The shooting down of a Russian bomber by the Turkish air force leaves no doubt that the crisis in Syria has become the biggest challenge to international security in decades.
Rescued pilot of the Russian Air Force's Su-24 jet, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, center, talks to journalists in Latakia, Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti
It will take a while before there are enough facts to make conclusions about the recent incident in the area near the Turkish-Syrian border. However, one thing is already very clear: The actions by the Turkish Air Force have raised the stakes in Syria and the Middle East to the maximum level, threatening to undermine the entire structure of international security.
Was it a call, perhaps a wrong call, by a local Turkish commander or a calculated decision by Ankara? Was it a provocation? How will Russia respond? What is NATO’s role? What about an international coalition to fight the Islamic State? Was this the first step on the road to nuclear Armageddon? The whole Middle East is waiting nervously…
Tragic patterns in Syria
One of the iron rules of international diplomacy in this kind of situation is to calm down before making the next and potentially fatal move. Before proceeding one needs to understand the bigger picture: not only how the Russian bomber was shot down, but also the causes and repercussions of the incident.
We should all wish good luck to decision makers in Moscow and elsewhere in tackling this immense and very important task. It is safe to assume that tremendous efforts to gather and analyze information are currently underway. The results of this process will soon be revealed, but it is already obvious that this incident will have three types of consequences.
First, for the war in Syria, second for Russian-Turkish relations and third for relations between Russia and the West. Let’s examine what we can expect from these three types of consequences.
Lately one could detect a tragic pattern happening in Syria: Once it seems that a situation could not become more complicated and dangerous, then an event occurs that demonstrates that the abyss of this war has no bottom. The same seems to be true following the incident involving the Russian bomber.
The Russian General Staff has already announced that Russia would be making several moves in Syria to change the way that air raids are conducted. First, all Russian bombers will be escorted by fighter jets. Second, the Russian cruiser “Moskva” (Moscow) will provide full air defense for the area at the Turkish-Syrian border.
Notwithstanding the small size of the Russian military forces in Syria, these kinds of measures will undoubtedly cause very serious problems for the Turkish air force, not only in cases of further attempts to attack Russian planes in Syrian airspace (this is what Russia claims happened on Tuesday), but more importantly in the case of a Turkish bombing campaign on Kurdish forces in Syria.
In general, the political stance of the Kurds has improved following Tuesday’s incidents. In Syria they represent a serious military threat to the Islamic State and are the closest thing to “moderate opposition” that can be found there.
Even before the downing of the Russian bomber one could expect any day that Assad would start negotiations with Kurds in order to create a partnership to fight the Islamic State and to show international critics that political reconciliation in Syria is actually possible.
Now, the chances for such talks have increased. One of the perks Kurds could receive for their involvement is better military equipment to fight not only the Islamic State, but also Turkish forces.
One more tragic note after the Russian plane was shot down was the attack on the two surviving Russian pilots by Turkmen militants fighting against Assad. The Russian General Staff reported that no power fighting the Islamic State indicated that this area was being held by “moderate opposition” forces.
Nevertheless, some experts believe that these fighters enjoy Ankara’s support. It is possible that the strike of Russian bombers against them might be the main reason for the attack by the Turkish air force. In any case Turkmen militants proved their “moderate” stance by shooting at parachuting Russian pilots, thus carrying out an outright violation of international humanitarian law.
Partnership goes sour
The next set of repercussions stemming from Tuesday’s incident involves Russian-Turkish relations. It has already been announced that Moscow has ceased military cooperation with Turkey, but it is well known that during last several years both countries developed cooperation on various fronts, especially in energy. It is not a bad assumption to suggest that these projects will be curtailed until some understanding on the Russian bomber is reached.
Will it impact Russia’s economy? There are no doubts that it will. Projects that supply Russian natural gas to Europe through Turkish territory will become especially difficult. However, it is important to keep in mind that Russia is working to increase energy supplies to East Asian markets. Now, decision makers in Moscow have one more reason to speed up the diversification of their natural resource clients.
However, Turkey still needs natural gas for its economy. The first obvious candidate to replace Russia as the main exporter to Turkey is Iran. Such cooperation, however, is impossible both from political and infrastructure standpoints. Politically, Iran and Turkey are on opposite sides of the spectrum, not only in Syria but also on many other issues.
What is more important is that there is no infrastructure for securing deliveries from Iran. Experts doubt that after years of internal troubles and international sanctions that Iran is capable of drastically increasing its export capacity.
We should recall that Russian specialists signed a $20 billion contract to build a nuclear plant in Turkey. It is hard to imagine how Turkey could nullify this contract without causing financial harm to itself. Turkey needs this nuclear facility.
The same pattern holds for any type of economic cooperation between the two countries: The essence of any cooperation is that it is mutually beneficial and curtailing it would bring harm to both sides. The question is, which side will suffer more. Whoever it was in Turkey that made the call to shoot down the Russian bomber seemingly posed this question.
The bigger picture
The bomber was shot down the same day that President Hollande and President Obama held talks in Washington to discuss forming an international alliance against the Islamic State. After the talks President Obama, aware of what happened in Turkey, noted that Russia might still be a part of this alliance. Obama also mentioned that it was important that Russia and Turkey be in contact with one another to "take measures to discourage any kind of escalation."
In general the American response to the incident has been toned-down. First, it was portrayed as a matter not connected with the fight against the Islamic State and then Turkey’s right to protect its airspace was highlighted. No accusations, treats or bellicosity.
There are no doubts that Turkey, Russia, the United States and NATO will collect enough evidence to find out what happened on the Turkish-Syrian border. The question remains, however, of what will be publicly acknowledged.
President Putin is known for being deliberate in his political actions. In seeking Russian retribution it is crucial if the actions of Turkish air force are seen as a Turkish decision or as a move coordinated with its Western partners. The latter might result in a new level of confrontation between Russia and the West.
It is important to note that throughout the Syrian crisis not all moves on the ground have been called by Washington and other Western capitals. Far from it. Sometimes, even when the United States was trying hard to change the course of events it eventually followed the “lead” of its supposedly lesser partners.
In any respect, the shooting down of the Russian bomber was the loudest possible warning for all reasonable players in the Middle East and beyond: the Syrian crisis must end. Only the future can tell if this warning will be heard.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.