Offering a dramatic window into the fractious and complex geopolitics now swirling around the war against the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq, the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey on Tuesday was also followed by the release of footage purporting to show a Russian military helicopter being destroyed by Syrian rebel forces armed with U.S.-supplied anti-tank missiles.
Even as some analysts were quick to tamp down assertions that Tuesday's incidents would lead to an overt military conflict between Turkey and Russia or serve as the spark for "World War III," other informed voices argued there are numerous reasons to be concerned over just how volatile the situation has become inside Syria, and regionally, as simmering tensions intensify between the various outside powers who have involved themselves in the power-struggle over Syria's future.
Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, a spokesperson for Russia's Military General Staff, said that attempts were made to locate the two pilots of the downed fighter jet, but that rebel factions, reportedly armed with U.S.-supplied TOW missiles, downed one of two Russian-built helicopters that were on the rescue mission.
Rudskoi said the shooting killed one crew member aboard the Mi-8 helicopter and forced it to land in neutral territory. The rest of the crew, he said, was evacuated.
The TOW missiles, which the CIA has provided to Syrian rebel factions on the ground either directly or through proxies, have engendered criticism from those warning about the Obama administration's "incoherent" and "counter-productive" strategy in Syria. The added irony is that Tuesday's incidents come amid steady progress in recent weeks as Russia and the U.S. have joined with other key players—including Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and EU states—to forge a framework agreement to end the fighting between numerous factions now operating inside Syria.
While many have criticized the Obama administration for sanctioning large weapons transfers of sophisticated weaponry that could—and often did—fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated forces, it was Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, who explained to USA Today recently that "any military equipment sent into Syria to these groups is done both with U.S. knowledge and involvement."
Despite the destabilizing impact of the multiple and complex alliances the U.S. has made inside Syria and the implications of the military cooperation agreement with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who has allowed the U.S. to use Turkish air bases to fly sorties over Syria and Iraq—President Obama said at press conference from the White House on Tuesday that it was Russia who was largely to blame for the latest incidents.
"I do think that this points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to the Turkish border and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported not only by Turkey but by a number of countries," said Obama. Though he called for calm and de-escalation efforts by all parties, the U.S. president said Turkey was justified in defending its airspace.
As much of the the U.S. media predictably placed blame for Tuesday's developments at Putin's feet, James W. Carden, a contributing editor of The Nation and executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord, offered a narrative that asked tougher questions about Turkey's role in the war against ISIS and how its NATO membership is impacting regional stability.
Though rarely mentioned in much of the western reporting on the crisis, Carden points out how "Turkey has played a leading role in fomenting the unrest in Syria since the very beginning of the uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad in 2011." Now, Carden continues, Erdogan is wielding increasingly dangerous influence by pushing NATO countries and Russia away from diplomatic détente and back towards the precipice of a broader war.
"Turkey," Carden says, "has aided, abetted, and funded ISIS by keeping its southern border open with Syria, allowing radical jihadists from Europe to cross back and forth from ISIS-controlled territory, thereby enabling them to return to Europe to plot and execute such attacks as were recently carried out in the French capital."
According to recent reporting, part of Turkey's latest maneuvering has to do with the supply routes that are used to funnel weapons, supplies, and money into Syria while allowing a path for foreign fighters and black market oil—much of it benefiting ISIS and other forces allied against Assad—to get out. Offering analysis at the Middle East Eye on Tuesday, David Barchard writes:
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Since 2011, Turkey has channeled aid to the Syrian opposition in an attempt to bring down the Assad government and replace it with a Sunni regime. In the last few years, there have been persistent allegations of Turkish supplies reaching IS. This year, Turkey’s rhetoric has toughened and Erdogan has spoken out strongly against IS though until very recently, there seemed to be a tendency in Ankara to suggest that it is an offshoot or ally of Turkey’s other enemies, Kurdish nationalists, or Assad’s forces.
"Regime change" in Syria is an aspiration that Turkey can hardly give up after nearly five years of making it an absolute priority in foreign policy and the admission of 2.3 million Syrian refugees onto its soil. If Russia manages not just to prop up but also to consolidate a viable Syrian rump state under Assad, this is something that Ankara will find very hard to live with.
Those strategic interests, writes Carden, invite serious questions about why Erdogan would actually take such aggressive action against a single Russia jet, even if it had temporarily crossed into Turkish airspace. He writes:
Erdogan’s motives for the shoot-down are not terribly difficult to divine, and they have little to do with the alleged violation of Turkey’s sovereign airspace. As was widely reported, at the G20 summit last week in Antalya, Turkey, Putin revealed aerial surveillance and satellite imagery showing a miles-long line of oil-tanker trucks stretching from ISIS-controlled territory into Turkey.
And worse, from Erdogan’s standpoint, was the decision made by French President François Hollande to bypass NATO and instead appeal to to the EU to invoke its mutual assistance clause, all the while advocating for a coalition against ISIS that would include the Russians. This morning’s shoot-down will ensure that NATO gets in the game, which is exactly what Erdogan, as a treaty member, wants.
Carden concludes: "What Turkey has done is to bring the NATO alliance yet another step closer to an open conflict with Russia, and at a minimum it has sundered the chances for a NATO-Russian coalition against ISIS in Syria, which perhaps was Erdogan’s plan all along."
Whatever the accuracy of that conclusion, Joshua Keating, an international affairs writer at Slate, argues that Tuesday's events, at the very least, have exposed just how fraught diplomacy and workable solutions are going to be in Syria so long as countries like Russia and Turkey maintain such diametrically-opposed strategic interests.
After events on Tuesday, writes Keating,
Russia is unlikely to build on cooperation with NATO forces in Syria. Not surprisingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called off a planned trip to Turkey. Putin may also redouble the country’s campaign against Turkish-backed rebel groups in Syria and its support for the Assad regime. Turkey and the Gulf states had been pushing at Vienna to expand the number of rebel groups viewed as “legitimate” opposition, which Russia, Iran, and their Syrian proxies are now more likely to reject.
Under the best circumstances, Turkey and Russia would both be highly problematic partners in any project aimed at destroying ISIS. Russia is more interested in defending a Syrian regime that has abetted the Islamic State’s rise. Turkey has only belatedly joined U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS, but has also continued to bomb the Kurdish fighters that have been the most effective force in fighting ISIS on the ground. Still, given their deep involvement in the conflict, it’s hard to imagine any meaningful political settlement in Syria without Turkey’s cooperation.