Russia and Turkey must be on same page if Islamic State is to be defeated
Rather than being at odds with each other, Moscow and Ankara must find common ground to beat a common enemy
Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet it claims strayed into its territory from Syria says much about efforts to fight Islamic State extremists. Both nations are on the same side, supporting US-led coalition air strikes, yet appear more interested in pushing strategic interests. They have avoided a serious escalation by replacing heated rhetoric with reasoned tones, but the incident has highlighted the risks of a continued uncoordinated approach. Without a sharing of information, a common course of action and a coherent fighting force, the Islamist group will remain and the situation could even evolve into a wider conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected Turkey’s version of Tuesday’s events, likening them to “a stab in the back”. One of the jet’s two pilots was shot as he parachuted from the stricken plane and a crew member of a rescue helicopter was shot dead by rebels in Syria. Among measures announced by Moscow was the severing of military contacts, deployment of a warship and missiles, use of fighter jet escorts for bombers carrying out air strikes and cancellation of a trip to Ankara by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Turkey, a Nato member, called a meeting of the security alliance, but chose not to enact a collective defence clause.
The UN and Nato called for calm and for now at least, cool heads have prevailed. But the fundamental issues remain, with a disjointed and inadequate strategy for fighting Islamic State and ending the civil war in Syria a major reason for the group’s rise. Russia’s military focus is on keeping Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in power by attacking opponents, IS among them; Turkey, along with Western and Arab coalition partners, want his removal. That has soured previously friendly relations between Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Among issues that have led to the scrapping of business and energy deals and a chill in ties have been Russia’s bombing of Turkmen rebels in Syria, who are openly supported by Turkey.
IS is a threat not just to the people of Syria and Iraq, but the world. More than 400 people were killed in recent attacks claimed by the group in Paris and Lebanon, and against a Russian plane in Egypt’s Sinai. Governments fighting the terrorists have to work together with common goals, not be at odds with one another. Air strikes are only an element of the strategy to defeat IS; there also has to be a multinational army. Russia and Turkey are integral parts of any solution.