The downing of a Russian bomber leaves Putin with some tough decisions. Will he change his views on Assad and join a broader anti-“IS” coalition or stick with an alliance of two with Iran? Fiona Clark reports.
President Putin must be wondering where it all went wrong. It seemed for a moment that Russia had the upper hand with its involvement in Syria. America was caught on the back foot when Russia started its campaign in September, and with a terrorist attack on its plane and the tragic events in Paris, it seemed like Russia and France were forging a closer relationship in their anti-“Islamic State” (IS) offensive.
But what a difference 17 seconds makes. That’s the length of time the Russian bomber allegedly violated Turkish airspace for. I say allegedly because Russia still denies any airspace violation and in what seems an all too familiar refrain, the Russian media is publishing multiple stories about the number of times Turkish military planes violated Greek airspace – 2,244 times apparently in 2014 alone. But the ‘everyone’s doing it, so why can’t we’ just doesn’t wash. Russia had been warned by NATO and by Turkey itself that airspace violations wouldn’t be tolerated but it doesn’t seem to take those warnings seriously. As the UK’s Telegraph newspaper quite clearly, but not too tactfully stated, ‘if you play with fire, you end up getting burned.’
More significantly, the bombing has given the US the ammunition is needs to win back the ground it lost when Russia started its activities in Syria. It says the bombing highlights how flawed Russia’s strategy to take out non-IS targets is. It has also accused Russia of massively overstating the results of its sorties and according to Colonel Steve Warren, the US Baghdad-based coalition spokesman, Russia’s “sloppy military work” has cost the lives of more than 1,000 civilians – an allegation Russia denies.
US versus Russian point scoring on whose strike rate is bigger aside, Putin has been trying to claim that the two countries are more alike than they seem. Speaking at a press conference on Monday he claimed the US and Russia’s interests are ‘not so different’ and that Russia poses no threat to anyone.
Oil sales fund IS
But the president also had another story to tell at a press conference in Sochi on Tuesday. There he blamed the US for the rise of IS in Syria and Iraq, saying not only was it backing groups that sold their US-supplied weaponry to the highest bidder – in this case IS – but its strategy failed to contain the outflow of oil that directly funds the terrorist group. According to analysts that funding could be somewhere between $250,000 (236,000 euros) to $1.5 million (1.4 million euros) a day. He went on to say that Turkey’s borders were porous and that convoys of trucks carrying oil made it to market by crossing from Syria to Turkey. From Russia’s point of view, the territory along that border region isn’t just a floodgate for refugees, but a Turkish-sanctioned torrent for illegal oil flows bound for markets where G20 countries buy it and inadvertently prop up the very enemy they want to defeat.
It’s here that Russia does have a point. Oil is like a fingerprint. Depending on where it’s from it has its own specific chemical composition and as such, is traceable – so in theory if you wanted to cut off funds to IS there are a few choices:
a) stopping the oil supply at source or before it gets to market,
b) once it’s sold find out who facilitated it and sanction them,
c) after the sale follow the money trail and freeze the bank accounts it goes into.
These are all viable options, but from Russia’s point of view, they’re not being exercized, so it has decided it will stop the oil at source itself. In fact, in what appears to be a stab in the back for Turkey, Russia claims that it is Turkey that is also benefitting from the sales – making it an accomplice to terrorism – and that’s why the area along the border is so important to it. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, after the downing of the Russian bomber, claimed that some Turkish officials were involved in the sale of IS oil, but he didn’t name names.
The downing of the fighter plane and the shooting of the pilots as they parachuted to the ground by Turkmen forces yelling “Allahu Akbar” has not gone down well in Moscow. Protesters splattered the Turkish embassy with eggs and tomatoes and Russia asked travel agents to cancel holiday tours to Turkey claiming it wasn’t safe. The move could cost the Turkish economy about $30 billion a year with some 3-4 million Russians visiting the country annually. Russian food health authorities have – as they always do when they don’t like a particular country – stepped up their surveillance of Turkish food imported into the country claiming some 15 percent violates health and safety standards. And, while social media is full of hashtags saying #boycottTurkey alongside statements saying ‘every Turkish tomato you buy funds another bomb’ to knock Russian fighters out of the sky, Medvedev has said the government will draw up plans or sanctions on joint investment projects with Turkey.
So it’s against this backdrop that French President Francois Hollande is laboring to get Russia onboard for a broader coalition. As it stands now, Russia is in a coalition of two – it and Iran. While the West says the pair are committed to propping up Assad, the message from the meeting between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was slightly different. It was more about containing outside interests in internal Syrian affairs when it comes to electing a new head of state – or perhaps ensuring it’s own.
Recently however, Russia has indicated it is willing to contemplate a Syria without Assad at its helm. While it claims it fundamentally disagrees with interfering with a sovereign country’s political determinations (even if it doesn’t respect various countries’ sovereign airspaces itself) and that so far the results of meddling in the Arab spring countries hasn’t yielded great results, it may ultimately find it has no choice but to join that dialogue.
Putin is going to have to think very hard about which is more important – defeating IS and playing a part in shaping Syria’s future or keeping Assad and Russia’s Mediterranean naval bases in Syria – for the time being at least. A table for two might be cozy but one thing is for sure, unless Russia is sitting at the big table it won’t have a say at all, and that, as the saying goes, would be akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.