Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter-bomber for allegedly violating Turkish airspace on Tuesday has sparked overblown spectres of World War III. But the incident, which Russian President Vladimir Putin angrily called a stab in the back, could still have serious repercussions, not least for the global alliance to fight the Islamic State (IS), including in Syria. The coalition forged to arrest the spread of the IS received new impetus and urgency in the wake of the Paris attacks, but the contradictions in the goals and interests of alliance partners — laid bare in the ongoing fracas — suggest that a confrontation is inevitable. Syria, especially, is a messy and complex theatre of war where various powers are duking it out for victory through several proxies, and their objectives, when not in outright competition — as with Russia’s support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s discredited regime — are not always aligned.
Within Turkey, frustration has been simmering for months at Russia’s campaign to bolster Assad, who Ankara wants deposed. A previous intrusion into Turkish airspace by a Russian jet in October further stoked tensions. Turkey, though part of Nato, has been a reluctant member of the US-led effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the IS. It is more focused on its battle with Kurdish groups and has done recklessly little to stanch the flow of foreign IS recruits through its territory en route to Syria. While there is no evidence of it explicitly supporting the IS, fighting it is not a priority for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Meanwhile, in order to strengthen Assad, Russia recently bombed ethnic Turkmen — considered by the Turkish government as unofficial Turkish citizens — which provoked strong reactions.
The good news, if it can be called such, is that neither Russia nor the major Nato allies are likely to risk escalation, and perhaps war, merely to enforce air rights on the Syria-Turkey border. Russian retaliation will probably be asymmetric — joint energy projects between Moscow and Ankara might be put on hold. But a similar incident in, say, the Baltic states — which are also Nato members and whose airspace Russian fighters have been frequently and dangerously buzzing — could spiral into a major war that neither side actually wants. If this crisis illustrates the worrying lack of coordination among the multiple armed agents at least nominally allied against the IS, it also offers an opportunity for them to intensify talks to create better channels of information-sharing to prevent similar clashes in future. That would be a first step towards building an effective international response to the IS.