Thursday, November 26, 2015

Complicating a complex situation - Boaz Bismuth

by Boaz Bismuth

Is Turkey's shooting down of a Russian fighter jet linked to Russia's bombardment of Islamic State targets in Syria?

The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by two Turkish planes near the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday has prompted many diplomats to wonder if there is cause to fear escalation. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin was promising retaliation when he said that the incident would have grave consequences for Russian-Turkish relations. According to Putin, the jet had not crossed the border or threatened Turkey at all. Moscow and Ankara have conflicting interests in Syria: Putin is protecting Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to see the regime fall. 

There is a big difference between the two sides when it comes to the Islamic State group too. While Putin is promising to join the French in eradicating Islamic State, Turkey has very ambivalent feelings toward the radical Islamist organization. 

In other words, Moscow has no problem with its relations with Ankara worsening on the diplomatic front, but militarily is something else entirely. Syria is complicated enough already and presents the Russians with enough fronts. 

Turkey, on the other hand, claimed Tuesday that it had given the Russian pilots 10 warnings in five minutes. Ankara was also quick to gather its NATO allies, and even appeal to the United Nations. Turkey might see itself as a world power, but when it comes to a stand-off with the Russians, it prefers not to be on its own, so it is making use of all its alliances. 

Tuesday's incident makes the already complicated situation in Syria even worse. It's clear to everyone that things are very crowded there, and it was good that Israel opted to coordinate with Russia when it began operating in Syria. What happened on the border between Turkey and Syria is the exact scenario we feared would happen on our own border with the Syrians. 

The current matter between the Russians and the Turks in Syria is not the first. On Oct. 3, a Russian plane that violated Turkish airspace was forced to withdraw after the Turkish Air Force sent fighter jets up. On Oct. 16, a UAV was shot down over Turkey, and both Ankara and Washington announced it was a Russian drone. Moscow denied it. 

Russia's latest airstrikes in Syria also infuriated Ankara, because they targeted the region where the Turkmen community, a protege of Ankara, lives. The airstrikes only dialed up the tension between Moscow and Ankara, and some have even linked them to the Russian plane being shot down. 
Russia's presence in Syria is a source of great consternation to the Turks. Until the Russians arrived, Turkey pretty much controlled what went on in northern Syria. It could also purchase oil from Islamic State without interference, and according to some reports, Erdogan's own son is involved in the shady deals. 

Recently, following the terrorist attacks in Paris and the need to fight Islamic State, Paris and Moscow have become allies (Putin's terminology). French President Francois Hollande, who met with U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday, is now expected to meet with Putin. Ankara doesn't like the cooperation between Moscow and Washington at all, and can be expected to undermine it. It has already started trying to do so.

The incident on Tuesday also reminds us that an international coalition against Islamic State is still far off and that the situation is not ideal. The Turks prefer to safeguard their interests rather than wipe out Islamic State. The fact that the bulk of Turkey's attacks in Syria target its Kurdish enemies, rather than Islamic State, attests to that. 

Tuesday's incident was extremely serious, but there was no lack of incidents back in the Cold War, either, including planes shot down on both sides. Putin won't seek to escalate the situation with Turkey, because it would only complicate Russia's own battle to keep Assad in power, and the NATO allies' target is Islamic State, not Russia. For now, the Turkish scheme to keep the Russians at a distance is not expected to work.

Boaz Bismuth


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