The US investigative journalist Robert Parry has made an astonishing claim – and one that has gone completely unnoticed.
He is reporting that the Russian government has warned Erdogan that Russia is prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons to defend its Syrian strike force from Turkish attack.
Parry’s exact words are as follows:
“A source close to Russian President Vladimir Putin told me that the Russians have warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Moscow is prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons if necessary to save their troops in the face of a Turkish-Saudi onslaught.
Since Turkey is a member of NATO, any such conflict could quickly escalate into a full-scale nuclear confrontation.”
Generally I would be skeptical of such a story from an anonymous source. However Parry is a journalist of the highest reliability and integrity so there can be no doubt he actually has been told this by a real source.
Of course it is possible the source is making the story up, or that he is not as close to Putin as Parry believes.
However on 11th February 2016 Russia’s Security Council held a meeting the public report of which is unusually terse, whilst on the same day the Russian military reported to Putin about a series of military exercises arranged at short notice in their southern military district, which look like they were intended to prepare the Russian military for rapid action at short notice against Turkey should the need arise.
If a warning really was given it might have been given either on that day or possibly on the day after, to coincide with the military exercises whose meaning in that case would not be lost on either the US or the Turks.
The meeting of the Security Council (whose importance I discussed here) would in that case have been convened to discuss and authorise it.
The fact Obama telephoned Putin a day later on 14th February 2016 might also be connected to the warning, if it really was given.
Both the Turks and the Russians would surely have informed the US of such a warning. It would be entirely understandable in that case that the US President would want to discuss it with the Russian President. In fact it would be astonishing if he did not want to.
If it was the warning Obama and Putin discussed, then that might explain why the US and the Russians are giving such completely different accounts of the conversation.
Neither side would want to make the warning public – something which would escalate the crisis to stratospheric levels – and each would want to concoct a cover story to hide what was really discussed, which given the circumstances and the urgency they might be unlikely to coordinate with each other. That might explain why the accounts of the conversation differ so much.
Against that it must be said that it is by no means unusual for Russian and Western governments to publish radically different accounts of conversations Russian and Western leaders have with each other.
All this it should be stressed is speculation, though as is apparent it is consistent with some of the diplomatic and military moves.
If such a warning really was given it would not be the first time the US or Russia have threatened to use nuclear weapons.
The US for example warned Saddam Hussein in 1990 that it was ready to retaliate with nuclear weapons if he used chemical weapons against their troops in the First Gulf War.
However a threat to use nuclear weapons is one that is never made lightly. If it really was made it shows how fraught the situation in Syria has become.
If the Russians really did make such a threat then it would be a further reason why the US and its European allies would be urging Erdogan to act with restraint, and would be counselling him against plunging into a war with the Russians in Syria.
Confirmation that the Western powers are warning Erdogan against an invasion of Syria has now also come from the Financial Times (see “Turkey and Saudi Arabia consider Syria intervention”, Financial Times, 18th February 2016):
“The US is seeking to rein in its allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia from military action in Syria if a ceasefire planned for today in the bloody civil war fails.
Despite mounting regional frustration over Washington’s allegedly passive stance on the five-year-old conflict the Obama administration and other western powers are worried that direct military interventions could lead to an escalation of the conflict and a dangerous clash with Russia.
“Are they going to deploy troops there? Not if we can help it, ” said one senior Nato diplomat.””
Each day now provides further news of advances by the Syrian army and its allies in northern Syria.
The very latest information is that the last major rebel held town in Latakia province has been recaptured by the Syrian army, and that the Syrian army is just a few kilometres away from the city of Idlib.
Slowly but surely the trap around the jihadi rebels in Aleppo is closing.
Meanwhile – whether because of warnings from Moscow or Washington or for some other reason – the Turks and the Saudis have so far not matched their rhetoric with action.
The much discussed Saudi aircraft deployment to the US airbase at Incirlik has turned out to be much smaller than initially reported, and may not actually have taken place.
The Turks are publicly sticking to their position that they will not send their troops into Syria unilaterally – which could be taken to mean they will not invade Syria unless they have US agreement and unless the US contributes ground troops to the invasion force.
Turkish action so far has been limited to cross-border shelling of Kurdish forces near Azaz and demands the Kurds stay away from Azaz, which is near the Turkish border and which the Turks say they want to make part of a buffer zone.
Even these moves have been too much for some of Turkey’s NATO allies, provokingcriticism by some NATO states of Turkey for its shelling of the Kurds, though claims the UN Security Council has passed a Resolution condemning Turkey’s actions are untrue.
Interestingly the Western powers seem reluctant to endorse Turkey’s claims the Kurds of Iraq and Syria – as opposed to the Kurds of Turkey – were behind Wednesday’s terrorist attack on a military convoy in Ankara (see this discussion here), whilst Turkey’s response to the attack was to bomb Kurdish targets in Iraq rather than in Syria.
The situation is still very tense and it is premature to say that the crisis – if one exists – is past.
Whether because of Russian threats to use nuclear weapons or because of calls of restraint from the West and possibly from his own military or for some other reason, the signs for the moment however point to Erdogan backing off.
With every day that passes without a Turkish ground invasion the prospects of it happening grow less. The next few weeks should decide the issue.