Just when you thought matters could not get any more complicated or dangerous in the Middle East, along comes Turkey apparently shooting down a Russian fighter plane which overflew Turkish airspace. Whether both sides will back off after a bit of public bluster and righteous indignation remains to be seen, but there are significant conclusions which need to be drawn from this occurrence, even at this early stage of the incident’s unraveling.
First, it is clear that Russia is very determined to confront the Western powers in controlling events in Syria. Regardless of how effective Francois Holland will be in building a united coalition to attack ISIS—and it will become significantly clearer after he completes his scheduled visit to Moscow later this week—the contemplated unified bombing will only go as far as Putin and his Iranian friends are prepared to be involved in degrading the military capabilities of the Islamic State, rather than destroying the radical forces in Syria opposed to Assad.
Second, assuming that Turkey did indeed down the Russian fighter, Putin will not take easily such aggressive action by Erdogan. Like Turkey, Russia has determined that it wants to be a critical, determinative force in the region. The Saudis, the Gulf States, and the Iranians will undoubtedly remain the crucial regional economic forces. Politically and militarily, however, now that Erdogan has regained and secured electoral success, he undoubtedly does not want to appear to be cowered by Putin in his own backyard. The tension between Russia and Turkey, unless it is resolved expeditiously, could well trigger a stand-off which will eventually involve the U.S. and NATO forces as well as undermine any successful coalition that the French believe they can create against ISIS.
Perhaps this accident will pass with some apologies, an investigation, and some diplomatic niceties, but it is perhaps more likely that Russia will push back, feeling that this would be an effective way to stall the western momentum to resolve the instability in Syria. Continued unrest is better for Russia than any resolution which undermines Russia's effort to increase its regional control.
Finally, it has become increasingly evident of late that Putin believes he has demonstrated to the international community Obama’s political and diplomatic weaknesses. His asserting of a major innovative role together with Iran has changed the West’ entire regional calculus. Permitting the joint bombing coalition to be put into effect against ISIS—with Russia’s participation– would depict Putin as once again ceding dominance to Obama.
All of this of course is besides the obvious that in international affairs, never assume you have calmed matters down and have successfully bought time to resolve world order. The one guarantee, especially in the Middle East, is that if you wait long enough things can and will only get more and more complicated.