As if anyone needed more proof: The shooting down of a Russian ground-attack warplane by the Turkish air force along the Syria-Turkish border shows just how devilishly complicated the Syrian conflict has become.
This will make it more difficult to bring foreign powers with different agendas together on a plan to end the fighting in Syria. Or to implement what has become a favored policy proposal of many of the U.S. presidential candidates, a no-fly zone. It’s an idea that Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, among others, say they support.
A no-fly zone or a more aggressive variant, establishment of safe zones, could in theory go some way toward protecting civilians (and probably anti-Assad rebel groups). Civilians might then stay closer to home rather than flood across Syria’s borders, overwhelming neighbors like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and flooding by the hundreds of thousands into Europe.
Russia will surely find ways to respond. It seems likely that, despite harsh words on both sides, this confrontation with NATO member Turkey will stop short of open conflict. But if the past four years of conflict in Syria show anything, it’s that the worst-possible scenario is always a distinct possibility.
Here’s what we know — or at least think we know:
A Russian SU-24 warplane with a two-man crew was conducting operations in support of the Syrian army battling rebels close to the Turkish border in northwest Syria. Turkey says the aircraft was warned away from Turkish airspace 10 times in five minutes. It was shot down with an air-to-air missile over or very near a small piece of Turkish territory that juts southward, and is surrounded on three sides by Syria. Russia claims the plane never entered Turkish air space, and was shot down over Syria. A map from the Turkish Defense Ministry, included in this BBC article, shows the plane crossing Turkish airspace, but being struck by the missile and crashing in Syria.
The Russian crewmembers bailed out. Syrian rebels, who apparently were the targets of the Russian air attacks, say they killed at least one of the airmen. A Russian helicopter on a rescue mission also came under fire, and a Russian marine was killed.
Turkey said it had repeatedly warned Russia since it began military operations this fall against crossing into Turkish airspace. Russian President Vladimir Putin was livid, calling the Turkish military action a “stab in the back.” He said Russia was attacking fighters of the Islamic State who originate in Russia, and accused Turkey of siding with the extremists.
Some backstory: Russia and Turkey are important players in Syria. And theoretically, at least, they are on the same side at least part of the time. Both would have to be key members of any international campaign against the Islamic State. But Turkey has been accused of turning a blind eye to Islamic extremists because they may be useful in accomplishing another important Turkish goal — one that it shares with the United States, its European allies and Saudi Arabia — getting rid of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia, of course, is one of Assad’s two key international backers. The other is Iran. Russia says the Islamic State is the real enemy.
But in practice, instead of targeting Islamic State fighters, Russia is far more focused on other rebel groups, according to the rebels, the U.S. and its allies. And this is where things start getting nasty between the Turks and the Russians.
According to this New York Times report, Turkey has complained in recent days that Russian attacks in northwest Syria were actually targeting tribal fighters allied with Turkey. The government was upset enough that it summoned the Russian ambassador. But the Russian military operations continued.
Perhaps Turkey was looking for an opportunity to teach Putin a lesson?
Here are some of the complications:
Putin needs to maintain his tough-guy image at home, and he has sold the Syria intervention as a way to protect Russia from terrorism. But in less than a month, Russia has now suffered the terrorist bombing of a passenger jet over Egypt, and the loss of this military plane.
In those circumstances, it will be hard for Putin to back down.
For now, he’s unlikely to budge on his insistence that Assad must stay in power, the one key point on which the U.S. and its allies need him to give ground. The effort to forge a common approach to ending the war took on new urgency after the bombing of the Russian passenger plane on Oct. 31, and the terror attacks in Paris two weeks later. French President Francois Hollande was in Washington on Tuesday to press the effort. He’ll be in Moscow on Thursday.
Having had a warplane shot down by Turkey, Putin also is unlikely to stop flying missions over Syria. It’s not worth trying to force him to do so. That would be a good way to globalize what is now a horrific, but contained, civil war.
If the Turks and the Russians can’t or won’t stay out of each’s other’s way, what chance is there for a no-fly zone, which would need to be constantly patrolled? And if more countries join the bombing campaign (Prime Minister David Cameron, for one, says he will seek parliamentary approval to expand British operations from Iraq into Syria), it will get even tougher.
It’s hard enough to coordinate these flights when everyone’s on the same side. But historically, Russia has been more of an adversary than an ally. Its military has little recent history of working with the West. In Syria, and elsewhere, Moscow is more often a competitor, one with a very different agenda and surprising ways of pursuing it.