Turkey's shooting down Russian military jet is a serious blow for President Vladimir Putin's calculated air offensive in Syria's Latakia. The offensive has not only harmed the Turkmen brigades who are basically holding the border area with other moderate rebels, but also strategically targeted Turkish plans for the Azez-Jarablous line.
Make no mistake, Turkey's response was an expected move considering its rules of engagement and also its several diplomatic warnings against Russian incursions into Turkish airspace. However, this incident is not only a Russian-Turkish brawl; it is a fight concerning all the parties involved in Syria in which the U.S. and Russia engage in clashing strategies. Russia props up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad with its air power and lends financial and logistical support while the U.S.'s only concern in the country is containing and destroying DAESH. Despite the recent Syria talks, these two separate strategies have been on a collision course for a while. Weakening the moderate Syrian rebels is obviously also harming the war against DAESH, and the Azez-Jarablous line was particularly important in all of this.
International media outlets, specifically Turkish ones, missed the story published on Nov. 1 by the state-run Anadolu Agency (AA), ushering the news that Turkish and American jets bombarded DAESH strongholds in northern Syria, in coordination with the Syrian opposition groups including Turkmen fighters. That was a first operation jointly conducted by Turkey and U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces against DAESH. It was a clear sign that Turkey was adamant to clean DAESH from the last part of the border it holds. Since then, Turkey's air campaign around the Mar'a line intensified. An anti-DAESH coalition press release last week indicated that allied forces hit the area at least a dozen times in a day. One of the crucial ground forces in this area is Turkey-backed Turkmen groups.
While Turkey is trying to rid DAESH from this area, Russian war planes plowed the Turkmen mountain region on the west throughout the week and undermined Turkish plans for the Azez-Jarablous by risking all of northern Syria held by the opposition. It might be natural for Assad forces to secure Alawite-dominated Latakia and extend its rule over the border - the domestic repercussions in Turkey of Turkmen refugees running from the Russian airstrikes and the public outcry against Turkish inaction also must be noted. But ruining Turkey's plans to keep a specific territory along the border from both DAESH and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) is something that has deeply concerned Ankara. The failure of this plan would give significant leverage to the PYD's ambitions to connect Tal Abyad to Afrin, which is one of the government's nightmares considering the possible Kurdish state that could come to fruition in the future.
The immediate reaction from U.S. officials was supportive but it is clear that Washington is not a big fan of such serious escalation. The U.S. State Department's spokesperson, Mark Toner, avoided confirming that Russia had specifically been hitting the Turkmen rebels. He said the U.S. cannot verify the reports. Despite Turkey's intensive diplomatic work, including a phone call from Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu to Secretary of State John Kerry over the issue, the U.S. is not convinced that the composition of the rebels in the area only consists of Turkmens. Peculiarly enough, he admitted that Russia targeted moderate Syrian rebels along the border, without specifying their locations.
The impact of this incident to crucial Syria talks is negative, and there is a chance that the retaliation game would be in play for quite some time. Yet, it is very possible that Russia would ramp up its support for the PYD, both diplomatically and militarily, and continue to target Syrian rebels even more forcefully. Expect some bold moves by Russia, but their response is likely to be in Syria rather than on any diplomatic front.
This is why Turkey will require NATO support more than ever in the coming days. It will also be under even more self-pressure to act swiftly to clear the Azez-Jarablous line.