One of the unfortunate spillover effects from the ongoing problems in Syria  is the rising tensions between Russia and Turkey, two neighbors who have historically not seen eye to eye for a variety of reasons over a long period of time, where it is hard to be sympathetic sometimes with either side. Although Russia and Turkey are allies of a sort against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both sides have what may politely be considered to be ulterior motives. Turkey wishes to support the interests of the Turkmen minority in Syria, which is concentrated along the border regions, while discouraging Kurdish independence that could spillover into its own vulnerable region with its own restive Kurdish minority, while Russia is using its efforts to support the military aims of the Assad regime, which are not necessary aligned with the interests of Turkey and other nations. All of this makes enough sense, but when a Russian jet is downed and Turkmen rebels fire on a helicopter sent in its aid and questions exist as to whether the Russian pilot and weapons officer are alive and captured or dead, the escalation of tensions in an area that has too many of them already is a predictable, if lamentable, outcome. Reading between the lines of the various responses, there are plenty of people that are hoping for peace to prevail, and plenty of people who lament the lack of communication and coordination between the nations involved in fighting against ISIL, whether for or against Assad’s regime in the complicated conflict that exists in Syria.
Turkey’s position is pretty clear. It claims that the Russians have repeatedly sought to attack Turkmen forces along the border and that the plane in question had violated Turkish airspace by crossing over the border into its Hatay province. On the other hand, Russia claims that Turkey’s attack was unprovoked. Germany has chimed in that Turkey is showing itself to be an unpredictable actor, while Russia’s behavior with regards to its neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia over the last few years has not given the international community a great deal of confidence in its willingness to respect the borders of other countries, to put it mildly. Some Turks have already started to protest Russian operations against Turkemen opposition forces to Assad’s regime and Turkey has, not surprisingly, called for an extraordinary NATO meeting, likely to make sure it is not being left out on a ledge and that it has the backing of NATO allies. While other nations are urging Turkey and Russia to remain cool-headed and calm, this is not always the easiest thing to do. It is not every day that a jet is downed by a neighbor with whom it has serious tensions—in fact, this is the first time that a NATO nation has downed a Russian jet for invading its airspace in about 60 years .
In looking at a problem like this, however the situation is resolved, it is important to examine the question of context. There are a great many reasons why Turkey and Russia are habitually at odds—they have a bad history going back hundreds of years, and Russia has traditionally been an aggressor in its dealings with Turkey, going back at least to Ottoman times. Turkey’s desire to be protected by NATO was a major source of Soviet vulnerability during the Cold War, and Europe has been leery at accepting Turkey as a fully European nation, which makes sense given the lack of Christian identity of the Turkish nation and its long history of oppression of its own Christian population, whether that meant genocide of Armenians or mass deportation of its Greek population after World War I, to say nothing of the long history of oppression of Christian minorities during the days of the Ottoman Empire, which have led to bad blood between Turkey and many nations in eastern Europe. Both Russia and Turkey have reasons at feeling vulnerable with regards to their reputation with other nations, and Russia in particular already has no shortage of foreign problems to deal with already, including its invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, that would make an addition of a second front with Turkey an unwise decision. Likewise, Turkey will be leery of increasing hostilities without the support of the United States and other NATO allies, who would be obligated to actively defend Turkey in the case of a Russian invasion.
In an atmosphere of mutual distrust and hair trigger responses, it is difficult for two neighbors who must interact with each other on a regular basis to avoid some kind of response that could trigger a violent response. Even though Turkey warned Russia that it would shoot down aircraft violating its airspace, that does not mean that Russia’s air force is going to respect Turkey’s borders, or show any interest in seeking to avoid attacking those who are the enemies of its own ally/client. The larger question, of course, is whether cooler heads prevail in this particular situation, and perhaps more importantly, if the desire to avoid stress and tension and conflict lead these two enemies to communicate better with each other. After all, it is impossible for nations or people to be truly at peace, especially if they have serious disagreements, are prickly about defending their borders, and do not communicate well. If the two parties are going to be continually placed in proximity with each other, the only way that things are going to be less stressful between the two is if they are able to communicate better. Let us hope, for the sake of many others, that this is able to occur, and that both sides are not so committed to mutual hostility and disrespect that they are able to come to a better modus viviendi with each other.
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