With the Syrian skies crowed as ever with planes from dozens of countries primarily fighting the Islamic State (IS), an “accident” was bound to happen. However, the jury remains firmly out whether Turkey was right to shoot down a Russian jet straying seconds into its airspace or if it was a disproportionate move made with a bigger picture in mind.
Jets flying at super-sonic speeds can cover kilometers in seconds and the notion of border lines and airspace zones can be a murky affair, even for Turkish jets. The downing of the Russian jet comes at a sensitive conjecture when a sense of coalition between Russia and the US-led coalition was forming and there were tentative but encouraging steps at reviving the peace process in Syria.
The vicious Paris terrorist attacks shortly after the bombing of a Russian airliner flying over Egypt had introduced a sense of a broader perspective to fighting IS as well as kick-starting talks at an elusive political transition in Syria.
Whilst the events that led to the downing of the Russian jet are widely disputed between both sides resulting in an escalating war of words between Turkey and Russia, Turkey could have easily held fire and opted for a strong diplomatic protest.
However, Turkey remains at odds with Russia over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian military intervention that has revived Assad’s fortunes, even as Russia has also attacked IS positions.
Not only was Turkey already angered by Russian attacks on Turkmen rebels close to the border but Russia has brazenly intervened literally on Turkey’s doorstep and sphere of influence.
No doubt Turkey wanted to send a strong message to Russia that it was not bluffing, it would protect its areas of interest and that it remained a strong player in the Middle East.
Turkey wants a resolution to the Syrian war but it can ill-afford a resolution which it doesn’t have a strong hand in. for example, Turkey has made it clear that it cannot accept an IS collapse at a cost of further strengthening Syrian Kurdish forces.
Syrian Kurdish forces have largely closed the border doors to IS with only one stretch of the border remaining that Turkey has insisted should be enforced as a buffer zone. With so many players in the mix, there are eyes firmly on the future ramifications as much as the short-term battle against IS and Assad.
Directly or indirectly, Turkey has a major hand in the Syrian war with the large porous border that is difficult to control acting as the gateway for so many forces including IS. The last stretch of IS border control can be easily sealed with a coalition of Syrian opposition and Kurdish forces, but of course it would effectively mean that the north of Syria would be more or less controlled by the Kurds that perhaps for Turkey poses a much bigger dilemma than the IS presence it can somewhat contain.
Turkish shooting of the Russian jet complicates NATO relations with Russia and opens the door to further escalation. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner and Russian President has already vowed serious consequences including cancelling join projects and introducing a visa system between the countries.
Russia has also deployed its most advanced air defense system, the S-400, as well as deploying the Moskva cruiser just off the cost of Latakia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to downplay the incident by suggesting that Turkey would have taken a different course of action if they had known it was a Russian jet. However, any sense of reconciliation was quickly lost as Putin continued to demand an apology that Erdogan has refused and ratcheted his rhetoric.
Whilst NATO and other powers will ensure calm for now, it leaves little margin for error in the future.
First Published: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc