On Monday, a meeting in Sochi, Russia, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan resulted in an 11th-hour truce and demilitarized zone in Idlib province, the last remaining stronghold of anti-government insurgents and al-Qaeda-linked terror groups in Syria.
That same day, Syrian air defenses firing at Israeli airplanes and French missiles accidentally downed an Ilyushin Il-20 Russian reconnaissance aircraft, killing 15 Russian servicemembers. Former British Ambassador to Syria Peter Ford and international affairs and security analyst Mark Sleboda spoke with Radio Sputnik's Loud & Clear about the events.
Sleboda told hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou that the account of the incident given by the Russian Ministry of Defense, which said the Israeli warplanes "deliberately created a dangerous situation" when they used the Il-20 as a shield from Syrian S-200 missiles fired at them, "directly contradict" the version given by Putin, who described it as "a tragic series of events" and "a chain of circumstances."
"When people die, especially in such tragic circumstances, it is always a tragedy, a tragedy for us all, for the whole country and for the families of our dead friends. In this connection, I certainly offer my condolences to the relatives of those who were killed in the crash," Putin said Tuesday. "Most certainly, we have to sort the case out most seriously. And our attitude to the tragedy is outlined in the Russian Defense Ministry's statement."
"Putin is obviously attempting, diplomatically, to soften this, in a way you could say to whitewash, the much harder stick of statements by the Russian Ministry of Defense," Sleboda said.
Ford, however, said it's "very unclear what the Israelis thought they were doing."
"The whole thing may have been a tragic accident; it's hard to believe that the Israelis would even risk that their own planes — it would have been a major incident had that Syrian missile hit an Israeli plane. It's odd for the Israelis to take this risk, even odder for them to maneuver so that a Russian plane would take the hit. So the motivation for it is very unclear."
Ford said that many people are inclined to dismiss the shootdown by saying "these things happen" in war, but "Putin wants to maintain at least a veneer of pleasantness in Russian relations with Israel. And this veneer has after all brought benefits, even quite recently, with the climb-down of the Israelis over the advance of Syrian forces towards the Golan. The Israelis, after much huffing and puffing, allowed themselves to be prevailed on by the Russians to pipe down. I think Putin has this kind of thing in mind with his conciliatory statement."
"But revenge is a dish best served cold," Ford said in true diplomatic fashion, and "Israel will have a price to pay in terms of new Russian rules of engagement" in Syria.
While Sleboda argued that the same phenomenon of Putin choosing diplomacy over standing up for Russian soldiers killed in action in Syria was at work in his agreement to a ceasefire with Turkey and Syrian rebel groups in Idlib province, Ford dissented, arguing that the Russian and Syrian government forces received in the agreement roughly 10 percent of the territory, including key strategic parts of the province, meaning the agreement places them in a position of strength, not weakness, as the rebels retreat.
Ford said "it was always going to be the case that the offensive" against Idlib "would be phased, and we've just seen Phase 1, and land grabbed back for the Syrian government without a shot fired."
Sleboda noted that since the Tehran conference on September 7 between Iran, Turkey and Russia, at which Erdogan pressed for a ceasefire that Putin and Rouhani rejected, Erdogan had begun moving "mass convoys of arms, tanks, APCs and other military vehicles into Idlib to buttress his proxies there and to move a large number of Turkish military equipment directly to the front lines facing the Syrian Army, effectively saying, ‘if you attack Idlib, it's war.'" This, he said, is why the Russians "backed down at this from what was clearly a planned offensive to liberate the province."
Sleboda said that "the best case scenario that everyone is hoping for" from the recent ceasefire is that the collection of Syrian jihadi rebels "puts on Turkish proxy uniforms and cosplays as proxy Turkish militants under the supposed direct control of Erdogan and continues occupying Idlib."
"That is not a solution," he said, "and it's not going to end well."
Sleboda noted that Erdogan is openly collaborating with Hayat Tahrir Ash-Sham, a "re-branded al-Qaeda" that was once called the al-Nusra Front, and that the result of putting them into Turkish uniforms is nothing more than "a neo-Ottoman land grab."
Ford said he thought the Turks negotiated the ceasefire because they realized that a major Russian offensive would drive over a million Syrian refugees across the border into Turkey, which would be a disaster for Erdogan. Sleboda agreed, but suggested that Erdogan's goal is to evacuate civilians from urban Idlib to the countryside or elsewhere and then set up a Turkish proxy state in northern Syria akin to Northern Cyprus.