Vladimir Putin
Credit: The Presidential Press and Information Office/WikiMedia Commons

Russia and Turkey just escalated their two-front war over which country will be the big dog in the Middle East. The two rivals have been at this game for a couple of centuries, but it just got a lot more serious this week when Russia introduced jet fighters into the Libyan civil war.

Coronavirus may have shut down Texas beauty parlors and Louisiana bars, stopped international travel, and cleared streets across the globe, but hasn’t brought war to a halt. Rather, Russia and Turkey are in the midst of a multifront proxy escalation in both Libya and Syria.

Russians have long memories. They recall when Imperial Russia fought Ottoman Turkey in the bloody Crimean War. Ottoman Muslim forces fought Christian Tsarist troops on the Black Sea peninsula, where more fighters fell to the Asiatic cholera epidemic than on the battlefield.

Turkey won. Russia today, however, once again occupies Crimea. The 19th-century Crimean War was the crucible in which were forged Russo-Turkish antagonisms and their 21st-century imperial dreams.

Both Russia and Turkey want to take advantage of a dysfunctional and shrinking European Union, a solipsistic America and a China focused on consolidating power in its own neighborhood first. The global pandemic provides an opening for two ambitious nations to both stand their ground and stake new claims.

Syria and Libya may seem like booby prizes, but what happens in Damascus and Tripoli matters. It certainly matters to the victims of indiscriminate killings. People have deeply suffered in Syria, under the brutal Assad regimes and, since 2011, when a Syrian version of the Arab Awakening was quickly quashed. Images of the total destruction of Raqqa and Aleppo look like post-World War II Berlin.

Russians targeted and ran air sorties hitting hospitals, schools, and any infrastructure providing solace and survival. Bashar Assad’s Russian-supported regime sought total annihilation and rebel capitulation. Most of the nation was brought to its knees by Putin and Assad’s one-two punch.

The only hope for normalcy and peace was in Syria’s northeast—a predominantly Kurdish region—where until 2018, well-protected American forces had a minimal presence and maximal effect. It was a relatively safe American military investment for an active role in the region’s future. The U.S. presence guaranteed the safety and security of the region’s toughest anti-ISIS fighters: the Kurds.

What blew-up this accommodation was not a Russian bomb or a Syrian troop incursion. What upset this American humanitarian effort and the fragile balance of power was a single, unexpected and capitulating White House phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The gist of the conversation? America was pulling out; Turkey could move in.

America’s departure was Turkey’s invitation to run amok. The cost? Syrian lives, regional stability, American credibility, allies’ trust and a seriously messed-up neighborhood with no immediate prospect for lasting peace. Russia and Turkey continue their violent geopolitical game in Syria, testing each other’s will to grab what they can and dig in where they must

Moscow and Ankara, fighting for influence, oil and a bigger Mediterranean footprint, have now also squared off in North Africa. Libya is the new theater for both soldiers of fortune and modern imperial forces. Russia’s introduction of advanced fighter planes indicates that things started to go south for Moscow’s ally, opposition leader General Khalifa Haftar.

Two major fighting forces act as Turkish and Russian proxies. One, the U.N.-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, is partly underwritten and fully supported by Turkey and is fighting for dear life. The other is Haftar’s Russian-tied insurgent group with a base of operations in Benghazi. Haftar claims popular legitimacy, seeks international recognition and, until recently, was rapidly closing in on Libya’s capital, Tripoli. The place is a hot mess.

Libyan lawlessness and violence make the country ungovernable. That makes it the perfect place for drug runners, migrant smugglers, arms dealers, oil thieves and marauding men terrorizing innocent citizens.

Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey pump up their respective Libyan teams’ sides and pretend to broker ceasefires. Lulls in battle allow the warring factions to regroup and jockey for international advantage and sympathy in this endless on-again, off-again war.

Vladimir Putin longs for the days of the Soviet Union. Erdoğan pines for the Ottoman Empire’s lost glory. Both leaders are facing political challenges at home as the coronavirus crisis runs rampant throughout their countries. During these unsettling times at home, there is no better distraction for faltering leaders than a foreign war against a traditional foe. Turkey and Russia are just warming up.

Wartime presidents capitalize on national pride and military adventure. The losers of these ill-considered and vain wars invariably are civilians. Last weekend reminded us that Memorial Days come and go, but memories of hardship, horror and war inevitably fade—even as global conflicts flare anew.

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Markos Kounalakis is a Hoover Institution visiting fellow and California’s first Second Gentleman.