The Syrian civil war and Russia's involvement in it have come to a complex stage where, due to variety of options, the further development is difficult to see as additionally muddied by Turkey downing a Russian jet on Syrian border yesterday with one pilot dead. The only thing clear is the line the Turks drew: with warning ignored, action follows.
As is usual with incidents like this, the two sides present differing facts. Russia claims the plane did not violate the air boundary, but the Turks claim the opposite as well as that the Russian pilots were warned before firing. Last week, Turkey called Russian ambassador on the carpet due to the airstrikes in Syria edging too near to Turkish border villages. Repeatedly, Russian planes have received warning from Turks for violations of air boundary.
Instead of following the usual tactical wrangling, let’s focus on the big strategic picture. Russia’s position in the Syrian conflict i.e. on the bench it has been eager to sit is up to how the Kremlin will behave from now on.
In Syria, Russia is allegedly targeting ISIS, but in reality they are hitting opponents to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The fate of Al-Assad has been the basic contention with West. Following the Paris terrorist attacks, Russia was already at the table, literally. On Friday, UN Security Council supported the anti-ISIS resolution compiled by France.
The West is still applying sanctions towards Russia due to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern-Ukraine, the alleviation of which is being anticipated – and not for economic reasons alone. At the same time, cooperation in Syria would more-or-less mark continued status quo in Ukraine. If not legitimisation, then at reconciliation to the situation.
Turkey being a NATO member, the plane shot down thus places itself on the Russia-NATO line. Moscow said this is serious, but in not too sharp wording for starters. Economic moves against Turkey may follow but to what degree remains to be seen. Thus far the reaction hints at an attempt to stay in the same boat with the West and they will probably pay more attention in the future.
In the Baltic Sea region, border violations by Russian planes have been frequent. Not limited to NATO members like Estonia, but by Finland and Sweden as well. Russian planes have indeed been escorted, but mainly diplomatic notes have been resorted to. In Postimees today, senior Chatham House research fellow on Russia and Eurasia Keir Giles is pointing out that, unlike Northern Europe, Turkey drew a clear red line.