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Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet complicates an already complicated conflict

A Russian SU-24 warplane with a two-man crew was conducting operations in support of the Syrian army battling rebels when it was shot down by a Turkish air-to-air missile over or very near a small piece of Turkish territory.

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.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/25/2015 - 02:36 pm.

    Predicted and Not Helpful

    Very concise summary and projection, Mark. Whatever various analysts may proclaim, one thing is certain: Putin has changed his rules of engagement as of this week.

    The Russian relationship with Turkey has been on again-off again for decades going back at least to Cold War days and our use of Turkey as a base for intelligence gathering, including U-2 flights, if I correctly recall.

    That era gave us Russia’s downing of one such plane, making Frances Gary Powers the Poster Pilot of the era. When Turkey then sent us packing, relationships were strained until we again found another friendly in charge. Getting Turkey into NATO was a really big deal for many parties. Putin has never been happy about that, so here we all are once again.

    No Fly Zones do not improve circumstances on the ground (except for bombing issues), so I really don’t understand all that chatter now. We flew one for 10 years over Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Life on the ground grew critically worse for humans, while we burned millions of gallons of kerosene over Iraq, contributing to the carbon drift. Those talking No Fly Zone for Syria are admitting they have no workable strategies to remedy ground realities.

    Ingenuity is not an attribute of bureaucracy.

    [NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the Eastern Med. Nothing makes sense anymore.]

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/25/2015 - 03:05 pm.

      Russia and Turkey

      “The Russian relationship with Turkey has been on again-off again for decades going back at least to Cold War days . . .” It’s interesting you should bring that up. I recently finished Dominic Lieven’s interesting book, The End of Tsarist Russia. One of the major foreign policy debates of pre-1917 Russia was how far to go towards controlling the Bosporus and perhaps annexing Constantinople. The great themes are always timely, aren’t they?

      Moscow’s two biggest problems now, in my opinion, are first, that there is no debate. President Putin is very much in charge of policy, and that is the end of the discussion. The second problem is, I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. I don’t think he has any real strategy, but is just reacting to events as they happen. President Putin is not happy about coming in second, or taking a subordinate role, but he hasn’t really thought things through beyond not wanting the US to best him. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Russia is a powerful nation (brute strength). It gives him a lot of weight to throw around, even if he does do it ineptly.

      “Those talking No Fly Zone for Syria are admitting they have no workable strategies to remedy ground realities.” Very true. If the primary fight is against Daesh, a No Fly Zone is largely symbolic. If the fight is against Assad, is that fight worth the possibility of war with Russia?

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/25/2015 - 03:55 pm.


        Putin does have a strategy: to regain some meaningful position of Soviet Era world significance. I find it interesting that this contemporary man grown from KGB childhood should look back to ancient territorial issues: Crimea, Ukraine and perhaps Turkey. If anything, he’s certainly a provocateur testing responses.

        Daesh it all. We must either figure out Middle East metrics, or stop pretending we have.

        Happy Thanksgiving…for some in the U.S., and not for some others. It is an American holiday; but, Turkey will be on tables all around the Western World.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/25/2015 - 04:53 pm.

          Goals vs. Strategy

          Putin knows what he wants to accomplish it; he just has no idea how to do it.

          I have often thought that the Cold War expansionism of the Soviet Union had more in common with the imperial dreams of the Romanovs than with Marxism. Imagine what Nicholas II would have thought had he been told that Russia would rule over most of Austria-Hungary and a large part of the German Empire less than 35 years after his death.

          • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/25/2015 - 07:41 pm.

            Imperial Leninism Perhaps

            I think Nicholas II would have said, “What do you know about that?” His Mother might have said, “It’s about time!”

            Marx was more about economics. I think Putin may be mostly about our concept of Manifest Destiny. For him, that is probably the North Sea and Mediterranean, as ours was first the Mississippi and then the Pacific Ocean. Putin, of course, is also very much about the large ego of a small man; hence, the body building horse riding attention getting.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/25/2015 - 04:16 pm.

    another option

    Flexibly change American foreign policy according to the facts and circumstances. Set aside our rigid, fixed, obsession with regime change in Syria. Find a basis for cooperative action with both Russia and Iran, clarifying a path forward in a united front against Isis.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 12/04/2015 - 08:18 am.

      Good Thinking Difficult to Enact

      I appreciate your focus on flexibility. All parties now bring a collection of historically separate “enemies” to the proposition. Maybe there is no traditionally uniting object, the common enemy. As noted elsewhere, the inability of nearly everyone to agree on a common label for the bad guys impedes unification of policy toward the enemy. Even this day, we hear and read references to Islamic State, ISIL or ISIS, or simply IS. Can anyone imagine WWII having been fought against the Bavarians, the Westfalans and the Tuscans?

      Finally, just this first week of December, in preparing to debate and vote on greater British participation in the Middle East campaign, Members of Parliament agreed to unify behind the name “Daesh.” Some common sense still prevails in London, at least.

      [France settled on this term over a year ago.]

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