Just when you thought the political situation in the Middle East couldn't get any messier, it may have just done so. On the 24th November, Turkey decided to shoot down a Russian fighter jet. What on earth possessed them to do such a thing? Only the Turkish military will know the answer. But I’m pretty sure that, in the context of the heightened international tensions this could lead to, no excuse will be good enough.
The facts of the event are still somewhat hazy, but from the evidence we already have it is clear that the F15 fighter was given some form of warning before firing commenced. Turkish authorities claim that they sent the pilots ten warning signals over a ‘reasonable’ space of time, most likely somewhere in the region of 30 seconds. Yet other reports suggest that all ten warnings may have been sent in six seconds. The Russian authorities, namely foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, have claimed that the pilots of the jet received absolutely no warning at all and were only in Turkish airspace for a matter of seconds. Obviously, conflicting accounts are inevitable. However, the most suspicious factor in this story is that the jet landed, after being shot, four kilometres inside the Syrian border. Indeed, this leads one to question exactly how much time the pilot was given. After all, how far over the Turkish border could the fighter have been if it landed in Syrian territory? Surely it was leaving anyway?
A little background may help to give some insight into why this is a hugely significant political issue for all countries involved in the Middle East, not just Russia and Turkey. Turkey, for a long time now, has been undergoing a transition away from secularisation, led principally by the government and President Erdogan. Being a neighbor to Syria, the Turkish government has long been at odds with President Assad’s regime. This is partly due to vast political differences - Assad’s dictatorial regime and numerous human rights abuses - and a religious antagonism that pervades much of the Middle East conflict, namely between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Only a few weeks ago, the Turkish president declared that his country would stop at nothing to remove Assad from power.
So, where does Russia fit in? Well, as we know, Putin recently declared his public support for Assad and has been carrying out air strikes against the dictator's opponents (both ISIS and rebel fighters) ever since. A major flashpoint is therefore distinctly evident. Indeed, by supporting Assad, particularly in a military way, Russia has placed itself in direct opposition to Turkey in relation to Syria.
From this evidence, it might look like a dispute between Russia and Turkey has been a long time coming. Russian planes have crossed over the Turkish border a number of times during the past year and perhaps this was the final straw for the Turkish military. We can only speculate as to the underlying reasons for the military’s decision to gun down the Russian jet. What know for definite, however, is that this decision could have, and probably will have, serious international consequences. Just recently it appeared as though Russia was willing to water-down its support of the Assad regime. Now, Putin has said that Turkey will regret shooting down the Russian jet 'more than once'.
Indeed, Russia has stepped up its military defences in Syria, namely by deploying anti-aircraft missiles to its Syrian base. The Russian foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov, has also stated that the shooting was a ‘planned provocation’ by the Turkish government, after which he announced that Russia had imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, including a trade embargo that all-but bans agricultural market exchange between the two nations. Trade between Russia and Turkey benefits both economically, but more-so Turkey, due to the vast amount of commodities, particularly foodstuffs, that the Russian market purchases. Such swift action by the Russian government, and President Erdogan’s consistent refusal to apologise for the incident, will only lead to further tension between the two countries.
Moreover, this incident could become a global issue depending on how other countries decide to respond, namely those in NATO. The Pentagon has already said that this is a dispute between Turkey and Russia only. However, we can definitely be sure that the U.S. will monitor any exchanges between the two, and Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria will certainly be a matter for concern. Turkey is the second largest military force in NATO (after the U.S) and, lest we be reminded, the organisation has been at odds with Putin’s military operations in recent times, regarding Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. If Putin views Turkey’s action as somehow representative of NATO then global hostilities may mount.
Russia’s political position on Syria has time and again infuriated the West, but Turkey’s military incompetence must be equally frustrating for world leaders. I hope that this incident will not serve to fundamentally undermine diplomatic relations between the East and West. Indeed, the Syrian people, and others, are seeing their homes torn apart before their eyes and another political conflict is the last thing they need. This is a time for patience, not emotional reactions. I simply fear that angering Russia is not a savvy strategy for peace.