The heated rhetoric between Turkey and Russia shows no signs of cooling as world leaders meet in Paris to discuss climate change.
Many world leaders are in Paris as part of an international meeting on combating global climate change. At the meeting, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines to discuss the situation in Syria and the threat of ISIS, a meeting which many are paying attention to closely in light of Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet last week.
Is there a chance of a new breakthrough?
Let’s take a look at the Syria part of the readout.
First, Obama is signalling that the Vienna peace process — which many hope will bring about a ceasefire and ultimately a transitional political process that could end this crisis — remains a separate issue from the fight against ISIS (or ISIL, as both nations refer to it, despite the fact that Arabic scholars reject this acronym). Obama also maintains that Assad needs to leave power. The statement also throws a jab at Russia for bombing the non-ISIS rebel groups which the US supports, groups which have actually fought ISIS in the past. But the statement does, it seems, leave the door open for working with Russia if those conditions are met.
The Russian readout is similar, though it focuses on the incident between Turkey and Russia that saw the destruction of a Russian Su-24 bomber last week, however (translated by The Interpreter):
A detailed exchange of opinions took place on the Syrian issues. The leaders of the two countries advocated advancing to the start of a political settlement. US President Barack Obama expressed regret regarding the incident with the Russian military plane which was shot down by the Turkish Air Force in Syria.
The situation in Ukraine was also discussed, and the need for a rapid implementation of the Minsk agreements was noted.
Other statements made today by Vladimir Putin, however, were far less conciliatory (translated by The Interpreter):
Translation: “We have weighty evidence that oil from ISIS is coming in fact to Turkish territory.”
Putin’s tough talk on Turkey will not go over well with either Ankara or Washington and will make it harder to improve cooperation between Russia and NATO. However, it’s hard to see how NATO and Russia could be further apart on most aspects of the Syria issue since Russia’s entire goal in Syria is to support the Assad regime and prevent an opposition-friendly government from coming to power, and such cooperation might mean the complete retooling of Russia’s goals.
The difference in tone between the readout and Putin’s public statements also underscores something which has been a constant since the crisis in Syria began — Moscow tells Washington one thing and then usually does something completely different.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, James Miller
Over the weekend a story began to circulate, confirmed by both the Russian and Israeli press, that recently a Russian aircraft violated Israeli airspace at least once but was safely escorted away. Though Israel has shot down a Syrian jet in the last year, and though Israel regularly bombs positions inside Syria held by the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and/or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Israel’s Defense Minister said that they are cooperating with the Russians to avoid similar incidents. Times of Israel reports:
On Saturday, Amos Gilad, director of the political-security bureau in the Defense Ministry, said at a public event in Beersheba that Russia has breached Israeli airspace more than once since it began intervening in Syria, but that the close security coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow had prevented any incidents like the one on the Turkish-Syrian border last week.
“Russian air force pilots at times cross into Israeli airspace. [But] thanks to the excellent security coordination [between Israel and Russia], which started right after the meeting between [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Putin [two months ago], and in which defined areas of operation were set, the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian military agreed on security arrangements,” Gilad said.
In Sunday’s interview, Ya’alon also described the manner of Israeli-Russian cooperation with regards to Syria. “From the beginning, of course, [the Russians] notify when they are nearing our territory; it’s part of the coordination channel and we don’t hamper them from acting and we don’t interfere as a policy,” he said. “This is what happens in Syria and it’s good that it’s like that, they also don’t hamper us from flying and acting according to our interests.”
The Associated Press has slightly different details — there was only one cross border incident — but that an agreement had been reached with Russia to ensure that no planes are shot down:
Ya’alon told Israel Radio that after Russia announced its air campaign in Syria, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, along with his military chief of staff and other officials, met with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and later opened a channel for coordination with Russia “to prevent misunderstandings”.
He said there has been one incident so far of a Russian plane entering Israeli airspace and it was “immediately corrected in the communications channel”. He didn’t say when it occurred.
Ya’alon said: “Russian planes don’t intend to attack us and therefore there is no need to automatically, even if there is some kind of mistake, shoot them down.”
Gazeta.ru has a statement from Putin on the meeting with Netanyahu which confirms that there is some sort of agreement on a framework of communications between the two countries (translated by The Interpreter):
I would like to note that the mechanism for cooperation between [our] militaries created at your initiative in connection with the worsening of the situation in the region is functioning fairly successfully.
Is there a deal between Israel and Russia that goes beyond communications? Probably not. The reality is that Israel has thus far been able to strike inside Syria whenever it wants. Russia’s opposition would significantly complicate that. But Israel could also put up significant resistance to Russia’s air campaign, especially if Turkey or NATO were also working to stop Russian flights.
Israel has worked hard to remain somewhat neutral in the conflict, though it is clear that they would like to see Assad leave power and the conflict end. It is not likely to change its policies, as Israel’s injection into this conflict would even further complicate an already messy regional political crisis.
— James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Russian military has further escalated the rhetoric in the current stand-off between Russia and Turkey, building on President Vladimir Putin’s “stab in the back” remarks last week.
The state-owned RIA Novosti news agency reports that Viktor Bondarev, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, said today that the downing of the Sukhoi Su-24 bomber on November 24 was a “treacherous” “betrayal.”
Bondarev went on to say that “those who planned and carried out this betrayal will suffer just punishment.”
Of course the pilot of the Su-24, Oleg Peshkov, was in fact killed after ejecting from the stricken bomber, as he was shot by rebel fighters on the ground while descending in a parachute.
Bondarev therefore appears to be insinuating Turkish coordination with the rebels in order to apportion blame for the pilot’s death at the hands of those he was conducting air strikes upon.
Peshkov’s body was flown home to Russia from Turkey today.
Turkish troops carry Peshkov’s coffin (AP Photo/Turkish military)
Translation: #SYRIA The body of the killed commander of the Su-24M crew, Hero of the Russian Federation Oleg Peshkov, has been brought to Russia
According to RIA Novosti, Peshkov will be buried in Lipetsk.
— Pierre Vaux
The Russian state-operated propaganda network RT is carrying a statement from Russian Air Force spokesperson Igor Klimov stating that Russian jets in Syria are, supposedly for the first time, equipped with air-to-air missiles — a clear threat to Turkish aircraft.
“Today, Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers have made their first sortie equipped not only with high explosive aviation bombs and hollow charge bombs, but also with short- and medium-range air-to-air missiles,” Klimov said.
“The planes are equipped with missiles for defensive purposes,” he added.
The missiles have target-seeking devices and are “capable of hitting air targets within a 60km radius,” he said.
Video released via RT shows the Russian Su-34s carrying the missiles, identified as Vympel R-27s by one Syria watcher:
The R-27, however, is capable of hitting targets in excess of 80 kilometers away, with some variants capable of reaching targets 130 kilometers away. We’re not sure how to reconcile this against Klimov’s claims.
The other air-to-air missiles we can see in the footage are R-73 short-range heat seekers.
Russia, then, is not backing down.
Neither is Turkey. Today Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters that Turkey would not apologize. Interestingly, however, he also suggested that the risk for more incidents like this one would continue until Russia and the United States worked together to bomb ISIS. Reuters reports:
“No country should ask us to apologize,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters following a meeting with NATO’s secretary general at the alliance headquarters in Brussels.
“The protection of our land borders, our airspace, is not only a right, it is a duty,” he said. “We apologize for committing mistakes, not for doing our duty.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Nov. 26 he is waiting for an apology after Turkey’s air force shot down the Su-24 fighter jet along the Turkey-Syria border.
Following the meeting with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in which he won the alliance’s firm support for the right to self-defense, Davutoglu also warned that such incidents continued to be a risk as long as Russia and the U.S-led coalition bombing Islamic State in Syria worked separately.
“If there are two coalitions functioning in the same airspace against ISIL, these types of incidents will be difficult to prevent,” Davutoglu said, referring to Islamic State militants.
This statement is interesting since it’s not clear if closer partnership is possible. At the moment, Russia is primarily bombing non-ISIS rebels which the US and its allies, including Turkey, have worked to arm and train. US generals have also raised concerns about Russia’s standards for “collateral damage,” and Russian actions have underscored these concerns by targeting hospitals and NGOs.
— James Miller