israeli drones on the market, it then began to develop their own program.
The Turks established an aerospace firm in 2009, Baykar, under the control of President Recep Erdogan's son-in-law. Baykar developed the Bayraktar TB2 drone, a medium range drone that could spend 24 hours over a target. By 2015, the TB2 was test firing domestically produced weapons and was deployed for the first time a year later targeting PKK targets.
"The MAM-L [drone] stuff they deployed in Idlib worked spectacularly. It's cheap, easy to make and clearly doesn't miss," said the NATO official.
The source is referring to the MAM-L SMART MICRO MUNITION, a small, guided anti-armor bomblet with a range of about 10 KM and a highly accurate laser-GPS guidance system that directs the bomb to within a meter or so of its target.
"Dropping these bomblets on Syrian regime tanks all night got Putin's attention"
While Turkey guards the exact cost of producing the Bayraktar TB2 as a state secret, it sold 12 drones and three ground command centers to Ukraine last year for $69 million. At less than $6 million per drone, the TB2 is about a third of the cost of the similarly capable US produced Reaper MQ-9, which retails for US allies at about $16 million a piece.
Turkey's President of Defence Industries İsmail Demir, in a 2016 panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, lauded the U.S. restriction on drone sales for pushing Turkey to become an independent UAV manufacturer. "I don't want to be sarcastic, but I would like to thank [the U.S. government] for any of the projects that was not approved by the U.S. because it forced us to develop our own systems," Demir quipped, adding that Turkey no longer wanted U.S.-made armed drones.
"Flying dozens of these drones over Idlib and dropping these bomblets on Syrian regime tanks all night got [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's attention," said the NATO official. "Sure in a direct confrontation, Russia could use its airpower and standoff munitions like cruise missiles to breakdown Turkey's air defenses and drone command and control, but at a cost that would be inconceivable in a conflict over Idlib. Turkey knows it can't force Russia out of Syria as much as they might like to, but they did reinforce that Putin and Assad cannot force Turkey out of Idlib. So it's back to agreements and discussions for now."
Today, Turkey and Russia agreed to another ceasefire in Idlib, with Russian troops patrolling a corridor about 6km on either side of the disputed M4/5 highway that is a critical link between the regime-controlled cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
The peace will no doubt be welcomed. And among military analysts, so will the news that there are some wars that Russia is apparently not willing to fight.
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