It’s no accident that Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself countered Russian complaints about Turkey’s interception of a passenger plane en route from Moscow to Damascus. The Turkish prime minister did that on Thursday by laying out his country’s claim that Russia is illegally sending defense equipment to Syria.
Russia repeated its denial on Friday and demanded more details about the cargo Turkey confiscated from the plane.
Although it probably won't escalate, the standoff presented both sides with the largest test to relations that had been quickly deepening in recent years. More important, it reflects the very real danger Syria’s civil war will draw other countries into a regional conflict.Syria: Conflict continues to spill over into Turkey
More from GlobalPost: Syria: Conflict continues to spill over into Turkey
Turkey’s actions fit a pattern of muscle-flexing on the world stage since Erdogan’s administration began authoritatively taking power away from the once-powerful military.
Unafraid to criticize US policies, the NATO member’s conservative government refused to aid the US military during its invasion of Iraq in 2003. More recently, Turkey joined Brazil in trying to shield Iran from international sanctions by proposing a nuclear fuel swap deal.
Now it’s butting heads with a historic enemy to the north that has also recently emerged as a pugnacious regional power. But although relations between Russia and Turkey are sometimes mercurial, they’ve radically improved in recent years.
Trade between the two countries is booming. Turkey’s largest trading partner, Russia is set to build a $25 billion nuclear power plant there. The Kremlin is especially interested in Turkish cooperation over its drive to dominate oil and gas sales to Europe.
Turkey is connected to Russia by a natural gas pipeline and recently agreed to allow Russian Gazprom to lay a major new pipeline under Turkish territorial waters. But Turkey is also cooperating with other countries over alternate routes in its bid to be an energy hub between Europe and Asia, and the Kremlin has tried to discourage that with threats as well as enticements.
Now both are asserting themselves over Syria, Russia’s last ally in the Middle East. Moscow is a staunch supporter of national sovereignty, especially when it concerns beleaguered authoritarian leaders whose fates Putin wouldn’t want to emulate were he to face major opposition at home. But the Kremlin’s main motive is to boost its influence in the world by obstructing western efforts to mediate the conflict.
Moscow’s support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad directly opposes Turkey’s attempts to encourage foreign support for the rebels as its neighbor descends deeper into civil war and refugees stream across the border into Turkey.
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Last July, Erdogan essentially agreed with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to disagree over Syria by decoupling the issue from trade in their relations. Although the new sniping is highly unlikely to lead to a long-term deterioration in relations because neither country wants that, it’s far more important for reflecting the danger the proxy battle in Syria will develop into a broader regional conflict. Among other countries, that would involve Syria’s closest ally Iran (over which Russia has also obstructed western diplomatic efforts in the past).
Putin and Erdogan were set to meet next week. The date has been postponed to December—nothing to do with the intercepted airplane, Turkey insists. If Assad isn’t gone by then, it will be thanks in no small part to Russia’s disgraceful — and, as Erdogan has indicated — no doubt criminal role in the conflict.