icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
An Alarming New Escalation in the Syria War
An Alarming New Escalation in the Syria War
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
This picture shows Turkey’s account of flightpaths of aircraft, including that of the downed Russian warplane, along the Turkish-Syrian border on 24 November 2015. REUTERS/Turkish Interior Ministry

An Alarming New Escalation in the Syria War

Turkish officials say their fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday 24 November after warning it ten times in the space of five minutes that it was violating Turkish airspace. Moscow said that a SU-24 was downed but could prove the aircraft never left Syrian airspace, with President Vladimir Putin himself saying it was 1km inside Syria. Drawing on the expertise of its analysts covering Syria, Turkey and Russia, International Crisis Group has compiled this background Q&A on possible dangers ahead.

What will be the impact of this new layer of conflict in the Syrian war?

This is a new sign of how internationalised the Syrian war has become, and how dangerous it can still get. In a way, it’s a slap in the face that could bring Syria’s external stakeholders to their senses, but risks sending the war hurtling down another precipice. Precisely because it feared such an uncalculated escalation, Crisis Group has long argued that all regional and international parties to the conflict must come together on a compromise solution to calm the Syrian war, not add fuel to its flames.

The Vienna talks have been a small step in the right direction. But the process to which Vienna gives birth must not turn into a gimmick designed to gain time and dress up the political vacuum. There must be a real, substantive brake on the reckless, relentless deterioration and escalation that has characterised the Syrian war. Anything less will do more harm than good, and the situation has become just too dangerous to give us the luxury of pretending.

Why did Turkey shoot down the plane, knowing what consequences such action could have?

Ever since Syrian air defences shot down a Turkish warplane that Damascus said entered its Mediterranean maritime airspace in 2012, Turkey announced “new rules of engagement” under which it would strongly react to any transgression of its borders. On 5 October, Prime Minister Davutoglu stated that “Turkey’s rules of engagement apply to aircraft from Syria, from Russia or any other country. The Turkish military has been given clear instructions. Even if it’s a bird flying over the border, the appropriate response will be made”.

More recently, it has shown rising concern about the fate of Syrian Turkmens just over the border, an ethnic group that speaks Turkish and whose Turkey-backed local militia had recently come under military pressure from Russian-backed regime forces. Ankara called for a discussion of the issue in the UN Security Council and the foreign ministry summoned in the Russian ambassador. If any of the pilots or their bodies are now in pro-Turkish militia hands, it is very important that Ankara use this to re-engage with Russia and not tip the two countries into deeper dispute.

Turkey is appealing to its fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and other international institutions – what should these organisations do?

Much depends on whether Turkey’s action is shown to be self-defence or as another step toward more direct engagement in the Syrian war. In the first case, Turkey can count on its NATO allies lining up behind it. In the second, Turkey will be more on its own. But certainly all sides should use this new tension as a warning that they need stronger engagement to avoid the risks of further escalation.

In the background, to be sure, are strains between Turkey and its European partners over the past year as huge numbers of Syrian refugees started leaving Turkey toward Greece, the Balkans and the EU. But in the end, the refugee issue opened up new channels of cooperation between the EU and Turkey.

Turkey and its traditional Western partners should now move even further toward closer cooperation. Ankara must act with a much greater sense of regional responsibility and EU states with a greater sense of burden sharing, notably in helping Turkey host 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Tuesday’s incident shows how dangerous it is for the two sides to act unilaterally.

How will all this affect Turkish-Russian relations?

Turkey-Russian relations are in a fragile balance. Although the two sides have fought two dozen wars in the past, and were deeply opposed across a long border during the Cold War, interdependence has grown over the past two decades. Turkey is now two-thirds reliant on Russian supplies of natural gas, and Russian tourists are a huge boon for Turkey’s coastal resorts.

Russia is keenly aware of the costs of relations with Turkey deteriorating drastically. When a Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace soon after it engaged in Syria, Moscow went out of its way to smooth things out. But ultimately, the two countries have diametrically opposed policies in Syria, with Turkey highly focused on the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and Russia determined to protect the Syrian regime as its longstanding foothold in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, the relationship is now deteriorating. President Putin said the Turkish shootdown was a stab in the back by “terrorist supporters” and has warned of “serious” consequences for Turkish-Russian ties. The Russian foreign ministry has warned Russians not to visit Turkey due to the terrorist threat and Foreign Minister Lavrov has cancelled a planned trip as well.

How does this affect the broader relationship between Russia and the West?

Much depends on how events on the ground develop between Russia and Turkey, which is at the end of the day a key NATO member.

There is still a great need for constructive cooperation between the West and the Russian Federation in the fight against the Islamic State. The shootdown will be a distraction from that potential, but all sides should bear in mind their shared interest in defeating transnational violent jihadi groups.

While there may be some potential for cooperation with Moscow against IS, however, Russia’s military approach in Syria would need to shift fundamentally for such cooperation to contribute constructively toward weakening violent jihadis. So long as the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes and Russian-backed offensives target anti-IS opposition forces, the net impact of increased military cooperation with Moscow would be negative. That’s because it would strengthen the jihadi narrative, at the same time as weakening mainstream opposition forces that will ultimately be needed as partners against IS (and other transnational jihadis).

In short, the form of West-Russia cooperation with most potential to weaken IS is diplomatic cooperation toward achieving a (geo)political resolution in Syria.

What will the impact in Russia be of this first and very public setback for Moscow’s new policy of direct engagement in Syria?

Russia’s entry as a direct party to the Syrian war was always going to have consequences, but disengagement will also be hard.

It’s true that Russian media has used its Syrian engagement as a means to distract its population from the quagmire it’s gotten into in eastern Ukraine, to play down internal economic problems and to support Putin’s popularity. But there is also an authentic security challenge to Moscow in the rise of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State bombed a Russian airliner as it flew from Egypt in October, killing 224 people, mostly Russians. Russian officials allege the group has been behind foiled bombing plots in Moscow. IS has attracted violent jihadis from the North Caucasus and other Russian territories to Syria, and has openly promised in a video to “drown Russia in blood”.

Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus

While the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 moved the front lines in Azerbaijan’s favour, it has not brought peace. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage in humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and continue to engage diplomatically through the OSCE Minsk Group.

A brief second war between Armenia and Azerbaijan from late September to early November 2020 dramatically moved the front lines in Baku’s favour. But it has not brought peace. The bloody six-week conflict is a cautionary tale, like the nearly 30 years of stalemate and skirmishes that preceded it. Both experiences warn that a future that does not address the grievances of both sides, integrate the economies of South Caucasus countries and bring real benefits to all who live there risks being a recipe for renewed instability and conflict. Russia, which brokered the 9 November ceasefire deal between Yerevan and Baku and has deployed peacekeeping troops to the region, will continue to shape relations among all concerned. Turkey, as Azerbaijan’s chief backer and the party holding the key to Armenia’s economic reconnection to the region, will also wield considerable clout. EU diplomacy and support, however, will be crucial in creating an environment in which the advantages of cooperation outweigh those of conflict. To engage effectively, Brussels will need to work closely with Moscow and Ankara. Unusual as such collaboration might be at a time when tensions are running high between the EU and both Russia and Turkey, it is necessary.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Undertake sustained humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ease suffering, whether it results from the late 2020 fighting, the longstanding conflict beforehand or the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Stand ready to facilitate economic and infrastructure projects to reconnect the South Caucasus countries, including by road and rail;
  • Continue to engage diplomatically, through the traditional and still official Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group format for negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh and other forums as appropriate. While efforts to resolve the core issues underpinning the conflict, notably Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, are unlikely to bear fruit so soon after the fighting, it is important that diplomatic channels continue to function for when opportunities do arise.
  • As soon as is feasible, resume efforts to build relations and trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis through direct people-to-people contacts and projects that facilitate cross-border visits for experts and journalists. 

A Ceasefire Short of Real Peace 

When the first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1994, it left the region ravaged, with tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Armenian forces were in control of not only the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a region within Soviet Azerbaijan that its ethnic Armenian majority had unilaterally declared independent in 1991, but also seven additional adjacent Azerbaijani regions. Armenia was, in effect, under Azerbaijani and Turkish economic blockade. Each side accused the other of war crimes and atrocities.

At the time, all involved hoped that with the fighting over, negotiations could bring a lasting deal. The OSCE established the Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the U.S., to facilitate talks. But if the Minsk Group fostered some dialogue, peace grew more elusive with each passing year. As positions hardened, Azerbaijani and Armenian communities became ever more isolated from one another. Both sides built up their militaries, preparing for a rematch. For nearly three decades, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs tried to broker compromise but, as their attempts were rebuffed, gradually threw up their hands. Peacemaking efforts largely petered out. There was a nominal ceasefire, but violations were numerous, and on several occasions escalated into larger clashes. 

All-out war resumed in September 2020. After clashes on the front line, Azerbaijani forces quickly advanced and, over the course of six weeks, recaptured much of the territory lost in 1994. The fighting killed thousands. Most of the dead were male combatants, a great many of them young conscripts between the ages of eighteen and twenty. The war also displaced, albeit in some cases temporarily, tens of thousands, predominantly women and children, with many families separated for at least the duration of the conflict.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace. As a result of both ground offensives and the deal brokered by Moscow, Baku has regained control of the seven territories Armenia had held around Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as roughly one third of the mountainous enclave itself. The rest remains under Armenian control, patrolled by both Russian peacekeeping forces and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ security personnel. The disputed region’s long-term status remains an open question, as do the details of the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate. Other Russian government personnel are offering aid and reconstruction assistance in Armenian-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is active in Azerbaijan, assisting with demining and reconstruction. The sides exchanged some prisoners of war in December, but Armenia is now angry at Azerbaijan’s stated plans to prosecute several Armenian soldiers whom it has in custody. Baku says its forces captured these soldiers after the end of hostilities, but they appear to have arrested at least one while the war was still raging. There are other troubling developments, including skirmishes at the new front line, which is much closer to civilian settlements than the old one. Only the Russian forces’ arrival halted the shooting. 

None of this bodes well for the long term. There is little risk that history, which is to say the pattern of military build-up, stalemate and eventual rematch of the last 30 years, will repeat itself exactly. But the past decades illustrate all too clearly the dangers that lie in festering resentment, the absence of meaningful talks aimed at addressing it and a region in which borders are closed and contacts among communities across front lines few.

A lasting peace does not require everyone to agree on everything from the start. Indeed, it would be premature to push the parties toward agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status so soon after the war. Reconciliation is only likely to take place gradually and only if all parties see it as in their interests. In support of a step-by-step approach, the Russian-brokered ceasefire deal calls for economic reconnection, an aspiration the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia reaffirmed when they met on 11 January in Moscow, promising to create a working group to define plans for new commercial ties and transport infrastructure. These plans could define a new and different way forward, one that creates real economic incentives to collaborate and eschew violence. But the plans will not work without broader international engagement – and here, the EU may have a special role to play. 

How the EU Can Help 

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. One goal of this program is to improve transport links in the South Caucasus, which Brussels has helped do in Azerbaijan as well as in neighbouring Georgia. EU support for rebuilding railways and roads that once connected Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia would be in line with both its own goals and those announced at the 11 January Moscow summit.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses. Few other international bodies have the leverage and the moral standing in the South Caucasus to call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to fulfil their commitments to prisoner exchanges and to investigate past abuses adequately. 

Europeans can also help keep diplomatic channels alive, even if seeking a settlement on major issues does not make sense for now. Russia’s direct involvement and the relative disengagement of France and the U.S. has, at least for now, relegated the Minsk format to a less central role. Besides, many Azerbaijanis see France and the U.S. as having failed to deliver on peace plans since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. But the Minsk process remains relevant as the internationally agreed format for negotiations: it may be crucial to ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid in the near term and broad regional and global support for any future settlement.

The EU could consider bolstering the role of its own special representative for the region, by giving staff support to enable more active engagement, working both with the OSCE and independently. The EU should also support member state Sweden, which just assumed the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office for 2021, in fulfilling its mandate for keeping up OSCE contacts with Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian and Turkish leaders on the conflict. The EU can publicly acknowledge the importance of this mission and ensure that Sweden maintains a point role with regard to the conflict for member states. 

Past EU support in this region focused on building relations and trust between civil societies on both sides. Although it facilitated direct people-to-people contacts that would not otherwise have occurred, it increasingly involved the same people, and those less and less frequently, thus limiting its impact. A new approach should involve a broader group of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, including displaced and returning people, people living in border areas, and officials responsible for transitional justice and reconciliation. Brussels could also fund programs that facilitate cross-border visits for experts in a wide range of fields, which largely ceased in the 2010s, and journalists, a few of whom had started making trips prior to the 2020 war. 

The EU can also help mitigate the war’s effects, building on the humanitarian aid it provided during the fighting. Its funding of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross enabled them to deliver urgent assistance to war-displaced Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Now, it can help fund reconstruction both in territories controlled by Armenians and those controlled by Azerbaijan. It could also consider programs in Armenian and Azerbaijani settlements along the border between the two countries. That border has grown longer as a result of wartime shifts in territorial control and towns have grown larger due to displacement. Such support would supplement Russian assistance, carried out in cooperation with the UN, near the border in north-eastern Armenia to build and light local roads and construct new schools, greenhouses and irrigation systems.

EU health-care assistance is also important. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Brussels has sent basic medical supplies to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. EU support may become essential for effective vaccination and the regeneration of tourism, which was a crucial source of household income in both countries before the outbreaks of war and contagion. 

Aside from its direct effects, a strong EU role can build support for peace. It can reassure Armenians nervous about Turkey’s actions in support of Azerbaijan and both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who, although beholden to Moscow for its engagement to end the conflict, recognise that its financial contribution will not match its military and diplomatic weight going forward. Brussels’ involvement would give the bloc an opportunity to cooperate with both Russia and Turkey. There are many areas of disagreement between Brussels and other EU capitals, on one hand, and Moscow and Ankara, on the other, but improving prospects for peace in the South Caucasus is one area where, broadly speaking, they have good reasons to work together.