Move only if there is a real advantage to be gained.
~Sun Tzu, Chinese military strategist and philosopher (544 BC-496 BC)
The Art Of War
On November 24, 2015 a Russian fighter jet was shot down by Turkey, resulting in a direct NATO versus Russia confrontation. Not surprisingly, there was and continues to be a considerable amount of sound and fury from Russia and initial considerations that it may engage in covert retributions. Some even went so far as to insinuate that this is the catalyst which will trigger WW3.
The Russians claim the jet was on the Syrian side of the border and Turkey claims it was on theirs. However, it would not be entirely surprising if the Russian jet had actually intruded, given that Russia has been willing to cross into NATO airspace in the past. There may even have been an operational reason for Russia to do so, such as attempting to organize an attack run on a rebel convoy or facility on the Turkish border. After all, Turkey is playing an extremely pivotal role in the Syrian Civil War.
Putin’s immediate response has been, as to be expected, one of feigning complete innocence, accusing Turkey of “stabbing Russia in the back.”
From the point of view of the United States, the reaction is clearly and obviously one which will be supportive of Turkey, a NATO member state.
President Obama has stated that Turkey has a right to defend its airspace and territory, and that much of the problematic issues stem from Russia’s lack of focus in fighting ISIS. He further stated that it is of crucial significance that the US, along with its NATO allies ensure that Turkey and Russia talk to each other and heed diplomatic policies, find out exactly what happened and take the necessary measures to discourage any sort of escalation of the event.
President Obama’s stance is explicit in that he perceives Russia’s role in the entire Syrian conflict as one that is at odds with that of the United States and its allies.
From what has been seen thus far, Russia seems much more keen on keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power rather than fighting ISIS. The point of view of the US is that had Russia focused its energies on ISIS, these conflicts and the potential for the escalation of grave errors would be much less likely to occur.
The United States welcomes Russia in the broad-based coalition, but is cognizant of the fact that, as President Obama aptly stated, “The problem has been Russia’s focus with propping up Assad rather than ISIS.”
Having said this, examining the Turkish-Russian strained relationship more closely, it may just be that the United States actually has an interest in this strained status quo. It just may well be that President Obama’s priority is to maintain the Anglo-American base in the US-led coalition in Syria in order to keep the volatile situation under control.
The involvement of Russia may thoroughly alter the chemistry of this coalition, thus disrupting, so to speak, the prospects of NATO being the sole peacemakers in the Middle East.
The strain in the Turkish-Russian relations may just have been what the doctor ordered: an optimum window of opportunity for bypassing the Russian proposal of an international coalition to fight ISIS.
In fact, there is even a conspiracy theory that Turkey shot down the Russian plane because as a member of NATO, it felt that this incident would be a perfect opportunity to poke Russia and thus suit the US agenda in Syria.
There has been much talk that Russia was obliged to get involved in Syria. It has made blatant insinuations that the US is incapable of leading a significantly strong power base to combat terrorist forces. This insinuation is clearly a flagrant and direct stab at President Obama’s leadership capabilities in tackling a monumental task such as the one which presents itself in Syria.
However, the truth of the matter is, if President Obama lacks genuine interest in collaborating with Russia in the war against ISIS, there really is not much that Russia can do to persuade him.
Putin, in his characteristic style, stated that Russia does not need cooperation nor any coalition. This pomposity is, needless to say, immature and entirely counterproductive. It is truly reminiscent of the Cold War, which, in the grand scheme of things, is useless in the face of global terrorism. It is of utmost necessity for Russia to grasp this notion, for everyone’s benefit.
What the world faces as a whole currently in the face of terrorism can only be tackled and hopefully subdued with a strategic collaboration of member and non-member states of NATO. In this regard, Russia can only be productive in collaboration with the US-led coalition. In essence, a message to Russia would be: this is not a showdown.
In following Sun Tzu’s quote, the real advantage to be gained here would be in containing and defeating terrorism. All other conflictual steps would inevitably escalate into useless conflicts which would detract focus from why foreign presence is needed in Syria to begin with.