A week ago Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter plane that according to Turkey had violated its airspace on multiple occasions. After having warned the plane without success, the Turks decided to engage. Subsequently, the plane was downed with an air-to-air-missile. The two pilots successfully ejected from their plane, and one of them was then killed by Turkmen rebels while still parachuting down. These actions can have serious consequences in the relationship between Moscow and Ankara, and can further complicate the broader conflict in Syria and the Middle East.
That day’s events mark the first time since the end of the Cold War that a NATO member directly exchanged fire with Russian military forces in response to its repeated violations of NATO airspace. Although we should not directly expect an all-out military escalation between the NATO alliance and Russia, it can be expected that the Russians will review their relationships with Turkey.
Already, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has recommended Russians against traveling to Turkey. This is a clear and direct political response to the downing of the Russian warplane. Every year more than 3 million Russian tourists visit Turkey, making them the second biggest group of visitors each year. This can seriously harm the tourism industry in Turkey. Also the Russians have put in place a broader package of economic sanctions against Turkey.
Also, the Turks can be sure their efforts to create a no-fly zone over northern Syria will not be successful. For a no-fly zone to be successful, Russian support is necessary. The Russians have de facto control over large parts of Syrian airspace, and their cooperation in the enforcement of any no-fly zone over Syria is necessary. The creation of a no-fly zone over northern Syria is something the Turks have wanted for a long time.
The idea is that creating a ‘safe zone’ would decrease the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey and would instead create safe areas for internally displaced Syrians to find a safe place to hide inside their own country. However, some argue it would not solve the problems and would actually make them worse.
The Russians are likely to retaliate whenever a suitable occasion arises. With the Russians being present in Syrian airspace, this means it will become way more difficult for the Turks to coordinate their air campaigns in Syria. It will make it much more difficult to pursue their strategy to attack ISIS and – more importantly – their efforts to destroy Kurdish influence in the region.
On top of this, the Russians have capabilities to further fuel the regional political conflict between the Turks and the Kurds. It is not unlikely the Russians will secretly empower Kurdish groups (for example by arming them with anti-aircraft weaponry) to further deepen the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. In doing so, the Russians can ensure a situation in which the Turkish government needs to focus on their internal problems with the Kurds rather than on their military aspirations in Syria. This would seriously strengthen Russia’s position in Syria.
Overall, the decision to shoot down the Russian warplane risks serious complications in the region. Although the Turks might have had legitimate reasons to engage, the political costs can turn out to outweigh the gains in the long run. It has to be seen how Russia will behave in the near future. It is possible that Russia will refrain from violating NATO’s airspace from now on. However, it could also give the Russians an excuse to further increase their activities in Syria and ultimately complicate a solution for the Syrian war.