A clash between Turkey and Russia was perhaps inevitable. It is now important to make sure this crisis does not escalate or undermine Syria’s embryonic peace process.
The downing of a Russian fighter-bomber by Turkish F-16s has brought the simmering tension between the two countries to boiling point. This will have serious consequences for their bilateral relations, relations between NATO and Russia, and the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has called the Turkish action ‘a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists’ – a sentence which is likely to be met with equal fire and indignation from Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is not known for pulling his rhetorical punches. In the meantime Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has stated that it was his country’s ’national duty’ to defend its airspace. Neither side looks willing to back down.
It is unlikely that NATO would publicly chastise one of its own members for defending its airspace; Turkey has released imagery which, it claims, shows the direct violation of its sovereign territory. Ankara also claims it hailed the aircraft on ten separate occasions, but received no response. However, Turkey’s actions are sure to cause a headache for its allies – NATO will need to make a firm commitment to the Russians that no escalation from any other member of the Alliance will be forthcoming. NATO, for its part, would be glad to see this handled as a bilateral issue between Russia and Turkey, rather than encourage an escalation to the level of collective-defence architectures.
Of course, the nuances of the Syrian conflict should not be ignored. Turkey has been frustrated by repeated Russian military activity against ethnic Turkmen rebel groups, with which Turkey possesses an intimate cultural and linguistic connection, has raised Ankara’s ire in recent weeks. On 20 November, Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to demand that if all such operations did not cease, they would lead to ‘serious problems’.
This is not to suggest that the Turkish decision to down the Russian aircraft was designed as a deliberate response to continued Russian raids against Turkmen groups. But it does contextualise the heightened security environment within which today’s incident has taken place. Ankara’s increasing frustration with Moscow’s military activity has led to what appears to be a hastily taken decision to assert its right to self-defence, ensuring that Russia recognises there is a price to pay for its continued disregard for Turkish sovereignty and Turkey’s allies.
Additionally, the Arab states aligned against Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad – and backing similar rebel groups to Turkey – have come to rue the day the Russians played their hand so forcefully in support of Syria’s beleaguered ruler, all but ensuring his survival. In Riyadh and Doha there are unlikely to be many tears shed for the Russian pilots, and early reactions point to a sense of justice having been served.
Recent demands by the Russians to close Lebanese and Iraqi airspace so that Moscow could operate more freely over Syria have chafed the Gulf States, which view these ‘requests’ as tantamount to that of a playground bully throwing its weight around the region at the expense of the Arabs. Interfering militarily in Syria was always going to have its price and the hope in the Gulf is that a more chastened Moscow will think twice before acting so brazenly in the Arab world. While the Gulf is prepared to be diplomatically flexible with Russia, there is little wish to compromise on the military front: Russian military actions will be matched by increased Gulf and Turkish support to rebels in northern Syria. Escalation on one side is met by escalation on the other – indeed, this is largely why the war has dragged on for so long and why Russia should expect a bumpier ride from now on.
Of course, the downing of one military aircraft is unlikely to change the game strategically for Moscow, although it might make the Russians think twice about targeting Turkmen militias near the border for now. The policy for Russia is simply to defend Assad until such time as an accommodation with regional powers and the West can ensure a smooth transition that preserves Russian interests in the country.
What is most bizarre about this spat is that it is between two countries intimately involved in Syria, for whom Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) is not the primary enemy. Their clash was likely because the keystone of both countries’ policies relies on the political and strategic foothold of the assortment of rebel militias, (some secular, some Islamist, some hardliner). Simply put, Turkey wants the rebels to gain power in Syria and Russia is expending all possible resources to prevent that from happening. Daesh, meanwhile, sits as an amused observer – capitalising where it can.
Much fiery rhetoric will come from both states in the coming days as to who aids ‘the terrorists’ more than the other. But it is important not to get sucked in by either side’s political grandstanding: neither has helped Syria towards peace and security. And neither of them should pull in friends into a further escalation. It is important that allies of both countries work to cool the situation down, and that the determination to work on the dual goals of defeating Daesh and also ensuring the removal of Assad from power, and reaching a sustainable Syrian political settlement are not derailed.
Michael Stephens is a Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at RUSI.