Foreign Policy Flashpoints: Russian Jet Shot Down at the Turkish Border

There is word this morning that NATO member Turkey has downed a Russian fighter jet along the Turkey-Syrian border. Initial reports from the Russians indicate that the SU-24 fighter was brought down by Turkish artillery fire from the ground. Turkish sources contradict this account and state that the jet was brought down by Turkish F-16s. What remains undisputed is that a NATO member has downed a Russian combat aircraft. The first reports have indicated that at least one Russian died in the crash.

This would be the first time since the 1950s that a member of NATO has downed a Russian aircraft.

For over a month, Russian forces have been hammering the positions of both ISIS and other enemies of Russian proxy Bashar Assad in Syria. The stated goal of the mission is to allow Assad to remain in power and bring an end to the years-long Syrian Civil War. The situation is made more tense by the fact that the United States, while committed to the defeat of the Islamic State, has also made it its stated position that Assad must relinquish power.

After the Paris attacks of 11/13, the French government led by President Hollande has called for increased strikes against the Islamic State. Visiting with both Presidents Obama and Putin within days of one another, Hollande is searching for allies in the reprisal strikes against the terrorist nation controlling swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq (as well as a growing presence in Libya and Afghanistan).

For all the sabre-rattling, the most beneficial outcome for the Syrians, as well as for the West’s War on Terror, would be for the United States to relent on its decree that Assad must leave power. A temporary ceasefire so that NATO and Russia can work together to target the Islamic State would be the most prudent course of action. While it would, indeed, cost the United States and give Russia a geopolitically strategic victory, it would mean that resources could be pooled and used more effectively. It would also present a unified front from an international optics perspective.

Especially given the reality in Russia that, following the downing of a Russian passenger airline mere days before the terrorist attacks in Paris, that the Russian people want to seek vengeance against terrorists, the Russian government would likely be in a favorable mood to agree with the United States to focus on ISIS. The negotiated peace in Syria would look something like this: Russia agrees to focus on bombing ISIS; US agrees to let Assad remain in power; Assad agrees to hold legislative elections (note that the last elections to the Syrian parliament were held in May of 2012). The caveat to the elections must be that the National Progressive Front (the majority of which is made up of Ba’athists) cannot have full control over the assembly. Rather, some degree of shared ideological representation should be in order.

All of these ideas for a mediated solution in the Syrian Civil War may come to naught, however, after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter. Is this the start of the Third World War? No, probably not. There will be a great deal of moral outrage from Russia and we can expect emergency meetings by NATO member states.

Regardless of the method by which the plane was brought down, the fact remains that heightened tensions across the region as well as between the United States and Russia are on full display. The mutual, and likely earned, distrust between the Kremlin and the White House benefits those individuals and entities that thrive on instability and chaos.

While my larger fear was that a Scandinavian country would have shot down a Russian jet after one of the many repeated incursions over the past year, we have to realize that this morning’s incident between Turkey and Russia was readily predictable. With the volume of flights the Russians have been conducting and the bellicose attitude of the Turks towards their southern borders (justifiably, considering that the Islamic State occupies territory nearby), while we would hope that a situation like this would not have developed, we understand why it did.

A few takeaways:

  • Turkey is in a significant state of flux. President Erdogan has just regained a full majority in Turkey’s parliament. Remember that Erdogan had taken a hard stance and cracked down on certain freedoms in response to protests. His AK Party had lost its absolute majority in elections in June but regained it in early November. Basically, Erdogan is governing with a mandate.
  • This effectively ends Carly Fiorina’s (and others’) call for a no-fly zone in Syria. On the one hand, they will say that a no-fly zone could have prevented the shooting. However, a no-fly zone would only cause more incidents like the one today.
  • While this will not cause a nuclear war, this incident significantly chills any good will the Russians may have been building with respect to cooperation with NATO in fighting the Islamic State. While pragmatic heads may prevail, the popular opinion for working with NATO after this event will diminish.
  • Putin has yet another nationalist trump card to use against NATO and the United States.
  • Turkey is looking to flex its muscles. The Turks have been sitting on the sidelines in the fight against the Islamic State and in the Syrian Civil War since both flared into being. While on the one hand, the Turks are willing to watch the Islamic State and the Kurds slaughter one another, the Turks may be looking to increase their participation in the defense of their borders.
  • It appears that the F-16 is the fighter model that has held up better than the SU-24.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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