Downed Russian jet is just a mirage over Syria

Turkey provides more smoke and mirrors for the press to occupy themselves with.

Erdogan will be a chief distraction to Obama's missteps, directing the cameras away from the US president's apocalyptic failure in Syria, writes Jay [Reuters]

The Rubik’s Cube of the Syrian war just got more complicated. A week or so after military analysts mulled the idea of the crowded skies there – and as the British Prime Minister David Cameron just got the nod from parliament to start bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria – the world was captivated by a NATO member, Turkey, shooting down a Russian jet after it allegedly had breached Turkish airspace.

That one incident might cost Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dearly. After consolidating his power at home following recent re-elections, many Turks were jubilant last week about his “super power” machismo.

But the reaction so far from Russian President Vladimir Putin has been measured and aimed at hitting Erdogan where it hurts. Exports from Turkey to Russia are already being blocked (mainly agricultural products) and a Russian tourism boycott on the country is under way, following Putin’s call for all Russians to leave Turkey and cancel planned vacations there.

Can Turkey and Russia resolve their dispute?

And the public accusations from Putin that Turkey is funding ISIL have been resonating throughout the region with Erdogan silencing any journalists who dare to suggest that the diesel oil being smuggled across the border is the smoking gun to support the claim.

Actually it isn’t. And Turkey argues that the border is impossible to simply close, while the smuggling is beyond the reach of Ankara to control. In fact, if Putin’s claims of Turkey backing ISIL are based on the diesel smuggling, then even the harshest critic of Erdogan could counter that the Russian bear doesn’t really have any legitimate case to argue.


It’s a low hanging fruit in terms of geopolitical spats to accuse Turkey of this as it is a convenient notion which many would believe, simply because ISIL is fighting Turkey’s two foes in the country: the Assad regime and the Kurds.

Russia does not want ISIL to be destroyed in Syria as Putin fears many of the mercenaries from the West will head to Chechnya. The West doesn’t want ISIL to be destroyed as it will legitimise Assad’s stature. And Turkey doesn’t want ISIL to be weakened as this would strengthen the Kurds.


And with US President Barack Obama’s mojo in the region now a museum piece as no real US foreign policy is present; it’s easy for Russia to manipulate the Western media who are used to off-the-record briefings from government aides who spoon-feed them their diet of other convenient half-truths.

The lesson about the downing of the Russian jet is how sloppy journalism became the order of the day and how most Western media outlets turned on Erdogan and were not at all sympathetic to Turkey’s position. This might be a blip as the so-called regional experts, cosily nested in their airless offices in Washington, London, and Paris, were caught off-guard.

A NATO country downing a Russian jet was shocking – you have to go back 63 years to see such an incident – so Putin’s wrath made big news. Many UK tabloid editors went with “World War III” with a picture of Putin looking like a man about to break all of your knuckles for merely looking at his daughter’s hemline.

But Obama hit the nail on the head when he said on Tuesday that “Putin must now understand that there will be no military solution in [the] Syrian civil war” – on the same day that Russian reports of a second airbase in Syria emerged.

OPINION: Could downed warplane contain Russian aggression?

The problem is Obama and Putin have different ideas about a solution, although neither of them really wants ISIL out of the picture. If they did, then they would simply work out a plan to cut off the region (Turkey) from cross border trade, and oil exports (via Iraqi Kurdistan), the latter making their way to Israel.

Conflicting interests

Yet journalists, once again, have been cleverly skirted away from what is probably boring copy – the diesel oil smuggling. If we are to believe Pentagon intelligence, 90 percent of Putin’s bombing has hit Assad’s opposition fighters – those same fighters whom, we should remember, the US stopped funding and let starve last year.

They are those same “moderate” Sunnis, many originating from the Syrian army, who had to resort to selling information about Westerners to ISIL for $50,000 simply to function.

OPINION: Turkey-Russia: The inevitable clash of the titans

It is not the priority of Russia to destroy ISIL at the moment as that same group is fighting Assad’s opposition groups. And anyway, destroying ISIL is a Western foible to which Putin will not adhere.


Yet, while Russian jets hit Assad’s opposition fighters, ISIL wins small, but important victories elsewhere, like in Aleppo this week.

Russia does not want ISIL to be destroyed in Syria as Putin fears many of the mercenaries from the West will head to Chechnya. The West doesn’t want ISIL to be destroyed as it will legitimise Assad’s stature. And Turkey doesn’t want ISIL to be weakened as this would strengthen the Kurds.

Assad’s presidency is the core issue that unites them all despite the horrific Paris bombings, which has just pushed Western leaders Francois Hollande and Cameron deeper into a vortex of blinded dogma that Assad is the architect of ISIL.

Martin Jay is a Beirut-based foreign reporter with more than 25 years of experience in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He is the founding editor of An-Nahar English.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.