Many questions are still unanswered at the time of writing this report on the potential consequences of downing the Russia jet by the Turks. The incident was doomed to happen at any time since the moment President Putin decided to go heavy handed to Syria in support of the Assad regime. The main question, yet unanswered as well, is if the Turkish Air Force had an agreement with the US on rules of engagement in the North of Syria since everyone was expecting something of this sort to happen there, and since Turkey is a NATO member and close ally of the US. It is not unusual for Turkey to have prior consultations with the US military in cases involving Russia, particularly if US Air Force was active in the area as well.
However, early conversations in Washington after the incident showed firm rejection of any assumptions that the US was consulted prior to shooting the Russian jet. It is said that the rules of engagement were the same as always. The margin of tolerance is usually left to estimates on the ground in each individual country. In prior cases, NATO members showed flexibility in supporting minor Russian Air Force incursions. In this case, and if the Russian jet did indeed cross the borders, no tolerance was shown. If the rules of engagement are taken to the letter, this leaves the matter subject to political assessments in individual countries.
And it seems that Mr. Erdogan, knowing that President Obama thought that the Russian role in Syria will complicate matters, seems to have had an assessment that the US will stand by Turkey if a Russian jet is shot down.
On his own, the Turkish President has other reason to be angry at Mr. Putin.
Last September, Erdogan was invited to Moscow to participate in the inaugural ceremony of the Grand Mosque in the Russian capital. The Turkish President somehow understood that he will have a side meeting with Putin to discuss Syria, energy, the Middle East and other topics of importance to the two sides. When the ceremony was over, Erdogan was told that he will have a 10 minute short meeting with the Russian President. The meeting was over without opening any of the long waited dossiers that Erdogan carried with him. The snub naturally did not go well with Erdogan.
At the time of Erdogan’s September visit to Moscow, Putin was already militarily active in Syria. There were persisting questions then about his real intentions there. Erdogan naturally expected at least an extended conversation about Russia’s expansive military intervention in a place so important to Turkey’s security while he was in Moscow sitting face to face with Putin. But the subject was hardly raised at all. Washington and other concerned capitals asked Erdogan before his meeting with Putin to have as clear a reading of Putin’s goals in Syria as possible. Putin did not volunteer any. Furthermore, he started bombing sites of pro-Turkish opposition forces just after Erdogan left Moscow.
To make a bad situation worse, Russian jets bombed ethnic Turkmen inside Syria in their subsequent raids. Erdogan thought that the Russian President is deliberately trying to humiliate him.
But the central issue that was leaving Mr. Erdogan restless was the recent diplomatic endeavor regarding Syria. The diplomatic effort led by the US and Russia promises a result totally different than what the Turkish President hoped for. All Turkey’s bets were placed somewhere else other than what is envisaged by the current diplomatic effort in the post Russian intervention balance of power inside Syria.
One of the most important consequences of the jet incident is the question raised immediately after its news reached the outside world-What kind of impact will the incident have on the current diplomatic effort championed by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov?. Kerry is exerting substantial pressure on US allies to line them up for a ceasefire and a freeze of war lines. The nature of the deal differs in some important aspects from what those allies hoped for. This is not particularly the case with Mr. Lavrov.
In any deal, Iran will get what it already envisaged in its “Plan-B” detailed by MEB in previous issues, which is to keep the West of Syria under its control. The minimum goal of Iran has always been to preserve its presence in West Syria under a different, yet friendly, President. The best case scenario is to keep all of Syria and Assad. Its military moves on the ground has always been motivated by keeping the West and securing a buffer zone between “its” territories and the rest of the country. In both scenarios, Tehran will not lose its strategic assets in Syria. The Arabs, on the other hand, have a clear objective-to get Iran and its followers out of all of Syria completely.
Theoretically, the two objectives cannot be reconciled in order to bring one single solution to the conflict. Yet, Kerry decided to do just that. His attempt should not be announced dead after the incident of the Russian jet. The reason is that, even theoretically, he still stands a chance.
But what is the logical justification of this chance? The region, as we repeatedly said, has quite some energy trapped in its internal dynamics. This energy is enough to carry the war in Syria for a few more years until all are exhausted. The Arab and Turkish supporters of the opposition sensed during this year that Assad and Iran are getting increasingly cornered. But Russia stepped in just in the critical moment.
This made Kerry’s effort surprising. In normal cases, the opposition and their supporters would double down to reverse the impact of the Russian intervention and get the situation back to its prior course. This was already starting. And that made Kerry’s effort like an attempt to swim in the opposite direction of the current. The Secretary started his effort in a too difficult context to hope for a solution.
But conceiving of diplomatic solutions should not be predicated on the total defeat of one camp of the warring parties. It could be reached under extreme external pressure on a situation that is stalemated on its own. This pressure, in certain cases, succeeds in filling the gap between the two irreconcilable elements-that of the reluctance of the warring parties to stop and their determination to carry on the fight on the one hand and that of getting them to sign a deal to end the conflict on the other. In this particular case of Syria, Kerry was providing this “filler” role that occupies the conceptual distance between the will of the parties to carry on fighting and a cease fire deal between them.
But deals reached in these cases are generally only long lulls in a continuing confrontation so long as the parties still have a degree of determination to fight. A long truce, and not peace, is the real name of Kerry-Lavrov efforts. For this reason we emphasized over and over again the need to quickly move to explore a Middle East comprehensive detent similar to the Helsinki Accords or to any other formula.
Will there be enough escalation to abort Mr. Kerry’s effort then? Not likely.
A limited escalation should be expected particularly in Russia’s air raids on Syrian opposition in the North of Syria and in Turkey’s attempts to get the Russians out of Syria or push the conflict higher. Yet, Russia should dose any escalation carefully. Common sense calls for a decrease in Russia’s military action in Syria in preparation for the January 1 negotiations in the UN, and after its intensive actions to improve Assad-Iran positions. The reason for de-escalation is to help sentiments of participants in the peace process to deal reasonably with the talks. But we are too close to the time table decided by Vienna.
In an ideal world, Russia will restrain itself and swallow the slap for the time being in order to facilitate the planned talks. Putin instinctively will want to revenge from the Turks and the killers of his pilot. His impulsive action would probably be to escalate bombing the Syrian opposition in the North. But he has to remember that Russia cannot afford to remain in Syria for long time with high levels of military engagement. This is too costly politically and financially for his government. A political solution is needed by Russia more than it is by those who shot down the plane or killed the pilot. An unrestrained escalation will make the chances of clinching a political deal dimmer.
The downside of the option of restraining the Russian reaction is that other provocative actions could follow in the next few weeks. So long as Turkey and others see the Russian intervention in Syria as a spoiler, attempts to drag NATO into the fight and to inflect punishments on Russian troops will continue. This is why the job of “the filler” is extremely important now to get this situation under control. It is a job from hell to try to convince a side which believes it can win to sign a truce in any war. And Kerry surprisingly accepted this job.
What makes the current episode we see before us now more dangerous is that it is developing quickly, and not softly at all, into a global grand strategic game. Whatever Kerry is trying to do now is important for a long time to come.
How could he be helped?
But first, why should he be helped? Two reasons at least: the human suffering of the Syrian people and the correct belief that terrorism spreads in these circumstances. Time is not passive. It means more dead Syrian civilians, more dead civilians in many other countries and a serious threat of a wider traditional war.
Now, how this diplomat could be helped?
From the European reactions to the Russian jet incident, one can read that Europe adopted a position that is not particularly supportive of Mr. Erdogan’s actions. The official communique of NATO’s exceptional meeting just few hours after the incidents did not exactly reflect that. But unofficial comments in major European capitals reflected correctly a sense of worry and a sincere wish to avoid escalation. Furthermore, President Obama called the Turkish President to explain to him the need for restrain. This is all important. Restrain is a two ways street. If one single side is restrained and the other is not, restrain would be meaningless.
More willing international parties should be brought to do the filler job with Mr. Kerry. Yet, the whole regional dynamic needs some other actions, probably dramatic, to change its course to a more constructive path. The additional twist that we see now is that Russia and Turkey are becoming more directly involved. Both are building up their military capacities around Syrian-Turkish borders. This threatens to go in history as a classic lesson of how a civil war can turn into a global confrontation.
There must be some brakes somewhere. Kerry should not be left alone.
To sum up, downing the Russian jet was a process in the making. It was not related only to mistakes by the pilot who shot it or that who was shot at. The process is still unfolding. And if one gazes in the fog, the ghosts which move there look frightening.
This incident may pass. But there will be others. The need to deal with the extremely dangerous deadlock in the region is becoming more urgent by the day. If not, global parties will be increasingly involved, either they like it or not. The region will turn into the place where a global strategic grand game is playing out. And this is not good news for the region and the world.