If you were confused about the multitude of armies fighting in Syria then hold on to your hats because it just got way more complicated. A Russian jet flying a mission over Syria is said to have crossed into Turkish airspace and they wasted no time taking it down.
Why are Russia and Turkey fighting?
Isn’t this a civil war between the Syrian President and separatist rebels?
The roots of this conflict go back to 2011 and the Arab-Spring demonstrations.
Like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya before them, Syrians wanted greater democratic control of their country and they hit the streets in peaceful demonstrations. But instead of listening to his people, Bashar al Assad, the President/Dictator, chose to double-down by opening fire on the protestors. (It’s basically the same model his father Hafez al Assad used some 20+ years ago in Hama against the Muslim Brotherhood.)
I remember watching the pictures of the demonstrations, wondering how a President could fire on his own people, but I never could have imagined that a relatively minor civil war could turn into this continually escalating conflict that’s pulled the world’s major powers into conflict – while also helping incubate the most savage terrorist group the modern world has known!
It was after it became clear that Assad was not going to back down, that foreign powers began to take an interest. The US ramped up pressure amid reports the Assad regime was using chemical weapons against the rebels.
Billboard of Syrian president Assad. Photo: Wojtek Ogrodowczyk/Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0 BY-NC)
On the other side it soon became clear that Iran was going to support Assad. The two are both followers of Shia Islam and Iran was not keen to see Western powers installing a puppet government.
Russia’s involvement similarly aimed to halt pressure for regime change as had happened in Libya and Egypt. The Kremlin views revolutionary actions to oust authoritarian dictators as a Western conspiracy, which is why Russia vetoed actions in the Security Council to put pressure on Assad, and this is why Russia has sent its jets and troops into Syria to support Assad.
Now the Gulf States have been hardline opponents of Assad from the beginning, but as foreign powers drifted in, their efforts were boosted. Led by Saudi Arabia, they increased shipments of arms and supplies to the Syrian rebels fighting against Assad/Iran/Russia and they did it through Turkey.
Is Turkey an ally of the US?
The first time I crossed into Turkey from Europe I was 19 and I’d come from Greece on an overnight train. I was woken by the minarets and the call to prayer. I stood transfixed at the window, a clueless kid who’d never before ventured outside my Western cultural comfort zone.
Turkey sits on the edge on the edge of Europe, neither in the EU nor wholly in the Middle East. As a tourist I felt comfortable and welcome, but there was so much I didn’t understand. With a history that was still echoing into today, to an Aussie lad, the culture was almost too rich, sickly sweet, it seemed to have as many layers as a baklava.
Despite its differences Turkey is still the gateway, both physically and culturally, between Europe and Asia.
Turkey shares a big border with Syria and it has a major strategic interest in maintaining control of it. But Turkey is also a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), a group made up of most of Europe plus the US and Canada. (Remember it’s this coalition that bombed Libya in 2011 in a bid to oust another dictator, Muammar Gaddafi).
The relationship between the US and Turkey has been close in past decades, but this conflict has put pressure on the friendship. It was only in July of this year that Ankara allowed the US to fly attack missions from Turkish runways.
As I said earlier, Turkey is helping the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia etc.) supply the rebels, but its motivation is that it sees Assad as a major threat to the security of its border. Meanwhile the US have a different priority, it has focussed its interventions in Syria to battling ISIS.
Turkey is keen to remove the destabilising force of Assad, but it also has growing economic and military might and is a rising regional power, it is in no hurry to become beholden to Washington.
Turkey is the only NATO power that borders Syria. It would be a potent ally in the battle against ISIS, but it seems the country has bigger fish to fry. Turkey is well aware that Russia had flown sorties into its territories in past months, but this time it wasn’t going to have it, Turkey has sent a strong message to Russia that it has firepower too.
Will Russia retaliate?
The Russian military is no match for NATO and there is little fear that Russia will retaliate with violence. However, economic sanctions are taking the place of sabre rattling.
Russia supply Turkey with the bulk of its gas and the completion of a major gas pipeline is now in jeopardy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ceased talks on the TurkStream pipeline and made it very clear that Turkey would be made to pay for its actions.
Proposed TurkStream pipeline. Image Gazprom
A long list of fruits and vegetables were banned from importation into Russia and travel agents were told not to organise trips to Turkey. Visa restrictions were places on Turkish nationals travelling to Russia.
While tensions have cooled by a degree or two there is still plenty of animosity with reports Putin snubbed an opportunity to meet with Erdogan at the Paris COP 21 climate talks.
The rift is sending ripples further afield as well. Francoise Hollande has spoken of a grand coalition coming together to fight ISIS in the wake of the Paris attacks. The French President hoped that Russia would join the force, but with a NATO member having just shot a Russia jet out of the sky, this is looking shaky.
Proxy war – Kurds, rebels and ISIS
But in the end everyone has their own intentions. While Russia is berated for attacking Syrian rebels rather than ISIS, Turkish forces are doing much the same with their attacks on the Kurds.
The Kurds are a displaced minority and they live in a pretty rough neighbourhood. They have provinces within Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They’ve been persecuted since the 1920s when Turkey’s borders were redrawn.
The irony is that the Kurds are the ones taking the fight to ISIS the most aggressively. There were even stories of Kurds in Iraq desperately trying to defend their towns, but the Turkish Kurds were not allowed to cross the border to help them.
Turkey hates ISIS, but hates the Kurds more.
Russia hates ISIS, but wants to punish the anti-establishment rebels just as much.
Russia and Turkey have a shared agenda in crushing Kurdish rebels, even though the Kurds are doing some of the best work against ISIS.
Meanwhile Russia wants to support the Assad regime, while Turkey is threatened by Assad’s power plays on its border.
The US want to support Turkey, but at the same time the US are hesitant to be seen as attacking Assad, their focus is on taking down ISIS.
…this is just a very brief summary. Stay tuned for more discussion of the increasingly complex web of conflicts going on in the middle East.