Turkish fire may have brought down one Russian bomber, but the ultimate victim of the exchange may be the already slender hopes for a negotiated Syrian peace and the creation of a credible coalition against the Islamic State (IS).
The two countries have insisted they will not go to war. But the rhetoric on both sides has been harsh. The underlying reasons for Turko-Russian geopolitical rivalry over Syria still remain: a Russian intervention that has wrecked Turkey’s admittedly struggling Syrian policy; airstrikes that have targeted Ankara-backed Turkmen militia in Syria and continuing Turkish suspicions that a Russian missile downed a Turkish recon plane off the Syrian coast in 2012.
One thing the two countries share are their leaders. Both Vladimir Putin and Recip Erdogan are nationalistic, belligerent and have a domestic agenda that makes retaliation difficult to avoid. Moscow will have to do something – playing around with its gas supplies to Turkey or doubling down on its bombing of Turkmen.
All of this threatens the Vienna talks announced by the US and Russia to begin a Syrian peace process.
The Vienna talks were a direct result of Russia’s intervention. Sunni regional players, namely Turkey and the Gulf states, had been smelling blood the past few months. The Shia Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad was crumbling. The US was playing footsie with the main Shia power, Iran, but was generally staying away from Syria.
Then Russia arrived on the scene. The Vienna process was a statement by the US that overthrowing Assad was no longer really feasible. The Sunni states should instead join them in breaking Syria into a jigsaw puzzle but with pieces at peace with each other.
For the Sunni powers, things got worse with the IS’s random attacks on France, Russia and even a few Sunni countries. This pushed the IS to the top of the international agenda. The US, Russia and the rest of the West have begun the process of putting together an international coalition against IS. But many Sunni countries, including Turkey, saw IS, for all its looniness, a useful bulwark against Iranian-backed Shia power.
With the present Turkish and Russian kerfuffle the question is whether either Vienna or the anti-IS drive can survive. Escalation will be fatal. The US has little choice but to defend Turkey, its treaty ally. And it will not be able to stop Putin from striking back. The Sunni powers, if they wanted, could use the issue to mortally wound Vienna. Its also hard to see Turkey and Russia working together against an alien invasion let alone the IS. West Asian chaos just got all that harder to bring order to.