A day after Russian leader Vladimir Putin met with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, a Russian Su 24 bomber was shot down in the Syrian conflict apparently by Turkish forces. Russian and Turkish commands differed in their immediate interpretation of this incident. The Turks claimed that the bomber was shot down by one of their F-16 fighters after violating Turkish air space. The Russian defense ministry statement denied both of those claims. Instead, they suggested that their plane was downed by ground fire and that they had proof it had never departed Syrian air space.
A video posted by the Haberturk TV station in Turkey shows the bomber coming down, to ecstatic shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” from those filming the video. The identities of those filming the video are unclear, but the same call — which literally translates “God is Great” — is used by Islamic radicals from the Taliban to al Qaeda to celebrate victories over Western powers.
President Putin issued a statement, reported by the Tass news agency, that accused Turkey of “a stab in Russia’s back” by “terrorism accomplices” — the latter claim justified by an accusation that Turkey was trying to stop Russian strikes on Islamic State (ISIS) oil facilities in order to help preserve ISIS’s funding streams. Putin said that there would be severe consequences for Turkish/Russian relations.
NATO called an emergency meeting to discuss the incident on Tuesday.
The incident is no surprise given the way in which competing great powers have been playing at escalation in the air war. Given that none of their targets have an air force, there was no need for the deployment of fighters to the region arising from the targets they claim to be interested in attacking. Nevertheless, in addition to bombers such as this Su 24, Russia deployed “supermaneuverable” Su 30 air superiority fighters that could plausibly outclass Turkey’s aging F-16s. In addition, Russia apparently made incursions into Turkish airspace, including an October incident in which a Russian aircraft was said to have locked onto Turkish fighters for an extended period of time. This led to the first rumor of a Turkish/Russian clash in October. Though there are some indications that this incident was overstated in the press, there were at least two occasions when Turkey claimed that Russia had encroached upon its airspace with military jets.
As a result, the United States decided to deploy F-15C air superiority fighters to Turkey, which are late model F-15s modified to focus on air-to-air combat. Russia responded in turn by deploying S-300 missiles in Syria, which are thought to be capable of handling all fourth generation fighters to include the F-15C. It is not clear if Russia has deployed its most advanced missiles, the S-400, and the United States has at least so far avoided deploying its fifth generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, whose stealth capacities are thought to give it advantages against the S-300.
Nevertheless the incident appears likely to have serious consequences for the American diplomatic project with regards to the outcome in Syria. The US State Department has been banking on being able to produce a split between Russia and Iran. Whereas Iran is invested in an outcome in which Assad — or some hand-picked successor — remains in control of Syria, Russia is thought to have more flexibility so long as its interests in Syria are respected. If the United States could peel Russia away from Iran, it might be able to forge a coalition with Russia and France that would aim at a post-Assad Syria.
This plan was always a long shot. Putin recently flew Assad to Moscow for a secret meeting, later confirmed by both governments, at which a joint war strategy was to be planned. Assad and Putin were photographed together, a key show of support from a Russian President who has a keen understanding of the power of propaganda photography. It was the second secret meeting of importance to this war in Moscow, following a meeting with Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, the head of its elite Quds Force and the major figure in Iran’s unconventional warfare efforts in Syria. Given the recent state visit to Iran by Putin, the likelihood of peeling Russia off seems very slight.
It is far more likely that Russia can peel France off of the US coalition. The French have begun to signal that they might be willing to back off their hard line on Assad stepping down, and have indicated that they will not be asking United States President Barack Obama to come away from his own hard line against deploying large scale American ground forces to resolve the conflict. As the Assad-Russian-Iranian alliance by far holds the balance of power in the Syrian conflict right now, it would make more sense for the French to integrate their efforts with Putin’s than with America’s.
Even if it remains committed to American leadership, US forces in Iraq have been forced to rely on support from Iranian-backed Shi’a militia because of the weakness of Iraq’s own security forces. Although numerous of these forces and their leadership are designated terrorists by either the US State Department, international authorities, or both, American military officers have had to allow their participation because Iraqi security forces need them in order to operate. This is a similar position to that which Iran has helped Hezbollah to achieve with regard to Lebanon’s security forces: the militia are too important to actual military operations to be dispensable. A French government aware of that reality may find little benefit in committing to American leadership rather than cooperating with the Russian-led alliance.
As Turkey is a NATO member, this incident may have serious consequences for the diplomatic outcomes. France rejoined NATO as a full member in 2009 following the election of President Obama, but had withdrawn for most of the Cold War preferring to retain its independence of action. The wound is not completely healed, and if Turkey appears to have been in the wrong — or simply can be made to appear so, which is often adequate for diplomatic purposes — it might provide Putin with the leverage, or France with the excuse, to reopen that split at least a little. French President Hollande is scheduled to visit Putin in Moscow too: it may be that we will see evidence of a split soon.