Behind Russian jet downing lies deep schism over defining Syria’s ‘terrorists’
The shooting down of a Russian warplane by Turkish F-16s is not just about a 17-second airspace violation or Ankara proving willing to defend its territorial sovereignty.
The incident also highlights Russia’s consistent regional and international antagonism and draws attention to an issue as equally contentious as the fate of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad: which Syrian rebel groups are considered acceptable and which are terrorists?
Saudi Arabia will host a conference in mid-December to unite Syrian opposition groups ahead of a new round of peace talks with the Assad regime.
While it is clear that ISIL and Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra will not be part of a ceasefire that may follow the talks, there’s been no agreement among the backers of Mr Al Assad and the rebels on which groups might be allowed to participate in a truce.
Jordan will hold a meeting next month to decide which groups will be considered terrorists.
Following Turkey’s downing of the Su-24 bomber on Tuesday, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin defended the pilots’ mission, saying they were bombing areas where extremist militants originally from Russia were active.
“They were doing their direct duty delivering preventive blows at terrorists who could return to Russia at any moment,” he said. “Those people should certainly be classified as international terrorists.”
However, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that, along with violating Turkish airspace, the Russian pilots were bombing ethnic Turkmen living in the area.
“We strongly condemn attacks focusing on the places where Bayirbucak Turkmens live. We have relatives and cognates living there,” Mr Erdogan said.
Turkmen rebels, who oppose the Assad regime and receive support from Turkey, later claimed to have killed both Russian pilots, though the Kremlin said that one survived.
The incident shows how Moscow appears to draw few distinctions between ISIL and other rebel groups — a key reason why the Russian campaign has been criticised by the West as mainly aimed at propping up the regime.
For the different sides in Syria’s war to find an end to the conflict, they must not only agree on the fate of Mr Al Assad, still a key stumbling block, but also on the future of the rebels. On Wednesday, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that until a list of Syria’s legitimate political opposition and a list of terror groups were agreed upon “we don’t expect any progress in the Vienna process,” referring to the peace talks.
Turkey’s action could be interpreted as an early blow in what will be heated discussions about those who have waged a nearly five year war against the regime.
“It is natural to expect a wide divergence between Turkey and Russia regarding the opposition groups.” said Sinan Ulgen chairman of the Istanbul-based Edam think tank and former Turkish diplomat. “Where they overlap is the Islamic State, which they both view as a terrorist entity. Beyond that there is little overlap.”
Russia will also likely seek to pay more attention to Turkey’s support for the rebels, some of which might have benefited ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra.
“We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from ISIL-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving,” Mr Putin said on Tuesday.
This type of rhetoric will likely increase in the aftermath of the plane being shot down as Russia and Turkey engage in a war of words rather than direct military confrontation.
The two countries have strong business ties, with Turkey being the second largest buyer of Russia’s natural gas after Germany. The fallout may now derail plans for a joint 900-kilometre pipeline called TurkStream, as well as a project for multiple nuclear reactors that Turkey commissioned Russia to build, at least until the Syrian conflict is resolved.
The latest event recalls the June 22, 2012 incident when a Turkish RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by the Syrian regime, killing both pilots.
That incident was followed by an escalation of Turkish support for the Syrian opposition and increased border clashes.
Similarly, Russia will likely avoid direct military confrontation this time, although the Russian defence ministry has threatened a “complex of measures”.
The downing of the jet followed several Russian violations of Turkish airspace. Russia’s willingness to spurn the territorial boundaries of other countries made Tuesday’s incident unsurprising.
Over the past years, Russian jets have consistently entered the airspace of other countries, including that of its Baltic neighbours who are especially wary of Moscow following its 2014 takeover of Crimea and support for rebels in Ukraine.
On November 20, Russia requested that Lebanon partially close its airspace as the Russian navy performed drills in the Mediterranean Sea. Three days later, Iraq temporarily closed its northern airspace because of Russian cruise missiles being launched at targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea.
Fighter jets will now accompany Russian bombers on missions, meaning that another confrontation between Turkish and Russian warplanes could lead to a full-on aerial dogfight.
Turkey’s downing of the jet may make Russia less willing to give concessions over Syria. It will also make Mr Putin unwilling to de-escalate his involvement in the country until he can declare a victory.