Nov 24 will become a “black date” in the modern history of Russian-Turkish relations, a date that may mark an open confrontation between the two neighbors in the Black Sea-Caucasus region. Throughout the civil war in Syria, both Russia and Turkey tried not to cross the dangerous line. Nov 24 spoiled their efforts.
The details of the shooting down are not known yet. Russia’s Defense Ministry says that the Russian Su-24 (from the Syrian Khmeimim Air Base) was shot down by a Turkish F-16 air-to-air missile when it was flying 6,000 meters high 1 km far from the Turkish border.
The Turks’ hostility towards Russia’s actions in the region was evident. They turned hostile on Sept 30, when Russia dealt the first air strikes on ISIL – for they took this campaign as a challenge.
So, things were bound to explode. In early October, Turkey launched an anti-Russian campaign. On Oct 17, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promised to shoot down any planes that would cross the country’s border. He said that on the day following the shooting down of an unidentified drone near the Syrian border. Oct 3-10, the Turks kept alleging some violations by Russian planes. They claimed that two Russian planes had violated their border, three times the Russians carried out some dangerous maneuvers near their planes and thirteen times they came very close to them. In the meantime, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Kemal Aydin expressed satisfaction with the results of his meeting with Deputy Commander of Russia’s Air Forces Sergey Dronov.
The consequent pause was caused by parliamentary elections. Nov 1 was a crucial day for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party. The victory inspired him. And he was ready to act. He just had to wait till the end of the G20 summit in Antalya.
The Russian plane was shot down in the region populated by Turkomans. Earlier, the Turks specified their “red lines” in Syria. Among them were the inadmissibility of any actions against the rights and interests of the Turkic tribes living in the northeast of the country and the inviolability of the Turkish border. On Nov 24, those two lines crossed.
The Turks chose a very appropriate time for expressing their indignation. On Nov 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin was paying a visit to Tehran and one of the topics was enlarged Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria. On Nov 24, Putin was already in Sochi to meet the Kind of Jordan. Nov 25 was the date of the 5th meeting of the Russian-Turkish joint strategic planning group. After the incident, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled his visit to Istanbul.
This is also the last stage of the preparations for a US-Turkish campaign in Syria. There the allies are planning to create a 98-km wide buffer zone so as to prevent ISIL fighters from crossing the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turks’ goals here are vague. Their priority is not to let the Syrian Kurds get stronger. They have long looked for a partner in the north of Syria and have finally found one – Turkomans. So, now they are actively arming them against the Syrian Kurdish YPG force.
The Turks are annoyed that the Americans regard the Syrian Kurds as the only force that can fight ISIL in Syria. They are also worried to see the Russians openly supporting YPG. So, for the Americans they have an alternative to Kurds – Turkomans – while for the Russians they have some tougher measures.
The Americans may well have a hand in the shooting down of the Russian warplane. In fact, after the Russians’ triumphant strides in Syria, they need something to chill them.
In fact, Russia has been presented a bill for its actions in Syria. It is not yet known if the Turks did it alone or together with the Americans. But in any case they have challenged us and we will have to react. The Nov 24 incident may have very serious consequences.
The gauntlet has been thrown but we must not rush to take it up. The stakes are too high for us to be emotional. The bridges have not been burned. In fact, they are just starting to burn.
Of course, neither Russia nor Turkey are planning a new Russian-Turkish war. In the days to come the sides will try to settle the conflict. This will be hard but not impossible to do.
In Dec, the Russian and Turkish presidents are to meet in Kazan in the framework of a regular conference of the Russian-Turkish cooperation council. The conference may become crucial for the future of Russian-Turkish relations – though President Putin’s last statements have left little hope for quick improvement.
Middle East Bureau of EADaily