Turkey And Russia: True Frenemies When It Comes To Syria

Tensions have only escalated between the two powers, who are at odds on their diverging strategic aims in the Syrian conflict.

Nov 25, 2015 at 12:20 PM ET

It was the nightmare scenario analysts warned about ever since Russia formally entered the Syrian conflict: Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, dramatically escalating tensions between the NATO member country and Moscow while raising the prospect of further chaos in the Middle East.

“There was plenty of time from the first warning to the shot being fired for this to run up and down the chain of command,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York state. “I don’t think this was an accident. I think this was a game of chicken that went wrong.”

Describing the incident as a “stab in the back” carried out by “accomplices of terrorists,” a visibly angry Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of “serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.”

Turkey insisted it was merely defending its borders and following through on threats made in the aftermath of earlier Russian infractions on its airspace. “Nobody should doubt that we made our best efforts to avoid this latest incident,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

More A Brief History Of: Turkey’s Air Wars Over Syria

But those doubts lingered, even as NATO allies sought to de-escalate the crisis in an emergency meeting in Brussels. While calling for “diplomacy,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will stand by Turkey and warned of the dangers posed by Russia’s air campaign in support of its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think this is really about Syria,” said Eissenstat. “They support opposing factions. There has clearly been a lot of tension over this, but I don’t think one should overstate it.”

Since the war in Syria broke out Erdogan has sought to aid rebels working to oust Assad and his regime from power. It turned a blind eye to foreign fighters arriving in Turkey and making their way across the border to join militant groups in Syria, in effect allowing ISIS to boost its ranks through its anti-Assad ambitions. When Turkey finally joined the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, it began its airstrike campaign by bombing those it considers a greater direct threat — U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels, as part of its ongoing battle to quell Kurdish independence ambitions at home.

However, overriding all the political animosity is the mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation the two countries enjoy on energy and other economic interests. Russia plans to build a natural gas pipeline to Turkey, and there’s the proposed construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Russians are among the largest groups of tourists Turkey depends on each year. All those factors mean the relationship is unlikely to shift in the long term because of Syria.

More Angry Russians Threaten Turkey After It Downed Russian Jet

“They’re true frenemies,” said Eissenstat. “Erdogan is certainly frustrated with Russia’s backing of Assad, but I don’t see either state has having a strong interest in escalating this confrontation. I think they will play this up for all it is worth to get as much political leverage as they can. But Putin and Erdogan are more rational than people often credit them for.”

Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute, a thinktank based in Qatar, agrees.

“Nobody wants two hard-headed external influencers in the region going to war with one another. There’s a lot of pressure outside the bilateral relationship to keep this calm and quiet,” he said. “NATO will be saying do not escalate any more than you have to … and I think the Russians will be having the same conversation between the Americans and Moscow.”

Having Russia and Turkey on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict meant that a clash of some sort was inevitable, Stephens said. “The plane being shot down is just a reflection of a larger problem,” he said.

The battleground has already shifted. Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria to protect its jets operating there, while maintaining that Russian planes would continue to fly near Turkish air space. But at the same time, Russia’s “coalition of two,” as President Obama called it during remarks with French President Francois Hollande, needs the international community too, and shouldn’t be rushing to escalate things further.

More The Caliphate Next Door: Turkey’s Tricky ISIS Crisis

“Given Russia’s military capabilities and given the influence they have on the Assad regime, them cooperating would be enormously helpful in bringing about a resolution of the civil war in Syria, and allow us all to refocus our attention on ISIL,” Obama said Tuesday, using another name for ISIS, which is also called the Islamic State.

Russia, Obama said, was the outlier. “We hope that they refocus their attention on what is the most substantial threat, and that they serve as a constructive partner,” he said. Obama spoke to Erdogan by phone on Tuesday regarding the downed Russian plane and supported “Turkey’s right to defend its sovereignty.” But he urged both Turkey and Russia to focus away from the altercation on to the necessity of first dealing with the threat of ISIS.

“It’s not going to be something that happens just because suddenly we take a few more airstrikes,” Obama told reporters Tuesday. “And that’s the kind of hard work that I know France is prepared to do, the United States is prepared to do, and perhaps, in the future, Russia will be, as well.”