Turkish jets shot down a drone over the country’s airspace near Syria on Friday. While the drone’s nationality hasn’t been definitively identified, U.S. officials told Reuters that they believe it is Russian.
Turkish jets have already been scrambled twice to intercept incursions by Russian aircraft into Turkish airspace since Russia’s air campaign in Syria began a little more than two weeks ago. Russia has blamed the incidents on planes being briefly sent off course by bad weather, but Turkey, a member of NATO, suspects they are deliberate. Friday’s incident will further fuel tensions between Ankara, a major backer of the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government, and Moscow—though obviously the stakes would have been vastly higher if the downed aircraft had been a manned fighter jet like those involved in the earlier incidents.
The incident comes as Russia has actually eased up on its air campaign while Syrian ground forces, with significant troop reinforcements from Iran and Hezbollah, launch a major new ground offensive. That assault is focused on anti-Assad rebels in the west of the country, particularly around Aleppo. Syria’s largest city before the war, Aleppo is the rebels’ most significant urban stronghold. Losing complete control of the city could be close to a death blow to the rebels in western Syria, who have been holding out for years against both Assad’s forces and ISIS—who sometimes seemingly have been cooperating. Until recently, the Syrian military appeared to be on its heels, but the arrival of Russian airpower and Iranian reinforcements has changed the picture significantly. While Russia has justified its involvement in Syria by saying it’s necessary to fight ISIS, the vast majority of its airstrikes, have targeted non-ISIS rebel-held areas in northwest Syria.
While the U.S. still nominally supports the anti-Assad rebellion and has heavily criticized Russia’s actions, its own actions are now more heavily focused on eastern Syria, where the government has little control and the fight is primarily between Kurdish forces and ISIS. The new U.S. focus on the east is aimed not at ousting Assad, but rather at steering clear of Russian airstrikes as well as backing a force—the Kurds—which has already proved itself effective in fighting ISIS. A few days after the Obama administration shut down an extremely ineffective program to train anti-ISIS rebels, U.S. planes earlier this week began dropping weapons and ammunition to Kurdish fighters and allied Arab forces far to the east of Russia’s airstrikes. While the administration has played up the involvement of Arab fighters in part to mollify Turkey, which is suspicious of Kurdish ambitions in Syria, other reports suggest that the Kurds got the vast majority of the weapons.
While predicting events in Syria is generally foolish, the war seems to be heading toward a situation in which the main antagonists are the Russian- and Iranian-backed government, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces with nominal Arab participation, and ISIS in the middle. This war may have begun as a rebellion against Assad, but, with events on both fronts looking pretty grim for the original rebels, it’s turning out OK for him.