A confrontation between Russia and a NATO member once seemed unthinkable. But the Syrian conflict threatens to drag in regional actors in ways that were not originally foreseen.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes part in the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently warned that cruise missiles “equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads” might be used in the confrontation with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) – a warning that was immediately seized upon by the Western media that the nuclear option was on the table in the Middle East.

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On the top of that, on Dec. 11 Putin ordered Russia’s army to be as tough as possible in Syria and destroy everything that threatens Russia’s Armed Forces in the Middle East, because the terrorism in Syria is the direct threat to Russia, according to him. However, his order seems to be very ambiguous, with no clarity who might pose the threat to Russia’s armed forces in Syria: terrorists or those countries who might down another Russian jet like it was in the case of Turkey.

Russia-Turkey brawl is going on 

These warnings come against a deteriorating situation in the region triggered by tensions between Russia and Turkey. Russia recently imposed economic sanctions on Turkey and brought its visa regime for the country to an end. Both measures are outcomes of the accelerated momentum generated by the incident of the Russian Su-24 jet shot down by a Turkish F-16.

The Russian president earlier referred to the incident as a "stab in the back" committed by "accomplices of terrorists," while the Turks justified their action by emphasizing the claim that the plane was engaged in communication and had neglected several warnings before it was shot down. The incident attracted massive attention, staggered the geopolitical panorama and appeared to be an exclusive example of confrontation between Russia and a member of NATO in the post-Cold War era.

Despite centuries of antagonism and adversarial engagement, Ankara and Moscow succeeded in forging cooperative bilateral relations in recent times. Nevertheless, the shoot-down of the Russian plane shifted the pragmatic engagement into an uncertain pattern once again.

Putting the current confrontation into context, more than three million annual Russian tourists to Turkey could be seeking alternate destinations now, as Russian tour operators have already closed routes to Turkey. The rapidly expanding numbers of restaurants that are serving Turkish cuisine in Moscow are also more likely to be boycotted. Economic sanctions are usually considered less effective, yet it is evident that the ambitious goal of enhancing bilateral trade up to $100 billion by 2023 is out of the question and current trade at a level of $30 billion will be hampered also.

Why Turkey is defiant toward Russia

It’s important to assess why Turkey risked its embryonic relationship with the Kremlin and what might be the motives of Ankara for such maneuvering against a state that is potentially capable of responding firmly.

Back in September, after failing to reach a consensus in the annual session of the United Nations, Russia unilaterally decided to attack, hunt down and dismantle the network of ISIS terrorist groups and rebels fighting Assad's regime. The move generated a debate in the West: The United States had failed to keep the promises and pledges which were made in its capacity as a global power.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt evacuated the Persian Gulf. Indeed, it was obvious for the allies of the U.S. to be alarmed by the huge military presence of its historical rival – Russia - in the region at a time when the U.S was backing away from the front.

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At first, Russia had succeeded in garnering public opinion to its favor as a liberator and peace guarantor in the Middle East. Secondly, the conflict in Syria took the crisis in Ukraine out of the global spotlight and changed the course of action towards the Middle East and Syria, in particular.

The millions of refugees from Ukraine are given little or perhaps no attention because the Syrian refugees have become one of the biggest global issues of contemporary times. The West seems to have adopted a neo-appeasement policy and this choice leads them to ignore the Russian territorial expansion and the annexing of the Crimean peninsula, an event that appears to have fallen by the wayside.

Earlier, when strikes were initiated by Russia to consolidate Assad's regime and root out rebels, there were several intrusions into Turkish airspace. Ankara not only called upon the NATO council but also summoned the Russian ambassador to Ankara for these violations. The council condemned the intrusions and pointed out that such mistakes could ignite a regional war as the effects of these actions spill into neighboring countries.

Additionally, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave Moscow an ultimatum, stating that if Russia prefers hostility and an adverse relationship with Ankara, the Kremlin would suffer a great loss, adding that any further violations in the future could result in engagement with NATO.

The situation was seen, primarily as either a scuffle between Assad's regime and groups involved in the Syrian territory or between the U.S. and Russia. At the same time, Turkey and France, having historically larger stakes and a greater impact in the region, were ignored. The Levant - the geographical landmass of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, Palestine and northwest Iraq - remained under Ottoman suzerainty prior to World War I, followed by French control as mandate systems in the post-war settlement. To reiterate, it was Tsar Nicholas I of Russia who referred to the Ottoman Empire as "the sick man of Europe" in 1853 and sought territorial expansion at the cost of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, opening another front in Syria has ignited tensions and fed apprehensions in Ankara, which felt marginalized.

Considering Turkey's stance in the immediate vicinity and Syria's as well, the physical positioning of Russian ground and air presence is open to concerns in Ankara. This shifted the balance against Turkey; additionally, the terrorist mayhem in Paris allowed the French to jump in.

Although France and Turkey are both members of NATO, the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century have witnessed great power politics in the territories of the Levant. The actors in that game were none other than Russia, France and Turkey, yet with a different form of statehood – as imperial Tsarist, French and Ottoman powers.

France is striking ISIS in the aftermath of the Paris carnage and bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa two days after the attack on French soil. Reportedly, this was France's most aggressive strike against ISIS yet. There were possibilities to initiate collaboration amongst the air forces of France, Russia and the United States to dismantle and destroy bases held by ISIS and other rebels.

Such possibilities could have been ignored in the event President Hollande of France hadn’t declared "universal war" against an "army of terrorists." Alternatively, having an identical enemy in the Turkish neighborhood, Russia and France were more likely to cooperate, while Ankara felt nervous apprehension.

In such an environment, Turkey responded firmly and shot down a military aircraft. Otherwise, it was inevitable that a deeper incursion in Turkish airspace would be made under the excuse of the hot pursuit of rebels and ISIS terrorist groups. Ankara needs the engagement of NATO to sustain the enormous pressure from the Kremlin to normalize the situation.

Slipping into chaos?

However, the newly announced installment of S-400 missiles at the Khmeimim airbase in Latakia, Syria, could cause more unrest and panic in Ankara. Yet, the U.S. Air Force Central Command states its firm and determined position to continue air strikes regardless of the changing scenario. By mid-December, the Persian Gulf will host the carrier USS Truman and four of its escort ships; thus the U.S. presence with a larger fleet will reposition the balance of power.

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In any case, an extended war in the region would be lethal, and escalations could flare up in the Near East. Nevertheless, the chances of such an escalation and ignition of a larger war in the region are fairly low. Diplomacy and engagement are the best modus operandi to end up with a stable and lasting solution. In the mutual contest for a zone of imperial influence, Russia had enjoyed greater leverage over Turkey.

This is an undeniable truth of contemporary politics in the Near East also. Multiple actors and their respective interests have to be analyzed and the legitimate concerns of Turkey must not be ignored either by Russia or the coalition forces of the West. In a similar way, there are the apprehensions and reservations from Russia and the West towards Ankara.

Ankara and Moscow must take advantage of any future scenario and negotiate their differences at the diplomatic table, since restraining from diplomatic solutions is hazardous for both parties. The disintegration of Yugoslavia produced a matrix that was uncontrollable and had devastating effects by mushrooming conflicts within conflicts. The same is the case in the territories of the Levant: multiple actors are involved with multi-dimensional links (ethnic, racial and religious). Careful assessment of the conflict is required; otherwise, the ISIS quagmire can encircle the region in violence and conflict.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.