Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Jet?

Turkey may have been trying to prevent a unified front being formed to defeat the Islamic State.

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet is seen over Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, June 14, 2013
A Turkish F-16 fighter jet is seen over Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, June 14, 2013 (Kevin McGill)

Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane near its border with Syria earlier this week does not appear to be seriously escalating tensions between the two countries. Russia is punishing Turkish businesses, but President Vladimir Putin suggested on Thursday he was ready to move on when he said, “We proceed from the position that there will be no repeat of this, otherwise we’ll have no need of cooperation with anybody, any coalition, any country.”

Analysts are still struggling to figure out why Turkey, a NATO ally, took the risk of a confrontation with Russia in the first place.

Calculated risk

Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at New York University and an analyst for the crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat, argues at his blog that the Turks were waiting for the opportunity. The Russians were foolish to let their planes stray so close to the border, he argues.

But Turkey’s response went way beyond the usual practice. Don’t believe me? In 2012, the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet which had entered its airspace, and Erdoğan’s furious response at the time was that “a short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.”

Henri J. Barkey, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, similarly writes for The American Interest that the Turks had probably made up their minds in advance of this incident.

Although the Russian Su-24 that was shot down only veered into Turkey’s airspace for seventeen seconds, Turkish F-16s had been warning the Russians for five minutes — to no avail; the Russians didn’t even bother responding.

Five minutes would have given Turkey’s soldiers enough time to consult with their political bosses, Barkey points out. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he gave the order to shoot down the Russian plane himself.

“Given the high stakes involved, what would encourage the Turkish leadership to take such risks?” he wonders.

Syrian proxy war

Russia and Turkey have backed opposing side in the Syrian civil war, which is now in its fifth year.

The Russians support the minority regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Their airstrikes, since September, have mostly targeted Assad’s non-jihadist opponents in the western part of the country.

Meanwhile, the fanatical Islamic State, which earlier this month claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Paris that left more than 130 dead, is regularly attacked by American and French jets in the east of Syria.

Turkey, seeking Assad’s fall, has supported the very rebel groups that are now bombed by Russia’s planes.

Keeping the focus on Assad

Another worrying factor for Ankara, according to Barkey, “was the growing post-Paris consensus to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State at the expense of the fight against Assad.”

Some Western nations, including France, have openly entertained the possibility of closer cooperation with Putin to defeat the Islamists.

Erdoğan doesn’t tire of pointing out that it was Assad who “left space” for a group like the Islamic State to emerge. “He was the one who prepared the ground for this.”

Assad, an Alawite, deliberately radicalized the largely Sunni opposition against his regime, hoping that the rest of the world would ultimately see him as the lesser evil.

The Turks don’t have clean hands either. They allowed foreign fighters and weapons, including those bound for Islamic State territory, to cross their border into Syria from 2012 to 2014, hoping that this would put more pressure on Assad.

By shooting down the Russian plane, the Turks may have succeeded in preventing a grand coalition being formed in Syria that would have kept Assad in power.

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