Turkey-Russia: Diplomacy, De-escalation and Cooperative Security

25 November 2015

erdogan-putin-istanbulThe accident at the border between Syria and Turkey on November 24, with the downing of a Russian jet and the death of one of the pilots, has been caused mainly by the lack of a single chain of command and control coordinating operations against ISIS.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has started almost two months ago, but effective mechanisms to ensure transparency and predictability, minimizing as much as possible the risk of collisions, have yet to be established. The development of these mechanisms is made more urgent by the intensification of the military engagement of France, after the latest terrorist attacks in Paris, and of the whole US-led international coalition.

Therefore, enhancing the strategic cohesion and cooperation in operations is necessary to guarantee that the different countries and actors in the conflict will be fighting the same battle against ISIS and other terrorist groups both on the ground and in the skies of Syria and Iraq.

This would be an evolution of a political nature, which should drive Turkey to further strengthen its contribution to Syria’s stabilization. Failing such an evolution, more caution and self-control will be required. Regardless of whether the Russian aircraft violated the Turkish airspace or not, as already happened in the recent past, the potential implications of Moscow’s military operations near the border with Turkey were well known. Turkey is a NATO member country and new tensions with Russia could lead to the activation of the mechanisms of collective defense foreseen by the Alliance, which itself aims to favor détente.

The accident is likely to complicate even more the achievement of a settlement in Syria from a diplomatic point of view, given the interdependence between the military and political tracks of the crisis. With the resumption of the peace talks in Vienna, there has been a rapprochement among the parties on the start of the political transition, although substantial differences remain with regard to the timing and modalities of the exit of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The accident certainly does not facilitate the convergence of the positions of Russia and Turkey on the future of Assad − a convergence that would be instrumental to encourage all regional and international actors concerned, in particular Iran, Saudi Arabia and Assad himself, to accept a compromise solution.

The reaction of the Russian President Vladimir Putin was tough, tougher than the one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the first violations of the Turkish airspace. The Kremlin accused Ankara of connivance with terrorism, threatening serious consequences on the bilateral relations and the deployment in Syria of the most sophisticated Russian anti-missile system (S-400), while new warships have already reached the base of Latakia in the Mediterranean. On the other hand, the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed Ankara’s right to defend its airspace.

A breakdown would jeopardize Syria’s stabilization, with repercussions in other geopolitical areas, especially in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Therefore, diplomacy and de-escalation are necessary to bring back Turkey-Russia relations within a cooperative security framework, as invoked by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the margins of the North Atlantic Council convened immediately after the accident.