The Turkish-Russian proxy war in Syria

Moreover, the incident will further isolate Turkey in ongoing talks among major powers to find a political solution to Syria’s four-and-a-half-year civil war.

NATO-member Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 on Tuesday, Nov. 24, after it violated Turkish airspace despite repeated warnings. Russia, on its part, has confirmed one brief incursion, blaming Turkey, however, for engaging in a provocative act by shooting down its fighter.

Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria’s civil war since September to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s position against opposition groups has, in fact, signaled that ties between Turkey and Russia are also under strain. Turkish-Russian fighters have begun engaging in dangerous encounters along the Turkish border. In October, Ankara accused Moscow of violating its airspace at least twice. NATO at the time denounced Russia for “irresponsible behavior” by violating Turkish airspace, while Turkey warned that any future aerial intruder would be treated like an enemy. Ankara was referring to its rules of military engagement, amended in 2012 after Syria brought down a Turkish fighter aircraft.

The countries’ standoff has now culminated with Turkey downing the Russian fighter.

The location of the incident brings into question a possible proxy war taking place between Turkey and Russia. The incident took place in a mountainous area in northern Syria near the Turkish-Syrian border in the Yayladagı district of Hatay province, across the border from the Turkmen Mountains in Syria where an intensive bombing campaign by Syrian and Russian warplanes has been under way. Turkmens have ties of ethnic kinship with Turkey, which earlier warned Russia against ongoing assaults on Turkmen areas.

Hence, the developments that have culminated with Turkey downing a Russian fighter have indicated that a proxy war is developing between Turkey and Russia that has nothing to do with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On one side there is Turkey and the groups it supports, including the Turkmens. On the other, there is Russia and the Syrian regime.

Matters, however, are becoming increasingly uncomfortable for Turkey because regime forces are now just a few kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border around Hatay province. Regime forces backed by Russian fighters have also continued bombing Turkmen areas in northern Syria where the Russian jet was downed by Turkish F-16s, capturing a strategic mountain in the region.

In retaliation to the downing of its aircraft, Russia announced a series of economic, political and military measures against Turkey. Moscow has urged Russian tourists not to visit Turkey and mutual contacts have been canceled. Russia ranks second after Germany in terms of the number of tourists visiting Turkey, reaching 4.5 million last year.

As part of military measures, Russia has announced the deployment of the Slava-class guided missile cruiser Moskva off the Syrian coast, close to Turkish shores, and has stated that its strike aircraft in Syria will now be escorted by fighter aircraft.

In return, Turkey has increased the number of its F-16s deployed along the Syrian border from 14 to 18, while dispatching its Fırtına self-propelled guns to the area.

Although Turkey and Russia enjoy close trade and economic ties, with the former buying more than half of its gas from the latter, while Turkish contracting work in Russia has a volume of around $60 billion, differing policies on Syria have, in fact, been straining ties between the two.

Turkey backs opposition forces in Syria, while Russia fights alongside the forces of Assad, whose downfall Ankara seeks. Moreover, Russia has been opting to hit other opposition groups, complicating the 60-member, US-led coalition strategy of defeating ISIL in Syria and Iraq. The downing of the Russian aircraft is not expected to change Russian policies in the region. Instead, Turkey has the most to lose, mainly through soft power mechanisms, because Moscow has already begun enforcing measures such as halting the entry of Turkish goods into the country.

Moreover, the Russians have already begun to embarrass the Turkish government by releasing information they have about Turkey’s alleged support for ISIL, provided they have something tangible. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that unnamed Turkish officials were benefiting from ISIL oil sales.

“Now, ‘the gloves are off,’ so to speak, so I expect that diplomatic niceties are over. This will get interesting now as Turkey’s relationship with ISIL might be under the Russian microscope,” commented a Western diplomat who spoke to me.

At the end of the day, the Turkish government was careless in engaging the Russian aircraft because it does not serve the national interest.


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ألباكيركي، نيو مكسيكو، 18 تشرين الأول/أكتوبر، 2017 / بي آر نيوزواير / — أهلا بكم