Back in July, when I wrote a piece for Eurasianet looking at how their differing position on how to resolve the Syria crisis might impact relations between Turkey and Russia, most analysts I spoke to seemed to agree that while the Syrian crisis might lead to some increased tension, Ankara and Moscow have found a way to "compartmentalize" their disagreements. But now, following Turkey's interception of a Syrian passenger jet that was en route from Moscow to Damascus, perhaps it's time to consider the differences between Ankara and Moscow decompartmentalized.
According to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Syrian Arab Airlines jet -- which was forced to land Wednesday at Ankara's Esenboga airport by two Turkish F-16's -- was carrying munitions and other military equipment that a civilian aircraft should not be transporting. Moscow, meanwhile, has not only denied that the plane was carrying any weapons, but has also demanded an explanation from Ankara for its actions and suggested that the interception of the airliner “threatened the life and safety” of the several Russian passengers who were on the jet.
With the forcing down of the airliner, Ankara is clearly increasing the already increased pressure it started putting on the Assad regime after last week's Syrian shelling of a Turkish border town, which resulted in the death of five locals and was followed by several days of back-and-forth artillery exchanges between Turkish and Syrian forces. But, as suggested in a previous post and as Moscow's reaction to the forcing down of the Syrian plane indicates, as Ankara tightens the screws on Damascus, it also runs the risk of damaging relations with other actors in the region, Russia in particular. Turkish officials insist it had nothing to do with the crisis in Syria, but the cancellation by Russian President Vladimir Putin of a visit to Turkey that was supposed to take place Oct. 14-15 certainly is raising some speculation about whether the Kremlin is trying to send a certain message to Ankara. (And while the Turkish has quoted Erdogan's office as saying the visit has been rescheduled to Dec. 3, the Russian press quoted Putin's Press Secretary as saying the final date is still to be "coordinated by diplomatic channels."
Ankara and Moscow may yet return to "compartmentalizing" their differences over Syria and the future of the Assad regime. But as Turkey takes an increasingly visible and muscular role in the effort to unseat the regime in Damascus, keeping its interests from clashing with those of Russia may become increasingly hard to do.