WEB DESK: Within the Syrian civil war there are many mini-wars, some being fought by contending national stakeholders and others between regional and global powers through their proxies. And as it continues, the contestants keep revising their agendas.
In its first phase, it centered on removing President Bashar al-Assad and thus rid the country of a tyrant. And as the anti-Assad movement caught regional attention, the regional powers joined the fray, and the movement splintered off in many factions, each killing and dying for the conflicting interests of their own and of their patrons and promoters. The lingering factional infighting did uproot and displace hundreds of thousands of ordinary Syrians and forced them to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad, but Bashar al-Assad, though a bit shaken, hung on to power in Damascus.
Then walked in so-called Islamic State (IS) militants, flaunting their insatiable appetite for human blood, and stole the Syrian show from the anti-Assad forces. The war in Syria now acquired an unmistakable global dimension and near international unanimity that IS should be fought and defeated. With IS now occupying centre stage the removal of President Assad was no more the top priority, at least of Russia and Iran. Not that the regional powers acquiesced to his remaining in power; some of them have their strong reservations over his staying in power and haven’t given up their factional preferences.
But they seemed to have decided to wait the outcome of anti-IS military operations led by major international powers. Others too are in the war against IS, but want Assad to stay in power, allegedly fighting the anti-Assad forces camouflaged as anti-IS operations. But then comes with a deafening thud a spanner in the works – a Russian warplane has been shot down by the Turkish jets, lending one more twist to the conflict in Syria and a huge unknown as to how it will impact the pace and direction of the war in that unfortunate country.
President Putin has called the incident a “stab in the back, committed by accomplices of terrorists”, and warned of “serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations”. Turkey is a member of the Nato and enjoys its complete support, but after its crisis meeting said “Diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation”. Moscow says the plane was shot over Syria where its wreckage has been found while Ankara claims the said warplane was in Turkish airspace when fired at after 10 warnings in five minutes. It is however, probable that at the time of shooting the Russian plane was in the Turkish airspace but it fell in Syrian territory.
Given that the Russian aircraft were bombing the hideouts of the Syrian Free Army in the Turkmen villages close to the Turkish border the said warplane might have over-flown the border, a possibility evidenced by jotting on radar in Turkey. This is not something unusual when a conflict rages in a border area. But given the complexity of the Syrian turmoil and conflicting interests of regional and major powers, the incident can very well derail the efforts to bring peace to Syria. What could be more agonising to thousands of Syrians whose lives have been devastated by the war in their country, if at end of the day the winner is none but either Bashar al-Assad or IS – to whose advantage is the incident’s exploitative potential.
Even if it is a grave development it is not an act of war by one against the other. The two sides need to analyse what went wrong and how to prevent its repetition. Russia and Turkey are neighbours. Over the several millenniums they have fought many battles but enjoyed lasting spell of peaceful existence also. Even today as they nurture conflicting perspectives on conflict in Syria they share considerable economic interests. As of today, Russia is Turkey’s No 2 trading partner with over $32 billion worth of bilateral trade annually. Russia will also build a $20 billion nuclear power plant in Turkey.
With President Obama taking a nearly neutral position on the development, it is hoped the two sides would exercise restraint and not allow this incident escalate into a wider conflict. Such a conflict would not be in anybody’s interest, much less of Syrians, whose sufferings are much less of their own making and much more of outside powers and their proxies.