The confrontation between Turkey and Russia: Lessons for Israel
Israeli policy has thus far favored sitting on the fence and observing from the side while developments unfold.
The confrontation between Turkey and Russia heightens the instability in the Middle East by reducing the possibility of concluding the ongoing crisis in Syria and successfully contending with the Islamic State.
Israel can derive a number of tactical and strategic lessons from the confrontation, and in this context, should also underscore that Syria cannot be reunited and the area must be stabilized through a re-demarcation of borders, perhaps within a federative framework.
Yet regardless of the solution found, the lesson from the Turkish-Russian confrontation for all parties involved in Syria is that in the complex Middle East, rivalry between two parties should not be allowed to render a third party acceptable. In other words, the desire to weaken the Islamic State cannot make the Iranian-backed Assad regime any more acceptable, and at the same time, opposition to Russian involvement in Syria cannot make the Islamic State or the al-Nusra Front a legitimate replacement for Assad.
The challenge, then, is to find the right overall strategy, backed by the decisiveness, resources, and ground forces necessary to simultaneously fight Assad and the Salafi jihadist forces in Syria, and in so doing, to create a sustainable reality in this arena.
Israel is not part of the Middle East upheaval and plays almost no active role in it. Whether out of choice or dictated by circumstances, Israeli policy has thus far favored sitting on the fence and observing from the side while developments unfold. Regardless of questions regarding the fundamental wisdom of this policy, current events oblige Israel to internalize and understand the emerging dangers and opportunities in its surroundings.
Indeed, in a region that must commonly adapt to new patterns – reflecting frequent changes in the delicate balance among the many actors involved – a new chapter in the complex plot is underway, with the first military confrontation between Turkey and Russia. Turkey’s downing of the Russian plane has both highlighted and sharpened contradictions and truths on the bilateral and international levels.
Above all, this is a clash between two countries whose relations are based on an historic rivalry that is unrelated to the current context. The Russians and the Turks have in the past engaged in full scale military conflicts with one another regarding struggles over control and influence in key regions, particularly the Balkans and the Black Sea, and Ankara regards Moscow as standing threat to its interests. The policies of the current leaders of both countries only fan such tensions. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin represent aggressive and ambitious leaders driven by the desire to transform their respective countries into the powers they once were. Indeed, the two heads of state have been referred to as “sultan” and “czar,” implying the figure that each seeks to become.
Second, the already charged relationship between Turkey and Russia has been affected by strategic considerations and political interests relating to the current reality in the Middle East and Europe. The two countries do not see eye to eye regarding the crisis in Syria or the preferable solution. Whereas Turkey has adopted the ultimate goal of Assad’s removal from power, Russia regards Assad’s ongoing rule as a necessary condition for the promotion of stability in the collapsed state and the preservation of its own strategic interests in the Middle East.
Although both countries formally oppose the Islamic State and seek to weaken it, they are actually making use of it to garner legitimacy for their activities in Syria, which are part of efforts of much greater importance to them: Turkey’s efforts against the Kurds and Russia’s efforts against the opposition groups that are not aligned with the Islamic State (the majority of which are supported by Turkey). Against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine and the West’s united opposition against Putin (by Turkey’s fellow members in NATO), the conflicting interests of Russia and Turkey in Syria, along with Turkey’s staunch opposition to Russian military intervention in Syria, has placed the two countries on a collision course.
Without a doubt the confrontation between Turkey and Russia heightens the instability in the region by reducing the possibility of concluding the ongoing crisis in Syria and successfully contending with the Islamic State. That being the case, a variety of future scenarios in the Turkish-Russian confrontation are now possible, ranging from containment of the confrontation and a return to normal relations, to mutual diplomatic and economic hostility (as in the case of Turkish-Israeli relations), to military escalation (such as the launching of S-400 missiles or the downing of a Turkish aircraft, a cyber attack, or more extensive military action). It is difficult to assess which is the most likely scenario, but understanding is growing within Turkey that downing the Russian plane was a far-reaching step. Erdogan has expressed a willingness to issue a veiled apology, and both parties may now begin to conduct themselves with caution. Still, even at this stage, and regardless of the different scenarios, Israel can derive a number of lessons and insights from the confrontation.
The Tactical Lesson
First and foremost, the interception of the Russian plane highlights the minimal room for error; at the same time, the Turks could have exercised restraint and refrained from downing the Russian plane. The radar images released indicate that the Russian aircraft did indeed enter Turkish airspace, but that its penetration was negligible (lasting only 10-15 seconds) and clearly reflected no hostile intent toward Turkey. The plane was not intercepted accidentally, but it is unclear who gave the final authorization for the interception. In Israel, efforts must be made to ensure that such authority remains at the highest possible political and military level.
The unfolding of events, from the moment the decision was made to intercept the plane, highlights the need to ensure maximum control over decision making in the future regarding events with the potential for escalation that might entangle Israel. Although in Israel existing escalation control mechanisms are sufficiently effective, and not all warlike events lead to full scale war, Israel must nonetheless develop strategic
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