ISW: By Genevieve Casagrande, Christopher Kozak, and Franklin Holcomb with Kimberly Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella
Key Takeaway: Russia is waging a multi-front campaign against Turkey in order to weaken NATO in line with its strategic objectives.
The use of a high-end Soviet-era MANPADS against a Turkish helicopter in southeastern Turkey on May 13, 2016 could indicate that Russia is providing meaningful military support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency. The incident, if indeed a Russian escalation, is yet another Russian infringement of a sovereign NATO partner. Russia targeted the same pressure point by overflying Turkey with combat aircraft in November 2015, leading Turkish President Recep Erdogan to authorize the shoot down of a Russian plane. The U.S. rushed to de-escalate rather than backing Turkey in November, a signal that Erdogan does not have unequivocal NATO support. The provision of military support to the PKK thus offers Russia a surgical option to escalate against Turkey without provoking a response from the U.S. and NATO, especially because U.S. strategy against ISIS relies upon the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which has strong links to the PKK. It is a dangerous possibility that Russia will cultivate its relationship with the PKK in ways that undermine the U.S. and Turkey, even if the recent MANPADS event does not represent this inflection.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) crossed a phase line in its insurgency against Turkey on May 13 by using Russian SA-18 Igla MANPADS to shoot down a Turkish AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter in southeastern Turkey. The Turkish General Chief of Staff confirmed the crash and the death of both pilots on May 13 but initially attributed the incident to a “technical failure.” The PKK claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted to its website and uploaded a high-quality video to YouTube clearly showing the shoot down on May 14. The appearance of such a sophisticated weapons system in the hands of a U.S. designated terrorist group within a NATO partner is alarming. The attack is the first evidence of the use of a MANPADS by the PKK in Turkey, reflecting a dangerous escalation in the group’s military capabilities and intent to wage a sustained insurgency. The last documented use of MANPADS by the PKK reportedly occurred in northern Iraq in 1997, although several unverified allegations of their use have surfaced in the intervening years.
Turkey escalated its counter-insurgency campaign against the PKK in the months prior to the use of the MANPADS. The Turkish Armed Forces began conducting major clearing operations in the majority-Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey in August-September 2015 after the PKK resumed its local insurgency and seized several urban centers. These operations have expanded over time. Most recently, Turkey deployed 20,000 soldiers and police officers to Mardin and Hakkari Provinces in March 2016 as part of a new wave of operations to expel the PKK from several district capitals. Turkish Gendarmerie and Special Operations Forces also continue to conduct operations against the PKK throughout the surrounding countryside. This mounting pressure has provoked intensifying retaliation from the PKK. The PKK conducted at least four successful VBIED attacks targeting Turkish security forces in Istanbul, Diyarbakir, and Mardin Provinces in the past two weeks, an escalation of its operational tempo from previous months.
It is possible the MANPADS used on May 13 originated in Syria or Iraq. Syrian Arab Army and the Iraqi Army maintained Igla-class MANPADS in their inventories, and the systems have been photographed in the possession of both ISIS and opposition groups fighting in the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Forces (YPG) could have acquired this weaponry as spoils of war and transferred the weapon to the PKK given the close operational and ideological links between the two groups. The MANPADS available in Iraq and Syria are often relatively old or nonfunctional, however, and it has been rare to see a system used by the combatants on the ground, let alone successfully.
It is more likely that the PKK acquired the weapon from an external actor. The careful manner in which the PKK used and claimed credit for the MANPADS indicate that it was an intentional escalation of the PKK’s insurgency rather than an unplanned use of an available system. The PKK’s video was shot at a perfect angle, in the manner of a training video, and posted in a way that suggests that the MANPADS usage was intentionally recorded for dissemination. The shooter also demonstrated precise training – he waits for the helicopter to finish suppressing fire, turns on the battery, gets missile lock on the aircraft, and launches the weapon within the required 90 seconds as his companion counts time. The PKK previously upgraded its video equipment and capabilities in March 2016, as indicated by the videos on its YouTube site. The overall increase in capabilities the PKK has demonstrated since March 2016 indicate that the group is intentionally escalating its insurgency with the purpose of reaching a wider audience. The entrance of an external benefactor is one possible explanation for this phase change.
Russia is a likely candidate to have provided such a game changing capability to the PKK. Russia seeks to undermine NATO through a global campaign against the alliance and a multi-pronged effort against Turkey. It already supports the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which Erdogan views as an extension of the PKK and an existential threat to the long-term unity of the Turkish state. Russia’s support to the YPG is not critical for the success of pro-regime military operations in Syria. Russia is therefore likely supporting the YPG primarily to provoke Turkey on a strategic level. It is possible that Russia expanded its support to the YPG to include covert military support to the PKK. Russia may have chosen to do so in response to perceived escalations by Turkey in Syria over the past several weeks, or to deter Turkey from undertaking future escalation. Support to Kurdish elements is also a direct way to weaken NATO’s southern flank, independent of the conflict in Syria. The following sections explore the Russo-Turkish competition and Russia’s global campaign against NATO in more detail.
Limited Russian media coverage of the MANPADS incident has emphasized Erdogan’s responsibility for provoking the situation. Anna Glazova, Deputy Director of the sate-sponsored Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, highlighted Erdogan’s role in oppressing the Kurds after the MANPADS use. Glazova even called for an evaluation of Turkey’s “treatment of its citizens at the international level” in reference to the UN. This framing is consistent with Russia’s attempt to isolate Erdogan diplomatically and cast Turkey as the aggressor. Russian media such as Sputnik News previously distributed stories claiming that Saudi Arabia and Turkey have already delivered surface to air missiles to rebels in Syria, justifying Russian retaliation.
The Russo-Turkish Competition in Syria
Russia has waged a concerted campaign against Turkey from Syria as part of its wider strategic objective to weaken NATO. The Russian Armed Forces repeatedly violated Turkish airspace violations among other provocations since the start of its air campaign on September 30, 2015. The conflict dramatically escalated on November 24, 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had violated its airspace along the Syrian-Turkish Border. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to this act of defiance with a multifaceted campaign of punitive measures. Russia imposed sanctions and travel bans that sharply limited its economic ties with Turkey. The Russian Armed Forces deployed an advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system to its base at the Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Syria, contesting the airspace over large parts of southern Turkey. In Syria, Russia shifted its air operations to target opposition ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in northern Syria that provided free access to arms, supplies, and reinforcements from Turkey. These strikes also targeted frontline positions held by Turkish-backed opposition groups, facilitating the loss of terrain at the hands of both the YPG and ISIS. Russia also dispatched military personnel to scout the Qamishli International Airport and Kuweires Airbase in northern Syria in a clear threat of future military deployments along the Syrian-Turkish Border.
Russia expanded its political and military outreach to the Syrian Kurds in late 2015, weeks after the downing of the Russian jet. The Russian Armed Forces began providing support to YPG-led operations against opposition groups in northern Aleppo Province in early December 2015. Russia reportedly also began deploying small numbers of ground forces to support the Kurds in Aleppo Province by February 2016, possibly to serve as forward air controllers for the YPG. These outreach efforts bore fruit in mid-February 2016 when Russia facilitated significant YPG advances against Turkish-backed opposition groups in northern Aleppo Province. The Russian operation was designed to buffer a simultaneous advance by pro-regime forces attempting to encircle and besiege Aleppo City. Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the political body that directs the YPG – also established its first foreign office in Moscow on February 10 with at least tacit support from the Kremlin.
Russia continued to provoke Turkey despite a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria that began in February 2016 and resulted in a notable decrease in combat operations on the ground. Russia used the start of UN-backed negotiations to end the Syrian Civil War as a platform to apply political pressure on Turkey on the international stage. Russia repeatedly pressed for the inclusion of the Syrian Kurds in the Geneva Talks while calling for the exclusion of Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham and other opposition groups backed by Turkey from the political process. Russia also attempted to target Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam – another major Salafi-Jihadist group backed by Saudi Arabia – by submitting an unsuccessful proposal to designate both organizations as ‘terrorist organizations’ before the UN Security Council, thereby criminalizing external support to the groups. Britain, France, and the U.S. blocked the proposal. Russia simultaneously provided continued military support – albeit at a lesser threshold – to pro-regime forces as they carried out numerous attempts to complete the encirclement of the opposition in Aleppo City, which remain Turkey’s primary source of leverage in the Syrian Civil War. These operations include a recent attack against the vulnerable opposition-held Handarat District of Aleppo City on May 12.
Turkey appears be providing increased support to its allies in Aleppo to counter Russian- and Iranian-backed regime operations. Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham launched a counter-offensive that recaptured the town of Khan Touman southwest of Aleppo City on February 5. The attack inflicted major casualties on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and marked a notable setback for the Syrian-Russian-Iranian coalition fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Russia may have interpreted this loss as a new escalation by Turkey. Turkey likely provided military and financial support to Ahrar al-Sham and other opposition groups that seized Khan Touman, coordinating through the reconstituted Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room. Turkey also conducted a cross-border raid using Special Operations Forces into Northern Aleppo Province on October 7 as part of efforts to clear ISIS from the Syrian-Turkish Border. These incidents may have created an incentive for Russia to pursue other options in order to retaliate against Turkey.
External supporters of the Syrian armed opposition have threatened to deliver MANPADS into Syria as a “Plan B” if the Geneva negotiations to end the Syrian Civil War fail. Saudi Arabia has been the most vocal proponent of MANPAD deliveries, but Turkey is likely also considering the option. Turkey and Saudi Arabia already coordinate to deliver aid to Syrian armed opposition groups, and have discussed how to escalate their involvement in the past. Images from the battlefield reveal that a variety of opposition groups remain in possession of these anti-aircraft systems, although it is unclear how many remain functional. Opposition forces were able to down a regime fighter jet over the town of Kafr Naboudah in northern Hama province in March 12 with alleged MANPADS. Some of the MANPADS displayed by opposition forces are models not carried by the Syrian military, suggesting that the opposition obtained the weapon from external benefactors. A prominent opposition group that operates north of Damascus also uploaded a video of MANPADS training on April 19, stating that it expected to receive shipments soon. It is possible that Saudi Arabia and/or Turkey provided initial shipments of MANPADS in order to gauge Russia’s response.
The timing of the use of a MANPADS in Turkey is therefore significant in the Syrian context. It occurred three days before a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna to discuss the political process. The ISSG meeting was a success for Russia. The ISSG members states did not agree to resume the talks, but neither did they abandon the process. The ISSG instead reaffirmed the August 1, 2016 target date to “reach agreement on a framework for a genuine political transition”. This outcome – a protraction of diplomatic stalemate – is ideal for Russia because it sustains the diplomatic track despite growing American unease with the situation on the ground. The ISSG member states also committed to conducting air bridges and air drops of humanitarian aid if the UN is not granted access to any designated besieged area by June 1. This agreement is a concession from Russia, but it does not challenge Russia’s freedom of action or its priorities in Syria. Instead, it commits ISSG member states to a course of action that remains on a humanitarian plane.
It is possible that Russia provided small numbers of MANPADS to the PKK and trained personnel to fire and record them in order to send a warning to Turkish President Recep Erdogan and deter Turkey from further action in Syria. Russia may have intended to divert the attention of Turkey away from northern Syria by providing the PKK with sufficient capabilities to escalate their local insurgency and force the Turkish Armed Forces to deploy additional assets towards the threat. Forcing Turkey to confront the risk of an escalated PKK insurgency could encourage Turkey to withdraw its support from possible Saudi plans to escalate in Syria, as intimated on May 17 after the ISSG meeting.
Russian Escalation with Turkey and NATO beyond Syria
The Kremlin is finely tuning where, when, and how it escalates against Turkey. The deliberateness of Russian escalation in southern Turkey contrasts with a more nuanced policy in other regions. Russia has intensified its military support to the neighboring state of Armenia amidst rising tensions with Azerbaijan – a close Turkish ally – in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Russia signed an agreement with Armenia to establish a regional joint air defense system on December 23, 2015. Azerbaijan and Armenia later resumed large-scale military operations along the border of Nagorno-Karabakh on April 1, breaking an uneasy ceasefire that has largely held since 1994. On February 18, the Russian government announced that it had supplied Armenia with a $200 million loan with payment deferred until 2018. Russia is a major arms supplier to both sides in the conflict, but its support heavily favors the Armenians. Russian military forces stationed in Armenia regularly conduct training exercises, including exercises with the Armenian military. Russia most recently began joint flight exercises with the Armenian military on May 12 that included more than 200 personnel and over 20 aircraft and helicopters. The exercises caused concern in neighboring Turkey.
Russia has meanwhile portrayed Turkey as an aggressor amidst the hostilities, stating that Turkish support for Azerbaijan constituted “not appeals for peace but for war.” The combination of rhetoric incriminating Turkey and simultaneous Russian military investment is standard Russian methodology for exploiting sub-state conflict.
Russia purposefully took steps to de-escalate the conflict. . The co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, met with the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Vienna on May 16 in order to discuss the escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh beginning on April 1. The leaders agreed to increase the strength of the OSCE monitoring mission along the frontline of Nagorno-Karabakh and pursue further peace talks in June. Meanwhile, the Armenian government approved a bill for discussion in parliament that would officially recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence from Azerbaijan on May 5. The Armenian government rejected further consideration of the bill on May 16, but they maintain the ability to reconsider the vote at any time. The Kremlin did not publically support the bill, signaling its intent to support de-escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s decision to deescalate likely represents a calculation that the costs of increased hostilities in the region are too high at this time.
The current de-escalation may actually favor Russia by enabling the Kremlin to choose the timing of future escalation. Russia is using its involvement in the talks to present itself as a global peacekeeper and an effective partner for the West, despite being a primary enabler of the conflict, a pattern that it has exploited in Ukraine as both a belligerent and a guarantor of the ceasefire. Russia is meanwhile increasing its capability to act against Turkish interests through the Nogorno-Karabkh by training with the Armenian military.
Crimea and Ukraine
Turkey is responding to Russian aggression by cultivating other partners who are hostile to Moscow, and particularly, Ukraine. Part of this is defensive. Turkey is attempting to respond to increasing Russian military capabilities on the Black Sea that threaten its northern flank. Turkish President Erdogan called for increase NATO presence in the Black Sea, warning that NATO’s “absence” had almost turned the Black sea into a “Russian lake” and claimed that “if we don’t act now, history will not forgive us.” This rhetoric comes as NATO considers forming a Black Sea Fleet, comprised of Turkish, Romanian, and Bulgarian vessels and potentially supplemented by Ukrainian and Georgian ships in order to counter Russian military presence in the Black Sea.
Turkey and Ukraine conducted joint naval drills on April 6 in the Black Sea. The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement on May 16 designed to expand military education and troop training efforts and mutual defense planning. On May 13Turkish DefenseMinister Ismet Yilmaz, Ukrainian Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak, and new Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman met in Kyiv on May 13 to discuss plans to enhance security in the Black Sea region and improve military cooperation. The Azeri Minister of Defense also announced at a meeting with his Turkish and Georgian counterparts on May 16 that a military cooperation agreement between the three countries was being discussed that would take military cooperation “to a new level.” Turkey, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia may be laying the groundwork to establish a regional military alliance to fill the existing regional power vacuum and prevent Russian expansion if NATO decides against creating a Black Sea Fleet at its July 8 – 9 summit in Warsaw. Action to counter Russia in the Black Sea outside the NATO construct risks escalation with Russia that the U.S. cannot control.
Turkey is also cultivating Ukrainian support in other ways that are less directly tied to defending the Black Sea. The Turkish government gave Ukraine five mobile military hospitals during President Poroshenko’s visit to the Ukrainian Flagship Hetman Sahaidachniy on March 10 as it concluded exercises with the Turkish Navy. Ukraine and Turkey are also in talks to expand economic ties.
Ukraine has an ethnically Turkish minority population, the Crimean Tatars, that is both a cause and a pretext for support. The Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people, are a largely pro-Ukrainian population with an inherent cultural distrust of Moscow after centuries of war and the 1944 mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union. Russia stepped up its repression of the Crimean Tatars in occupied Crimea in early February in an effort to consolidate control of the peninsula. Russian authorities in Crimea banned the Mejlis, the representative bodies of the Crimean Tatars, on April 26 after previously labeling them as “extremist” organizations. Turkey immediately condemned the decision and pledged to support the “just struggle” of the Turkic Crimean Tatars against Russian oppression. Turkey has historically prioritized supporting Turkic people outside the Turkish state. Russia continued to target the Crimean Tatars, including a large-scale detention of roughly 100 Tatars on May 06. The European Union adopted a resolution in support of the Crimean Tatars on 12 May as Russian security forces conducted a series of raids and arrested at least five Tatars including the Vice Chairman of the National Mejilis. Erdogan later stated that Turkey refused to recognize the annexation of Crimea and “our main priority in the conditions of the Ukrainian crisis is to secure the peace, safety, and well-being of our brothers the Crimean Tatars” on May 15. Turkey’s rhetorical support to Crimean Tatars is incentive for Russia to punish Turkey on other fronts.
Russia has demonstrated its ability to undertake precise escalatory and deterrent actions based on a strategy to achieve intended effects on a global scale. American responses do not match Russian aggression in either scale or sophistication. The U.S. and NATO must stop visualizing the individual provocations by Russia in a vacuum, but rather recognize these converging threats as a global strategy to weaken NATO. Russia has identified the seam between Turkey and its fellow NATO members, and is using a series of escalatory steps to weaken the alliance. The synchronization of Russian escalatory actions against NATO allies in various theaters from May 13 – 16 indicates a concerted effort to exploit seams in different theaters in an effort to establish itself as a global hegemon. The willingness of NATO to defend Turkey and its other partners in the region is once again in question.
NATO is erroneously parsing Russian escalations in Northern Europe as different from those in Southern Europe. Russian aircraft have repeatedly performed dangerous and provocative maneuvers against U.S. military forces in the Baltic region as it continues its campaign of military intimidation and hybrid warfare against the Baltic States. The Russian campaign against Turkey is linked to this aggression on the northern European front. Russia’s intervention in Syria is a direct challenge to Turkish interests. Russia is repeating this method by overflying Turkish airspace. It may have introduced MANPADs to the PKK, the Kurdish group waging a war against Turkey. Russia has waged a sophisticated information campaign against Turkey, portraying Turkey as a regional aggressor to deter decisive NATO action while Russia targets Turkish strategic priorities in Syria. This information operation may be contributing to U.S. inaction. Continued NATO inaction in response to Russian aggression against Turkey risks sacrificing the ability to shape future Turkish responses.
In any scenario, the potential provision of MANPADS and other advanced systems to insurgents inside of Turkey should present a red line for the U.S. and NATO. Hopefully, this line has not yet been crossed. The sophisticated Russian information campaign to implicate Turkey as a regional aggressor has nonetheless begun to take hold, raising concerns that NATO would be unwilling to respond to a Turkish invocation of Article Five. Russia is incentivized to press its advantage. The failure to respond to these provocations will only further motivate an already-emboldened Russia to reshape the current world order in its own favor. The U.S. and NATO risk losing the ability to shape Turkey’s response to Russian aggression by failing to act. It is both likely and dangerous that a unilateral Turkish response will fragment NATO and jeopardize American strategic interests over the long term.
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