November 25, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey Strikes Out at Russia

• On November 24, Turkey downed a Russian attack aircraft that it accused of violating its airspace

• The incident illustrates the dangers and complexities of the ongoing Syrian proxy war

• Although Russia has ample opportunity to retaliate commercially or militarily, it is unlikely to do so in any significant or long-lasting way

• Nonetheless, the incident will make a solution to the Syrian crisis harder still.


The accident waiting to happen actually happened on Tuesday morning, when two Turkish F-16 fighters shot down a Russian Su-24M ground attack aircraft close to the Syrian-Turkish border. Although both pilots of the Russian plane ejected safely, one was killed by rebel forces as he parachuted to the ground. The other was reportedly rescued by a joint Russian-Syrian force earlier today. Also killed was a marine on board a Russian Mi-8 helicopter attempting to rescue the crew; the helicopter was also destroyed.

The incident took place in northwest Syria many miles from the nearest outpost of the so-called Islamic State, but close to where Russia has been bombing Turkmen rebels in recent weeks. The attacks had prompted them to appeal to Turkey for more support, and Turkey last week démarched the Russians, and raised the issue with the United Nations Security Council. In reply, the Russians claimed that they were attacking ‘illegal armed groups that included over 1000 militants from the North Caucasus,’ so illustrating the many overlapping and conflicting interests in the Syrian civil war, and the increasing complexity caused by foreign involvement.

This is not the first time that Turkey has accused Russia of violating its airspace. Last month, in what appeared to be a deliberate act of provocation, Russian aircraft made two brief sorties into Turkey as if to emphasize that the Turkish proposal of a safe zone in northern Syria under the protection of allied aircraft was a non-starter. These violations, so soon after the start of the Russian military deployment to Syria, also signaled Russia’s determination to protect and promote its interests, regardless of how they might conflict with Turkey’s.

Following the downing of the Russian jet, President Putin spoke of serious consequences for Turkey, and the Russian Defense Ministry said that future bombing raids would have a fighter escort and further protection from the air defense system of the guided missile cruiser Moskva, which is now close to the Syrian coast off Latakia. While the downing of the Russian aircraft has made an already tense situation worse—and increased the potential for further ‘accidents’—both sides have an interest in seeing the situation calm down, and a major escalation is unlikely.

Russia could restrict its gas exports to Turkey, but although Turkey depends on Russia for about 60% of its gas consumption and 20% of its total energy needs, in the face of declining oil prices and the sanctions over Ukraine, Russia needs the money. Turkey is also the only viable route for future Russian gas exports to the rest of Europe. Suspending other commercial activity will also have a negative effect on the Russian economy. Tourism is another area of vulnerability for Turkey because of the large number of Russian tourists who fill its hotels; Foreign Minister Lavrov has already recommended that tourists avoid Turkey due to the ‘terrorist threat.’ But Putin will be concerned that public opinion may turn against him if, because of the war, Russians can no longer enjoy their two top foreign vacation destinations: southern Turkey and Sharm el-Sheikh, where a Russian airliner full of holiday-makers was brought down by a terrorist bomb earlier this month. Though Turkey and Russia currently disagree over the future of President Assad, neither can achieve its broader objectives in Syria without the agreement of the other. The flurry of high-level diplomatic activity since the downing of the jet may therefore succeed in calming a clearly dangerous situation.

We can, however, expect Russia to do something; at the very least, it is likely to use intelligence and disinformation to highlight Turkey’s dealings with the Islamic State. But the most unfortunate consequence will be that Russia will now roll back from its apparent willingness to consider solutions for Syria that do not depend on Assad remaining in power. This is a key demand for Turkey, and in the macho world occupied by Erdogan and Putin, neither will want to appear to have blinked first. Russia may be bigger and stronger than Turkey, but not in terms of national pride, obsessive leadership, or a refusal to back down under pressure.

The two presidents have both been prominent on the world stage for at least 12 years, and as they compete for greatness, they may see Syria as a defining element of their legacies. Putin described Turkey’s action as a stab in the back; in his world, that is the sort of gesture that demands a reply.


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