The downing of a Russian jet by Turkish Air Force F-16 fighters illuminates the significant turbulence Ankara faces in its increasingly shattered neighborhood. The Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, the rise of the Islamic State, the continuing instability in Lebanon, historic and ongoing antipathy with Armenia, and an uneasy relationship with NATO ally Greece are all significant challenges. Both Russian and Turkish heads of state are publicly outraged, no apologies seem forthcoming, and sophisticated new anti-air missiles will be placed in Syria by Russia. It is a tactical and operational crisis, with high-stakes considerations.
But the chaotic region hasn’t always been the central organizing fact set driving Turkish foreign policy. Indeed, a decade ago, the Turks sought regional harmony under then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who articulated a foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” This is a pretty good approach — until all your neighbors start to have problems, of course, which is the situation in which Turkey finds itself today.
What therefore faces Turkey and the West is a geopolitical choice of extraordinary importance: whether Ankara will continue to pursue membership in the European Union and maintain itself as a strong transatlantic-oriented nation; or to turn away in frustration from its failure to gain membership in the EU — abetted by a sense that NATO and the United States do not take their concerns (refugees, the dangers of the Assad regime, regional instability) seriously.
We here in the United States should do all in our power to encourage Turkey to be part of the European and transatlantic communities. Letting them drift away would be a profound geopolitical mistake for the West. Turkey has a population of nearly 80 million, positive demographic trends, a diversified and growing economy that is easily in the global top 20, excellent infrastructure and industrial capability, the second largest military in NATO, and a deep sense of national pride. Despite a current economic slowdown, a huge Syrian refugee population (approaching 2 million), significant political challenges presented by the Kurdish minority, and an active insurgency, the nation has maintained a democratic and secular tradition, albeit under some internal pressure to move in a more Islamic direction.
But the Russian shoot-down is merely a symptom of what has been building in the region. Leading up to the downing yesterday, Ankara and Moscow have had an uneasy relationship for several years given the Turkish antipathy to the Assad regime and the staunch Russian support for it. Yet the nations have managed to cooperate across a variety of issues, including a major gas pipeline, tourism from sun-seeking Russians, significant counternarcotics cooperation, a high level of trade, and diplomatic engagement with Iran.
But the events in the months before the shoot-down were increasingly confrontational: a brewing war of words over Assad’s legitimacy; Russian drones and aircraft violating Turkish airspace; and growing disagreements about energy policy in the eastern Mediterranean. Now, that relationship will probably crater. Turkey has turned to NATO for emergency consultations, which will occur this week. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin pulled no punches proclaiming the attack on the jet was a “stab in the back.”
As the world assesses the fallout from the Russian shoot-down, there are several lessons that emerge at each level:
At the tactical level, this was an entirely predictable event which must be avoided going forward. There are too many militaries flying missions over Syria without any level of cooperation. The international community should use this as an object example to create a high-level expert group to untangle the dangerous battle space. This could be done by standing up a combined air operations center in the region as a setting for such tactical engagement and discussions, either in Turkey or the Gulf states. One such center is at the Al-Ueid Air Base in Qatar. We desperately need tactical protocols for aircraft to use with each other to avoid another inadvertent incident.
One level up, operationally, there is a need for a battle management system across the theater. This would ideally be an airborne radar and air control system which is found on the U.S. and NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) E-3 aircraft. These large and capable planes can provide a look-down radar picture and provide de-confliction assistance. They could do so operating out of Turkish airbases and over Turkish airspace. If the coalition moves to set up a no-fly zone, they’ll be necessary.
Strategically, the shoot down crystallizes the difficult choices ahead in Syria. Turkey, the United States, and NATO all support the anti-Assad forces (except, of course, al Qaeda-affiliated groups and the Islamic State). Russia and Iran support Assad, but are also opposed to al Qaeda and the Islamic State. It is time to focus on the common enemy, prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State by creating a functioning anti-IS strike coalition. At the same time, a diplomatic and economic solution is necessary for the Assad regime, perhaps using the lessons learned from the resolution of the Bosnian War in the Balkans two decades ago.
But the grand strategic choice here involves Turkey and the West. Ankara must be persuaded to continue its pursuit of membership in the European Union and a track that aligns itself with the transatlantic community. But that requires of Turkey a political process that is demonstrably democratic, an open press, and a focus on human rights and anti-corruption.
The European Union should work to encourage Turkish membership. This means working in a sincere and meaningful way together to find some resolution and sustainable solution to the enormous flow of Syrian migrants. The European Union needs Turkey as a cooperative and engaged partner on a host of issues, including its membership in NATO, energy policy, and Ankara’s unique capacity to be the model of a secular, democratic Islamic state.
In this regard, NATO needs to recognize the good work of Turkey in the alliance. The Turks have been present in virtually every NATO operation with significant impact: training Afghan Security Forces and leading coalition efforts in the central district, including Kabul; sending ships and aircraft to Libya; participating in counterpiracy operations; maintaining a steady presence in the security and peacekeeping force in the Balkans. Turkey is a front-line state in the Syrian civil war, and now is the time for NATO to stand firmly alongside them.
The United States should likewise support Turkey across the diplomatic and political spectrum; the geopolitical importance of keeping Ankara aligned with the West is far too crucial to let some disagreements get in the way. But both sides need to create the conditions to make this a reality. As NATO meets this week to discuss the shoot-down and try to deescalate tensions, we need to think through the implications from the tactical to the grand strategic — and make the right choices.
Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images