Russia's Quarrel With Turkey Is Distracting—and Dangerous

De-escalation is crucial in order to restore focus on the Syrian war itself.

As the world’s leaders gathered for the COP 21 climate change summit in Paris, a more immediate and grave threat should have preoccupied their attention. Two regional powers, Russia and Turkey, have come to blows for the first time since the end of the Cold War. If not stopped, the conflict may careen out of control—and bury the efforts to defeat Islamic State/Daesh under the rubble. The chances of resolving the Syrian civil war would further diminish. There will be no winners.

The Russian Fencer was bombing a Turkmen Sunni anti-Assad militia supplied and protected by Ankara. The plane crossed a portion of Turkish territory that protrudes into Syria. It was in Turkish airspace for mere seconds. For the first time since the war in Korea, a NATO member shot down a Russian aircraft.

Following the downed Fencer, the ties between Turkey and Russia immediately went into a downward spiral. Contributing factors included Russia’s aggressive and excessive use of air assets in the Syrian “anti-terrorist” operation, with poor coordination with other parties. No matter what Moscow was targeting, there was no justification for repeatedly crossing into Turkish airspace.

Next, Russia ignored a series of red lights. Turkey repeatedly warned against repeated violations of its sovereign airspace. Ankara said that it would follow “military procedures.” Since October, it has played by the book: the Turkish Foreign Ministry called in the Russian ambassador, summoned the NATO Council and launched a complaint at the UN Security Council. Russia blamed bad weather, apologized and said that it would not happen again.

Finally, once the incident occurred, Moscow decided to escalate, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to apologize. The Kremlin, however, is now deliberately destroying over twenty years of what was a thriving relationship with the Russian Empire’s historic enemy. Between the sixteenth century and 1918, the Ottoman Porte and the Romanov Empire fought twelve wars, all but one lost by the “Sick Man of Europe.”

During the Cold War, Ankara was the pillar of the NATO alliance’s southern flank. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Turkey have enjoyed a thriving relationship worth tens of billions of dollars. Turkey and Russia have a visa-free travel regime (which Moscow will be ending on January 1, 2016), and four million Russian tourists spend tens of billions of U.S. dollars at Turkish resorts each year.

Turkish companies have worked on lucrative construction projects in Russia. Russia has been supplying Turkey with 60% of natural gas, and Putin has launched “TurkStream,” a massive $30 billion project to supply 63 billion cubic meters of gas to Turkey and Europe. Rosatom is constructing a gigantic nuclear power project at Akkuyu worth $20 billion. Now, all of it—from tourists to tomatoes—is on life support.

Escalation Domination:

In a war of words, Vladimir Putin accused Erdogan of “Islamization,” and Kremlin TV channels claimed that Erdogan's son was involved in trading oil with ISIS. (Erdogan has accused the Assad regime of the same.)

Putin decided to stay one step ahead of the game. He ordered the missile cruiser Moskva to Latakia’s coast. Its massive arsenal has Turkish and allied targets in its sights. Russia also moved its advanced, long-range S-400 Favorit SA-21 missiles to the Hmeimim air base, to threaten Turkish (and allied) air operations in Syria’s skies. This move, if unchecked by allied electronic warfare capabilities, could constrain Western air operations over Syria. The missiles’ 200-400 kilometer range covers all of the Eastern Mediterranean coast—200 kilometers into Turkey, and all the way down to Lebanon and Israel.

Since the war in Ukraine, NATO has continued to deter Russia along its eastern and northeastern borders. But on the southern tier, it is time for de-escalation: in the skies over Syria, and in Turkish-Russian relations.

Priorities for the Allies:

The Turkey-Russia clash is a massive distraction. Dealing with the threat from ISIS and searching for a comprehensive settlement in Syria should be the two parallel priorities. Unfortunately, Washington is lacking vision, leadership and toughness in pursuing them.