Turkey needs to turn a new page on Syria

Turkey needs to turn a new page on Syria

The downing of the Russian jet by Turkey on the Syrian border on Nov. 24 has not only turned up the heat amid political tension around the Syrian crisis, it has also accelerated developments about the future of the country, removing certain scenarios from the table.

It is possible to list the consequences of the jet downing on Syria as follows:

* The U.S. and NATO will not get into a conflict with Russia (and Iran) over their presence and actions in Syria. But they will not let Russia dominate Syria through the protection it gives to the Bashar al-Assad regime, using that as a way to make a major comeback to the Middle East over 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

* Russia’s “unchallengeable” reputation has been damaged by the downing of its war plane. Politicians in Ukraine have started to ask questions about why they don’t down a Russian plane too, as nothing happened when the Turks did the same.

* The U.S. and NATO have given full support to NATO-member Turkey, not only in words but also in practice, by reinforcing their military presence close to Syria and in Turkey’s strategic İncirlik Air Base near the Syrian border. That show of determination also demonstrates a difference in the stance of the Western alliance over NATO-member Turkey and Ukraine.

* Perhaps in order not to directly confront either the country or NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan as his target over the downed plane, rather than Turkey. He has started to highlight claims that Erdoğan has somehow been involved in the illegal trade of oil by ISIL into Turkey. This has been denounced by Erdoğan as “slander.” He also said that if Putin is able to back up his claims then he will resign, while asking whether Putin will also resign if he cannot prove his allegations. The situation is almost turning into a kind of blood feud between the two strongmen, as the two countries’ foreign ministers are getting ready to meet next week over the issue.

* The oil smuggling by ISIL over the Turkish-Syrian border has also been raised by U.S. President Barack Obama, who said he has “repeatedly” told Erdoğan that he should close the border. Obama particularly mentioned the 98 km band of the Turkish-Syrian border that Turkey has been asking the U.S. to turn into an ISIL-free zone, if not a safe zone.

* It is possible to think that after the Russian plane incident it will now be more difficult to impose a safe zone in northern Syria. As a result, Obama could ask Erdoğan to forget about it and seal the border instead, in order to stop all speculation about jihadists getting assistance from within Turkey.

* Actually sealing the border completely – which is one of the scenarios considered by the Turkish military for some time - could cut the links between certain units in the Turkish security system and their jihadist connections in Syria. Ankara could be asked to secure it as a response to the full solidarity shown by its Western allies.

* If that happens, it would mean an end to Turkey’s Syria policy followed since the outbreak of the civil war there in 2011. It would mean opening a new page with NATO and the EU as a strategic choice.