December 10, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey’s Russian Predicament

• Turkey’s downing of a Russian aircraft in November marked a turning point in the country’s engagement in the Syrian war

• Since then, Russia has had the upper hand, finding excuses to limit Turkish influence while increasing its own deployments

• Russia has imposed various commercial penalties on Turkey, and although they may hurt Russia, they will worry Turkey more

• The Turkish government is finding it difficult to respond, and will likely have to rely more on its allies, so limiting its opportunities for independent action in Syria.


Things have gone from bad to worse for Turkey since one of its F-16 fighters downed a Russian SU-24 ground attack aircraft on the Turkish-Syrian border on  November 24. Since then, Russia has outplayed Turkey at every turn, reducing its influence and its options in the Syrian war and threatening its economy. The Turkish government has found no good way to respond and has come close to the unthinkable: offering an apology to its oldest enemy.

There seems little doubt that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace before it was shot down, but such violations have become fairly routine in other parts of the world without provoking such drastic reaction. The greater sin was that the two Russian aircraft involved were engaged in a bombing operation against Turkmen rebels fighting the Assad regime in northern Syria. But if the Turks had hoped that shooting down the Russian airplane would protect the Turkmen in the future, they were mistaken. The Turkmen continue to face attack and are even more vulnerable now, prompting Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu to accuse Russia of ethnic cleansing.

Turkey has been the most adamant member of the coalition in demanding Assad’s removal. Whereas Russia’s insistence that Assad should stay and U.S. insistence that he should go have begun to move towards a mutual agreement  that he should eventually—but not immediately—go, Turkey—like Iran on the other side—has not shifted at all. But the Russians have manipulated the fallout from the attack on their fighter-bomber to isolate Turkey and remove its short-term political objectives from further consideration.

Turkey was quick to seek NATO support after it shot down the SU-24, and subsequently received it. Since then, however, Russia has taken steps to ensure that oral support from NATO does not escalate into anything more serious. It has repeatedly said that it wants no further military confrontation, so making it hard for NATO to take any steps to show its muscle; it has also attempted to peel off the United States by looking serious about negotiating an end to the civil war. Russia further invited the United Kingdom to join an investigation into the true course of the Russian plane. If the Russians drag out and confuse the investigation as they did the enquiry into the July 2014 downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 over Ukraine, they will have managed to neutralize another potential ally of the Turks.

In the meantime, the Russians have put to rest for good the Turkish ambition to create a no-fly zone south of the Syrian border to protect refugees and prevent the Kurds from joining their holdings in the East with their enclave in the West. The no-fly zone now exists in practice, but under Russian control, backed up by a newly installed S-400 air defense system. Furthermore, SU-24s in Syria are now equipped with air-to-air missile systems, just in case the Turks ever thought of trying to shoot another one down. The upshot of all this is that Turkish aircraft are now very unlikely to fly across the Syrian border, so ending not just the idea of a no-fly zone, but also the Turkish campaign against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a sister organization of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the military arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is intent on spreading its reach west of the Euphrates. After Erdogan’s election victory in November—anchored on his tough stance against the domestic security threat from the PKK—this is a blow both to this power and his prestige.

Turkey’s options are further limited by Russia’s bombing attacks on trucks crossing the Syrian-Turkish border—in both directions—on the basis that the traffic supports the so-called Islamic State. This has complicated Turkey’s ability to resupply the rebel groups it supports. Russia has further muddied the waters by accusing President Erdogan and his family of profiting from Islamic State oil sales—an accusation that plays to constituencies in the coalition that are already impatient with Turkey for not making more of an effort to seal off the border. Further Russian measures have included putting new military equipment on the Turkish-Armenian border; ending Russian tourist travel to Turkey; freezing the Turkish Stream gas pipeline deal; stopping construction at the joint Akkuyu nuclear plant; imposing visa restrictions on Turks visiting Russia; harassing Turkish businessmen; and threatening economic sanctions across a wide range of goods. Russia is Turkey’s second biggest export market, and just for good measure, if Turkey thought it could replace the Turkish Stream deal with a pipeline from Qatar through Iraq, Russia has encouraged the Iraqi government to protest the reinforced presence of a Turkish military training unit around Mosul, so threatening Ankara’s relations with Baghdad.

Turkey has had a long history of enmity with Russia. On its own, the only chokehold Turkey can apply in return is shutting off the Turkish straits to Russian naval vessels wishing to pass to and from their bases in the Black Sea. But this would likely be an escalation too far. Otherwise, it must place more reliance for the protection of its interests on its coalition partners, which means being more amenable to negotiations over Assad.

Russia may be hurting from the economic consequences of its engagement in Syria, and will certainly lose from any drawn out commercial disengagement from Turkey. Politically, however, Russia is on a roll; a new airbase is opening near Homs; its weapons are being deployed in increasing numbers; its troops present across Syria; and its name plate not just securely fastened to the negotiating table, but positioned near the top. What Turkey has lost, Russia has gained.


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