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Turkey Now A Theater of West-Russia Dispute Over Syria

October 8, 2015 (Photo Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP)

ANKARA — Russia has militarily challenged Turkey's threats to retaliate for airspace violation over its border with Syria, but analysts say Moscow deliberately expanded its dispute with the West over Syria to NATO member Turkey's border.

"That was a calculated Russian move," a NATO member state ambassador in Ankara said. "They want to challenge both Turkey and NATO. The message through Turkey is clear: We won't let you decide on Syria's future."

A London-based Middle East analyst said: "The Russians humiliated Turkey by violating not just its airspace but also its rules of engagement."

In June 2012, Russian air defense systems in Syria downed a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft. Immediately after that Turkey said it has changed its "rules of engagement" over its border with Syria and would "disproportionately retaliate in case of any violation of its airspace along the Syrian border."

In 2014 and 2015, Turkey shot down a Syrian jet, a helicopter and a drone. During Oct. 3 and 4, Russian warplanes twice violated Turkish airspace during Moscow's bombing campaign in Syria aimed at bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On Oct. 7, the Turkish military said that Syria-based missile systems harassed Turkey's warplanes while eight F-16 jets were on a patrol flight along the Syria border. Turkey also said an unidentified MiG-29 harassed its jets Oct. 6, prompting the foreign ministry to summon the Russian ambassador three times in protest.

The Russian Defence Ministry said that an SU-30 warplane had entered Turkish airspace "for a few seconds" Oct. 3 — "a mistake caused by bad weather" — but NATO pn Oct. 6 rejected Moscow's explanation.

The incidents came at a time when Russia was sending more ground troops to Syria and building up its naval presence.

"An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, citing Article V of the NATO charter.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Oct. 7 that Turkey did not want the conflict in Syria turning into a crisis between Russia and NATO nor between Russia and Turkey.

However, he said: "Let me put it bluntly: Turkey's rules of engagement are valid for Syria's, Russia's or another country's warplanes. The Turkish Armed Forces have been issued with open instructions."

Some diplomats think Turkey is bluffing and would avoid any conflict with Russia.

"The Turks have got to understand that the Russians are serious about Syria," a diplomat from a former eastern European country said. "The Russian move was a strong message to both Turkey and the western coalition trying to shape Syria's future without taking Russian interests into consideration."

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