Who benefited when Turkey downed the Russian jet?
It may be too early to comment on, but the picture has started to get clearer about who benefited and who suffered as a consequence of Turkey’s downing of a Russian war plane on Nov. 24 for violating its border with Syria.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has avoided the U.S.-led coalition’s air strikes because the U.S. has decided to decrease its sorties against ISIL targets in Syria over of the heavy Russian presence in Syrian airspace in order to avoid another incident, since Russia and NATO are confronting each other in the region. Russia says it hits ISIL targets but NATO sources have claimed most Russian hits were actually on forces fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
The Russian build-up in Syria was already a relief for al-Assad and after the downing of the jet, more Western governments who earlier thought al-Assad must go immediately began to consider al-Assad the lesser evil who could be cooperated with to beat up ISIL. The fact the last remaining rebel forces left the city of Homs on Dec. 9 could be the first gain of al-Assad after Russia’s arrival. It is not easy to forecast what could happen in the long run, since the downing of their jet was actually a scratch in the face of the invincible image of the Russian military, which had reached its zenith during the Ukrainian war and annexation of Crimea, but in the short run, al-Assad will enjoy the situation.
With the downing of the plane, Russia practically forbade Turkey from flying in Syrian airspace. Turkey’s thesis to create an ISIL-free zone, or a safe-zone in Syrian territory, is practically shelved now.
Yet Russia might suffer in the long run. Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev’s words that they could have declared war on Turkey but acted responsibly and refrained was actually a justification for Russian President Vladimir Putin targeting Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan personally - not Erdoğan’s country, which is a member of NATO.
Turkey enjoyed NATO support, which was stronger than expected, perhaps also to compensate for its idle position regarding the Ukraine crisis. The incident allowed the strength of the NATO bond between allies and served as a test case both for Russia and whom it may concern; from British planes in Cyprus to a French aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean and the Canadian frigate in Istanbul, NATO exposed its military presence in support of Turkey.
Iran, as a major ally of al-Assad together with Russia and a major ground force on al-Assad’s side in Syria, has taken the opportunity to legitimize the presence of its Revolutionary Guards there and also attack Turkey because of its policies on Syria and also Iraq, where Tehran has been waging a war of existence.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, is enjoying a comeback as a legitimate, if not legal, partner of the U.S., Russia and al-Assad against ISIL. Before the downing of the plane, Turkey was about to convince its Western partners the PYD was a terrorist organization like the PKK and should not be cooperated with. Al-Assad said in a recent interview that he was providing arms and support to the PYD as the militia force of the Syrian Kurds, whom al-Assad used to deny even delivering national ID cards to before the civil war broke out in 2011.
The U.S. was perhaps the biggest winner of the incident, firstly because Turkish flights became practically impossible in Syrian air space and also because the shelving of the safe-zone demand by Erdoğan was a relief for U.S. President Barack Obama. He was quick to demand a closure of the remaining strip of the border, exactly where Erdoğan wanted a gate into Syria.
Now they will sit and talk one-on-one with the moderation of the U.N. secretary general over the future of Syria like in the Cold War days.
The downing of the plane is likely to bring about an end to the government’s Syria policy, which could be regarded as an important gain for Turkey in the long run.