Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Warplane incident shows Syria has become potential tinderbox

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.  


yourcousin said...

Isn't the fact that in your own words Syria has become "a living hell" kind of undermine your title about a "potential tinderbox"?

Owen Polley said...

A 'living hell' for people inside the conflict zone. A tinderbox for the wider region and the outside powers involved in the war.

yourcousin said...

I guess I was being too coy. I was trying to nudge the point that your post is fairly Orientalist. While I understand the geo political nature of what is happening, this is not the 19th century where only (to rework an American slogan) "European lives matter". This is the 21st century where a tragedy has been unfolding in Syria for years sparked by a dictator who started to massacre those who dared protest his rule. This current conflagration has dove tailed with the results of Bush's follies and handed the entire world a less than desirable outcome. But no where has that outcome been more real than Syria.

And to chalk up the "hell" of the Syrian war to Islamic groups seems wide of the mark. Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, regularly uses barrel bombs in built up civilian areas, uses food as a weapon, and has used the issuing or lack thereof of travel documents to create the worst population exodus since WWII. The decision by Iran and Russia early on in the conflict to prop up the Assad regime is what lit the fuse for a proxy war. But to downplay the very real suffering of the Syrian seems...callous.

And if the only thing that Russia learned from Bush's follies was to recycle failed talking points from the Iraq war then they have even less sense then I gave them previously.