Tensions Between Russia And Turkey Remain High In Wake Of Russian Jet Incident
Yesterday’s news that a Russian plane had been shot down by a Turkish jet after allegedly straying into Turkish air space is continuing to reverberate across Europe and the Middle East, with Russia’s Foreign Minister calling it a ‘planned provocation’ in statements this morning:
MOSCOW — The Kremlin sharpened its accusations Wednesday in the wake of Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane, as Moscow’s top diplomat called the incident a “planned provocation” that has dealt a major blow to already fragile relations with NATO.
But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also tamped down speculation of a military response by Russia after the jet broke apart in flames along the Turkish-Syrian border. “We’re not going to war against Turkey,” he said after talks with his Turkish counterpart.
Still, Russia moved to strengthen its forces in Syria, saying new anti-missile systems would be deployed at an air base less than 20 miles from the Turkish frontier.
Lavrov’s comments offered the clearest signals that Moscow views the downing as more than an accidental mishap while Russia steps up its airstrikes in Syria to support the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey and its Western allies have backed rebel groups seeking to topple Assad in Syria’s nearly five-year civil war. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, have raised worries about possible mishaps between Russia’s air campaign and a U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State.
“We have serious doubts this was an unintended incident and believe this is a planned provocation,” Lavrov said after discussions with Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu. Lavrov did not elaborate on Moscow’s claims.
Earlier, Russian officials said one of two Russian pilots shot down has been rescued following the first downing of one of their planes by a NATO ally since the Cold War. The other airman was killed “in a savage way” by militiamen, claimed Russia’s ambassador to France, Alexandre Orlov.
During the search-and-rescue mission, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter was blown up, apparently by an anti-tank missile fired by Syrian rebels, killing one Russian marine. It marked the first confirmed deaths of Russian soldiers in combat in Syria.
In a show of Russia’s deepening military involvement, it now plans to deploy powerful S-400 anti-missile systems to Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in northwestern Syria. The batteries — with a range of 250 miles — have the potential to create headaches for Turkish and other aircraft in the U.S.-led coalition targeting the Islamic State.
Turkey, meanwhile, made its case to the world and its NATO allies by arguing that yesterday’s incident was only the latest in a series of provocations it has been dealing with:
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey and Russia promised on Wednesday not to go to war over the downing of a Russian fighter jet, leaving Turkey’s still-nervous NATO allies and just about everyone else wondering why the country decided to risk such a serious confrontation.
The reply from the Turkish government so far has been consistent: Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Though minor airspace violations are fairly common and usually tolerated, Turkey had repeatedly called in Russia’s ambassador to complain about aircraft intrusions and about bombing raids in Syria near the border. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday evening — and a Pentagon spokesman later confirmed — that before a Turkish F-16 shot down the Russian Su-24 jet, Turkish forces had warned the Russian plane 10 times in five minutes to steer away.
“I personally was expecting something like this, because in the past months there have been so many incidents like that,” Ismail Demir, Turkey’s undersecretary of national defense, said in an interview. “Our engagement rules were very clear, and any sovereign nation has a right to defend its airspace.”
While that may be true, analysts said Mr. Erdogan had several more nuanced reasons to allow Turkish pilots to open fire. These include his frustration with Russia over a range of issues even beyond Syria, the Gordian knot of figuring out what to do with Syria itself and Turkey’s strong ethnic ties to the Turkmen villages Russia has been bombing lately in the area of the crash.
Turkey has been quietly seething ever since Russia began military operations against Syrian rebels two months ago, wrecking Ankara’s policy of ousting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Turks were forced to downgrade their ambitions from the ouster of Mr. Assad to simply maintaining a seat at the negotiating table when the time comes, said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan research group.
“That would require Turkey-backed rebels to be present in Syria, and I think Turkey was alarmed that Russia’s bombing of positions held by Turkey-backed rebels in northern Syria was hurting their positions and therefore Turkey’s future stakes in Syria,” Mr. Cagaptay said. “So this is also an aggressive Turkey posture in the Syrian civil war to prevent the defeat of Turkey-backed rebels so they can hold onto territory and have a say in the future of Syria.”
But the fate of the particular rebels the Russians were bombing in the mountainous Bayirbucak area where the plane was shot down is more than just a policy matter to the Turks. Mr. Erdogan particularly emphasized the ethnic tie in a speech Tuesday evening, saying, “We strongly condemn attacks focusing on areas inhabited by Bayirbucak Turkmen — we have our relatives, our kin there.”
The Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said as much on Wednesday while dismissing Russia’s explanation that it was fighting a common enemy, the Islamic State. “No one,” he said, “can legitimize attacks on Turkmens in Syria using the pretext of fighting the Islamic State.”
The bombing was creating political problems for Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Cagaptay said. “In the days leading up to the incident, many newspapers, especially the pro-government publications, were running headlines highlighting the suffering of the Turkmens, who are closely related to Anatolian Turks,” he said. “I think the government felt that, in terms of domestic politics, it had to do something to ease some of this pressure that had resulted from the Russian bombardment against Turkmens in northern Syria.”
Russia’s bombing of Turkmen villages was to be the principal issue Turkey raised with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in talks that had been set for Wednesday but were canceled after the shooting down of the plane.
Mr. Erdogan’s emphasis on helping the Turkmens has another important political dimension in Turkey. Mr. Erdogan’s political party emphasized Turkish ethnic identity and Sunni Muslim faith in the campaign leading up to critical elections on Nov. 1, as it competed with one rival party heavily composed of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and another committed to preserving Turkey’s status as a secular society and state.
Complicating matters further is a border dispute that goes back to the end of World War One and the maps that were drawn in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire:
Complicating matters further, Turkey and Syria have a longstanding border dispute in exactly the area where the Russian plane, a Sukhoi Su-24, was shot down, and Russia has sometimes voiced support for Syria’s claim. It is a narrow strip of territory, the Hatay Province of Turkey, that runs south along the Mediterranean Sea, deep into Syria.
The province is a melting pot of ethnic Turks and Arabs. It is also a religious mélange, with many Muslims but also a large Christian population, as Hatay includes the biblical city of Antioch. And the province has an acrimonious history.
The League of Nations granted Hatay Province to France after World War I as part of France’s legal mandate over Syria. Ethnic Turks led the province’s secession from Syria and declaration of an independent republic in 1938, and that republic then joined Turkey the next year — much as Texas seceded from Mexico a century earlier, became a republic and soon joined the United States.
Syria has periodically questioned the loss of Hatay over the years. “If you look at Syrian maps, that province, that chunk of territory, is shown as belonging to Syria,” said Altay Atli, an international relations specialist at Bogazici University.
When Hatay seceded from the French mandate of Syria, Hatay’s borders did not encompass all of the ethnic Turks in the area; many Turkmens remained just across the border in what is now northernmost Syria. For decades, it was difficult for families divided on either side of the border by the secession of Hatay to even visit one another. Tensions finally began to ease during the years immediately before the Arab Spring, but they have resumed in the last several years as Turkey has led calls for the removal of Mr. Assad.
The fact that Russia has over the years expressed sympathy for Syria’s claim to Hatay makes the province even more delicate for Turkey, and Tuesday’s incident with the Russian jet even more important, said James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
If there is some good news out of all of this right now, it is the report that the navigator from the Russian jet, who was originally reported to have been killed and or captured by the Turkmen rebels that control the Syrian side of the border, had in fact been rescued. Reports in the immediate wake of the downing of the plane included the possibility that he had been captured and or killed by the rebels and was being held as ransom for the release of rebel allies being held by the Assad regime. The pilot of the plane, though, was apparently killed by gunfire from rebel positions who can be seen in video taken after the plane was struck firing at the parachutes of the pilot and navigator as they descended. Russia apparently also lost a Marine when rebels shot at and grounded a helicopter involved in search and rescue operations. Both losses, and of course the loss of a jet, have raised the stakes in Russia significantly and also caused an increase in tensions with NATO given the fact that Turkey is a NATO member, but there are also signs that all parties involved are slowly working toward a way to cool tensions here and get the focus back on the fight against ISIS.
The first signs of that came yesterday in President Obama’s meeting with French President Francois Hollande. While both men presented a united front in support of Turkey and critical of Russia’s continued support for the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, there were also some hints that there might be some willing to concede Russia’s concerns regarding the future in Syria by modifying what it means for Assad to be removed from power to include something as simple as Assad declining to run for re-election in a future election, after which he would presumably leave the country under the protection of the Russians. More importantly, both men made it clear that they are searching for a united front in the fight against ISIS that includes Russia in some sense or another. This is why President Hollande will be traveling to Moscow to meet with President Putin tomorrow. Whether that effort will be successful remains to be seen, but I tend to agree with NBC News reporter Cassandra Vinograd, who argues that this incident between Russia and Turkey is unlikely to spin out of control, largely because it is not in the interests of either party to push the matter further than domestic considerations require their leaders to do so. Additionally, CNN’s Turkish affiliate reports that President Obama and Turkish President Erdogan spoke late yesterday and agreed to develop means to prevent the kind of miscommunication that led to yesterday’s events. As PJ Media’s Stephen Green notes, this appears to be a step back from the brink, and it also appears to be a sign that the bellicose language from Turkey at least is really just that, talk. It’s possible that we’ll see signs like this from Russia tomorrow after President Hollande’s visit to Moscow.
So, I wouldn’t worry about the jet incident turning into World War III, but that doesn’t mean the other problems in Syria have suddenly been solved. Because they haven’t.
Update: According to this map which is apparently based on data provided by the Turks, the Russian bomber was in Turkish airspace for a total of seventeen seconds. If true, this certainly seems to put Turkey’s actions in a new light.
— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) November 25, 2015
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