Downed SU-24: Will Russia and Turkey break through the deadlock?

Downed SU-24: Will Russia and Turkey break through the deadlock?

The destruction of the Russian Su-24 bomber by a Turkish fighter plane was another turning point in the Syrian drama when the interests of the regional and world powers clashed. The faultline was held again, ultimately, between the Iranian-Russian alliance that supports President of SAR Bashar al-Assad and NATO, which is interested in removing the Syrian leader. It is noteworthy that the so-called 'Islamic State’ in this geopolitical struggle are increasingly playing the role of extras. In fighting ISIS, each of the parties, first and foremost, is pursuing its own interests. Moscow's position in this case is the need to neutralize the entire armed Syrian opposition segments that oppose the government forces. Including Turkmen brigades that are concentrated in the north of the country. It should be noted that the Syrian Turkmens are the traditionally peaceful third-largest ethnic group in Syria, Sunni Muslims who are supported by Turkey logistically and militarily and are fighting both ISIS and the forces of Bashar al-Assad as well.

We can say that in relation to the Turkish-speaking Syrian Turkmens, Turkey applies a strategy similar to the one that Russia is using against the Russian-speaking population in the east of Ukraine: a clear articulation of their own military and political interests by supporting loyal and culturally ideologically close to them groups of the population in the neighboring sovereign state. The Turkmen brigades are playing  a strategic role for Turkey as a regional counterweight to the Syrian Kurds, and because their support is extremely important from the point of view of the national security of the Turkish state. This is an explanation of the fact that Turkey, to the surprise of many observers, decided to take such an unprecedented step as the destruction of a Russian military aircraft.

The reinforced bombardment of Syrian Turkmen militia by aircraft of the Russian Federation in recent days has undermined the military-political position of Turkey in the region, in which Turkish leaders perceived the steps from the Russian side as openly hostile. We should also note that the protection of the Turkish population of Syria is an important domestic political issue in Turkey, and the losses among the civilian population as a result of the Russian bombings of the Turkmens have intensified the internal political tension. Finally, the incidents of violation of Turkish airspace by the Russian military in the recent past to some extent untied the hands of the Turkish military and political leaders, who earlier said they would not tolerate such incidents in the future.

The wrath of the Russian public and political leadership is also quite understandable. As the Berlin political scientist Heiko Langner notes, the information released by both sides about the incident is contradictory. "Ankara itself acknowledges that the Russian bomber was only 17 seconds in Turkish airspace. The fact is that at the time of the launching of missiles at the Russian aircraft it was already in Syrian airspace and it also fell in Syria. From this perspective, the downing cannot be justified in any way," the expert said. The Russian public particularly critically perceived the execution by militants of one of the Russian pilots who had ejected in the air, which is a war crime. To this Turkey indicates that earlier these same pilots bombed the Turkmens for several days and favorable treatment from the latter could hardly be expected. In particular, shortly before the incident with the downed bomber Ankara had accused Russia of attacks on the village of Bayyrbudzhak, which resulted in the alleged killing of 30 civilians, 12 of them children.

While the world's leading politicians, including European leaders and US President Barack Obama talk about the need for a de-escalation of the situation, the situation at the border area with Turkey remains extremely tense. Russia has already deployed the latest S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system at the Hmeymim airbase, in fact, covering the Syrian skies and has also decided that the Russian bombers will be accompanied by fighters. Turkey has also deployed armored vehicles at the Syrian border. We cannot speak about a ‘de-escalation’ in such circumstances. The central problem remains the question of the bombing of the Turkmen groups and the Syrian-Russian plan to establish control over the Syrian-Turkish border, which is strategically important for the victory of the Syrian government troops in the civil war. This plan, however, involves the exclusive interests of Turkey and Syria.

The standoff between Russia and Turkey in Syria after the incident with the downed Su-24 has become even more fundamental. The situation is complicated and contradictory,  in which neither party is interested in a further deterioration of relations, taking into account the enormous potential of their economic and political partnership, but, at the same time, they cannot sacrifice their own interests in Syria. The worst step in such circumstances would be a blockage of the economic and diplomatic channels between the two countries, as that would pave the way for a further aggravation of confrontation, not corresponding to the long-term interests of either side of the conflict.