The nightmares of the first Cold War are back, the threat is rising, and so is the spiral of provocation. After the Turkish Air Force has shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter jet at the Turkish-Syrian border, the tensions between East and West intensify to a level in which there is little more needed to lead the pot to explosion. Turkey instantly called an emergency meeting of NATO, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reacted visibly upset of Turkey’s sudden and harsh actions – and a potential alliance between both countries is now falling apart, and might trigger a global conflict.
With both main blocks operating with individual military operations in Syria and following similar, yet different strategies, it is an indirect confrontation between NATO and Russian forces – again – that can easily lead to a violent escalation of the looming East-West antagonism. This very recent incident does not only worsen the freezing relations between Russia and the West, it contains the probably biggest threat of escalation since the beginning of the new freezing period with the Ukrainian crisis that started in late 2013 and the following annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia – followed by a harsh sanctions regime by the West.
The War of Versions
Turkey has accused Russia that the fighter jet had illegally entered Turkish airspace, while Russia rejects these accusations stating that the jet was not even inside Turkish territory. Other sources indicate that the jet had actually been inside the Turkish border for just a few seconds. Even though, shooting down a fighter jet might look like an act of war, but with several actors fighting the same enemy, the border lines in combat situations become blurry and it is questionable if the command line to the Turkish fighter jet’s pilot was based on the pilot’s own judgement or on the higher command which presumably was unable either to identify the jet as a Russian one, or if it was misidentified for a Syrian fighter jet as the Syrian Air Force uses the same type, regarding the stress level at the time.
Just one day after the incident, evidence prove that the Russian version was the more plausible one, indicating that the Russian fighter jet was well outside Turkish airspace and actually crashed in Syria – a statement backed by one of the surviving Russian pilot, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, that was able to bail-out in time. Assuming that the warning by Turkish air defence (10 times within 5 minutes) was correct, the jet had been warned while still outside Turkish airspace and has been shot down the moment it – accidently – touched the airspace for 17 seconds only. As a side note: the second Russian pilot was shot down by the Turkmen fighters while he was airborne with his parachute after bailing out of the crashing jet. To demonstrate their doubtable triumph, Turkmen fighters posted a clip of the scene of the shooting on social media sites.
After Turkey had called for an urgent emergency meeting of NATO later the same day, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was hoping that NATO would back-up Turkey’s position and possibly impose a stronger strategy in Syria, even against Russia. However, Erdoğan was gambling wrongly and NATO calls on Turkey to not let the tensions to Russia escalate.
Meanwhile, Russia does its part of setting up accusations against Turkey – for real or for spite, blaming Turkey for indirectly financing ISIS through oil deals. In response to the shoot-down, Russia deploys further war ships to the region.
One Enemy, no Strategy
All actors involved in the Syrian conflict have one common enemy, and that is ISIS – Islamistic terrorist militia, pretending to be a state in the territories of what is Northern Iraq and Syria, and the perpetrators of numerous terrorist attacks in the very recent past – such as in Tunisia and in France. Despite the common enemy, every single actor has different approaches and strategies of how to fight ISIS – with more or less significant success. While the Western world backs the Rebels against the Assad Regime and therefore has two main adversaries, Russia follows a strategy of backing Assad as an instrument to obtain a relatively stable power factor in the common fight against ISIS.
Most western actors see two major adversaries in the entire conflict: ISIS and Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad, who is still considered as the main foe of the now obsolete and sobered “Arab Spring”. As such, Russia’s strategy to support Assad is, specifically for the US, an unacceptable slap in the face in their prolonged policy to “endure freedom” and so called western ideals to the Muslim world, completely disregarding the obviously utterly failed approaches in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Russia’s approach has to be seen from a realist’s interpretation, as it sees Assad – never mind being an authoritarian ruler – as a stabilizing factor for Syria once ISIS has been defeated, and for defeating ISIS, Assad is a logical ally. For Russia’s strategic ambitions in the Middle East and its alliance with Syria, Assad is the only key factor for a sustainable peace process – a tactic totally unacceptable from a western point of view. As a result, a lacking strategic line limits the prospects of ending the conflict in a reasonable and predictable time, and encourages ISIS to expand its operations – in Syria itself, as well as internationally through coordinated terrorist attacks.
The Fall of the Last Remaining Reasonable
Affected by the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris earlier this month, the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has assured assistance to France, and is now seriously considering the deployment of Tornado fighter jets to Syria – a second step after announcing to deploy more troops to Mali to relieve the present French troops. Germany even considers a Tornado deployment without requiring a UN mandate – unimaginable up to now, especially regarding Germany’s past involvements in other regions, such as in the Balkans or in Afghanistan, when troop deployments had always been backed by a UN mandate and a majority of the German parliament. Essentially, the German constitution requires a UN mandate for military actions abroad. Only once, during the 1999 Kosovo bombardments, a UN mandate was acquired ex post – highly controversial back then and even today.
Up to now, Germany was an actor of common sense in a global environment that becomes increasingly nervous and irrational when it comes to security and the Syrian question – disregarding if it is related to the civil war, or the linked refugee crisis. The reason that the German domino stone falls now and joins the “war coalition” alongside France, is an indication for the enormous international pressure Merkel is going through. She knows that Germany cannot stay at the side-line forever, although its contribution to humanitarian affairs is undeniable. Yet, the sudden drift towards increasing military action can be interpreted as both – a joined alliance with France; or a reaction after pressure from other actors, such as the US, that remains widely inactive and rather obliges its allies to fight both, ISIS and Assad.
The Syrian war, that started as a civil war, is incrementally growing into a global conflict with more international actors getting involved into it, and which undoubtedly rise the risk of terrorist attacks also in those countries that had mostly remained untouched until now. Beyond that, any outcome of the Syrian war will also affect the previous “neutral” ones.
More Irrational Reactions – Heating up the Flashpoint
Shortly after Russian the SU-24 was shot down, Russia announced its retaliation measures – in form of sanctions against Turkish agricultural products. Until now, as Russia is heavily suffering from the western sanctions regime, Turkey was one of the new key importers for food and agricultural products. The new sanctions against Turkey are not based on any reasonable suspicion against Turkey itself in this particular matter, as it is simply a political instrument harming both. Attempts to initiate bilateral talks between Erdoğan and Putin after the incident have been mutually rejected, which in the end increase the tensions between NATO and Russia.
Even though NATO does not fully back Turkey and has officially a genuine interest to defuse the tensions after the SU-24 incident, the lack of negotiation platforms between both will not lead to a visible approach in common strategy setting. Instead, both sides will continue to operate parallel with their individual strategies, with the looming risks of another incident occurring at any minute and probably leading to more severe misunderstandings.
The Syrian flashpoint is entering a new stage, and any accident can have catastrophic consequences. The risk of a global confrontation between East and West by accident is rising, and the world has just witnessed one serious warning shot – literally. The next warning shot might actually cause more damage, a lot more.