There should be no shock or surprise at Turkey’s destruction of a Russian Su-24. Russia and Turkey have been in a state of undeclared war for a long time. Turkey has long supported rebels, most notably Islamist rebels, fighting to topple Assad. Russia intervened to prop up a tottering Assad, and has directed the bulk of its operations against the rebels Turkey supports. Many of these airstrikes have occurred close to the border, and are directed specifically at rebel ratlines running back into Turkey and at the front lines of the fighters Turkey supports.
This has made Erdogan furious. The shootdown was, as Lavrov said, clearly deliberate. Just as Putin’s intervention was a clear signal that Assad was losing, this incident is a clear signal that Erdogan believes that his forces are now losing. This is his way of hitting back and trying to get Putin to back off.
Russia says that it is striking ISIS. This is largely, though not completely, a lie. But Russia is striking Islamists. Today Putin pointedly criticized Erdogan, saying that he is Islamizing Turkey. Putin is correct.
To see the kind of people Erdogan is supporting, consider the fact that the rebels shot at the Russian air crew as they were parachuting after bailing out, killing one of them. They then gloated over the corpse.
All of this makes it beyond strange that so many on the right in the US are apoplectic about Russian intervention in Syria, and that this apoplexy has only intensified with the destruction of the Su-24. Senator Tom Cotton (and others) claim that we are in a proxy war in Syria, and that Russia has intervened against our “allies” in this war.
Why are we in a proxy war? What compelling US interests exist in Syria? And why are we allying ourselves with Salafists who are just branded affiliates of either Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, and who are striving to kill us everywhere else in the world? If “our side” “wins”, what do we get? A Salafist stronghold and safe haven from which to attack us? If “our side” “loses”, what does it cost us? We’ve lived with the Assads for almost 50 years. They are not going to be much of a threat to anyone, given the wreck the country has become (not that it was ever anything but a typically shambolic Arab dictatorship).
People like Cotton also speak in concerned tones about Turkey as a Nato ally under threat from Russia. This should be turned on its head: we need to reconsider quite seriously whether an Islamist country that provides material support to Islamist groups (including Hamas), and which is led by an increasingly erratic autocrat, is a suitable member of Nato.
This is particularly true given that Erdogan does not have clean hands, by any means, in the fight against ISIS. Erdogan has unleashed his air force against the Kurds, but not against ISIS. ISIS supply lines stretch into Turkey. ISIS members use Turkey as a safe area and a transit zone (including to Europe). He fought mightily to deny aid to the Kurds in Kobani when they were fighting for their lives. Furthermore, there is considerable reason to believe that Erdogan’s family facilitates the sale of ISIS oil. (This last detail raises questions about the US forbearance in attacking ISIS oil convoys, despite the fact that oil revenues are vital to ISIS’s financing. We have given excuses like protecting innocent truck drivers’ lives, or even “environmental concerns“, FFS, to explain the lack of attacks on the oil rat line. The Erdogan connection quite plausibly is a more important reason.)
The main issue for the United States is that this greatly complicates the US air campaign against ISIS, especially in Syria. In response to the downing of its jet, Russia has announced that it is deploying long range S-400 surface-to-air missiles to Syria to protect its aircraft. (Russia denied earlier reports that it had already deployed the missiles. There was some photographic evidence–of the distinctive radars–that they had, so perhaps they are using this as an excuse to announce something they had done before but denied.) Russia does not want to shoot down US planes, but accidents will happen, and the greater the envelope of the missiles, the more scope for accidents, especially given that US aircraft are operating out of Turkish bases.
There are reasons to be concerned about Putin and Russia. But Syria is not among them. Better to devote our efforts to proving a bulwark and deterrent against Putin where it matters to us, than tangling with him in a place where it doesn’t. As I’ve said, if anything, it’s better to have him stuck in Syria than running amok in eastern Europe.
There’s an old joke about “let’s you and him fight.” That seems about right here. Let Putin and Erdogan fight, if that’s what they want. We should want no part of it.
Further thoughts: There has been much blather post-Sharm al Sheik and post-Paris about a “grand alliance” between Russia and the West to fight ISIS. This was always a chimerical hope. First, Russia’s priority has never been ISIS, and even though it did intensify strikes on ISIS post-Metrojet, its efforts were still focused on the non-ISIS groups fighting Assad.
Second, what was the basis for a bargain? What really can Russia contribute to an anti-ISIS campaign that the US (aided by France and maybe the UK) could not do without its help? The lame Western effort has not been due to lack of capability: it has been due to a lack of will. And if Russia rally desires to strike ISIS (because is it is allegedly in its own interest), why would the West feel obliged to offer it any inducement? In particular, why would they offer what Putin really wants (concession on Assad, and in particular, elimination of sanctions and a free hand in Ukraine) when Putin really can’t offer anything material in return, especially since these concessions would be humiliating for Obama and the Europeans, and completely undermine Western credibility?
Third, differences over Assad’s fate appear reconcilable. The West–including Hollande, who has been most insistent (and pathetic) importuning Russia for help–has continued its insistence that Assad must go. Russia has been most insistent that he must stay. That gap cannot be bridged.
The downing of the Su-24 and the subsequent escalation (Putin has intensified the bombing of the groups Turkey supports, including the Turkmen) make any deal even less likely. This would involve throwing a Nato member over the side, and although Nato should be looking for ways to reduce commitments to Turkey, to do so under the current circumstances would be disastrous to the alliance, and would likely goad Erdogan (who doesn’t need much goading) into taking more provocative actions in Syria, and against Europe and the US. (For instance, if Europe thinks it is overwhelmed by refugees now, just think of what could happen if Erdogan put his mind to pushing Syrians into Europe.)
This may well be part of Erdogan’s thinking. If his action makes an already unlikely deal impossible, he wins.
Hollande is in Moscow today, looking awkward as Putin blasts Turkey. Putin also blamed the US for providing the intelligence about the aircraft that the Turkish F16s shot down. Especially with accusations like that, there is no way that there is going to be any deal. There may be words and promises, but nothing of substance, and Putin will certainly not be able to leverage the situation to his advantage.
If anything, he is in a weak position. Most of the non-military retaliatory actions he can take (e.g., cutting off food imports from Turkey, and shutting down tourism) are very damaging to an already economically isolated Russia. Cutting off gas sales would hurt Turkey, but at a large cost to Russia and Gazprom, which is already in bad shape. (The cancellation of Turkish Stream would be a potential benefit, as it would prevent Gazprom from wasting $10 billion.)
Militarily, Putin can intensify action against Turkish creatures in Syria, but Turkey can respond by escalating against the Syrian regime. What’s more, Turkey has a trump card: control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles. In the event of conflict between Russia and Turkey, Erdogan could close the Straits and leave Russian forces in Syria high and dry. Putin’s only escalatory option after that would be the unthinkable one.
In sum, I didn’t see much possibility for Putin to leverage Paris into a deal that would give him sanction relief or Western acquiescence on Assad before, and see even less now. Moreover, Putin’s position in the struggle with Turkey is relatively weak. In particular, he does not possess escalation dominance. Within the range of the thinkable, Erdogan does.