If we accept what the US officials say i.e. that the Russian aircraft briefly entered the Turkish airspace but it was targeted while it was in the Syrian sky, Turkey’s decision to shoot down the aircraft seems somewhat extreme. What is even more strange is that the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that the decision to shoot the Russian aircraft was a political one. He did not say that it was a mistake or a miscalculation etc. He assumed full responsibility, while he did not have to do that.
Map 1 Middle East
Therefore we can assume that for Erdogan and Davutoglu it was a strategic move to target the Russian aircraft, and therefore they were sure that this would benefit Turkey. At least they were sure that it would not hurt Turkey. But how can a country expect to improve her geopolitical position by attacking a Russian aircraft? There is only one explanation. After the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, an anti-ISIS front was formed in Europe, and France and Russia started jointly bombing ISIS in Syria. England also gave France her military bases in Cyprus, and the British Prime Minister said that England should also bomb ISIS.
Until yesterday that was convenient for the Americans too. Remember that Donald Trump said that the US should leave it to Russia to attack ISIS in Syria. Donald Trump is a candidate for the Republican Presidency, the polls show him leading the race, and if he wins he will be a candidate for the American Presidency in 2016. Therefore what was happening in Syria was convenient for the US, because American and Turkish interests diverge in Syria, due to the Kurds of Syria, and due to the improvement in the American-Iranian relations. After all for the United States Syria is less important than Iraq.
As long as the Russians and the French were bombing ISIS in Syria, Erdogan and Davutoglu could not complain. At least not officially since they cannot admit that they are somehow related to ISIS. By targeting the Russian aircraft the Turks are causing cracks in the anti-ISIS coalition, because if tension rises between Russia and Turkey the Americans will have to support Turkey, which is their NATO ally, and that will bring the US against France and England, which are also NATO members. This can only hurt the anti-ISIS momentum, because neither the US wants to confront England and France, nor England and France want to confront the US.
If the US decides to align itself with Russia, England and France against ISIS i.e. against Turkey, Turkey will be very weak, and her only option would be to align herself with Russia. Turkey would have to accept the discounts on energy prices offered to her by Russia. Therefore Turkey would have to forget her ambitions about becoming and independent energy hub which would send the natural gas and oil of the Caspian Sea and the Middle East to Europe, and would have to become for Russia a second Ukraine, which would simply send the Russian gas to Europe. But that would leave Europe dependent on Russia, and that’s something that the US and the European Union do not want.
Map 2 Russo-Turkish Rivalry
Becoming an independent energy hub is Turkey’s most important geopolitical ambition. If the United States were to undermine this ambition by aligning itself with Russia, France and England it would be like sending Turkey to Russia’s arms. And I do not thing that the Americans are willing to do the same mistake they did with Iran. Iran and Russia are two natural competitors, but they became allies because of the confrontation between the US and Iran. The Turks are not the ally they used to be for the Americans, but they are Russia’s natural rival.
Therefore the rising tensions between Russia and Turkey right now clearly help Turkey, and that’s why Davutoglu did not hesitate to say that targeting the Russian airplane was a political decision. Russia should remain as calm as possible. The Russians should throw some fireworks to satisfy the Russian public opinion, but they should not try to cause further tensions, because that would cause further crackings in the anti-ISIS coalition.
However there is a further problem. The rising tension between Russia and Turkey might have hidden benefits for Russia too. Because as tension rises the Americans will have to support the Turks against Russia, and the French will have to support Russia against Turkey, due to the Islamist attacks against France. Attacks against France could increase if tensions between France and the Jihadists of the Middle East and North Africa rise. That would cause a further division within NATO. Destroying NATO is one of Putin’s main concerns, and in the past he has managed to do that with Germany.
If France finds herself against the United States there will not be much NATO left, and that would be a great victory for Putin. Therefore there might be some hidden benefits for Russia too from the rising tensions between Russia and Turkey. The truth is that I am not sure about the cost-benefit analysis for Russia. But I am sure about Turkey. You do not attack a Russian aircraft because it entered you airspace for a few seconds. You do it because you think that it will somehow benefit you. Davutoglu is a great strategist and no one questions his genius. Of course I do not mean to say that Turkey wants war. Turkey is just playing a very dangerous game. Nobody wants war. Wars happen because of contradicting interests but nobody ever wants them.