Wrestling with the Russian bear

Wrestling with the Russian bear

Tension between Turkey and Russia over Turkey’s downing of a SU-24 Russian jet last week is likely to persist for a while despite Ankara’s efforts at damage control. 

Hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his regret over the incident for the first time, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for sanctions against Turkey, including a ban on specific goods and labor contract extensions, while even demanding an end to charter flights from Russia to Turkey. It is not certain whether Putin will accept the olive branch and meet with Erdoğan to discuss the situation face to face at the Paris climate talks on Nov. 30.

As economically interdependent neighbors, both sides have the capacity to inflict damage upon each other, with Russia having the upper hand in the equation. When the optimum outcome is to de-escalate the tension as soon as possible, the two leaders’ inclination to personalize the conflict to appeal to their domestic audience thwarts efforts at a thaw.

Considering the precarious situation in Syria, there is a growing risk that Turkey, facing a revenge-seeking Russia, may end up in a war of attrition that will produce no clear winner – other than the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Indeed, having been positioned in opposite camps regarding the future of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Turkey have already been engaged in a proxy war in Syria since the war started in 2011.

Yet, at least until the downed jet, both sides largely succeeded in compartmentalizing relations, restricting their differences over al-Assad to the confines of the Syrian conflict, without damaging mutual interests in other fields.

This proxy war entered a new phase on Sept. 30 when Russia decided to step up its military presence in Syria. Since then, Moscow has started directly threatening Turkish interests by attacking all rebel groups on the ground – not just ISIL, but also Turkish-backed militias/rebels.

However, the issue at stake today goes far beyond Turkish sympathy for the Turkmens, who are regarded as ethnic kin and who have been suffering under heavy Russian bombardment in Bayırbucak for two weeks. What haunts Turkey more, however, is the possible loss of a ground force that Turkey has promoted as an alternative to the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) in combating both ISIL and al-Assad. 

The Turkmen militias constitute the major component of Turkish plans to secure an ISIL-free zone along its border – a project that Turkey has never abandoned. Contrastingly, Ankara was very heartened at recent U.S. declarations of a joint effort to seal off the 98 kilometers of ISIL-controlled territory along the Turkish border. This area not surprisingly corresponds to the Jarablus-Azaz line and would effectively prevent the unification of the Syrian Kurdish cantons. 

Therefore, for Turkey the red line was not the slaughtering of Turkmens but the risk of the PYD capitalizing on the Turkmens’ defeat and expanding westward to fill the vacuum.

Notwithstanding the statements made by then-PM Erdoğan in 2012 that “a short-term violation of airspace can never be a pretext for an attack,” Turkey shot down a Russian jet due to its violation of Turkish airspace for 17 seconds. From the perspective of international law, it was legal, but it was also a political choice. 

Turkey’s decision will certainly have consequences, affecting not only Turkey but also the unfolding of the Syrian conflict.

Indeed, Russia immediately started taking punitive steps against Turkey, imposing sanctions on imports and halting major investment projects. Turks traveling to Russia are being denied entry, tour operators are canceling reservations to Turkish hotels, and dozens of trucks carrying goods are stuck at border checkpoints and in ports.

Leaving aside the economic cost of sanctions, a scarier scenario is playing out in the energy sector. If Russia, Turkey’s major supplier of natural gas, closes the tap as it did for “technical” reasons during the Ukraine crisis, it will be very hard and costly for Ankara to find an alternative source in the short run.

Looking back, perhaps Ankara is having second thoughts about the costs and benefits of downing the jet. Especially in Syria, the Turkish move seems to have proved quite counterproductive. Bombing raids targeting the Turkmens have intensified, while securing a buffer zone seems almost impossible, now that Russia has deployed S-400 missiles to Latakia to control all of Syria’s airspace. Besides, the Kremlin will doubtlessly hold grudges against Turkey and play the Kurdish card whenever it sees fit. 

On the bright side, however, Turkey has rediscovered the importance of alliances. The staunch NATO support for Turkey against the Russian violation of its airspace, however, should not be mistaken as carte blanche, as NATO members prefer to frame the issue as a matter between Russia and Turkey. Simply put, they are not willing to antagonize Russia at a time when there is a much more imminent threat, ISIL.

Thus, the de-escalation of the crisis is crucial in terms of focusing all the energy and resources on combating ISIL but, realistically, who’s actually on board?