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Downed Russian Warplane Highlights Regional Divide On Syria


When Turkey shot down a Russian warplane yesterday at the Turkish-Syrian border, it wasn't the start of bad blood between the two countries. At the same time, Turkey and Russia do share common interests. They both say that they want to fight ISIS. But their priorities inside Syria are not the same. And to get a better understanding of this and what this latest episode means, we are joined by Hugh Pope with International Crisis Group who, for many years, was based in Istanbul, Turkey. And we reached him today in Brussels. Welcome to the show.

HUGH POPE: Thank you.

MCEVERS: So let's start with where exactly this happened and why that's important.

POPE: This happened at the very toe Turkey that pokes into Syria called Hatay, and it's a very small segment of Hatay that even Turkey alleges that the Russian warplane crossed. But it's a place where Syrian regime troops jumped over the border, have been battling other groups backed by Turkey. And I think that that is where the Russian planes were acting as support for the Syrian troops. And it's during one of those battles that the Turkish jets intervened and shot the Russian plane down.

MCEVERS: The rebels who are there who are fighting against the Syrian regime - they are Turkmen. And we as we have reported, these Turkmen rebels did shoot and kill one of the pilots - one of the Russian pilots as he was ejected from the plane and killed a Russian marine who'd flown in to rescue one of the pilots. What kind of messages does that send to Russia?

POPE: The war in Syria has thrown away all the rules. The levels of violence and cruelty in Syria has passed all the normal bounds. And what's most unfortunate about this incident is that it shows exactly how the Syria war is sucking everyone in. It has sucked in nearly 60 countries in one way or another other helping in the war against IS. In the U.S.-led coalition, you have Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Iran and various (unintelligible) and now Russia recently also joining in.

And frankly, this is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. These countries like Turkey and Russia who are serious states should be collaborating because no one can win there. And the barbarity that you see on the ground there is just one sign of the dangers that await any foreign power that is seeking to try and take unilateral actions in support of its proxies.

MCEVERS: I guess the question is, was this just a big warning from Turkey to Russia, or is this the first step in an escalation that could get a lot worse?

POPE: Of course, none of us know the true plans that were laid, but I think that it's perfectly possible to assume that this is an accidental incident in the fog-of-war. But the pressure on both sides is still building up, and that's why one has to hope that this incident is the moment that major capitals come to their senses and see that the regional involvement in the Syria war can only lead to worse things.

MCEVERS: And just to back up for a second - I think it's important to understand what the relationship between Turkey and Russia was before this.

POPE: Interestingly, the last 20 years have seen an extraordinary growth in relations between Turkey and Russia. The background is not very promising. The two countries have - in various guises of empire and nation state - have fought two dozen wars in the last few centuries. But the fact is that since 1990 and the fall of the old Iron Curtain that used to divide Turkey and most of the Russian-speaking areas - came down, and we have a situation where you have - Turkey's natural gas supply is up two-thirds from Russia. And Russian tourists are one of the top three groups of people filling Turkey's hotels and coastal resorts.

You have extraordinary interaction, and it's most unfortunate that you now have voices in Moscow saying, you know, tourists shouldn't go and threats being made about major economic exchanges. Again, it's far too early to say that this is going to be seriously at risk, but the idea that all the progress of the last two decades is going to unravel should, again, be a message to the leadership on both sides that the risks of - on the downside are very, very large.

MCEVERS: Hugh Pope with the International Crisis Group, thank you very much.

POPE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.