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In the days after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 aircraft, the world waited to see how Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers would spin the obvious fact that his country got caught red-handed violating Turkish airspace and ignoring warnings to alter the flight path. This speculation would have been entertaining if the matter were not so serious. Almost as intriguing was the Western handwringing about Turkey’s “rash” action, which was, in fact, not rash at all since it came after a long string of Russian provocations.
Perhaps the West was so quick to privately criticize Turkey because it is partly to blame. If the United States had responded more effectively to Russia’s intervention in Syria a couple of months ago, Russia would have been deterred from further provocations. There would have been very little chance that U.S. actions against Russia would be met with escalation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Russia fears NATO involvement more than NATO fears Russia. Equally pertinent, Turkey has pipeline agreements with Russia that Russia needs in place. Notably, these were left off of the economic hit list that Russia finally got around to issuing after it publicly decried Turkey for allegedly stabbing it in the back.
Whomever it to blame, after all the mistakes that have been made by all sides in Syria—allowing it to turn from a Syrian uprising to a civil war and now a regional sectarian war—the Turkish-Russian dustup is proving advantageous. On Thursday, after meeting with French President François Hollande, Putin publicly committed to joining the U.S.-led coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), to coordinating strikes with the coalition, and to striking ISIS and not those fighting ISIS. NATO’s strong public backing of Turkey and warnings to Russia have, to a degree, begun to hit home as Russia immediately staged multiple air attacks on ISIS. Putin understands that he needs to get on board with the West or else lose influence in the Syrian endgame. It is noteworthy that this shift came now, not immediately after the Russian civilian airliner was brought down by ISIS in Egypt.
It is hardly unusual for a crisis to spur greater political will, military might, and diplomatic capacity. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have at long last been galvanized by the ISIS attacks in Paris. Turkey has been pushed by one too many Russian incursions. In private conversations, U.S. officials noted that they were at first concerned that France might not toe the American line with Putin, but in fact France has done just that. Russia has responded affirmatively to French insistence that it stop targeting anti-Assad rebels. Hollande has deftly brought Putin more closely in line with Western operational aims. Keeping him there will be challenging, but it was nonetheless an impressive piece of improvised diplomacy.
French actions have also bucked up Germany and the United Kingdom. Germany has committed to providing Tornado surveillance planes, a frigate to help protect France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, aerial refueling for French fighter jets, and satellite data. It has also agreed to send around 700 troops to Mali, along with smaller numbers from other European countries, in order to relieve French troops serving there. German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked that Germany is likely to engage even more in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq by augmenting training for Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Iraq. “If the French president asks me to think about what we can do beyond that, then it’s our task to consider it—and we will react very quickly,” Merkel said. “Islamic State won’t be persuaded by words; Islamic State must be fought with military means.”
As for British Prime Minister David Cameron, the geostrategic stars have finally aligned for him to rally Parliament to back British air operations in Syria as well as Iraq. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom will also contribute in other tangible ways, including intelligence and logistics, to the coalition against ISIS that is growing in strength and commitment.
The EU, lacking even a modest expeditionary military force, is relying on its most capable member states to augment the coalition. In order to be useful, with the Article 5 counterpart in the Treaty of Lisbon not capable of marshaling much more than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the EU should now focus on pushing diplomatically for a safe zone in northern Syria and a civilian stability operation to organize it. Turkey should commit its own troops to safeguarding the zone, and the Kurds and Western air forces should continue to press ISIS in Iraq. All of them should hold Russia’s feet to the fire and demand that it put its money where its mouth is, while also remaining steadfast in their prevention of any more incursions into Turkish airspace.
The anti-ISIS coalition stands a better chance of succeeding now than at any time since it failed so miserably to enforce the original redline issued to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—when its intervention would have put the moderate Free Syrian Army into power before ISIS became anything more than a remnant of the long defunct al Qaeda in Iraq. This is not a time for restraint; it is a time to press forward both militarily and diplomatically and then to ensure that this time, the day after the regime leaves or is forced from power, the West and the Gulf states will work together to stabilize Syria and give its citizens who originally rose up against Assad a chance to return to their country and rebuild it.