Have we seen the opening shots of World War III with the shooting down of a Russian bomber by the Turkish Air Force? Make no mistake, this was not pilot error, but a calculated premeditated action by President Erdogan in Ankara. The Russian plane was in Turkish airspace for 17 seconds and when it was shot down it was already back over Syria.
In theory Russia and Turkey are on the same side in the grand coalition to defeat ISIS but this could all fall apart if there is another incident. Russia is now planning to fly fighter escorts with their bombers, so what happens then if another incident takes place and a dog-fight erupts over the Turkish/Syrian Border?
Putin has claimed that last week’s downing of the Russian war plane was intended to protect oil deliveries from ISIS and has said that Moscow intelligence confirmed that oil from fields controlled by the terrorist organization is transported to Turkey.
“At the moment we have received additional information confirming that oil from the deposits controlled by Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on industrial scale,” Putin said. “We have every reason to believe that the decision to shoot down our aircraft was dictated by the desire to ensure the safety of supply routes of oil to Turkey, to the ports where they are shipped in tankers.
However, Turkey is a part of NATO and is under the cold war obligation that: “an attack on Turkey is an attack on us all.” Other NATO countries, therefore, could be obliged to engage, resulting in open hostilities. Sounds implausible? Don’t forget WW1 began with a single shot in Sarajevo.
Erdogan is playing a dangerous game, already attempting to become the sole dictatorial ruler of Turkey, modelling himself on Sultan from the empire of the Ottomans, gambling that the threat of NATO involvement will prevent retaliation by Russia. Given that Putin has outmanoeuvred the West in Crimea, Ukraine and in Syria, this is a huge risk.
The conflict in Syria could easily escalate; Russia supports Assad and opposes ISIS and “moderate” Syrians, Turkey opposes Assad and the Kurds but in the past has supported elements of ISIS, Britain, France and the US oppose Assad and ISIS and support “moderate” Syrians and the Kurds. Hezbollah supports Assad but opposes the West. Saudi Arabia opposes Assad and ISIS whilst Iran supports Assad and opposes ISIS.
In this heady mix of alliances with no clear political direction, a spiral of decline into an even greater conflict is always possible. Western intervention will not solve the situation. There have been around 9000 sorties by Western aircraft, but if ISIS was to be defeated it should have happened by now. In reality air strikes are a failure, which makes Cameron’s recent rantings even more disheartening. It is for these reasons that a political solution is required, and not a military one. A settlement that accounts for all parties, and if needs be establishes new nation states, is the only way that ISIS will be defeated. A solution and peace found by the people of the region, and not one imposed by Western bombs.