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Why Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in Syria, according to an expert

A Russian warplane goes down in Syria's northwestern Turkmen town of Bayirbucak near Turkey's border on November 24, 2015.
A Russian warplane goes down in Syria's northwestern Turkmen town of Bayirbucak near Turkey's border on November 24, 2015.
Photo by Fatih Akta/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The downing of a Russian military plane by Turkish forces has introduced another layer of complication to the Syrian crisis and raised fears over possible escalation and the potential for a direct conflict between the US and Russia.

To get the Turkish perspective on this incident, I spoke with Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about why the Turkish military would take such dramatic action and what this could mean for the future of Turkish-Russian relations and Turkey's policy toward Syria. What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Cook, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Jennifer R. Williams: Why would the Turkish military shoot down a Russian warplane?

Steven A. Cook: The Russians have been taunting the Turks. They have violated Turkish airspace on at least two previous occasions. It was humiliating and had the potential to become a political problem for the Turkish leadership. Obviously they felt that they had to protect their sovereignty and believed they had NATO's backing to do so.

Jennifer R. Williams: How could this affect Turkish policy toward Syria?

Steven A. Cook: I don't think it will alter Turkey's approach dramatically. They will continue to support Turkmen, coordinate with select extremist groups, and try to prevent the emergence of "Western Kurdistan." I imagine that the Russians will try to make the Turks pay in some way, but Moscow is already targeting people on Turkey's side of the fight there.

Jennifer R. Williams: What does it mean for Turkish-Russian relations?

Steven A. Cook: Well, it adds a new dimension to relations, which up until now the leaders of both countries have been able to compartmentalize. The fact that Russia supports Assad and Turkey is a leading advocate of regime change in Syria did not disrupt commercial ties, for example. There will be a lot of hot rhetoric from Moscow, especially, and there is a risk of escalation, but cooler heads are likely to prevail.

Jennifer R. Williams: What role do the ethnic Turkmen play in all this in terms of their importance to Turkey and Erdogan's willingness to protect them?

Steven A. Cook: The Turkmen are the card that Turkey plays when it wants to get involved in something or [convince] its allies to do something. Turkey's position on Kirkuk and other Iraq issues were often tied to the Turkmen, though they were just convenient for Ankara.

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