To understand why the Turkish air force shot down the Russian jet on Nov. 24, it is necessary to look into the major Russian-Turkish differences over Syria.
Photos of Lt.Col. Oleg Peshkov, left, and sailor Alexander Pozynich are placed at a monument to Soviet Officers with flowers and paper jet outside Russian Army General Staff headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015. Peshkov was a pilot of Russian Su-24, which was shot down by Turkish air forces and Pozynick took part in a rescue operation, both were killed. Photo: AP
With Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber near the Syrian border on Nov. 24, Turkish-Russian relations have seen another serious setback. The partnership was not exactly in the best shape before, but this latest incident leaves no doubt that the crisis in Syria has become the biggest challenge to bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara.
In order to figure out the main cause of this incident, one should understand the very nature of the Syria crisis.
We are in the fifth year of the Syrian civil war and we know that from the beginning the Western alliance (especially France and Turkey) aimed to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the support of regional players.
However, while the Assad regime has maintained its grip on power with strong support from Russia and Iran, the territorial integrity of the country is in ruins, with the country currently divided into three and half parts.
The “half” part is very important, because it comprises opposition forces, which are different from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Kurds and Assad’s forces. This opposition includes the Free Syrian Army, Syrian Turkmens and many others. Among them are the Army of Conquest, which was formed at the beginning of 2015 by the unification of Al-Nusra, the Syria branch of Al-Qaeda and Ahrar Ash-Sham. This group could pose a threat to the survival of the regime.
Moreover, there is another interesting phenomenon: ISIS, which has not been fighting against Assad as actively as it is supposed to be. Indeed ISIS, which is fighting against the Kurds, is giving the international community a legitimate reason for the foundation of Syrian Kurdistan by boosting the U.S. Kurdish corridor project: the establishment of a Kurdish corridor in the north of the country, which would lead to the Mediterranean.
A Kurdish corridor, which would have open access to the sea, is a must for keeping the Kurdish state(s) alive and transmitting the region’s energy sources to international markets while bypassing Turkey. The neighboring Iraqi Kurds have already made huge progress in developing oil production, with more than 30 big energy companies from the U.S., Europe and Russia now operating in the region.
Moscow rides to Assad’s rescue
Meantime, Assad’s position has started to crumble, with government forces losing large chunks of territory during the summer of 2015, especially to the Army of Conquest. This left Assad’s troops vulnerable to a severe blow from the north, and until relatively recently the fall of Damascus looked like a distinct possibility.
At this point, Moscow, seeing the possibility that the Assad regime might collapse, made a strategic move to accelerate its military presence in Syria.
As in the case of other involved parties, by using ISIS as an excuse, the Kremlin found the opportunity to follow its own policies despite the claims of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who compared the anti-ISIS struggle with the anti-Hitler coalition of 70 years ago.
His goal seems to be building puplic support around the world and ensuring a rapprochement with Europe after the sanctions imposed by the West over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
In reality, it is no surprise that Russia has started to attack not only ISIS but other opposition forces in the north of the country that are threatening the Assad regime. This is understandable for Russian interests in the region, which include two bases in the area: Tartus and Latakia.
Moscow is aware of the fact that both Iraq and Syria are finished and a new era is about to start with the birth of new states in the Middle East. Therefore, it is striving to establish a secure area/new state in Western Syria under Moscow control.
The reason Assad’s forces are carrying out ground operations against the opposition forces in the north of the country, near Turkish border, with support from Russian airplanes is simply because of the fact that it is precisely these forces that are and will be the primary obstacle to the formation of a new state.
Why Kurdistan is the real issue
And this is where Russia faces inevitable confrontation with Turkish interests, since Ankara supports not ISIS but the other: ‘half’ opposition forces in pursuit of its own national interest. Although Ankara openly claims that its main aim is the overthrown of Assad in Syria, its main concern is the formation of an independent Kurdistan with access to the Mediterranean.
This will pose a threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey. A large, free Kurdistan should be seen within the framework of the Greater Middle East Initiative unveiled by former U.S. President George W. Bush back in 2004. For Turkey, the potential establishment of a geographically unlandlocked Kurdistan is a nightmare, whether it has direct access to the sea or through the area controlled by Russia.
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Both the U.S. and Russia have expressed their sympathy for the PYD, branch of Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, and the Kurds are seen as so-called “freedom fighters”against ISIS both by the West and Moscow. Anxious about the possible formation of a Kurdish corridor along its southern border, Turkey will do anything possible in order to defend its proxies in northwest Syria, namely opposition forces other than ISIS, and, of course, its brethen the Syrian Turkmen.
Turkey in fact is not interested in supporting ISIS and views the terrorist organization as a threat to its integrity as well. For this reason, Russian operations against the Syrian Turkmen have caused great anxiety on Ankara’s part. Using the airspace violation as an excuse, Turkey shot down the Russian figher jet in order to show that it is ready to defend the Syrian Turkmen and its geopolitical interests in the region at any price. Here we should underline the fact that the nearest ISIS forces are located 100 km from the area where the Russian jet was shot down.
More than a local dispute
In a wider context, the latest incident should be seen as an issue not only between Turkey and Russia but also between the West and the Moscow. In fact, for a long period, Turkey has followed an ambivalent foreign policy between Russia and the West, but now one could claim that Ankara has already made a strategic decision to move closer to its NATO allies.
Nevertheless, one could also argue that there might be a tacit agreement between Moscow and Washington on the future of Syria. Accordingly, both will collaborate to form a Kurdistan in Syria, then merge this with Iraqi one and finally cut a piece from Turkish territory as well under the project of Greater Middle East initiative.
In order to achieve this goal, Turkey might be forced to fall into a direct confrontation against Russia. Although Turkey is a member of NATO and its territorial integrity is guaranteed by the alliance, Ankara could have troubles to get necessary support from the NATO in her confrontation against Moscow.
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It is interesting to note that some circles in the Western inteligencia now openly argue to kick Turkey out of NATO. Alleged claims on connections between ISIS and the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are seen as a tool to promote this understanding.
Within this framework, Turkish-Russian relations are and will be negatively affected by the latest incident. Since bilateral relations are based mainly on trade, one can predict that economic ties between the two will be worsened. There will not only be a decrease in the volume of trade, but Russian investments in Turkey and Turkish investments in Russia, which are worth over $20 billion in total, are under threat.
Ironically, if the first argument is true, consolidation of the Turkish position in NATO, then there is still possibility for decreasing tensions and preventing further damage. Although in the short term it seems impossible to stop the negative trend, in the longer run both countries can manage the situation smoothly. However, if the second argument is true, then not only bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia but also relations between Turkey and the West will totally go out of control.
Here it is important to observe that the Turkish society does not see Russia as an enemy on the whole and interaction in this sphere is also important. Although there are some pessimistic expectations on cutting natural gas trade between the countries, a permenant and huge cut is not a realistic option since both parties are bound by contracts.
However, the situation is worse when we talk about strategic projects like Turkish Stream and especially the Akkuyu nuclear power plant. The implementation of the latter is unlikely after the latest incident. Therefore, it is clear that the once-good relations the two have spent the last two decades developing with huge mutual efforts have collapsed in just two months.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.