Russia today slaps sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for the November 24 downing of a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border.
While I do not agree with the actions Turkey took, it does deserve looking at why it did so.
The shooting down by Turkish forces of a Russian Su-24 warplane follows rising tension between the two countries over a continuing Russian bombing campaign against ethnic Turkmen villages in north-western Syria, close to Turkey’s border.
Plus Syria has become the arena for the long-simmering regional contest between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies on one side, and (Shia) Iran on the other. Russia sees a vital national interest in sustaining the regime in Damascus; Turkey in overthrowing it. Sunni states also want to see Isis defeated, but not at the price of a victory for Tehran, Russia, and Assad. And here are just a few of the dizzying complexities of the conflict.
Perhaps the West was so quick to privately criticize Turkey because it is partly to blame. If the United States had responded more effectively to Russia’s intervention in Syria a couple of months ago, Russia would have been deterred from further provocations.
Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane on November 24 thus should not really have come as a surprise as there was a clear build-up of tension.
Already when Russia annexed
Crimea in March 2014, it recalled the Russo-Turkish War and the Treaty
of Kucuk Kaynarca.
And after its capture in 2014, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan underlined
that Turkey would never recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
It isn’t just rhetoric that has heated up since Russian fighters marched into Ukraine. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is supplied by the ports of Novorossiysk, Odessa, and Sevastopol, has dominated the Black Sea, engaged in a number of radar-locking incidents with Turkish and NATO ships. The most worrying came in March 2015, when Russian planes, during a practice aerial bombardment run, mock targeted the USS Vicksburg missile cruiser and the Turkish TCG Turgutreis frigate, which were in the area.
To avoid confrontation in the Black Sea after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Turkey redirected some of its Black Sea squadrons to South Africa and the Indian Ocean, which caused a former Turkish navy admiral to publicly protest the weakening Turkish naval presence in the Black Sea.
Over the following months, Russian presence in the Aegean Sea intensified. It launched frequent eastern Mediterranean patrols and stepped up its activities at the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria. By the summer of 2015, with NATO countries increasing their aerial campaigns in Syria (and with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia, losing ground), Moscow believed that its access to Tartus was in jeopardy. Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, commander in chief of the Russian navy, warned that the “base is essential to us; it has been operating and will continue to operate.”
And so, following
preparations throughout the summer, in late September, Russian forces arrived
in Syria with an official mission of supporting Assad’s forces, relieving the
Russian air base in Latakia and naval base
in Tartus. Russia’s entry into Syria was perhaps
more serious for Turkey than Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Turkey’s 1939
takeover of Hatay Province from Syria was
the only expansion of the Republic of Turkey after its borders were
consolidated. Further, Turkey backed some of the rebel groups that Russia was
now fighting, including those consisting of Turkmen from northwestern Syria.
By fall, Russian warships were cruising around Tartus and Latakia, around the Black Sea, out of the existing Russian base in Armenia, and along the Aegean Sea. On October 3, then a Russian fighter jet entered Turkish airspace during a bombardment mission in Syria. Two Turkish planes quickly escorted the jet back into Syrian territory, and Ankara summoned Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Russia claimed that the violation was a navigation error.
However, one day later, on October 4, a Russian MiG-29 approached Turkish airspace from Syria and then locked its radar on two Turkish jets cruising the Turkish side of the border. On October 5, the show repeated, with a Russian plane locking its radar on eight Turkish jets, again cruising within Turkish territory.
Turkey called an emergency NATO meeting, after which NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said; “this does not look like an accident, and we have seen two of them.”The White House soon issued a statement in which it referred to repeated Russian violations as a “provocation.” Secretary of the State John Kerry emphasized that the recent incidents could lead to escalation. In response, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed a joint Turkish-Russian working group, consisting of high-level military attendance, to better coordinate both countries’ aerial operations in Syria. Despite these, there was no indication of whether the Russian side got the message or whether it was even conducting these violations deliberately.
The Turkish narrative of the Turkey’s downing on November 24 states that the Russian jet was unidentified and was mistaken for a Syrian jet. On November 26, Erdogan argued that Turkey’s response would have been different if the jet had been identified as Russian. Russia’s story is that the two Turkish planes that shot down the Russia craft were in an ambush posture, indicating that the incident was planned, something that could be possible, but then it also might simple be a Russian invention. The Russian military also trotted out a man it claimed was the surviving crew member; he denied receiving any warnings to leave Turkish airspace. Never mind that the orchestrated-looking video showed him only from behind and failed to conceal him from appearing to read his answers from cue cards.In fact after the downing of a Russian SU-24 bomber, a myriad of fake theories was spawned by the Russian media.
In Russia, outrage about the crash is enabling the Kremlin to expand on its Soviet-style narrative about the West spreading global instability, sponsoring a fascist war in Ukraine, and seeking to steal Russia’s natural resources. Moscow is tapping into not only its perceived status as the “third Rome”—after the second Rome, Constantinople—but a centuries-old sense of Russian exceptionalism.
In turn, in the wake of the recent downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and, even more importantly, the recent Paris bombings, there had been talk of a common cause being formed by the West and Russia against ISIS. This would-be alliance might’ve been perceived by Turkey to threaten its interests insofar as it was positioning itself to be geo-economically more important to Europe than Russia. Taking a page out of Russia’s “Russkiy Mir” (Russian World) playbook in Ukraine, Turkey had been making noises about defending the “Turkic World” and its Turkmen “compatriots” (presumably Turkish-backed rebels) against Russian airstrikes next door in Syria. These sentiments, combined with Russian annexation of Crimea, serve to make the European security architecture unstable.
But coming back to why I do not agree with what appears to be Erdogan’s dreams of empire, and why this can become perilous for Turkey.
Through its efforts to oust Syria's non-Sunni president, Bashar al-Assad, and build a Muslim Brotherhood-type of Sunni Islamist regime in Damascus, Turkey has become everyone's foe over its eastern and southern borders -- in addition to having to wait anxiously for the next Russian move to hit it -- not knowing where the blow will come from.
The confrontation with Russia has given Moscow an excuse to augment its military deployment in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean, and weaken allied air strikes against Islamic State (IS).
Russia has increased its military assets in the region, including deploying S-400 air and anti-missile defense systems, probably ready to shoot down the first Turkish fighter jet flying over Syrian skies.
Waiting for Turkish-Russian tensions to ease, and trying to avoid a clash between NATO member Turkey and Russia, U.S. officials have quietly put on hold a request for Turkey to more actively to join the allied air missions in Syria against IS.
For the US and its allies, the overarching interest is the re-establishment of regional stability and the defeat of the Isis jihadis. But this is a conflict that defies partial solutions. An eventual peace will demand the unraveling of the confessional and the temporal — that religion surrenders to realpolitik.
The Gordian knot is the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but a settlement would have also to acknowledge Russia’s interests and Turkey’s fears.