Russia's Downed Plane Distracts From Syria's Real Challenges

Russia and Turkey have irreconcilable differences in Syria, and the parties they back are determined to destroy one another.

The downing of a Russian Sukhoi-24 bomber over a two-mile-wide salient protruding into Syria from Turkey’s Hatay province leaves many questions unanswered. There are conflicting versions of what happened, and the maps and radar plots released by Turkey and Russia to back their claims regarding the plane’s flight path cannot be reconciled. Each country insists on the falsity of the other’s story and the veracity of its own.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shifted from bluster and defiance to conceding that, in retrospect, the Sukhoi’s incursion might have been handled in other ways—certainly true. He has offered to meet with President Vladimir Putin to calm the waters and has said that the downing of the Russian plane had “saddened” him. Moscow, by contrast, has turned up its rhetoric—and tightened the screws. Immediately after the plane was downed, it canceled foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s scheduled trip to Ankara. Then came a presidential decree that slapped various economic sanctions on Turkey.

The shoot-down of the Sukhoi grabbed the headlines, but the controversy it has created will soon fade. Turkey and Russia will surely seek to avoid another aerial incident over the Syrian border. On the ground in Syria, by contrast, neither will exercise appropriate restraint. Their objectives are incompatible, and the parties they back are determined to destroy one another.

Ankara wants Assad gone. Moscow remains determined to save his regime. Putin may eventually ditch Assad to facilitate a political settlement, providing it involves remnants of the Syrian state. He will not, however, abandon the Ba’athist regime itself.

What Does Moscow Want?

Russia’s strategic ties to Syria date back to the 1954, the year of the first Soviet-Syrian arms deal. In the ensuing decades, the Soviet Union remained the principal source of economic aid and arms for successive Syrian regimes. In 1971, the Soviet navy won access to Tartus, which Russia’s Black Sea fleet retains. In 1980, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, ruled Syria, Moscow and Damascus signed a friendship and security treaty.

Putin will not relinquish this strategic inheritance, particularly because he believes that the Ba’ath government’s fall will enable the rise of a jihadist regime, whether led by ISIS or by the most powerful elements in the radical Islamist grouping Jaish al-Fath (Army of Conquest), notably Harakat Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The Syrian state’s collapse would, as I noted previously in the National Interest, be a major setback for Russia—and in more ways than one.

Indeed, it was the fear that the regime would fall to Jaish that prompted Russia, after close coordination with Iran and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, to dispatch military aircraft, air-defense missiles, naval infantry, special forces, helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers to Syria, starting in September of this year. Since then, Russia’s military presence has expanded. Putin ordered the mobile S-400 air-defense-missile system (it can engage as many as three-dozen targets simultaneously and has a 400-kilometer range) to Hemeimeen airbase, located north of Latakia, a mere fifty kilometers from the Turkish border. And Russian warplanes, supplemented by Syrian artillery, have stepped by their attacks on the area in which the Russian plane went down.