What was Russia's airforce doing near Turkey's borders anyway?

What was Russia's airforce doing near Turkey's borders anyway?
Analysis: Russian planes such as that downed on Tuesday are operating close to Turkey's borders, yet there are military and political goals behind Russia's risky behaviour near NATO airspace.
3 min read
24 November, 2015
Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on Tuesday, claiming it had violated Turkish airspace [Getty]
The downing of a Russian fighter jet as it allegedly violated Turkish airspace, ignoring repeated warnings before being shot down by Turkish F-16s, will no doubt escalate the standoff between Ankara and Moscow over Syria.

The two countries have diametrically opposed goals there, and support opposite sides in the conflict - Russia is Bashar al-Assad's foremost ally, while Turkey supports myriad Syrian rebel groups fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.

Regardless of the actual circumstances surrounding Tuesday morning's incident, it is no doubt that Russia's top guns are operating too close to NATO member Turkey for comfort in northern Syria.

So what exactly is Russia doing there ?

Russia claims to be fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, but the group has no presence in the area where the plane was shot down. Russia has been targeting all Syrian groups without discrimination, and hundreds of civilian casualties are being reported.

Rather, Russia is providing close air support to Syrian regime offensives against its opponents - whether "rebel" or "jihadist".
     Russia claims to be fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, but the group has no presence in the area where the plane was shot down

In the northern Latakia countryside, where one such offensive is taking place, Russia has been bombing rebel positions, including in areas dominated by ethnic Turkmen, who have historic ties to Turkey.

Militarily, the Russian-backed offensive has at least two goals: secure the Syrian coast and the highway linking the regime strongholds in Latakia with Aleppo; and precluding any possibility of establishing a Turkish-sponsored "safe zone" in the north west of Jarablus.

Such a safe zone would reportedly be controlled by the Syrian opposition under protection from Turkey as well as the United States and France.

Regime forces and rebels are currently locked down in heavy fighting in the Turkmen Mountain area, vying for control of strategic hills overlooking the border with Turkey as well as the nearby areas of Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al-Akrad.

There have been regime advances in the area in the past few days, but the rebels have since launched counterattacks and retaken control of hills such as Jabal al-Ahmar.

Politically, some analysts believe the Russian-backed assault on the Turkmen villages is a direct message to Ankara.
Read more on the Russia-Turkey crisis over Syria
- NATO calls extraordinary meeting after Turkey downs Russian jet
- Russia jet in Turkish airspace 'was not the first'
- What was Russia's airforce doing near Turkey's borders anyway?
- Who are the Turkmen?

"Russia and Iran are seeking to defeat Free Syrian Army units controlling the Turkmen Mountain, where there is no IS presence, to deny countries that support the opposition an important bargaining chip in forthcoming negotiations," said Mehmet Akif Kirecci, associate political science professor at Bilkent University in Istanbul.

More broadly, Russian-backed operations in northern Syria are aimed at securing as many gains as possible for the regime ahead of new rounds of the Vienna talks and corresponding efforts for a ceasefire.

Turkey's 'zero tolerance'

Earlier this week, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held a series of high-profile meetings with security and military officials, following which he stressed Ankara would "take all necessary measures" to protect the Turkmen population both in Syrian and Turkish territories.

Davutoglu said he instructed the armed forces to respond to any threats and violations of the Turkish borders. This "zero-tolerance" policy could be behind Turkey's decision to shoot down the Russian plane as it briefly crossed the border.

In other words, Turkey's actions on Tuesday morning in rapidly shooting down a Russian warplane could also reflect Ankara's response to wider Russian operations, and that Turkey will not hesitate to assert its interests in northern Syria.