The Aftermath of Turkey Downing a Russian Jet

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Nasser Saghafi-Ameri

The news of Turkey downing a Russian warplane at the Syrian-Turkish border on November 24, 2015 shocked everyone. The incident is one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century. As expected, the incident has aroused a fury in Russia with possible reaction and escalation of the crisis. Indeed, this incident, along with the ongoing tensions between Russia and the Western powers with regard to the Ukrainian crisis and annexation of Crimea, which have led to the West’s imposed sanctions on Russia, are reminiscence of the Cold War era.

If President Vladimir Putin chooses to respond with force against Turkey, it would place him in direct conflict with a member of the NATO whose mutual defense pact requires each member to come to the aid of any single member country that is attacked. However, Putin has shown restrain so far and while Russia enjoys an advantage in Syria after the Paris attacks by Daesh apparently it is considering using some of its non-military options against Turkey.

Putin has described the Russian presence in Syria as a counterterrorism operation. He has explained that without Russia's assistance, the situation in Syria would have been much worse, the country would have fallen into the hands of Daesh, Europe would have had more refugees, and the situation would have been even more dire than that the one which has emerged in Libya today. The Militant Islamist groups, namely Daesh and Al Qaeda, are seen as a major concern by the Russians. They are worried that instability in the Middle East could spread to its neighboring countries and eventually to the Caucuses republics and thus its own territory.

Meanwhile, there is a growing rift between region’s Sunni powers supporting Daesh and their Western allies in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks. The Sunni powers who considered Daesh useful at least in the short term if not in long term are confronted now by the Western powers who want to see the demise of Daesh as soon as possible.

As reported in the media, at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Putin has revealed a satellite imagery showing a miles-long line of oil-tanker trucks stretching from the Daesh controlled territory into Turkey. Interestingly, at that summit, U.S. President Barak Obama for the first time in his meeting with President Putin has acknowledged that Russia was indeed combatting Daesh. Also Foreign Secretary John Kerry in reaction to Russia's intervention in Syria has indicated that the U.S. remains interested in joining with Russia in combating the terrorist group. He said, "That is what we’re looking for and we hope Russia and Iran, and any other countries with influence, will help to bring about that, because that's what is preventing this crisis from ending.”

Some critics of Turkey's policy in Syria argue that Turkey is not acting as a NATO ally and Erdogan's Syria policy is more a party policy rather than nationally oriented. They point to the fact that the U.S. and Russia signed an agreement to avoid any unwanted confrontation in the Syrian airspace after Russia stepped up its military involvement in Syria. During a press conference in Kremlin after the shooting down of Russian plane, Putin proclaimed that: “The American side, which leads the coalition that Turkey belongs to, knew about the location and time of our planes’ flights and we were hit exactly there and at that time.”

Those who believe that Turkish action of downing of a Russian fighter jet was premeditated say that Turkey’s action was the result of a slow though steady rise in tensions building since the introduction of a substantial Russian military presence in Syria two month ago. Turkey and Russia have been at odds on many regional and international crises, including Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Cyprus, Ukraine and the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict.

It is also widely believed that one of the main motivations of Turkey in downing a Russian warplane was to send a signal to Russia and to prevent it from blocking the Syrian-Turkish border, where a huge amount of Daesh smuggled oil passes through the Syrian Turkmen rebels area who are allied with Turkey and the Al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front.
Russian Reaction.

As mentioned above, it is likely that Russia may resort to economic retaliation instead of a direct military attack against Turkey. Russians may also consider other options such as arming the Kurds or to take out any Turkish planes entering into the Syrian air space, declaring that it is acting as an ally of the current government in Damascus, while operation of Turkey's plane would be considered as intrusion into the Syrian air. Indeed, one of the reasons mentioned as Turkey's motivation for downing the Russian warplane was to convince the U.S. to establish a no-fly-zone in the region north of Syria and at the same place of the present clash. However, with Russia's decision to deploy the S-400 air defense system in Syria Turkey's plan seem to have backfired. Ironically, a no-fly-zone is now established there, but under the Russian control that denies Turkey and other hostile states to enter into the Syrian airspace.

Aside from military engagement, the most formidable Russian response would be to turn off its energy exports to Turkey. Although at present there are no indications that Russia will cut off its energy supply to Turkey but that is Moscow's biggest card to play when it comes to punish Turkey. Largely devoid of energy resources of its own, Turkey is largely dependent on foreign supplies of oil and gas especially from Russia. In 2014, Turkey imported 27.33 billion cubic meters or nearly 60 per cent of its demand of natural gas from Russia. Turkey’s energy imports from Russia accounts for much of the some $30-billion trade volume between them.

Of course, Turkish policy-makers were never happy with the dependence on Russian energy sources and in the past have attempted to diversify their energy sources by developing nuclear power and other alternative energies. But again, it is Russia that is becoming the main supplier of nuclear energy for Turkey. The project for the $20 billion for nuclear power plant at Akkuyu with 4,800 megawatts capacity could ultimately meet 16% of Turkey’s energy demand. Already, two hundred Turkish scientists and engineers are taking training courses in Russia for that project. Thus, two Russian companies of Rosatom and Gazprom are going to dominate more than 70% of Turkey's energy market in the future. In this situation, Turkey is poised to become irreversibly reliant on Russia not only in natural gas but also in nuclear energy and its relevant technologies.

In the bilateral trade, although energy has a dominant place, but for Turkey, the Russian tourists make a large proportion of Turkey’s foreign currency income. About 3.3 million Russian tourists visited Turkey in 2014. Added to that is a large volume of Turkey's export, mainly textiles and food to Russia that valued $6 billion in 2014. Thus, having many non-military options, Russia who is Turkey’s second largest trade partner, could impose a number of sanctions to punish Turkey without the need to use military forces.

In sum, with or without military confrontation, it seems that the Turkish – Russian relations are deemed to suffer severe setbacks due to the recent air incident and it is unlikely to regain the rapid growth it enjoyed since 2002.

*Nasser Saghafi-Ameri is a former senior Iranian diplomat, and a scholar and author in the fields of foreign policy, international security, and nuclear disarmament.

Source: Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC)

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*Photo Credit: The Atlantic, European Sanctions

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.   

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