After Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet, Janith Peiris analyses a murky Middle Eastern quagmire.
Turkey and Russia are two major players in the Syrian Civil War. Russia, who has been an ally of the Syrian government since the Cold War, has recently started to help the Assad government by bombing rebels opposing the government, who are allegedly supported by Turkey. These rebels include the al-Qaeda affiliate – the al-Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army and local Turkmen fighters.
Despite being on opposing sides there has been no overt aggression between Russia and Turkey – indeed three million Russian tourists visited Turkey this year and a transnational oil pipeline was planned until recently. It is therefore surprising that the Russian SU-24 fighter jet was shot down. According to the Turkish authorities the Russian plane was warned over 10 times during the alleged 17-second violation of Turkish airspace. The plane was notably shot in the rear as it flew overhead, rather than having a fighter being scrambled to intercept and escort it out of Turkish airspace. It has also been reported that the Russian plane was targeting ethnic Turks fighting in opposition to the Assad regime.
Although both pilots were ejected, only one safely landed, while the other, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, was shot by rebels; it has since been repatriated. It is therefore unsurprising that Putin has warned of severe repercussions, calling Turkey’s action “a stab in the back delivered to us by the accomplices of terrorists”. Turkey has defended its actions but said it will work to deescalate the situation. If Nato and Russia do not reach a consensus soon the situation may become untenable as a three-way conflict erupts between Russia, Syria and Iran against the West and Gulf States, with terrorists and rebels caught in the crossfire.
Russia is a world power, with a place on the UN Security Council, and significant military capabilities. Even more relevant to us is the fact that Turkey is part of Nato and has the second largest military in the organisation. If Russia should attack any Turkish military personnel in retaliation, it may lead to the start of a disastrous war and all Nato members could be called to arms against Russia. Thousands, maybe millions, of lives could be lost. Relations between Russia and the West have, since the end of the Cold War, been relatively cordial, but the recent conflict in Ukraine still holds power over politics in Europe. If Turkey or Russia should initiate a war, the rest of the leading powers may be compelled to fight. A diplomatic solution must be reached to prevent a catastrophe.
While we debate carrying out airstrikes in Syria, we must be aware that Russia has ground troops on its Mediterranean coast. If any of the anti-IS coalition airstrikes or supported rebels kill Russian troops, there will be an even greater risk of war. It is therefore paramount that we stay on the path of negotiation and diplomacy. In light of the 2003 Iraq War, which significantly damaged our nation’s reputation on the world stage, particularly with Muslim nations, the UK’s position should be one of distinct isolation from any conflict in the region and the wider Middle East. With the ever-increasing complications presented by this civil war the UK must take a non-interventionist position unless it is proven that taking part will enhance our own national security.
The Russian influence in the conflict has become part of the mess that is Shia militias (such as the Mahdi Army and Badr Organisation), anti-IS airstrikes, Sunni terrorist organisations (such as so-called Islamic State and al-Nusra) and the Kurdish Peshmerga, not forgetting the multitude of other foreign interests from the Arabian peninsula as well as the vast array of rebel factions.
While some may argue an isolationist stance is cowardly, the moral superiority generated will be crucial to the UK having an effective voice in any negotiations that take place regarding the Middle East over the next few decades. Considering the fragmented nature of the region, it is vital to maintain a semblance of deference to all legitimate parties.
Avoiding conflict now may save lives later and lead to greater inclusion and integration of disillusioned youths. Stable communities can be established and maintained if the government looks not to foreign goals, which distract from domestic issues, but instead towards serving our immediate interests. Isolation is a better policy than intervention. Though some will call it unbecoming of a world power, to them I answer: we are no empire. The UK isn’t a militaristic nation – it is a multicultural, tolerant culture built on sound moral principles and an evolving sense of society, therefore our role should be as a medium for negotiation and peace. Our goals are no longer to assert influence through hard power but, in modern times, through our reputation, trade and culture – soft power. Despite our allies’ remonstrations, our anger at terrorists and frustration with the ongoing crisis, it is essential that we uphold our morals and integrity as well as enhance and stabilise our position as a world power.