The rapid deterioration of global order took an ugly turn this morning and we all moved a little closer to the abyss: Two Turkish F-16s have shot down what appears to be a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Syrian border. Two Russian pilots parachuted out of the plane as it went down in flames. One pilot was captured by Turkmen fighters in Latakia province, with early reports indicating the second pilot did not survive the ordeal. Turkey is claiming the bomber was warned ten times about being in Turkish airspace before it was shot down. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has called for a special consultation with Turkey’s NATO allies.
The facts of the case aren’t clear as I write. The Kremlin is calling it a “very serious incident” but said it was still studying the specifics. Russia’s initial spin appeared to be that the plane was brought down by fire from the ground, but that story is not likely to hold for long given that Turkey is insisting it did the shooting. The plane was “exclusively over Syrian territory throughout its entire flight”, Russia’s foreign ministry maintained. “This is recorded by objective controls.” Turkey, however, has released a radar trace of the incident purporting to show that the plane had crossed into Turkish airspace over the province of Hatay.
Russia has been flying missions over Latakia province since it began combat operation in Syria at the very end of September, and has by some accounts upped their intensity since Russia fingered ISIS as the party responsible for the downing of its civilian airliner over the Sinai. ISIS is not known to be operating in Latakia, however, and just yesterday, Prime Minister Davutoglu had said that Turkey would “not hesitate” to act on Syrian soil to protect the Turkmen people. (The Syrian Turkmen minority is one of many groups scattered between China and Bulgaria who speak a Turkic language and share cultural and historical roots with the Turks of Turkey.)
Regardless of the facts of this case, the root cause of the problem is continued aggressive Russian activity in and around Turkish airspace. That aggression was bound to cause problems at some point. Whether Russia or Turkey is more to blame with respect to this particular situation, overall there is no doubt that Russia is the country that bears the political responsibility for the incident.
It’s now critical that Russia not be allowed to intimidate or pressure Turkey over the episode. That means NATO support. Turkey, unlike Georgia and Ukraine, is a full-fledged NATO member, and failing to stand behind it threatens to unravel the alliance. Putin’s number one goal, we must remember, is to break NATO—or at minimum to show that it is a paper tiger. The slow-moving collapse of the political relationship between the other members and Turkey gives him an opening. The lack of trust over ISIS, and the broader disagreements over how to fight the Syrian war, have undermined Turkey’s relationship with its Western allies. But the fundamental element in the divide between the West and Turkey remains the Islamist and increasingly anti-democratic nature of the Turkish government. All this must, for now, be swept aside. If the Kremlin is prepared to engage in a reasonable and cooperative process to determine responsibility for the incident and follow diplomatic precedent and procedures, then we should meet it half-way. But if Moscow attempts to force Turkey into some kind of capitulation, Ankara needs solid backup.
In the short term, the goal needs to be the development of procedures and understandings that prevent future incidents like this. But in the longer term, the United States needs to think hard about a comprehensive strategy for both Syria and Iraq—which necessarily entails coming up with a strategy for dealing with Russia and Iran. At a minimum, major U.S. and NATO military assets now need to come into play. The balance of forces in the region must be one in which Russia feels more constrained than it currently does.
President Obama sees Syria as a quagmire ready to engulf the United States, and has believed that the less he deals with the Syrian mess the better. Those are reasonable fears, but the longer the war rages unchecked the more dangerous it becomes—and the worse the President’s choices get. Russia, for its part, has long been using Obama’s unwillingness to engage in confrontations as a tool to force American retreat. The Kremlin’s read is that President Obama is so conflict-averse that Russia can engage in behavior that would otherwise be seen as much too risky. Regardless of whether the plane was in Turkish or Russian airspace at the moment of the downing, this incident is typical of a global pattern of Russian planes testing the limits of what is possible and acceptable. Now that this pattern has produced such a clear conflict point, the U.S.—and the West, generally—must not back down.
President Obama is rediscovering, painfully and expensively, a truth that George Kennan wrote about almost seventy years ago. A regime like Putin’s needs a hostile relationship with the United States to justify the repression and austerity that it imposes on its fellow citizens. Such powers cannot be soothed with reasonable concessions and “resets.” They must be contained, and it is only on that basis that something like a businesslike relationship can be established.