Besides clearly demonstrating the utter hypocrisy of both Turkish and Russian actions in Syria, the destruction of the Russian fighter plane by the Turkish Air Force demonstrates the complexity of forming any coalition to defeat ISIS. It is almost impossible to find a formula that fits everyone’s agenda, especially Turkey’s, in Syria.
According to Turkish sources the Russian plane was in Turkish air space along the northern Syrian border for all of 17 seconds. Given the uneven nature of the border at that point it is hard enough to stay on the Turkish side on foot let alone in a jet fighter travelling at more than the speed of sound. None less than Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan recognized this reality in July 2012 when Syrian forces downed a Turkish fighter plane. The BBC reported his comments then that “A short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.” And now? What has changed?
Turkey has a great deal to lose by alienating Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has many levers to use against Turkey if he chooses. For one thing, almost all of Turkey’s natural gas comes from Russia. And more than three million Russian tourists come to Turkey every year, almost filling the massive hotels along the southern coast. In addition, countless Turkish businesses operate in Russia which is also a key market for Turkish exports. Russia could also decide to use this incident as an excuse to annoy Turkey by helping the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS.
So why did Turkey take such a risky step when it could just as easily have overlooked the temporary border violation and sent a sternly worded memo that the Russians would have filed in circular bin?
The most obvious, and least credible, is that Turkey was defending its homeland. Scrambling a few fighters to ‘guide’ the Russian plane out of Turkish air space could have accomplished that. A more credible explanation is that this incident demonstrates the completely different objectives of Russia and Turkey in Syria. Russia has committed money and military might to prop up Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Turkey demands that al-Assad’s departure is a requirement for any settlement.
Rather than focusing on defeating ISIS, Russian planes, for their part, have been attacking those anti-Assad forces, mainly in the north western part of the country, that are friendly with Turkey. This annoys Erdoğan greatly, especially as he considers some of those anti-Assad forces to be distant cousins of the Turks. Therefore, shooting down a Russian fighter plane in that area could be seen as a warning not to attack the Turkmens. A dangerous step, because history has repeatedly shown that Russians tend to react harshly to threats.
Conspiracy theorists, never in short supply in that region, go one step further and say that the attack is Erdoğan’s attempt to derail any grand coalition to destroy the barbaric ISIS forces by making it harder for Turkey’s NATO allies America and France to join forces with Russia against ISIS.
Turkey has a complicated relationship with ISIS, and so far has devoted much more rhetoric than military action against the group. This could reflect Erdoğan’s preference for ISIS rather than the Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, but it also reflects that fact that some of his political base views ISIS positively. Twice in the last month there have been ugly incidents at Turkish football matches when a moment of silence for victims of ISIS attacks in Ankara as well as Paris has been interrupted by a group of fans whistling abuse or shouting loudly “Allah-u Ekber.” Erdoğan’s criticism of this atrocious disrespect was muted at best.
Turkey will go to great lengths to prevent the Kurds in Syria from creating an autonomous region along its southern border even if the Kurds have been the most effective anti-ISIS force. Turkey is already annoyed at American support for the Kurds, and it would be doubly annoyed to see increased support from France and Russia in the name of an anti-ISIS coalition.
Add to this Turkey’s role as a transit point for refugees and you begin to see the volatile mixture that complicates any potential settlement of the Syrian issue. It is no longer just about the Syria we used to know or the future of al-Assad and his clan of Alawites. Now you have to include the contradictory agendas of several different regional and global players – agendas that include sharp religious differences, hopes for political autonomy, and national security.
Three years ago I wrote a post about Dr. Haitham Manna, one of the early opponents of the Assad regime, and how he was strongly opposed to foreign intervention into what he considered a Syrian civil war. His concern was that the foreigners would turn a Syrian conflict into their conflict. How right he was.