|Nato missile system in Turkey.|
A multitude of conflicting details, accusations and counter-accusations followed news today that a Russian warplane was shot down, close to the border between Syria and Turkey.
Russia and Turkey dispute whether the incident took place over Turkish airspace. There is also some suggestion from the Russian side that the plane was shot down from the ground, rather than the air. It seems that the aircraft fell inside Syria, possibly about 4km from the border.
At a press conference, President Putin responded with strong words, accusing Turkey of acting as ‘accomplices of terrorists’. Meanwhile, Ankara has claimed that Russia violated its airspace and the plane was shot down in accordance with standard practices, after multiple warnings were issued first.
It’s impossible, so far, to know what happened with any accuracy, but it may be helpful to place the events in a little context.
Firstly, sensitivities around the Turkish / Syrian border are certainly not a new phenomenon.
Diplomatic tensions have been increasing since Russia started to hit targets in northern Syria and Turkey clearly feels an obligation toward the Turkmen population in the mountain region where today’s incident took place.
You might remember that further east along the border, when Kobane was under siege toward the end of 2014, the Turks were accused of helping Isis forces, because the town’s defence was conducted mainly by Kurdish fighters. Ankara is exceptionally distrustful of Kurd militias, which have links to the PKK and its terrorist campaign.
There is a complex web of allegiances and interests, ethnic, religious and geo-political, spanning the frontier between Syria and Turkey.
The Turks see Isis as a serious regional threat, but they also view Kurdish separatism as an existential danger to their state. They’re hostile to Assad’s Alawite regime and the schism between Sunni and Shia further complicates Turkey’s attitudes to the Syrian war.
Aside from its support for Assad, Russia has a particular interest in the northern part of Syria too, because it contains many Russian terrorists who travelled, mainly from the north Caucasus, to wage Jihad in the Middle East. They include members of Wilayat al-Qawkaz, or Caucasus Province, which is affiliated to Isis, but also fighters from the so-called Caucasus Emirate, which is linked to al-Qaeda and does not recognise the authority of Islamic State.
These two factions reflect a split in north Caucasus Islamism, but they are both fanatical and highly dangerous. They also hint at the impossibly complex kaleidoscope of Islamist groups now operating in Syria, spanning various grades of extremity and viciousness.
The Russians say that the aircraft downed today was targeting terrorists from Russia. This seems consistent with the Kremlin’s strategy in Syria so far.
The incident exemplifies how dangerous the situation in the Middle East has become. A number of countries are engaging in uncoordinated military actions and working to different agendas.
Meanwhile Islamist groups of various hues have turned swathes of Syria and Iraq into a living hell.
Left unchecked, the likelihood is that more potentially explosive situations will arise.