Cyprus Mail
Guest Columnist Opinion

Cluttered skies and conflicting aims in Syria

By Farid Mirbagheri

Turkey’s shooting down of the Russia Su-24 fighter jet on November 24 by its F-16 fleet can be perceived differently by various actors. However, three important points can be made in particular.

First is the greater military engagement of Russia in Syria particularly in aerial warfare as a result. Immediately after the incident Moscow reportedly dispatched the Slava-class naval cruiser Moskva, armed with naval versions of S-300 long-range air defence missiles to Tartus port on the Mediterranean. It also declared its intention to deploy the next generation S-400 air defence systems in Syria. Further militarisation of Russia in Syria will likely encourage the same on the part of other belligerent parties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to meet with the Turkish President Recip Erdogan at the Paris summit on the environment. Instead, he demanded a full apology from his Turkish counterpart, which Ankara confirmed would not be forthcoming. Further, Putin added that the real motive for downing the Russian fighter jet was Turkey’s attempt at protecting oil supplies from IS. Turkey has vehemently denied those allegations.

The second point is the decidedly open tilting of Ankara towards the West in consequence and its repeated official statements that emphasise its NATO membership and its Western ‘orientation’. “This is not just a violation of our airspace, but it also means that NATO’s airspace was violated,” said Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, standing next to NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, whilst attending an intergovernmental summit in Brussels last weekend to address the Syrian refugee crisis.

“I want to give you an open message from Ankara. We are a European nation. The fate of the continent is our common subject and Turkey is prepared to do everything it can in this regard,” Davutoglu said at the summit. Hardly the hallmark of Turkish foreign policy since the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey some eleven years ago, such pro-Western statements have now suddenly sprung back to life. Their re-emergence reminds all of Ankara’s indispensable reliance on the Western alliance in times of crisis.

It may be hard for some to foresee this tilt toward the West by Ankara sustained in the long-term, however. AKP has shown its disdain for some of the values promoted in the West as the recent harsh treatment of the press in Turkey has demonstrated. At the very least, though, security concerns will ensure a minimum of collaboration with the West by Ankara.

The last but not least important aspect of this incident is that it is a potent reminder of how vulnerable the skies over Syria have actually become for all fighter jets. Almost all major military powers bar China are engaged in aerial bombardment in Syria and one dreads to think how one incident or accident could potentially escalate into something much wider.

The complex Syrian conflict appears to be in a constant state of flux. The international coalition now eager to boost its military campaign against the IS would hate to alienate Russia. However, whilst IS is a common enemy for the West and Russia, the Assad regime certainly is not. At the same time, an important ground force fighting the IS are the Kurds, whom Ankara views with great suspicion fearing the emergence of an independent Kurdish region in Syria with a domino effect on Turkey’s own Kurdish population. Moreover, the various formations of anti-Assad forces with different external backers, the added urgency of targeting IS targets in Syria with various degrees of support from regional countries and the widely perceived absence of a clear US strategy in this crisis all make for a continuing stalemate that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and has made millions into refugees so far.


Professor SM Farid Mirbagheri holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the Department of European Studies and International Relations, University of Nicosia

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