If attention shifts to Russian jet, we may never solve the Syrian Civil War
by George Petrolekas
The Globe and Mail
November 27, 2015
Eight seconds. That was the amount of time that a Russian jet spent over a three-kilometre sliver of Turkish territory on the border with Syria before being shot down. The effects may last considerably longer – and not in the way Turkey envisioned.
On the surface, Turkey was protecting its sovereignty and airspace. The Russian incursion was not a threat to Turkey, but it was symptomatic of a cavalier if not sloppy Russian attitude regarding its air operations in northern Syria. Until we see gun camera video, the Turkish claims of warnings were about approaching Turkish airspace rather than a warning that they would shoot. The Turks appeared to be waiting for the opportunity. They certainly fired within Turkish airspace, but the impact was likely over Syrian airspace. This, of course, leads to claim and counterclaim.
Nevertheless, the downing of the Russian SU-24 masks far deeper undercurrents.
Events often alter strategic endgames, and in the past few months several events have had a pinball effect on Turkey’s ambitions in the region.
Russia’s involvement in Syria has upset Turkey’s desire to see the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad as the focal point of the world’s attention in the region. Turkish assistance to the coalition fighting the Islamic State has been predicated on the primacy of the fight against Mr. al-Assad and, to a lesser degree, restraining the amount of assistance given to the Kurds. We should not forget that when Turkey openly joined the coalition, its first air strikes were against Kurdish targets, not IS positions.
But the downing of a Russian airliner at the hands of IS, and the carnage in Paris, have dashed Turkish endgame goals. Overnight, Syria’s civil war has become a secondary and wholly distinct issue to the battle against IS.
The new theme in international negotiations is that Mr. al-Assad’s immediate departure is no longer a pre-condition for Syrian peace talks.
The earlier extremes of the U.S. and Russian positions are inevitably being drawn to the centre. The new balance point is now about how long Mr. al-Assad’s administration remains part of a transitional government before he ultimately departs. Neither camp gets what it wants – just what it can live with: Mr. al-Assad goes, but not right away, and the intervening time permits a new leadership to emerge that isn’t infected with extremism.
Seen in that context, the downing of the Russian jet represents Turkey’s effort to both derail Russian air operations against the rebels, which in northeastern Syria are heavily supported by Turkey, and introduce a schism in the strategic international rapprochement now emerging.
Turkey’s NATO allies should, now more than ever, speak resolutely in tones of restraint, lest the larger opportunity be lost because of what is militarily called target fixation.
Lecturing Russia at this time is tone deafness, particularly since in the aftermath of the downing, the pilots descending by parachute were fired upon from the ground – a war crime – and a rescue helicopter was also destroyed. If that shoe were on our foot, western rhetoric would be brimming with indignation.
Every effort should be made to build upon deconfliction negotiations with the Russians to avoid escalation. The wider issues are more important for the world right now than event fixation. Negotiate the al-Assad transition, a ceasefire and the disarmament of some 48 distinct rebel groups, stem the flow of refugees and focus attention on the real international threat, Islamic State. Beneath the veneer of alliance solidarity voicing support for Turkey, that is exactly what is happening.
Perhaps this event, like the downing of the Russian airliner and the Paris attacks, has actually served to crystallize U.S., EU and NATO opinion to the point that the chance to materially solve the Syrian civil war, and its evil companion IS, is at hand. As significant as the downing of the fighter jet may be, there are far greater issues at stake.
To not do so will have permitted eight seconds of stupidity to alter outcomes for years.
George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. A career Canadian Forces officer, he served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and was an adviser to senior NATO commanders.