Russia-NATO tension on Turkey-Syria border

Russia-NATO tension on Turkey-Syria border

Russia is Turkey’s northern neighbor and a serious military confrontation between the two has recently broken out on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. 

The confrontation was confirmed by a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement on the morning of Oct. 5. It said the Russian ambassador had been summoned to the ministry for after an airspace violation by a Russian SU-30 war plane on Oct. 3. Two Turkish f-16s had intercepted the plane and forced it to return. Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu had held telephone calls with his Russian, American, British, French and Italian counterparts and was also due to speak to the German foreign minister and the Secretary-general of the Western military alliance NATO. Sinirlioğlu joined Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan in Brussels on his way back from New York, where he had been for U.N. sessions.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also issued a strong statement against the Russian violation, reminding of Turkey’s rules of engagement about responding to military airspace advances from Syria. “We will warn whoever violates our borders and our airspace in a friendly manner. That is true for whichever country it is, and Russia is our neighbor and friend. There is no tension between Turkey and Russia. The Syria issue is not a Turkish-Russian crisis,” Davutoğlu said. 

Toward the end of the morning on Oct. 5, another statement was issued by Ankara, this time by the Turkish General Staff. The statement was about a MiG-29 war plane that locked its missile radars on Turkish jets for 5 minutes and 40 seconds, as if challenging the Turkish jets to hit, on Oct. 4: The day after Russia’s airspace violation. The military said the nationality of the plane “could not be defined,” which was strange because there are just two countries with Russian MiG-29 fighters on the Syrian side of the Turkish border - Syria and Russia - and the Turkish Air Forces have all necessary Identifying Friend and Foe (IFF) capabilities to detect such details within seconds. Either it was a Syrian jet (and the Turkish Air Force did not apply the rules of engagement if the MiG-29 was in the rules of engagement zone that Turkey announced), or it was a Russian jet testing the patience of NATO member Turkey.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has issued a strong statement giving clear support to Turkey and warning Russia that any violations of Turkish air space would mean violating NATO air space. Considering that Syrian air space is full of U.S., French, and Turkish jets, as well as other members of the coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and now with Russian jets as well, the NATO statement is a daring one. 

The Americans, by the way, with all their satellites and electronic intelligence capabilities, openly said they did not believe Russia was telling the truth when it said the violation was a mistake. Actually, it is worth asking whether it was the Americans who first leaked the violations to the media, as the Turkish government is extremely uncomfortable with any further escalation of tension with Russia - as can be read between the lines of Davutoğlu’s words above. Russia’s energy agreements with Turkey have been boosted under Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, and are now crowned with a Russian nuclear power plant construction in Turkey after extensive natural gas trade. But since the Russians got actively involved in the Syrian civil war and started to hit anti-Assad groups other than ISIL, President Erdoğan’s tone has changed. In Strasbourg on Oct. 4, he strongly criticized Russian actions in Syria, without mentioning the violations that had still yet to hit the press.

The Ukraine crisis, ongoing across the Black Sea to Turkey’s north, has not affected Ankara-Moscow relations so far. But it seems that the Syrian crisis may yet go beyond a Turkey-Russia crisis; it may even embroil NATO if it is not carefully handled.