A diplomatic confrontation between Turkey’s President Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin may unleash a conflict which may impact the world
By NOUR SAMAHA
It was as though it was clipped from the sky: a single satellite image that has set the region agog. Across a tiny area on the map, over the opposition-held Jabal Turkman area of north-west Syria, a Russian jet traversed the skies, allegedly into Southern Turkey, embarking on an airspace violation that was met with swift consequences from the NATO member state.
Turkey responded immediately, firing an air-to-air missile from its F-16 fighter jets, causing the Russian Su-24 bomber to spiral to the ground. The downing of the jet may have caused a burst in the sky, but it has also proven to be the touch paper that has set relations between the two former Soviet-era enemies alight; likely to be played out on the battlefield in Syria.
A diplomatic affray is unfolding between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that may prove to be as pivotal to the First World War as was the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke France Ferdinand, heir presumptive of Austria.
To understand what may happen next, one must look at the events and plans by both nations leading up to the incident.
Laying the groundwork for a no-fly zone
In August, reports emerged that the Turkish government would begin a training program for a Turkmen ‘police force’ to operate along the Syrian-Turkish border, within a planned safe zone.
The safe zone, engineered by Turkey and the United States following America’s mission against the terrorist group Daesh, would include the area west of the Euphrates River all the way into the Aleppo province along the Syrian coast.
For Turkey, the purpose was to establish “a no-fly zone and a terror-free zone in Syria,” according to Yusuf Yerkel, an advisor to Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.
“Turkey believes that these steps are necessary to be taken if we want to protect civilians from Syrian airstrikes and manage the refugee crisis,” he told Newsweek Middle East.
“Of course the implementation of this requires a joint action by the anti-Daesh coalition, and recently some of the coalition countries started to draw closer to this point as well.”
Yet Turkey’s interests go further than just protecting Syrian civilians; a safe zone in the way it envisions would also serve as a buffer between the Kurds based in Afrin and the Kurds in Tal Abyad, preventing them from potentially setting up an autonomous state that lies alongside Turkey.
Just as significantly, a buffer zone would protect Turkey’s access to Syria and thus its influence in the area, which it exerts through the plight of the Turkmen minority.
“Turkey has strong cultural, historical kinship relations with Syrian Turkmen and cannot leave them to their own destiny,” said Yerkel. “These Turkmen have many relatives in Turkey as well.”
In 2009, the Turkish government had begun to make overtures towards Turkmen abroad. The ethno-Turkic minority of around 300,000 is largely based in the areas of Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia.
The Turkmen had arrived in Syria throughout different periods of history, settling in its northern territories.
The Turkmen, due to Syrian and Iraqi government marginalization, were forced to Arabize and “dissolve” into the larger society, according to Dr. Jana Jabbour, a researcher and lecturer at Sciences Po University in Paris.
Turkey’s first gesture towards Syria’s Turkmen took place in 2010, when the Turkish government sent meat to the Turkmen community during Eid.
“Bashar Al Assad returned the boxes to Turkey saying that ‘Syrian citizens, no matter what their ethnicity is, don’t receive gifts from foreign governments,’” Jabbour said.
“After the revolution [started], the government sought to use the Turkmen as an instrument and vector of influence inside Syria,” she added.
“Syrian Turkmen turned against Assad as they imagine that a post-Assad Syria would grant them partial autonomy. In their meetings with the Turkish government, they explicitly talk about aspirations for autonomy in a federal Syria.”
After the outbreak of violence in Syria, the Turkmen began to assert themselves.
“The Syrian Turkmen did not really express much of a separate ethnic identity because it wasn’t an issue before,” said Bayram Balci, a non-resident fellow with Carnegie Endowment Center, specializing in Turkish foreign policy.
Following the outbreak of violence in Syria, the Turkmen began looking elsewhere to preserve their identity. “They felt the need to create an identity because now they can ally and cooperate with Turkey in order to have a political role in the future.”
“Because of [the historical ties], Turkey is determined to continue to help the Turkmen,” said Yerkel.
“The support to the Turkmen is meaningful and qualitative which includes being equipped with some resources that will ensure their material and moral security and the ability to resist against all kinds of threats against the existence of the Turkmen.
“Our train and equip program still continues,” he said. Several months later, Turkmen fighters and volunteers are still waiting to be called up for the police force. “If they want Turkmen soldiers, we are ready,” Tarek Selo, vice-president of the Syrian Turkmen Nationalist Movement told Newsweek Middle East.
“We have around 1,500 men ready to serve but there is no program as of yet.”
Russia joins the battlefield
The Turkmen, alongside an assortment of opposition groups ranging from the moderate Free Syrian Army to the more hardline extremists like Al Nusra Front, have been relatively successful in holding their positions in the mountainous areas of northern Latakia and Aleppo. That is, until the Russians entered the fray.
In September, Russia announced it would be lending aerial support to Syrian government troops on the ground in an effort to fight Daesh and ‘other terrorists.’
What quickly emerged is that Russian strikes were just as prevalent in opposition-held territory as in Daesh-held territory, lending credence to the argument that Russia’s objectives are more about bolstering the Syrian government on the ground and protecting its strategic interests in the area.
More significantly, Russia’s involvement also scuppers Turkey’s plan for Syria. Up until October, Turkey was able to conduct operations against the Kurds in northern Syria—the same forces allied with Turkey’s ally, the U.S., against Daesh—with little push-back from the international community. At the same time, it was able to maintain an open road for opposition groups to come in and out of Latakia into Turkish territory.
In essence, Turkey had all but commandeered control over Syria’s airspace along its border, which is also evidenced by the decline in Syrian air-force sorties in the area over the last few months; which is in part a result of the fact the government’s air-force is overstretched and underequipped, but also in part a result of the aggressive approach adopted by the Turks—there are at least three incidents where Turkey shot down Syrian planes along the border.
But Russia’s involvement forced these rules of engagement to change; the Russians, unlike the Syrians, have the ability to push the limits and have since conducted hundreds of sorties close to Turkey’s border, targeting opposition-held areas where a number of the Turkmen brigades and villages are based. According to Turkish media reports, around 1,500 Turkmen from dozens of villages in northern Latakia fled to Turkey following a barrage of Russian strikes two weeks ago.
The Russian strategy, according to Syrian pro-government sources, is to prevent the Turks from establishing its buffer zone and no-fly zone, fearing that such a project may eventually lead to the annexation of north-west Syria. In addition, Russian sources are also saying that the Turkish intelligence is responsible for facilitating fighters from Chechnya and other former Soviet states of traveling in and out of north-west Syria. In an effort to derail Turkey’s plan, Russia has devoted a significant portion of its air campaign to the opposition-held areas along Turkey’s border.
“One of the motivations of the Russian intervention was to prevent a Turkish-imposed no-fly zone,” explained Mark Katz, a professor of politics and government at Georgetown University and specialist on Russian policy. “They won’t let what happened in Libya happen in Syria, and a no-fly zone was the first step.”
“Basically where the Russian planes are operating now would prevent this from happening,” he continued. “This obviously annoys the Turks.”
According to opposition fighters on the ground in Latakia’s countryside, the barrage of Russian strikes has been relentless. “For a month and a half we’ve been dealing with strike after strike after strike from the Russians,” said one fighter with the 10th Coastal Brigade. “And they’re targeting the civilians. These areas are full of civilians.”
Incensed by Russia’s actions in an area they previously had de-facto control over, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned the Russian ambassador, indicating the exodus of the Turkmen from the targeted areas are a red line for Turkey, and that attacks targeting Turkmen villages “could lead to serious consequences,” he added.
“The Russians were frustrated with Turkey’s plan to establish a no-fly zone, and Russia’s assault on the Turkmen area, claiming there are other opposition groups and Daesh there, is a direct challenge to Turkey,” said Lale Kamel, a Turkish military analyst. “Russia knows the Turkish sensitivities towards the Turkmen, as there is, after all, a kinship between Turks and Turkmen.”
Downing of the Russian plane
At approximately 9:30 on Nov. 24, Turkish F-16 fighter jets targeted and downed a Russian Su-24 bomber along the Turkish-Syrian border. As the burning plane spiraled to the ground in the opposition-held Jabal Turkman area, the two pilots safely ejected themselves, only to be shot at by armed opposition groups. One of the pilots was killed, with Alpaslan Celik, a deputy commander with a Turkmen brigade, claiming his troops killed the pilot.
As two Russian helicopters flew to the scene in order to retrieve the fallen pilots, one was shot at by small arms fire from another armed opposition group, according to the 1st Coastal Division, forcing the helicopter to make an emergency landing and evacuate the crew; one member of the crew was killed. The downed helicopter was then targeted by the armed group using a U.S.-manufactured TOW missile, exploding on sight.
A rescue operation conducted by the Syrian commandos and Russian special forces sought and rescued the second pilot 12 hours later, escorting him back to the Russian airbase in Hmeimim, in Latakia.
Five days later, on Nov. 29, Davutoglu said Turkey had received the body of the dead Russian pilot on Nov. 28. The body was flown home to Russia.
Turkey claims Russia violated its airspace therefore operating its right to self-defense, and in a letter to the U.N. it detailed a violation of 17 seconds. It also claims to have warned the Russian pilots 10 times over the span of five minutes, with 30-second intervals. It would not be the first time Russia violated Turkish airspace; earlier, a Russian Su-30 entered into Turkish airspace and Turkey raised the incident with NATO.
The Russians, on the other hand, released a Defense Ministry brief outlining in detail the timeline of events, claiming that the distance in which the missile was fired at the Russian jet demonstrates Turkish jets actually entered Syrian airspace and then flew back into Turkish territory. Furthermore the brief highlighted that the time it would take for the Turkish jets to respond from a stand-by position from their airbase in Diyarbakir does not correspond with the timeline of actions in the sky, indicating the jets were already waiting for the Russian bomber and it was a pre-planned operation.
A diplomatic war has now ensued
On Monday, Nov. 30, Putin snubbed a meeting with his Turkish counterpart during the Paris World Climate Summit. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters “no meeting with Erdogan is planned.”
Putin had accused Turkey of “stabbing Russia in the back,” implying there was a level of understanding between the two states. Syrian sources assert that this understanding between the two led to the Russians removing their Su-30 bombers. Russia had only four of them and they used to accompany other defenseless bombers (Su-24 and Su-34) and the ground support planes (Su-25).
Turkey, for its part, has so far refused to apologize for the attack. In an interview with CNN, Erdogan said, “I think if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us…Those who violated our airspace are the ones who need to apologize.”
Turkey also claimed it was unaware of the nationality of the plane at the time it was shot down, with the president adding if they had known it was a Russian plane “maybe we would have warned it differently.”
But the Russians have dismissed these remarks, with Putin saying the planes were easily identifiable and the coordinates of the plane had been passed onto the U.S. While NATO and the U.S. have stood by its ally, with the U.S. stating Turkey has the right to defend itself, both are calling for a de-escalation in tensions, a call that may perhaps have fallen on deaf ears.
“A real problem is that both Erdogan and Putin have very similar personalities, and when they feel their rights are violated they lash out,” said Mark Katz, a professor in government and politics at Georgetown University. “When both parties do this, the chances of escalation are high.”
On the political and economic front, Russia has all but declared war. It has asked its citizens in Turkey to return home, while urging future travel-goers to cancel their trips, warning of possible “terror threats” in Turkey. Turkey has also recently warned its nationals against traveling to Russia.
If Russia plans on hitting Turkey where it hurts, it could deal a real economic blow to Turkey. Around 55 percent of Turkey’s natural gas demand comes from Russia, and Turkey is Russia’s second largest customer of gas.
“Russia has now taken economic measures, and this will be a major blow to Turkey’s travel industry,” said Vladimir Sotnikov, a Russian strategic analyst with the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Last year around 4.5 million Russians visited Turkey and spent around $3 billion.”
In a statement published by the Kremlin on Nov. 26, Putin ordered a number of economic and trade sanctions on Turkey. Putin had vowed at the time of the incident that Russia’s response would be “carefully studied and painful.”
The list of sanctions include reinstating visa requirements on Turkish nationals wishing to travel to Russia and suspending the employment of Turkish nationals in Russia as of Jan. 1, 2016. The sanctions also include trade restrictions, a ban on extending contracts to Turkish firms wishing to operate inside Russia and a ban on charter flights between Russia and Turkey.
Russia serves as Turkey’s largest market for the construction industry, and according to the Contractors Association of Turkey, data shows that since 1998 Turkish companies have completed approximately 2,000 construction projects worth over $62 billion.
“It seems that Turkey suffered the most from the incident, rather than Russia,” Sotnikov said.
Russia’s defense ministry also severed military cooperation with Turkey, who is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Daesh in Syria.
Russia then went and dispatched to its base in Syria S400 surface to air missiles, which have a range of up to 400km, as well as its ‘Moskva’ warship, with Russia’s general chief of staff of the armed forces, Sergey Rodskoy, saying, “We warn that every target posing a potential threat will be destroyed.”
“By sending the S400 and ‘Moskva,’ Russia has completely locked the airspace in this area now,” said Sotnikov. “The way Russia sees what happened is that Turkey wants to teach the Russians a lesson and want Russia to curtail its military operations in northern Syria.”
On the ground, Russia has increased its airstrikes in the area of north-western Syria.
“You can’t forget the strikes were really bad before the downing of the plane,” said one fighter in northern Latakia. “Now it is just continuous. What we’re working on now is trying to change our tactics on the battlefield.” The expected strategy is that the fighters will resort to more conventional guerrilla tactics; small groups equipped with TOW missiles.
Yet Russia is also expected to suffer from the measures it has now imposed on Turkey; it is already suffering from difficulties in obtaining food supplies following the European sanctions, and when Putin visited Turkey earlier this year, Russia had hoped they could benefit from the Turkish relationship to alleviate the impact of Europe’s sanctions.
Erdogan has made it clear he will not take Russian economic retaliation quietly, saying: “It is playing with fire to go as far as mistreating our citizens who have gone to Russia….We really attach a lot of importance to our relations with Russia[…] We don’t want these relations to suffer harm in any way.”
Meanwhile, it looks as though the West is also trying to temper the situation, and avoid confrontation with Russia. Despite showing solidarity with its NATO ally, European member states are also working hard to form some sort of cooperation with Russia in the aftermath of the brutal Paris attacks last month, claimed by Daesh. In a meeting between France’s PresidentFrancois Hollande and Putin just days after the plane incident, France made it clear it wants to work closer with Russia in the fight against Daesh, and move on from the plane incident.
“NATO wants to show solidarity with Turkey because it is a NATO member, but a lot of NATO members don’t agree with Turkey’s policy in Syria,” said Balci, adding that some members see Turkey as a de-facto cooperator with Daesh.
But the clear contradiction between the two nations over their agendas on Syria indicates that this recent clash between them will not be the last.
“Now in northern Syria there is a proxy war taking place between Turkey and Russia,” said Kamel. “On the one hand Turkey and the opposition groups it supports, including the Turkmen, and on the other hand Russia, supporting the regime factions, and neither of them has to do with the fight against Daesh.”
“At this point, I can’t rule out another military confrontation.” he said.