Turkey announced today that the man accused of killing Russian pilot Oleg Peshkov, whose Su-24 was shot down in November 2015 by Turkish air defenses, has been freed. The shootdown of the jet and the death of the pilot put a freeze on relations between Turkey and Russia that has yet to thaw.
The nature of hostilities between Turkey and Russia are complicated, well beyond the simple downing of a plane or the shooting of a pilot. The countries' fraught relationship is predicated on competition for influence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. Turkey backs certain rebel groups battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an important Russian ally. Beyond the Middle East theater, however, Turkey and Russia are stepping on each other's toes in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions as well.
On top of the larger issues at stake, the shooting down and subsequent killing of Peshkov made any reconciliation between Ankara and Moscow difficult. Russia insists that Turkey apologize for downing the aircraft, but the Turkish government has refused to do so. Moscow also requested that accused shooter Alparslan Celik, who supposedly was part of a group fighting against Syrian government forces when Peshkov was slain, be prosecuted. His arrest on March 31 had been a small, yet important move toward improving relations. Peter Stegny, the former Russian ambassador to Turkey, praised the arrest as a step in the right direction. In early April, Celik had written a letter to the Russian Foreign Ministry, ostensibly on behalf of the Turkish government, urging peace and open dialogue between Turkey and Russia.
However, the decision to release Celik indicates that relations between Turkey and Russia will remain sour. For Turkey, this means that its ambition of establishing a safe zone within Syria for its troops is far from becoming reality. Ankara understands that without an agreement with the Kremlin — which is already hesitant to allow Turkey to establish any safe zone — any forces sent into northern Syria to hold territory would be subject to Russian attack. While Turkey could use the safe zone to battle the Islamic State and keep troublesome Kurdish groups in check, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels could also strategically benefit from the move. Simply put, they could build up coordination centers and supply zones then use the safe zone as a secure base from which to launch attacks against Syrian government targets. For Russia, which is striving to reduce potential Turkish and NATO influence in its former Soviet sphere, this prospect is undesirable. Therefore, Moscow is unlikely to support Turkey's endeavor without significant concessions.
Turkey's decision to release Celik comes just days after it launched a raid into northern Syria. Ankara alerted Russia and the United States before it launched the two-day raid, conducted on Saturday, but it was to inform rather than to ask for permission or blessing. It was officially Turkey's first time sending special operations forces into a direct combat mission in Syria. While Turkish forces have provided training and other support for chosen rebel groups in northern Syria, Ankara has never acknowledged an active combat role for its forces. In Saturday's mission, Turkey dispatched 20 special operations teams to target Islamic State missile launchers that were used against the Turkish town of Killis. Almost-daily missile strikes there in recent weeks left about two dozen Turks dead.
During this period of cool relations, enhanced by the lack of visible coordination with Russia on military affairs in Syria, Turkey's pre-operational signaling of its intentions to launch a raid is notable. While Russia has rarely attacked the area where the Turks conducted their operation, Russian aviation does fly nearby. Therefore, Turkey's alert could well be viewed as an indication of potential cooperation. However, today's release of Celik brings to light a more sobering explanation of Turkey's decision: By alerting Russia to the raid, Ankara reduced Moscow's ability to hit Turkish forces in Syria — then claim that it had done so by mistake. In addition, the announcement gave Turkey a stronger chance of eliciting coalition support against perceived aggression had Russian planes struck Turkish personnel on the ground.
Despite the strain that Turkish-Russian relations are under, the countries have common objectives. While Russia opposes any growth of Turkish influence in Syria and Ankara's attempts to undermine the Syrian government's hold on power, both Russia and Turkey wish to defeat Islamic State in Syria. Thus, Russia can tolerate limited Turkish raids against Islamic State targets. Turkey's decision to limit Saturday's raid to specific objectives just across the border likely also reduced Russian opposition to the action. That said, without a reconciliation with Turkey, Russia will likely continue to condemn all Turkish activity in Syria.
The Russian-Turkish relationship — despite its inherent competition — serves both countries economically. Russia is Turkey's biggest natural gas supplier, providing 55 percent (about 27 billion cubic meters) of Turkish natural gas consumption in 2014. For Russia, Turkey constitutes 13 percent of its gas exports. For that reason, neither country has an interest in escalating matters. But for Turkey to make the shift from targeted raids across the border to broader military operations in Syria, including airstrikes and holding territory with infantry, it must rely on an agreement with Russia. While Celik's arrest was never going to be the linchpin to repairing the Turkish-Russian relationship, leading eventually to a safe-zone accord, it certainly was a step in the right direction. Turkey's decision to withdraw this political gift to Russia demonstrates a hardened stance that will make reconciliation between the countries unlikely anytime soon. So, while Turkey might continue to launch limited cross-border raids into Syria, its ability to establish a foothold in Syria remains for now very constrained.