OPINION

Why Turkey’s move against Russia was inevitable

There are various similarities between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. The presidents of Turkey and Russia are strongmen with unlimited political ambitions, who will mark an era in their countries for better or worse. They are both ardent nationalist leaders who champion social conservatism. They often warn about foreign plots and are highly suspicious of Western meddling. Under the two leaders, the foreign policy of both Turkey and Russia has been aimed at restoring at least some of the lost imperial glory, with poor results in the case of Erdogan and mixed ones in Putin’s. This similar mind-set has developed into a good relationship between the two.

Yet on Tuesday morning, Turkish-Russian ties may have been seriously damaged over the main foreign policy issue Erdogan and Putin have consistently disagreed on: Syria. On the Turkish-Syrian border, a Turkish F-16 jet shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter jet. The jet fell on the Syrian side of the border and the Turkish and Russian governments continue to argue over different versions of the story. One part insists the jet violated Turkish airspace and was warned several times to change course because it was approaching Turkish airspace, while the other claims it was still over Syrian territory and there were no warnings.

The gravity of the incident contrasts with how predictable it was

Manuel Almeida

But there is evidence the Russian pilots were warned to change course. A civilian pilot was in the area at the time of the incident, on a flight from Beirut to the Gulf, and provided Al-Arabiya News with a recording that proves several warning were issued by the Turkish pilot of the F-16. Other international media outlets have posted very similar recordings of the incident.

As for the fate of the two Russian pilots, the same day news emerged (including a video) one of the pilots had been killed by a Syrian rebel group, allegedly of ethnic Turkmens. On Wednesday, it turned out the second pilot was alive and efforts were under way to secure his safe return.

Russian reaction

So far, the Russian reaction has been vigorous but has fallen short of direct military action. Expectedly, Putin was quite adamant about the incident, warning about “serious consequences” and saying “we received a stab in the back from accomplices of terrorism”. This was a clear accusation against the Turkish government about its role in supporting the growth of ISIS.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, cancelled a visit to Ankara due to happen on Wednesday to discuss the bilateral relation and find a bit of common ground on Syria, but said Russia does “not plan to go to war with Turkey.” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev insisted on the links between the Turkish government and ISIS. He accused some Turkish officials of having a “direct financial interest” in the oil trade with the radical group and said Russia had information about these deals. Medvedev also mentioned Russia is considering the cancelation of various projects with Turkey and barring Turkish companies from the Russian market.

Militarily, Russia has deployed a missile cruiser off the Syrian coast. Russia’s defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, also announced the deployment of the S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Syria’s Khmeimim air base in Latakia province, although that was probably already happening before the incident. However, possibly the most worrying measure of all is the announcement that the military communications with Turkey will be suspended. This could open the door for other similar incidents which could dangerously escalate.

Implications

The gravity of the incident contrasts with how predictable it was. Last week, the Turkish foreign ministry had already summoned the Russian ambassador to warn him there would be very serious consequences if the Russian air force did not stop the bombing of Turkmen villages in Bayir Bucak in Syria near the Turkish border.

In October, tensions between Russia and Turkey over Russian fighter jets’ violations of Turkish airspace had already emerged, including an incident where the Turkish military shot down a Russian-made drone that had entered its airspace. In fact, these tensions between Moscow and Ankara date back to 2012. In June that year, a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syrian regime air defenses likely operated by Russian military.

Above all, these tensions are the perfect example of foreign policy and national interests narrowly defined. Russia, Turkey and various other governments directly or indirectly involved in the conflict have so far failed to find some basic common cause to address one of the biggest catastrophes the region has witnessed in modern history.

Turkey and various other governments directly or indirectly involved in the conflict have so far failed to find some basic common cause to address one of the biggest catastrophes the region has witnessed in modern history

Manuel Almeida

At a time the diplomatic contacts and negotiations to find a political settlement for the Syrian conflict were gathering momentum, this incident may bring unnecessary tensions to a table where the Russian government has the key seat and the Turkish government an important one. Also the efforts to build closer coordination between the U.S., France and Russia in the aerial campaign against ISIS in Syria could be affected, partially due to Turkey’s NATO membership.

The Russian ambassador to Paris, Alexander Orlov, hinted on Wednesday that Turkey could still be part of a hypothetical coalition with Russia, the U.S. and France (including a joint command centre) against ISIS, if the Turkish government so wishes. Nevertheless, as the U.S. government has been noting in recent weeks, without a strategic change on the current Russian focus on targeting primarily other Syrian opposition groups rather than ISIS, it will be almost impossible for such coalition to emerge.

From the outset, Russia and Turkey have been at loggerheads over every single aspect of the Syrian crisis, including the future of Bashar al-Assad. Despite recent signs of a more flexible Turkish position on Assad’s future, Erdogan might return to his initial position after the Justice and Development Party’s electoral success earlier this month.

However, despite the rift over Syria, both governments had managed to separate things and maintain constructive relations on various other fronts. In 2014, Turkey was Russia’s seventh largest trade partner (reaching almost $20 billion) and became the second largest buyer of Russian natural gas. After the cancelation of the South Stream pipeline project, Russia and Turkey also announced they would be building the alternative TurkStream pipeline that would transport gas to Europe via Turkey without crossing Ukraine. Hopefully, Russian-Turkish trade ties might work as a dissuading factor against rising tensions over Syria.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 25 November 2015 KSA 21:51 - GMT 18:51
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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