‘Which parts of Syria should be bombed?’

The Turkey-Russia showdown highlights ambiguities in the joint war efforts against ISIL.

Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Russia needs a face-saving way to back down on this and the Turks will give Russia a way to do that, analysts say [AP]

Despite the forceful rhetoric that has been coming from both Turkish and Russian leaders in the past 48 hours following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian plane, relations between the two countries will largely continue as normal in the medium to long-term, Turkish analysts told Al Jazeera.

“In terms of taking this to the next level, I do not really see the Russian state as an adventurous state in its foreign policy,” said Gulnur Aybet, the head of political science and international relations at  Bahcesehir University, in Istanbul.

Russia’s reaction to the confrontation with Turkey, a valued trading partner, would be limited to economic and diplomatic sanctions, Aybet said. “Of course there will be a souring of relations initially. But I think, diplomatically, they [the Russians] will work with the Turks to try and find out exactly what happened and then take it from there.”

On Tuesday, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane for violating Turkish airspace. The Russian Su-24 plane attacked by Turkish F-16s near the Syrian border was the first Russian (or Soviet) warplane shot down by a NATO country since the organisation was founded in 1949.

OPINION: Turkey won’t lose any sleep over Russia’s harsh words

Hours after the news was confirmed by the Turkish government, “World War 3” became a trending topic on Twitter, while the world media began to debate what this unexpected confrontation might mean for the future of international relations and the chances of achieving world peace. 

I believe, Putin's harsh statement about the confrontation is more for his domestic audience and his allies in the region like Iran and Assad.

by Gulnur Aybet, international relations professor, Bahcesehir University

A Turkish official, speaking to Al Jazeera, however, insisted that Turkey had no desire to escalate the situation further.

“Turkey and Russia share a long history and enjoy close relations in a range of areas,” he said.

Nonetheless, Erhan Buyukakinci, a Russia expert from Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, said Russia is expected to implement harsh economic sanctions.

Another retaliatory option, according to analysts, could see Moscow limiting Turkey’s access to Russian natural gas, but this seemed unrealistic, Buyukakinci said.

“If nothing unexpected happens to escalate the situation, Russia’s sanctions will be limited to restricting the circulation of tourists and putting some of their economic partnerships with Turkey on hold,” he added.

Russia’s strong initial reaction to the incident was mostly a “political necessity” and should not be taken as a genuine indication that Moscow is ready to sever all ties with Turkey.

“I believe Putin’s harsh statement about the confrontation is more for his domestic audience and his allies in the region, like Iran and Assad,” Aybet said. 

WATCH: Why did Turkey shoot down a Russian plane

Turkey-Russia relations souring over Syria conflict

Another factor likely to defuse the situation is that Turkey’s NATO allies will not want it to escalate when their sole focus is on eliminating the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

France, Germany and Belgium are concentrating on preventing ISIL cells from establishing themselves within European Union borders.

“NATO members will not be eager to make the confrontation between Russia and Turkey an important item on their political agenda,” Buyukakinci said. “NATO’s first concern would be to weaken ISIL, maybe with the support of ground forces, before the end of winter.”

As a result, NATO’s only contribution to this situation would be advising Turkey to become a part of, or at least support, Russian air strikes in Syria.

However, if Russia is to continue with its air strikes against ISIL near the Turkish-Syrian border, some violations of Turkey’s airspace will be inevitable, Buyukakinci said, and as a result, “Turkey needs to come to an understanding with Russia regarding this issue”.

The Turkish official insisted that Turkey’s rules of engagement had always been clear.

“The Turkish authorities did everything in their power to avoid military engagement but followed the rules when the unidentified plane, which turned out to be a Russian aircraft, did not respond to multiple warnings,” he said.

“Turkey has always acted in good faith by issuing multiple warnings and informing other governments about its rules of engagement.”

Emphasising that the new Turkish government would soon be forced to make a decision about its role in the fight against ISIL, he said: “The US’ priorities and decisions will inevitably shape Turkey’s interactions with Russia.”

OPINION: Turkey’s move against Russia: Cold War redux

But what does this showdown mean for the war efforts in Syria?


The official pointed out that Turkey was not willing to change its stance on Syria, nor was the Erdogan government willing to compromise with Russia on what constitutes a legitimate target in Syria.

Turkey, added the official, remains strongly against attacks on Turkmen in northern Syria, who are fighting against Assad’s forces and have been subjected to Russian air strikes in recent weeks. 

“As a member of the international anti-ISIL coalition, Turkey’s priority is to restore peace and stability in Syria and the region by facilitating the formation of a democratic government which reflects the Syrian people’s preferences,” he added.

On the other hand, Buyukakinci said the confrontation between Russia and Turkey was partially rooted in their disagreement over “which parts of Syria should be bombed”.

The Turkish official concurred.

“We have, however, repeatedly warned that targeting moderate rebels, such as the Turkmen community in Bayirbucak, might actually empower ISIL and facilitate the expansion of terrorist-held territory.” 

“Ultimately, our expectation is for the international community to unite against terrorism and tyranny.”

Pointing out that Russia was not willing to “walk into” a protracted war, Aybet said that the Russian leader would be careful not to act hastily.

“Even though they are in the theatre of war in Syria, Russia cannot afford a protracted war. They cannot afford to be there for a long time,” she said.

“Obviously, Russia needs a face-saving way to back down on this, especially after Putin’s very harsh statement. And I think the Turks will give Russia a way to do that.”

Source: Al Jazeera