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Fallout of Turkey’s Shooting Down of the Russian Aircraft

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • December 22, 2015

    On November 24, a Russian Sukhoi-24 fighter jet on a mission to bomb Syrian ‘terrorists’ was shot down by Turkey over the Turkey-Syria border. Ankara has alleged that the jet violated its airspace – a claim denied by Moscow. Two Russian air force personnel were killed in this incident that has brought Russia and Turkey to the brink of a military confrontation. President Putin has termed the downing a ‘deliberate provocation’ and a ‘stab in the back’ by a friendly neighbour. The incident occurred just when there appeared to be a renewed momentum to find a political solution to the Syrian quagmire. The momentum had seen Russia and the ‘West’ explore synergies of cooperation at a time when their public opinion, shaped by the militant attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Sinai, favoured tackling the Islamic State (IS) terror on a priority basis.

    Against this backdrop, Turkey’s unprecedented military action raises two pertinent questions: What is the likely impact on its ties with Russia? And, what are the dynamics of a ‘Russia-West’ collaboration over Syria?

    Factors behind Turkey’s Actions

    The SU-24 downing is the first direct military confrontation between Russia and a NATO ally in decades. Not only has it widened the gulf between Russia and Turkey, which have shared a chequered imperial history, but it has also complicated the unfolding Syrian crisis with the standoff showing no signs of abating. What makes this even more notable is the spectacular falling out between the two Presidents who had invested significant political capital to build a robust economic partnership. Nevertheless, this was an incident in the making and the contours took shape with Russia’s intervention in the region.

    At the root of the problem lies Russia and Turkey’s competing interests in Syria. Turkey has supported the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels in the civil war that has raged for the last five years. This is part of its larger strategy to expand its influence in the region. However, Russia’s military intervention has seriously undermined Turkey’s regional aspirations. Not only have the air-strikes strengthened Assad’s position but they have also reinforced the Shia coalition of Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq. Russia has also supported the Syrian Kurds who are Turkey’s historical adversaries and attacked the Turkmens who are Turkey’s allies. Meanwhile, the Russian air strikes have disrupted Ankara’s highly profitable oil trade with the IS.

    Pushed to a corner, it appears that the SU-24 downing is a calculated Turkish gambit. It is likely that Turkey sought to involve NATO in the ensuing standoff. This would have complicated the renewed political processes in the region. The argument gains credence given that Turkey immediately approached NATO rather than Russia when the jet was shot down. However, in a major revelation, NATO has sought to de-escalate tensions by calling for increased engagement between Turkey and Russia. This can be seen as NATO’s fine balancing act. On one hand rests the credibility of its collective defence and the need to have Turkey on board to check the Syrian refugee exodus. And on the other lies the risk of a grave military confrontation with Russia that will distract attention from the fight against the IS. Therefore, it is likely that NATO has sought to localise this dispute till the time Turkey’s sovereignty is intact. This appears to have convinced even the Kremlin that Turkey acted on its own and as such its retaliation should be Ankara specific. These developments also indicate the possibility of the common goal of tackling Islamic terrorism having brought about a tacit understanding between Russia and the West with respect to the former disrupting Turkey’s dubious links with the Islamic State.

    Impact on Bilateral Ties

    It is likely that the Russia-Turkey standoff will continue for some time. It flows from the perceived Turkish betrayal of side-stepping years of good relationship that was personally cultivated by President Putin. Ankara’s refusal to apologise and compensate the loss of the aircraft has further exacerbated tensions. Ultimately, the strong personalities of the two Presidents will shape the ongoing confrontation. Their refusal to cede an inch can be seen as an attempt to drum up domestic support.

    As a result, the Kremlin’s retaliation, even though it has avoided a military measure, has been swift and punitive. It involves sweeping economic sanctions that cover lucrative sectors like tourism, agriculture, metals and construction. Bilateral trade stood at USD 30 billion in 2014.1 While Moscow has refrained from turning off the energy tap that will leave Turkey with crippling shortages, yet nascent projects like the Turkish Stream are in serious jeopardy. Incidentally, the ban on import of Turkish agricultural commodities is likely to result in temporary food shortages in Russia. But this is a price the Kremlin is willing to pay since the confrontation has transcended from strategic-economic issues to an emotive one.

    However, the real threat of the ongoing standoff is the risk of a proxy war. Russia is likely to go after Turkish interests in Syria. This includes intensifying aerial strikes on Syrian rebels allied with Turkey, providing military assistance to the Kurds and preventing Ankara from enforcing the coveted no-fly zone along the Syrian border. One can also expect Russia to expose and disrupt Turkey’s links with the Islamic State. More ominously, the deployment of the formidable S-400 system raises the risk of new clashes between their militaries.

    For its part, Turkey too has a few tricks up its sleeves. It retains the ability to undermine the evolving Syrian peace process. This can force Russia to get bogged down in the region with unforeseeable consequences. One cannot also rule out Turkey trying to manipulate the Russian intervention as aimed at helping the Shias against the Sunnis. This can strike a raw nerve among Russia’s Sunni Muslims. Moreover, Ankara can exploit its ethnic and political linkages with Central Asian countries, Northern Caucasus, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to instigate trouble in Russia’s neighbourhood.

    Dynamics of Russia-West Collaboration in Syria

    Given their post-Ukraine differences, Russia and the ‘West’ have exhibited a degree of cooperation in Syria. This involves coordinating their military activities while targeting the IS and exploring an inclusive Syrian political solution. They have also re-engaged politically at the highest level with President Obama calling Russia a ‘constructive partner’. These developments have raised the prospects of a thaw in Russia-‘West’ ties. However, one needs to delve deeper into their core objectives to understand whether this is a rapprochement, reset or calculated shifting of strategies.

    Russia’s Objectives

    One of the key objectives of Russia’s Syrian military intervention was to re-affirm its position as an important player in global affairs. Having achieved this goal, Russia has sought to project itself as a partner with whom the ‘West’ can solve global problems. It has seen Moscow leverage its campaign against the IS with the overwhelming Western consensus on tackling terrorism. This dovetails with Moscow’s urgency of tackling the IS to prevent a terror blowback by the 2000 Russian citizens who have joined the militant group. The uptake of finding a common ground with the ‘West’ also likely rests on the calculus that it can facilitate the removal of sanctions. Incidentally, the ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine has held since the Russian air strikes in Syria began. Besides, Russia’s tactics can be viewed as an attempt to find an inclusive Syrian political solution. A long-term solution can only be effective if the major stakeholders are on board. At stake is Russia’s credibility as a ‘Great Power’ to resolve international disputes.

    ‘Western’ Objectives

    The Paris attacks and the torrent of Syrian refuges have found a notable resonance among the major ‘Western’ powers. Therefore, it appears that the West has sought convergence with Russia in tackling these core issues. Moreover, their increased military coordination also boils down to an attempt to prevent occurrences similar to the SU-24 downing. These concerns are the likely driving factors behind the sedate NATO call to de-escalate tensions between Ankara and Moscow despite the fact that strained ties with Russia can bring Turkey closer to the alliance. The bottom-line is that Russia is now a key player in the Syrian chessboard and the road to Damascus runs through Moscow.

    There are, however, limits to a ‘Russia-West’ engagement. The two sides continue to remain on the opposite ends of the Syrian political spectrum. It is unlikely that they would reconcile their diverse geo-strategic and political interests to arrive at a common vision for Syria. With Russia having challenged the global order, both sides remain deeply suspicious of each other. Their underlying bilateral tensions also continue to simmer. This is reflected in NATO’s expansion ‘Eastwards’ and the evolving threat of ‘Prompt Global Missile Strike’. Moreover, the presence of enough Russian detractors in the European Union is likely to prevent the sanctions from being lifted in the foreseeable future.

    Given all this, the ongoing ‘Russia-West’ engagement appears more tactical in nature where they have sought to tackle a common terror threat. This is evident in the recent unanimous UNSC resolution on Syria’s future, wherein the key stakeholders have prioritised military operations against the IS over Assad’s future. This removes a major stumbling block in their anti-terror cooperative mechanisms. However, given their divergent outlook on Syria’s political transition, it is likely that the collaborative mechanism would unravel once the IS dust settles down, thus exposing the underpinnings of their highly competitive relationship, which rose to the surface over Ukraine and which continued to remain unresolved. Since what is at stake is the evolving world order, a compromise on core issues appears unlikely in the near future.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.