The Cable

Careful Talk Marks Obama’s Language on Russian Plane Shootdown

The State Department said Monday that the Russian jet shot down by Turkey last week had violated Ankara’s airspace, giving a potential boost to Washington’s NATO ally in its intensifying squabble with Moscow. The administration pointedly didn’t say, however, that Ankara was justified in shooting down the Russian Su-24 -- a careful bit of diplomatic jujitsu designed to avoid angering either Russia or Turkey and potentially making a bad situation worse.

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The State Department said Monday that the Russian jet shot down by Turkey last week had violated Ankara’s airspace, giving a potential boost to Washington’s NATO ally in its intensifying squabble with Moscow. The administration pointedly didn’t say, however, that Ankara was justified in shooting down the Russian Su-24 — a careful bit of diplomatic jujitsu designed to avoid angering either Russia or Turkey and potentially making a bad situation worse.

The conciliatory remarks highlight the narrow line the White House is treading as it looks for ways of reducing the mounting tensions between Ankara and Moscow, which have been trading rhetorical blows since the Russian warplane was shot down by two Turkish F-16s. The administration has to watch its footing: Washington needs Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help to forge a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria, which means it has to be careful not to go too far in blaming Russia for the lethal run-in. At the same time, Turkey is a key regional power and, crucially, a NATO member; failing to back Ankara’s version of events would risk alienating an important American ally.

For now, the United States is trying to split the difference while emphasizing, as State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau did Monday, that “the important thing we’re stressing now is deescalation and dialogue.” The remarks followed a Monday morning meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in which the U.S. president conveyed his “regret” over the deaths of the Russian pilot and Russian marine killed during a subsequent rescue mission.

“Obama’s walking the fine line of offering rhetorical support for his NATO ally’s decision to act in self-defense, but equally, wishes to avoid this incident from derailing the diplomatic momentum” on Syria, said Andrew Bowen, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

Though Russia’s refusal to drop its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to bedevil efforts to bring an end to the deadly conflict, world powers are trying to move past that disagreement to build momentum behind a ceasefire agreement in Syria. Following the deadly attack in Paris, the United States, Russia, Britain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and France signed a statement in Vienna in support of a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition. The agreement does not yet have buy-in from the Syrian rebels or the Assad regime.

The renewed diplomatic push has been driven, in part, by the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people on Nov. 13. It was also spurred on by the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, also claimed by the Islamic State. Western intelligence agencies had long thought that the Islamic State was focused on maintaining control over the self-declared caliphate it had created in swaths of Iraq and Syria and wasn’t looking to carry out terror attacks inside other countries. The strikes in Paris and Sinai offered violent proof that the group was instead looking more like al Qaeda, which made its name hitting the West.

But the latest flare up threatens to undermine the spirit of cooperation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refuses to apologize for the incident and Russia has suspended its visa-free arrangement with Turkey and has promised to introduce wide-ranging economic sanctions. It also beefed up its anti-aircraft defenses in Syria by deploying its Moskva cruiser toward the coast and delivering the long-range S-400 system to Russia’s Hmeimim air base. On Monday, Russia announced that it was arming its Su-34 fighter jets flying in Syria with air-to-air missiles for the first time.

Some observers say the Obama administration’s refusal to fully back Turkey’s actions and condemn Russia is counterproductive to its relationship with both countries.

“Washington could lose respect of Ankara and Moscow at the same time,” Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Foreign Policy. “It risks showing the Russians Obama will accept peace at any price in Syria.”

Others say the administration has no choice but to try to lower tensions between the two sides. “While Obama may be viewed as giving a less than robust defense of a NATO ally, with U.S. and Russian planes operating in the same airspace, the stakes are too high to let bad blood between Erdogan and Putin over Syria derail U.S.-Russian cooperation,” Bowen told FP.

Another factor the United States may be considering is Turkey’s less than cooperative behavior in the anti-ISIS effort.

Ankara has been slow to close off a 60-mile stretch of its border with Syria that the United States believes is used by ISIS to shuttle foreign fighters in and out of the battle. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States is pressing Turkey to put thousands of new troops along the border, an effort that could require as many as 30,000 people. Turkey has also been attacking and bombing Kurdish forces in Syria to the chagrin of U.S. officials. Given its spotty track record, some say the best option was to offer Turkey only measured support.

“By supporting Turkey only marginally in its battle with Russia, the U.S. is also signaling to Erdogan that he cannot take the U.S. for granted,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told FP.

Photo credit: Ed Johnson/Foreign Policy

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