Shooting down Russian fighter strains Syria talks

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border has not only frayed previously warm ties between Russia and Turkey, but has also put a strain on the Syria peace talks, Russia’s foreign ministry said yesterday.

Turkey shot down the Russian jet last week, insisting it violated its airspace despite numerous warnings and has said it will not apologise for the incident that killed one Russian pilot and a Russian serviceman trying to retrieve a second.

Russia has claimed that Turkey shot down its plane to protect what he described as Turkish profiteering from the oil trade with the Islamic State group and has slapped a package of sanctions against Turkish products.

Russian spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the downing has not only caused a diplomatic rift but would also complicate peace talks taking place in Vienna.

Russia insists the talks cannot go ahead until all parties agree on which opposition groups should be covered by a possible cease-fire and which should be targeted by airstrikes.

Ms Zakharova said Moscow was now more determined than ever to get other parties to agree on a list of “terrorist” groups in Syria before the next round of talks. Without that, she said, joint action in Syria would not be possible.

Aiming to head off the rift, Barack Obama urged Turkey and Russia yesterday to set aside their tensions and focus on the common priority of defeating the Islamic State group.

In a meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Paris, the US president vouched for the Nato ally’s right to self-defence, and he pledged a solid US commitment “to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty”. Yet he emphasised the need for Turkey and Russia to “de-escalate” their conflict and not get distracted from the campaign against IS and efforts to resolve Syria’s civil war.

“We all have a common enemy. That is Isil,” Mr Obama said. “I want to make sure that we focus on that threat.”

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu yesterday accused Russia of trying to “cover up” its infringement of Turkey’s airspace with “unfounded” claims that Turkey is illegally importing oil from IS.

Mr Erdogan has said he is prepared to step down if Russia can prove the oil claims and has urged Russian president Vladimir Putin to do the same if he can’t prove them.

“It is not possible to cover up the violation of the Turkish airspace with unfounded accusations against Turkey,” Mr Davutoglu said renewing a call for Russia to keep military and diplomatic channels for dialogue open, insisting that Russia’s stance was turning the Syria crisis into one between Russia and Turkey.