The downing of the Russian Su-24 by Turkish air forces over the Syrian province of Latakia is the third provocation since the start of Russia’s military campaign in Syria. The first two were the crash of a Russian plane in Sinai and the blowing up of lines supplying Crimea with electricity. For Turkeyб Russia’s campaign in Syria is a threat to its efforts to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. As US President Barack Obama put it, the incident has proved that in Syria Russia is fighting wrong foes in wrong places.
The key result of Nov 24 was that NATO took the side of its member, Turkey, but, on the other hand, it urged both the Turks and the Russians to try to overcome the crisis.
NATO is inclined to believe the Turks, who claim that the Russian plane violated their air space. Even if this happened (Russia’s General Staff and the pilot of the Su-24 deny this), judging by the evidence provided by the Turks, the plane spent in Turkey’s air space no more than eleven seconds and was unable to pose any threat to the country. Even the Americans admit that the bomber was shot down in the territory of Syria. All this proves that it was a well-planned provocation rather than a spontaneous action – especially as earlier Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that he would defend Turkey’s sovereignty from any possible violations by Russian air forces.
And, most importantly, the incident took place just a few hours before presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande were supposed to meet to discuss forming a grand anti-ISIL coalition with Russia. The crash of the Russian plane revised the agenda of their meeting.
The incident has caused “a confrontation waiting to happen.” This is how the British Economist puts it, while BBC asks a rhetorical question “Was it Turkey’s lesson to Putin?” Western media note that the incident was preceded by a number of similar violations both in Turkey and in other NATO member states. Once again, they have mentioned the “dangerous maneuvers” Russian planes are making near the borders of the EU and NATO. In fact, they have prepared their public for understanding the situation. “If you play with fire, eventually you end up getting burned," concludes the Daily Telegraph.
German mass media qualify Putin and Erdogan as outsiders in the outskirts of Europe. They have also called Erdogan a much too hot guy. So, you can see that many in Europe are inclined to see the cause of the incident in the personality of the Turkish president or the mentality of the Turks, in general. To them, the Turks are savages. On the next day after the incident, Erdogan tried to soft-pedal by saying that they didn’t know whose plane that was. If he actually wished to make things softer, he would have said that right after the tragedy. But he didn’t.
In fact, the Turks were very angry to see Russians in Syria and they needed just a pretext for a conflict. In the meantime, what we see in Syria is two coalitions fighting each on its own, there Syrian forces fighting each other and lots of unidentified gangs terrorizing people.
British mass media were first worried to see Putin angry. But later they calmed down and said that there would be no military response from Russia. The most they expected from Putin is to cancel energy projects, to forbid the Russians to travel in Turkey, to start supporting Kurds and to “pay special attention” to Turkey’s allies in Syria. Most of western mass media expect NATO to de-escalate the conflict. And the first to mention this was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the Turkish prime minister and asked him to stop the conflict.
This incident was the first big bump between external forces involved in the Syrian conflict. And most important thing here is that those two forces were not from the West. So, we can see that the West has once again succeeded in bumping the other players against each other.
The incident was not enough for an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia but it clearly showed that the conflict in Syria can provoke conflicts between the countries involved (Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel). Turkey and Russia have different approaches to ISIL, the “moderate Syrian opposition” and the Assad regime. And they have different visions of the future of Syria and Kurdistan.
According to Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian-Turkish relations have been heavily damaged. He said that Russia pinned great hopes on Turkey. Russian-Turkish trade amounted to $30bn a year, mutual investments exceeded $2bn, Turkish goods had 4.6% of the Russian market, the sides had a number of promising energy projects, including Akkuyu NPP. Russia even saw Turkey as a potential member of the Eurasian Economic Union. Now we see how naïve those hopes were.
The crisis has shown that Russia cannot pressure Turkey the way it pressured Ukraine. The Turks control the Bosporus Strait, the shortest way for the Russians to Syria. If they close it, the Russians will have to go all around Europe via Gibraltar, which is controlled by the UK. As far as economic and energy levers are concerned, Russia will hardly apply them.
Now that the West and Russia are in conflict over Ukraine, Turkey has chosen to be anti-Russian – for should Russia lose the war and be parted, the Turks may hope for dominance in the Caucasus, Crimea and Kuban – the territories that once were parts of their Ottoman Empire.
Syria has become a new geopolitical irritant. Turkey regards it as part of its former empire and does not want to see anybody else there, especially Russia and Iran, its historical rivals in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. For the Turks, Russia is a potential threat in the region.
They also realize that today after two years of battles in Ukraine, the Russians are not as strong as they were and may become even weaker now that they are facing the West’s covert confrontation in Syria.
Many experts see Russia’s campaign in Syria as just an attempt to come out of isolation and to find common grounds with the West. Turkey has ruined this plan.
The recent provocations have shown that there will be no new improvement between Russia and the United States as they in Washington cannot excuse the Russians for what they did in Ukraine. The Russians’ attempts to get closer with Germany have also failed. In fact, they in the West do not regard Russia as a great power, so, they see no need in seeking compromise with it. They in the West are also aware of Russia’s economic problems.
So, now we can hardly expect any grand coalition to be formed. Some circles in Russia believed that after the crisis in Ukraine, Russia had a chance to improve its relations with the United States. When going to Syria, the Russians expected that the West would appreciate their assistance and would remunerate them by freezing the conflict in Ukraine and recognizing Crimea. The incident means that the West has not yet decided what to do with Ukraine and how to act in Syria. Russia still has some time for achieving some results in Syria. If it fails, it has one more option – to offer its services in Afghanistan.
As far as Turkey’s interests are concerned, the downing of the Russian plane was a warning that Russia must stop supporting al-Assad. On the other hand, it might be a test to see how Russia would react and what one can do and what one can’t.
On the next day after the incident President Erdogan said that there was no ISIL in Latakia and that the Russians were bombing territories populated by Turkomans. On Nov 20, the Turkish Foreign Ministry asked the Russian Ambassador to explain why Russian planes were bombing villages populated by Syrian Turks (Turkomans). The incident has shown that Turkey is secretly expanding into Syria. And this may be an attempt to see how Russia will react to Turkey’s plans to create in Syria a Turkish zone once that country is divided.