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

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.

Russia will be more careful about the flight paths of its bombers, which, according to a Russian military spokesman, will now be escorted by fighter jets—like the S-400 deployment, another warning to Ankara. But Russian air attacks on Idlib province of Syria and its capital, Jisr al-Shughur, will continue. The province, over which Jaish had gained control by the end of May, overlooks Latakia from the north. Russia regards the group’s ensconcement there as a mortal threat to coastal expanse that extends from the northern border of Latakia province (abutting Turkey) to the southern limits Tartus province (adjacent to Lebanon). This domain, the Alawite minority’s historic homeland, remains a key stronghold of the regime, itself Alawite dominated.

As part of its defense of Assad’s Ba’athist state, Moscow has also directed airstrikes at the Turkmen-populated Bayirbucak region of northwest Syria adjoining Turkey’s border. This has infuriated Ankara. The Turkmen are the Turks’ ethnic kin, and the Russia’s bombardment has received considerable attention in the Turkish press and, with it, calls for tough action. Ethnic solidarity aside, the Turkmen territories are critical to Ankara’s game plan in Syria, which is to protect a conduit for Turkey (and Saudi Arabia) to arm fighters opposing Assad, including Islamist fighters such as Jaish.

What Does Ankara Want?

Turkey’s overriding preoccupation remains blocking a Kurdish state in northern Syria. Saudi Arabia seeks to topple Assad’s regime as part of its larger effort to undercut Iran in the Middle East. Thus, albeit for different reasons, Ankara and Riyadh are prepared to accept an Islamist victory in Syria—an outcome Russia cannot abide.

Yet the Turks and the Saudis have no recourse if Putin keeps ratcheting up the attacks on Idlib province and the Turkmen territories while ensuring that his bombers don’t enter Turkish airspace. Following the shoot-down of the Sukhoi the Russian president has done precisely that. Turkey’s membership in NATO may have emboldened Erdogan to approve the downing of the Sukhoi. But the alliance will be of no help to him in countering Russian airstrikes against his Syrian proxies. And Russian firepower, supplemented by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian military advisers, has been crucial in enabling the Syrian government’s battered troops to gain ground against the forces Ankara and Riyadh support.

In short, the aims and actions of Russia on the one hand and Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other are incompatible. That will not change, even as the Sukhoi storm dissipates.

What Does Washington Want?

As for Washington, its main concern remains the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. So far, the United States has conducted over 90 percent of the strike sorties against ISIS in Syria. Following the November 10 terrorist attacks ISIS masterminded in Paris, France has begun to step up its air campaign in Syria. But even a more intensive air campaign against ISIS will not solve the basic problem, namely, that airpower cannot by itself conquer territory. The area ISIS controls has shrunk, even if the extent of the shrinkage remains disputed, but its caliphate endures—and will do so absent robust opposition on the ground. American war planners understand this and have has trained and equipped proxies to fight ISIS: the Iraqi army and, in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the fighting arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Yet what enabled ISIS to emerge from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was the alienation of Iraqi Sunnis who justifiably felt excluded from a Shi’a-dominated civilian and military order. American attempts to cajole Iraqi leaders to bring the Sunnis into the fold having largely failed, ISIS retains a recruitment pool.

Moreover, compared to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, the Iraqi army’s battlefield performance has been lackluster despite the billions of dollars Washington has spent to train it. And even if it gets better at fighting, Iraq’s Sunnis will not welcome its advances into their domains, particularly given what they see as an alignment between Baghdad and Tehran.

Washington’s reliance on the YPG to defeat ISIS will also produce problems. Syria’s Kurds have proven formidable as fighters, as witness their retaking of Kobane, in January, and Tal Abyad, in June, from ISIS. But, like their brethren Iraq, Syria’s Kurds have designs on the territories of Sunnis and various minorities.

The Syrian Kurds’ goal remains a homeland—Rojava as they call it—constituted by a continuous land corridor (from Derika Hemko in the northeast to the border of Afrin canton in the southwest) that has greater strategic depth. YPG forces will therefore likely incorporate lands containing Turkmen and Arabs and other ethnic groups and encourage Kurds to move into them. There are already signs of strife between the YPG and Sunni Arabs living in areas that its fighters have wrested from ISIS.

By relying on the Kurdish YPG Washington risks alienating Syrian Sunnis and playing into the hands of Jaish and ISIS, both of which are Sunni Arab movements. Moreover, Washington’s alignment with the Kurds sits uneasily with the America’s partnership with Turkey, which already believes that the United States, even if unwittingly, is empowering the Syrian Kurds’ bid for secession.

As Turkey sees it, a de facto Kurdish state, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has already arisen in northern Iraq. The Turks and the KRG have managed to create a cooperative relationship because the latter has, for now at least, renounced independence. But Turkey remains worried that a larger Kurdish state (whether fully independent or not) could emerge were Syria and Iraq to implode any further. That would be a nightmare for Ankara, not least because the PKK, which remains active in Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish-majority areas, and the PYD have close ties, and in Turkish leaders’ eyes are essentially the same. Not surprisingly, alongside its efforts to topple Assad, Turkey has been bombing PKK positions with greater vigor.