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An alarming new escalation in the Syria War

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Turkish officials say their fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday 24 November after warning it ten times in the space of five minutes that it was violating Turkish airspace. Moscow said that a SU-24 was downed but could prove the aircraft never left Syrian airspace, with President Vladimir Putin himself saying it was 1km inside Syria. Drawing on the expertise of its analysts covering Syria, Turkey and Russia, International Crisis Group has compiled this background Q&A on possible dangers ahead.

What will be the impact of this new layer of conflict in the Syrian war?

This is a new sign of how internationalised the Syrian war has become, and how dangerous it can still get. In a way, it’s a slap in the face that could bring Syria’s external stakeholders to their senses, but risks sending the war hurtling down another precipice. Precisely because it feared such an uncalculated escalation, Crisis Group has long argued that all regional and international parties to the conflict must come together on a compromise solution to calm the Syrian war, not add fuel to its flames.

The Vienna talks have been a small step in the right direction. But the process to which Vienna gives birth must not turn into a gimmick designed to gain time and dress up the political vacuum. There must be a real, substantive brake on the reckless, relentless deterioration and escalation that has characterised the Syrian war. Anything less will do more harm than good, and the situation has become just too dangerous to give us the luxury of pretending.

Why did Turkey shoot down the plane, knowing what consequences such action could have?

Ever since Syrian air defences shot down a Turkish warplane that Damascus said entered its Mediterranean maritime airspace in 2012, Turkey announced “new rules of engagement” under which it would strongly react to any transgression of its borders. On 5 October, Prime Minister Davutoglu stated that “Turkey’s rules of engagement apply to aircraft from Syria, from Russia or any other country. The Turkish military has been given clear instructions. Even if it’s a bird flying over the border, the appropriate response will be made”.

More recently, it has shown rising concern about the fate of Syrian Turkmens just over the border, an ethnic group that speaks Turkish and whose Turkey-backed local militia had recently come under military pressure from Russian-backed regime forces. Ankara called for a discussion of the issue in the UN Security Council and the foreign ministry summoned in the Russian ambassador. If any of the pilots or their bodies are now in pro-Turkish militia hands, it is very important that Ankara use this to re-engage with Russia and not tip the two countries into deeper dispute.

Turkey is appealing to its fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and other international institutions  what should these organisations do?

Much depends on whether Turkey’s action is shown to be self-defence or as another step toward more direct engagement in the Syrian war. In the first case, Turkey can count on its NATO allies lining up behind it. In the second, Turkey will be more on its own. But certainly all sides should use this new tension as a warning that they need stronger engagement to avoid the risks of further escalation.

In the background, to be sure, are strains between Turkey and its European partners over the past year as huge numbers of Syrian refugees started leaving Turkey toward Greece, the Balkans and the EU. But in the end, the refugee issue opened up new channels of cooperation between the EU and Turkey.

Turkey and its traditional Western partners should now move even further toward closer cooperation. Ankara must act with a much greater sense of regional responsibility and EU states with a greater sense of burden sharing, notably in helping Turkey host 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Tuesday’s incident shows how dangerous it is for the two sides to act unilaterally.

How will all this affect Turkish-Russian relations?

Turkey-Russian relations are in a fragile balance. Although the two sides have fought two dozen wars in the past, and were deeply opposed across a long border during the Cold War, interdependence has grown over the past two decades. Turkey is now two-thirds reliant on Russian supplies of natural gas, and Russian tourists are a huge boon for Turkey’s coastal resorts.

Russia is keenly aware of the costs of relations with Turkey deteriorating drastically. When a Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace soon after it engaged in Syria, Moscow went out of its way to smooth things out. But ultimately, the two countries have diametrically opposed policies in Syria, with Turkey highly focused on the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and Russia determined to protect the Syrian regime as its longstanding foothold in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, the relationship is now deteriorating. President Putin said the Turkish shootdown was a stab in the back by “terrorist supporters” and has warned of “serious” consequences for Turkish-Russian ties. The Russian foreign ministry has warned Russians not to visit Turkey due to the terrorist threat and Foreign Minister Lavrov has cancelled a planned trip as well.

How does this affect the broader relationship between Russia and the West?

Much depends on how events on the ground develop between Russia and Turkey, which is at the end of the day a key NATO member.

There is still a great need for constructive cooperation between the West and the Russian Federation in the fight against the Islamic State. The shootdown will be a distraction from that potential, but all sides should bear in mind their shared interest in defeating transnational violent jihadi groups.

While there may be some potential for cooperation with Moscow against IS, however, Russia’s military approach in Syria would need to shift fundamentally for such cooperation to contribute constructively toward weakening violent jihadis. So long as the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes and Russian-backed offensives target anti-IS opposition forces, the net impact of increased military cooperation with Moscow would be negative. That’s because it would strengthen the jihadi narrative, at the same time as weakening mainstream opposition forces that will ultimately be needed as partners against IS (and other transnational jihadis).

In short, the form of West-Russia cooperation with most potential to weaken IS is diplomatic cooperation toward achieving a (geo)political resolution in Syria.

What will the impact in Russia be of this first and very public setback for Moscow’s new policy of direct engagement in Syria?

Russia’s entry as a direct party to the Syrian war was always going to have consequences, but disengagement will also be hard.

It’s true that Russian media has used its Syrian engagement as a means to distract its population from the quagmire it’s gotten into in eastern Ukraine, to play down internal economic problems and to support Putin’s popularity. But there is also an authentic security challenge to Moscow in the rise of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State bombed a Russian airliner as it flew from Egypt in October, killing 224 people, mostly Russians. Russian officials allege the group has been behind foiled bombing plots in Moscow. IS has attracted violent jihadis from the North Caucasus and other Russian territories to Syria, and has openly promised in a video to “drown Russia in blood”. DM