Syria turns into Turkish-Russian battlefield

Syria turns into Turkish-Russian battlefield

The shooting down of a Russian warplane on Nov. 24 marks a first in many aspects. First of all, it is the first Russian warplane downed by a NATO country since the 1950s, and the first shot down by Turkey since the alliance was founded in the late 1940s. It also marks the first time that two external factors with different objectives in Syria have directly confronted militarily since the unrest broke out in early 2011. 

The seriousness of the incident was immediately apparent, with Turkey launching a diplomatic campaign to inform world leaders and other key countries about how and why the attack was launched against the Russian jet. It started by informing the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia, and then called on the NATO Council to meet urgently on the same day. Turkey sought the support of its NATO allies and a statement of solidarity in the face of increased Russian and Syrian threats against its border security. 

Turkish leaders also convened a security summit late yesterday after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu re-emphasized Turkey’s determination to keep its border security intact and to look after Turkmens who have been under heavy attacks over the past week.  

Moscow’s response was harsh and multifaceted. Russian President Vladimir Putin described the action as a “stab in the back” by “accomplices of terrorists.” He also claimed that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was shipping Syrian oil through Turkey to finance its operations, in a very direct accusation against the Turkish government. 

Putin’s words were followed by the cancellation of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Turkey, which was scheduled to take place on Nov. 25 in Istanbul. This cancellation is a clear sign that Moscow has no intention of sitting around the same table with the Turks at this moment and establishing a communication channel. What’s more, Lavrov called on the Russian people not to travel to Turkey because of the terrorism threat, in a concrete sign of what Putin suggested: This incident will have “serious consequences” on bilateral relations. 

As is well known, Ankara and Moscow have developed a very unique relationship over the last decade, increasing the bilateral trade volume to nearly $35 billion, with a joint objective of making it $100 by 2020. This multidimensional relationship has paved the way for Turkish businessmen and constructors to benefit from the lucrative Russian business environment, while millions of Russians have for years chosen Turkey as their top tourism destination. 

It is obvious that yesterday’s incident will deal a great blow to all these aspects, with concerns that it will take a very long time before relations can be restored. It could also be argued that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s scheduled visit to Moscow to meet Putin to discuss future phases of bilateral relations will be canceled if the two sides fail to contain the crisis in the coming period.

However, the greatest danger still lies in Syrian territories, where Russian, Turkish, and other anti-ISIL coalition countries’ warplanes are running wild over the tiny Syrian airspace. The Syrian-Russian bloc is carrying out its own military operations in order to strengthen the authority of President Bashar al-Assad in areas under his control, also trying to push back all local forces fighting to topple both ISIL and the regime from surrounding areas. 

This is why Russian warplanes were conducting attacks very close to the Turkish border: In order to let the Syrian army regain control of strategic points in northwestern Syria. This was particularly important because it will have to negotiate a ceasefire with opposition forces in the New Year, as part of the Vienna agreement. 

On the other hand, the anti-ISIL coalition - led by the U.S. and with the participation of Turkey - will also continue military operations it started for the creation of an ISIL-free zone between Mare and Jarablus. This will surely not be to the advantage of the Syrian regime, and some suggest that the recent Russian-Syrian operation in northwestern Syria also aims to slow down this U.S.-Turkish initiative. 

Overall, it may be said that if Turkey and Russia - as well as other militarily involved countries - do not find a way to defuse tension, the Syrian theater will likely transform into a battlefield where the Turkish and Russian militaries will even more frequently confront each other. This is simply not in line with international efforts to resolve the Syrian problem peacefully and through diplomatic means.