Turkey downed a Su-24 Russian fighter jet on Nov. 24 on the Turkish-Syrian border. It happened when the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace for a period of 17 seconds. This incident is likely to change many parameters on the Syrian chessboard. I will leave aside the discussion of whether such a brief violation justifies downing the aircraft of a non-belligerent country and will focus on the possible consequences of the incident.
Listening to the sharp rhetoric used by the Russian leaders and looking at their body language, it is clear that Russia is determined to make Turkey pay a bill for this incident. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in plain words that this incident would not escalate to a full-fledged military confrontation. Actually, nobody expects such an outcome.
The downing of a Russian aircraft by a NATO country was the first of its kind in 63 years. The major NATO countries implored Turkey and Russia to avoid escalation. Therefore, it is not likely that this incident will be transformed into a NATO-Russia conflict. But it will remain on the agenda of Turkish-Russian bilateral relations for some time to come.
Russia will definitely take measures that will negatively affect Turkey’s economic interests. The first set of such measures — which include a ban on recruiting Turkish citizens to jobs in Russia, abolishing the visa exemption for Turks to enter Russia and the banning of Russian tour operators from selling holiday packages for Turkey — were announced on Nov. 28. More may be expected to come.
Russia was one of few neighbouring countries with which Turkey had been maintaining business-like relations even if the two countries were not singing from the same hymn sheet on many international issues. Post-crisis, Turkey’s isolation in the international arena has increased another notch.
There is another area where Turkey may face hardship: It is in the implementation of its Syrian policy. Russia will probably do everything it can to bar Turkey from supplying assistance to various opposition fighters that the latter supports in the north of Syria. It has already raised the stakes by reinforcing its bombers with air-to-air assets and deploying S-400 missiles. These missiles can hit any Turkish target likely to pose a threat to Russian operations in Syria. Russia has been invited to Syria by the Syrian government, which it deems to be the legitimate authority in the country.
Therefore, it will feel entitled to hit any target that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regards as an enemy. It has done so since day one, already hitting civilian trucks, which were carrying civilian cargo to Aleppo, on the Syrian side of the Cilvegözü border gate. This was a stern message. Turkey’s freedom to act will therefore be severely limited in Syria. Without the justification that the downed plane has provided it, we do not know whether Russia would hit the trucks of a friendly country like Turkey.
If many opposition factions were able to hold so far against the regime’s forces in northern Syria, it was thanks to the supply they were receiving through Turkey. When this supply line is cut, their combat capability will be curtailed significantly. This will reduce the capacity of Turkey-supported opposition factions to resist the regime’s forces. As a result, the role that Turkey was playing in northern Syria will be diminished.
Russia may stretch its disturbing operations to the Eastern Mediterranean and harass Turkish ships that come close to, or enter, Syrian territorial waters.
Another area where Russia will have a freer hand is the support it may provide to Kurds, be it the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the strongest Kurdish party in Syria. Turkey was able to persuade the US not to provide lethal weapons to the PYD, but it can hardly ask Russia to refrain from doing so, because Russia regards the PYD and its military branch the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as reliable allies in its fight against the Salafi factions.
Turkey was technically right in downing the Russian plane. But, in international relations, being right may not always be sufficient to promote a country’s strategic interests