Downing of Russian jet part of Turkey's 'strange game' in Syria
Sending a message? Turkey and Russia on opposite sides in the fight to unseat Syria's Assad
While there is still debate over the exact circumstances of the downing of a Russian jet for breaching Turkish airspace, the decisive action shows how incensed Turkey is by Russia's backing of the Assad regime in Syria.
"I think Turkey definitely took a very risky move by shooting down the Russian aircraft," says Omar Lamrani, a military analyst for Stratfor, the global intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Tex.
But Lamrani believes "they felt that they couldn't let Russia keep pushing them around in terms of the Syrian conflict. And they had to send a message that this couldn't continue."
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On Tuesday morning, Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian Su-24 jet, which crashed into a mountain in Latakia province in northwestern Syria.
One of the pilots was killed by militants after bailing out while his crewmate was rescued by Syrian army commandos and delivered in good condition to the Russian base.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who cancelled his planned trip to Turkey after the incident, described the shooting down of the Russian plane as a "planned provocation."
Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains the jet never crossed into Turkey, and called the action a "stab in the back," warning of serious consequences.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday that the Russian missile cruiser Moskva already has moved closer to shore to protect the Russian aircraft flying missions near Syria's border with Turkey with its long-range Fort air defence system. He added that from now on all Russian bombers will be escorted by fighters on their combat missions in Syria, and that his ministry has severed all contacts with the Turkish military.
Deep economic ties
While Turkey is a member of the Western NATO alliance, Turkey and Russia are not traditional enemies. In fact, they have deep economic ties, says Ranj Alaaldin, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.
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Turkey is a popular destination for Russian tourists, while Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Turkey.
But the two countries find themselves on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, which has killed over 200,000 people and displaced millions more, many of them to refugee camps in Turkey.
Russia joined the war in September with the express purpose of supporting Syrian President Basher al-Assad, while Turkey has been bolstering an array of rebel groups in the hopes that they can unseat the Syrian dictator.
Turkey has invested heavily in factions such as the Free Syrian Army, "groups that are now facing Russian airstrikes and are seeing the chances of an Assad-free Syria gone, or diminishing, at the very least," says Alaaldin.
In a White House press conference on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said the downing of the jet was proof of how Russia's involvement was further complicating an already complex and bloody war.
But Lamrani says the incident is also evidence of Turkey's concern about increasingly dangerous air traffic in its backyard — particularly from Russia, which has been conducting airstrikes against rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army near the Turkish border.
While Russia has a reputation for provocatively breaching foreign airspace, Lamrani also notes that Turkey's rules of engagement have become more aggressive since one of its own jets was shot down by the Syrian military while flying in international airspace near Syria in 2012.
Last month, Turkey shot down a drone, which U.S. officials believe belonged to Russia, that had been operating in Turkish airspace. The Russians denied it was theirs.
In this instance, despite Russia's allegations to the contrary, flight logs released by Turkey show that a Su-24 jet did cross into Turkish airspace on Tuesday morning — but only barely.
Alaaldin does not believe Turkey's hostile response will lead to a direct military confrontation between Russia and Turkey, especially given their mutual economic interests.
But "there may be more subtle ways for the Russians of seeking revenge," says Alaaldin, including potentially stepping up airstrikes against anti-Assad rebels near Turkey's borders.
On Tuesday, Russia's Putin criticized not only Turkey's action but its permissive attitude toward extremist groups such as ISIS, ultimately calling Turkey "accomplices of terrorists."
"Russia says that Turkey is supporting the Islamic State and that's why they shot down our plane. That's not really true," says Lamrani.
Turkey does want to crush the Islamic State, he says, "but it's a lot more complicated than just 'Let's all get together and fight ISIS.'"
In addition to vanquishing ISIS and seeing off Assad, the Turkish government has a longstanding interest in neutralizing the Kurds, who have semi-autonomous territory in Syria and Iraq, and separatist ambitions in Turkey.
These objectives often conflict with each other, says Kyle Matthews, a senior director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.
As a result, "Turkey has been playing a strange game in Syria," he says, and its role has only become more complicated in the last few weeks.
Even though Turkey is a NATO member, in the aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, NATO countries such as France and the U.S. seem willing to set aside their hatred for Assad and their distrust of Putin in order to build a "grand coalition" to eradicate the jihadist militant group.
In this context, Matthews says, shooting down the Russian plane "embarrasses Turkey, as a NATO member, and exposes the different motives that the country has in the conflict in Syria."