The international community watched in shock at what happened above the Syria-Turkey border this week when a Russian SU-24 jet was shot down by the Turkish air force for allegedly violating Turkish airspace while conducting airstrikes in Syria. The two sides differ in their versions of events, notably over where the Russian bomber was when it was hit. Many are speaking that this may be the start of World War III, but direct, long-term military confrontation between Turkey and Russia is very unlikely. However much the situation may affect Turkey and Russia’s territorial integrity, security and economy, overall, the reactions to the downing of the SU-24 have really only resulted in more suffering for Arab and non-Arab civilians living in Syria.
The Turkish narrative is that the Russian aircraft left Syria airspace and entered Turkey’s, and that the Turks warned the Russians 10 times in five minutes that they had entered Turkish territory; the voice recording of this has been released. When the Russians apparently did not take the Turkish warnings seriously and continued on their flight path, Turkey’s defence procedures swung into action and the SU-24 was engaged and shot down.
The Russians, though, deny flying into Turkish airspace. At first, they claimed that it was the Free Syrian Army which shot down the aircraft, but that accusation melted away as the truth became more apparent. Russian President Vladimir Putin then admitted that it was Turkey which fired the missile at the SU-24 and described the attack as “backstabbing” his country; he remained adamant that it had not entered Turkish airspace. Although claiming to have evidence to this effect, Moscow has not yet produced it.
Russia reacted almost immediately, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelling his proposed trip to Ankara and urging all Russian citizens to do the same; he compared the incident to Daesh shooting down a Russian civilian airliner over Sinai last month. The Russian air force also reacted, with strikes on the Syrian port of Latakia. It also deployed the S-400 anti-missile system to protect its base; the system has to the potential to destroy any military aircraft within a range of 400 km. Latakia is near the Turkish border and is also home to the Turkmen, an ethnic group of Turkish origin who live on the mountains bordering the two countries. Russia intensified its existing aerial operations in north-western Aleppo, during which, report local sources, an aid convoy delivering food to refugees was hit. It is important to note that in the first month of Russia’s military involvement in Syria, it allowed Daesh to strengthen its presence in north-western Aleppo, which is a rebel stronghold.
Moscow has now announced economic sanctions against Ankara. On Thursday afternoon, the Minister for Economic Development, Alexei Ulyukaev, said that there is a possibility that one of the consequences of downing the SU-24 would be that the proposed natural gas pipeline through Turkey and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant projects would be halted. This would affect both the Turkish and Russian economies, as the power plant is a $22 billion project and was expected to have been finished by 2020, saving Turkey $14 billion in energy costs. In total, the two projects could have resulted in bilateral trade between the two countries worth $100 billion by 2023. In effect, therefore, Moscow isn’t only sanctioning the Turkish economy, it is also sanctioning itself. Turkey and Russia have mutual economic interests, which have evidently played out, but this does not mean they have compromised their political tensions as a result.
NATO has not yet unified its response. The evidence presented by Turkey and the stability of its narrative, compared to Russia’s lack of evidence and constant changing of the minutiae of its version means that the Turkish account of what happened on the morning of Tuesday 24 November is more plausible. It must be remembered, though, that Turkey did not notify NATO of its action, which it is compelled to do as a NATO member. For now, it seems like NATO is focusing less on Turkey’s actions and more on securing the future of the security pact. It is not in NATO’s interests or those of its member states to be dragged into a war with Russia; it is likely, therefore, that NATO will use as much diplomacy as possible to de-escalate the situation.
For the moment, then, the repercussions for Turkey of shooting down the Russian aircraft appear to be based on soft power. All military reactions by Russia have, in the usual fashion, been conducted via proxy on the ground in Syria. For now, there is no real need to emphasise the potential for WWIII; rather, we need to look at how the wider conflict is further complicating the situation in Syria, drowning out the prospect of a ceasefire, let alone a peaceful resolution.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.