The shooting down of the Russian aircraft by the Turks and the subsequent death of two Russian servicemen briefly got the tabloids talking about World War III but in reality this was never going to blow up into a direct military confrontation between Moscow and Ankara. What it did demonstrate, once again, is how focused on the short-term Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in his Syria policy.
No one will know who gave the order to shoot down the Russian aircraft, but it nearly certainly wasn't the Turkish pilot. Russia has been provocative with its airspace violations, but there is always a graduated response to these types of incidents; from verbal warnings, to visual warnings, to escorts out of the area, to shooting down. Ankara appears to have jumped from the least aggressive to the most aggressive option at lightning speed.
And now Turkey is paying for it. When taking on an adversary there are two golden rules: first, make sure you can hurt them more than they can hurt you; and second, make sure you have friends who have got your back. On the second of these points, to describe Erdogan's relationship with his NATO allies as 'good' would be overstating the case. Of course after the plane went down NATO constituted its crisis mechanisms and issued a statement publicly supportive of Turkey. But when NATO condemned airspace violations by Russia a month earlier, it noted Turkish aircraft had 'in accordance with NATO practice…closing to identify the intruder, after which the Russian planes departed Turkish airspace.' The apparent failure to follow these procedures in the latest incident is likely to be exercising the minds of some of Ankara's NATO allies.
There's not much more that NATO can do to help Turkey, or that it would really want to do. There is a widely held belief that Erdogan was complicit by commission or omission in the rise of ISIS and other violent jihadi groups by allowing the free flow of fighters and weapons across Turkey's borders in the belief that Assad could be defeated militarily and Turkey could control the rise of any Islamist groups. Turkey was also quite restrictive in how it allowed the US to use its Incirlik airbase to launch attacks against ISIS in Syria; hardly the actions of a committed NATO ally.
Russia has already demonstrated its intent to retaliate against Turkey and Turkish interests. Moscow appears to have shifted some of the weight of its air campaign to attack towns and border crossings abutting the Turkish border, as well as Turkish-backed rebel groups in Syria, a group that had already come under Russian attack prior to the shooting down. Moscow has also adopted a raft of economic sanctions against Turkey and, given Russia is Turkey's second-largest trading partner, there is plenty of scope for additional pain to be inflicted.
Erdogan has tried to contact Putin personally but has been rebuffed to date, while Russia has demanded an apology from Turkey, which is unlikely to eventuate. Erdogan has gone so far as to say he was 'saddened' by the loss of the aircraft, but that is likely to be as far as he will go. The return of the deceased pilot's body could provide a circuit breaker, and there is little doubt back door discussions are underway to achieve this
Erdogan has proven himself to be an adept domestic politician, but on the international stage his Islamo-nationalist outlook and short-termism has resulted in Ankara becoming increasingly isolated from states that had been its close partners. The West believes it to be duplicitous when it comes to Syrian Islamists, the Arab regimes (with the exception of Qatar) believe it to be in bed with their natural enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, and it has now picked a fight with its second-largest trading partner in Russia. None of this augurs well for the future.
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