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Turkey Downing of Russian Jet Underscores Complexity of Syrian Conflict

On Tuesday, Turkish fighter jets reportedly shot down a Russian warplane that had allegedly crossed from Syrian and into Turkish airspace. Even as the facts surrounding this incident continue to emerge, what remains uncertain is Turkey’s possible motivations for such aggression. Although defense of national sovereignty and territory is the simplest explanation, the nature, location, and timing of the incident, coupled with ongoing domestic developments in Turkey suggest a myriad of other potential factors.

Ultimately, this recent incident, though not unexpected, highlights the challenge that the United States faces in both keeping the foreign policy of its mercurial Turkish ally aligned with its own and the fact that U.S. Syria policy cannot be simply be reduced down to a conflict with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, it must recognize and seek to manage what is effectively a multitude of overlapping conflicts taking place simultaneously in Syria.


Since sustained opposition to the Assad regime first took root in Syria four years ago, Turkey has been heavily involved in Syrian affairs.

  • Turkey was an early advocate for Assad’s ouster, even as U.S. policy evolved after the emergence of ISIS to focus on on degrading and defeating the terrorist group.
  • The United States has been supporting Syrian Kurds as reliable on-the-ground partners, while Turkey has sought to limit the empowerment of Syrian Kurds, fearing that it would enflame tensions with its domestic Kurdish population.
  • Despite these disagreements, in July 2015 Turkey allowed access to Incirlik base and joined the anti-ISIS coalition.

Since the beginning the Syrian conflict, Turkey has experienced numerous instances of violence spilling across the 560 mile-long border, including:

  • June 2012: A Turkish warplane was shot down by the Syrian army and its two pilots killed.
  • October 2012: Five Turkish civilians were killed in the border town of Akçakale after being hit by Syrian shells. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made clear that Turkey would treat military assets approaching Turkey from Syria as a threat.
  • September 2013: Turkish warplanes shot down a Syrian helicopter after it crossed into Turkish airspace and ignored warnings from the Turkish Armed Forces to turn back.
  • March 2014: Turkish jets shot down a Syrian fighter jet after a similar incursion.

Russian entry into the Syrian civil war brought a new dimension to the conflict and soured previously genial relations between Ankara and Moscow. Despite disagreements over Russian actions in Ukraine and supporting opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, the Turkish government had sought to enhance cooperation with Russia, particularly with regard to energy.

The ability of Ankara and Moscow to look past their foreign policy disagreements ended several weeks ago:

  • Early October: Russian aircraft entered Turkish airspace twice in one weekend, while Turkish F-16s were reportedly harassed by Syrian-based missile systems and unidentified jets. President Erdoğan warned Russia that it was in danger of “losing” Turkey, both as a natural gas consumer and as a buyer of a Russian nuclear plant. In response to the violations, NATO held an emergency meeting, releasing a statement calling on Russia to cease and explain these airspace violations.
  • October 16: Turkish jets shot down a drone, reportedly of Russian origin, that had ventured into Turkish airspace and had not heeded warnings to turn back. In response, the United States deployed six F-15C aircraft to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to defend Turkish airspace at the Turkish government’s request, according to U.S. European Command.

The November 24 Incident

On November 24, Turkey reported that two of its F-16 fighter jets had downed a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 interdictor that had entered Turkish airspace in Hatay province. According to Turkish military officials, they had warned the plane ten times in five minutes that it was approaching Turkish territory before shooting it down. Russia, however, denied this claim, asserting that the plane was flying “only within the borders of Syrian territory.”

What remains unclear is who Russian fighter planes were targeting. Russia is one of the Assad regime’s staunchest supporters, and began conducting airstrikes against militant groups opposing the regime in September 2015 at the request of the Assad government. Putin claims that the Russian fighter jet was of no threat to Turkey and was directly targeting ISIS terrorists of Russian origin. However, the area over which the Russian fighter plane was flying is known to be a haven for the Free Syrian Army—the U.S.-backed rebel group fighting the Assad regime—but the Islamic State has no known presence.

It is also, importantly, a Turkmen stronghold. Turkmen, who are linguistically and ethnically similar to the Turks, have mostly aligned with moderate rebel groups in Syria and similarly oppose the Assad regime. The Turkmen in Syria, which have endured attacks by both the Syrian government and Russian forces, are strongly supported by Ankara, which has called for the United Nations Security Council to meet to discuss the necessity of protecting Turkmen in Syria.

The two Russian pilots said to have ejected the aircraft by parachute over Syrian territory were reportedly captured and/or killed by Turkmen. Turkmen forces might have also fired on a Russian search and rescue helicopter seeking to retrieve the airmen, killing one of the crew. If true, the Turkmen’s partial implication in Tuesday’s incident will further complicate an already-strained Turkey-Russia relationship. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident a “stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices,” adding that there would be “significant consequences.”

Turkey’s Motivations

The central unanswered question is why Turkey shot down a Russian jet. It represents a significant and risky escalation against a much stronger nation. Moreover, given its dependence on Russian energy, Ankara seemingly has good reasons to maintain at least a functional relationship with Moscow. What, then, motivated Turkey’s actions? Several possibilities suggest themselves, any number of which could have been at play:

Protecting Sovereignty

The simplest answer is that Ankara had made a policy decision that it would brook no further incursions. Sharing a more than 500 mile long border with a country enveloped in civil war for the better part of four years, Turkey has grown understandably wary of the possibility of the conflict spilling over into its territory. Turkish officials had already issued warnings to Russia over numerous violations of its airspace. Faced with repeated violations of its sovereignty, Ankara might have decided that the next logical step to ensure respect for its borders and to protect its interests was to demonstrate its resolve by punishing any future incursions into its airspace.

National Pride

A variation on this scenario would add Turkey acting not just out of self-defense but also self-importance. Syria was an important element of then Foreign Minister and now Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy and Erdoğan saw Assad as something of a protégé. Turkey’s failure to convince Assad to undertake political reforms to placate protestors in 2011 marked the harsh end of its regional aspirations. Now, with Iran and more recently Russia visibly keeping Assad in power while Turkey’s gambit to oust him has fizzled, Ankara might have grown aggrieved by what it perceived as other powers interfering and outmaneuvering Turkey in its own backyard, and made a calculated effort to reestablish Turkish regional influence.

Protecting Partners

In a related vein, Turkey might have been acting out of a sense of national responsibility for ethnically Turkish minorities on the ground in Syria. The AKP’s previous foreign policy ventures, which have been described as “neo-Ottoman,” largely focused on exerting Turkish influence in regions once controlled by Istanbul in its imperial heyday. More recently, one of the main avenues that Turkey has recently been pursuing in trying to rebuild its international standing is as a protector of minorities, particularly those which are ethnically related to and might be seen an extension of the Turkish nations, such as the Crimean Tatars or Turkmen in Syria and Iraq. Turkey might, therefore, have chosen to stake its national pride on being able to protect ethnically related minority groups in the region.

Rallying Domestic Support

Alternatively, the action could have been aimed just as much at the domestic Turkish audience as the international one. Erdoğan and his AKP just won big in parliamentary elections, five months after Turkish voters initially denied them a single-party government. Still, the AKP did not win enough seats in parliament to accomplish Erdoğan’s major ambition: amending the constitution to vest almost all political power in the presidency. To create more favorable conditions for calling, and winning, such a referendum, Erdoğan might be revisiting the strategy that he successfully used to lead the AKP to victory in November’s snap election: fostering insecurity. Last summer, after losing the first vote, Erdoğan reignited Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) under the guise of helping the United States fight ISIS. Now, Erdoğan might have decided to stoke the fear of an international conflict to secure necessary parliamentary and public support for his calls for an updated constitution and strengthened presidency.

Reemergence of the Turkish Military

Another actor that might be interested in burnishing its domestic reputation is the Turkish armed forces. The military has long played a crucial and often over-bearing role in Turkish politics, having staged several coup d’etats to force civilian governments it did not approve of from power. While the AKP largely succeeded in sidelining the military and stripping it of its political clout during its early years in power, the military is slowly reemerging as a political player and even potential Erdoğan ally. The ongoing campaign against the PKK is seen by many as a reassertion of the military’s power over one of its primary historical enemy. Shooting down a Russian warplane could be a further step in a calculated strategy to rehabilitate the military’s image in Turkey as a protector of the nation and strengthen is public standing.

Manipulating NATO Policy

Finally, the most troubling but also least likely explanation for these events could be a calculated Turkish attempt to shift the focus of U.S. and European policy in Syria away from ISIS and onto Turkey’s preferred target: the Assad regime and its supporters. It is no secret that Ankara and Washington widely disagree about the primary threat in Syria, and that Turkey has been alarmed by growing U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurdish forces, which Ankara sees as an extension of the PKK and a gateway to Kurdish nationalism and independence.

However, the horrific terrorist attacks on Paris, attributed to ISIS, effectively put an end to any Turkish hopes of an international campaign against Assad, catalyzing instead greater European involvement in the fight against ISIS. Indeed, French President Francois Hollande has even publicly discussed the possibility of joining forces with Russia to fight ISIS, a move that Washington has frowned upon but would be complete anathema to Ankara. But by shooting down a Russian jet, Turkey has not only precluded a grand U.S.-EU-Russian coalition against ISIS but also, should it decide to invoke the collective defense article of the NATO charter, could drag NATO into a confrontation with Russia and, by extension, Assad.

Implications for U.S. Policy

Most immediately, this incident confronts Washington with a grave geopolitical dispute to defuse. It must navigate honoring its commitment to aid and assist its NATO ally, while also seeking to deescalate tension and avoid a possible altercation with Russia. The United States will almost certainly want to dissuade Turkey from invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter, which might force the organization to, at the very least, take more active measures in protecting Turkey from perceived Russian threats. But U.S. officials will likely also have to dissuade France and other NATO members from dismissing Turkish concerns in order to enjoin Russia to join the anti-ISIS coalition.

Secondly, this Turkish action should make clear to U.S. policymakers, if it was not clear before, the unpredictability and unreliability of Turkey as a U.S. partner. In numerous instances over the course of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has sharply diverged from U.S. policy objectives, if not actively undermined them. From supporting the Muslim Brotherhood rather than a more democratic and pluralistic Syrian opposition, to arming radical jihadi groups in Syria, to attacking Turkish and Syrian Kurdish forces rather than ISIS, Turkey has repeatedly pursued its own objectives in the service of Erdoğan’s personal ambitions.

Finally, Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet highlights an often overlooked fact: though often referred to a single conflict, the “Syrian civil war” is actually composed of myriad, overlapping conflicts between numerous state, state-sponsored, and non-state actors. Even though the United States may have chosen to focus its energies on fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it is myopic to assume that other actors, event U.S. partners and allies, share that same threat perception or are even fighting in the same conflict. As Turkey has repeatedly highlighted, and just made clear in the most dramatic fashion possible, it is primarily concerned with fighting Assad and his supporters as well as the Syrian Kurds—not ISIS. The challenge for the United States, therefore, must be not simply prosecuting its own war against ISIS but managing the multiple ongoing conflicts to avoid spillover and secondary consequences.

A corollary to this is that the multiple Syrian conflicts can conflate and confuse alliances and enmities. Though the United States opposes Assad while Russia and Iran both back him, all three at least claim to also oppose ISIS. And while Washington and Ankara are treaty allies, they repeatedly seem to end up at loggerheads over Syria. Ranking geopolitical priorities, determining who might be unobjectionable partners, building a coalition, and then managing that cohort are imperative to a successful U.S. strategy in the region. The dangers of not holding the reins of such a coalition more tightly are now plainly evident as one ally, France, wants to work with Russia as another, Turkey, enters into altercations with it.

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