Tag Archives: Turkey

Mission creep

I’m in Moscow this week, and seeing that my hotel had some free copies of the newspaper Kommersant lying around, I picked one up to see what was in the news. The number one story was yesterday’s meeting in Sochi between the Russian and Turkish presidents. Conveniently, Kommersant included the full text of the agreement. This included the following points:

• ‘Both sides confirm their commitment to preserving Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity.’
• ‘They underline their determination to fight terrorism in all its forms.’
• ‘Starting at 1200 hrs on 23 October 2019, units of the Russian military police and the Syria border service will be deployed to the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border beyond the limits of Operation Peace Spring. They will assist the extraction of units and weapons of the YPG (i.e. Kurdish forces) to 30 km from the Syrian-Turkish border , which must be completed within 150 hours from 1200 hrs, 23 October 2019. From that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will commence up to a depth of 10 km from the border.’

The Russian government will no doubt portray this as proof of the advantages of ‘jaw-jaw over war-war.’ Through diplomacy, they have ensured that the Turkish military offensive will come to an end, and that there will be no humanitarian disaster of the type which so many in the Western press had argued would be the likely result of Turkey’s actions. They have also gotten the Turks to confirm Syria’s ‘political unity and territorial integrity, and found a way of bringing the Syrian-Turkish border back under Syrian control. These can all be seen as significant achievements.

But they come at a price. The Russian military mission in Syria at first had clear goals: destroy terrorist groups and prevent the collapse of the existing regime. These goals have the advantage that one can easily determine when they’re achieved. But now Russia has taken on a new and completely open-ended commitment – guarding the Syrian border. How will we know when its purpose is achieved? We won’t.

There’s a phrase for this sort of thing – mission creep. It’s not very desirable. In the past I’ve suggested that the Russians might have a better understanding than their American rivals of the first principle of war – selection and maintenance of the aim. Perhaps I was wrong. Russia, it seems, is just as prone to mission creep as anyone else. It looks like the Russians might well be stuck in Syria for a very long time to come.

Friday Book #7: WWI in the Middle East

Given that this week is the 100th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Turkey at Erzerum, it is a happy coincidence that this Friday’s book is Roger Ford’s 2010 work Eden to Armageddon: World War I in the Middle East. This is popular rather than scholarly history, which is to say that it is based entirely on secondary sources. But whereas most histories of WWI in the Middle East (very broadly defined as meaning the territories of the Ottoman Empire) focus almost exclusively on the clash between the British and the Ottoman Empires, Ford also devotes considerable space (about 80 pages) to the Russo-Turkish front. If you are looking for an introduction to Russia’s war against Turkey, these 80 pages are as good a starting point as any.

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Victory anniversary

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest Russian victories of the First World War – the capture of the Ottoman fortress of Erzerum on 16 February 1916.

The Erzerum complex, consisting of a core of 11 forts and batteries with two more forts on each flank, and with a garrison of 50,000 men and 300-400 guns, was the centrepiece of the Ottoman line in Anatolia, Eastern Turkey. Against it were 80,000 troops of the Caucasus Army of the Russian Empire. Thus, although the Russians had an advantage in numbers, it was not at all the 3-1 majority normally considered necessary for a successful attack, let alone an attack against such a powerful objective.

The Caucasus Army had begun an offensive against the Turkish defences in Anatolia on 10 January 1916. The idea was to inflict a serious defeat on the Turks before reinforcements could arrive from Gallipoli, which had recently been abandoned by the British. Six days after the offensive began, the Turks abandoned their positions and withdrew towards the protection of Erzerum. On 19 January, the Chief of Staff of the Russian First Caucasian Army Corps, Major General V.G. Lastochkin, telegraphed the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, asking for permission to assault Erzerum on the run with the forward elements of his corps before the Turks could organize their defences. The Grand Duke rejected the proposal, considering it too dangerous, and the Russians waited until they had brought up all their forces before preparing their next move.

At the end of January, the Commander of the Caucasus Army, General N.N. Iudenich, decided to risk an all-out assault on the fortress. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was reluctant to give his approval, but eventually relented and on or around 1 February gave Iudenich permission to proceed. On 11 February 1916, the assault began.

The Russian point of main effort was an attack across the Kargapazar ridge north of the fortress. The Turks had left this mostly undefended due to the mountainous terrain and the harsh winter conditions, which they felt made the ridge impassable. The Russian soldiers were, however, able to cross the ridge in force, and by 14 February had outflanked most of the fortress’ defences. The next day, the Turks began to abandon Erzerum, and on 16 February the Russians entered the city. “The Lord God has given such great help to the super-valiant forces of the Caucasus Army that after an unprecedented five-day storm Erzerum has been taken,’ the Grand Duke telegraphed to the Tsar, adding that his army had taken 14,000 prisoners.

After Erzerum the Caucasus Army continued to advance westwards into Anatolia. The Ottoman Army never fully recovered. Had the revolution of 1917 not intervened, total Russian victory over Turkey would have been assured.

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich reviews Ottoman flags captured at Erzerum
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich reviews Ottoman flags captured at Erzerum

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The Grand Duke reviews Russian troops at Erzerum.

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