Truth is the first casualty of war and in the downing of the Russian Su-24 jet on Tuesday at least one of the parties involved is lying. Either the Turkish government, which said two of its jets warned the supposed intruder in its airspace at least 10 times in five minutes, or Russian President Vladimir Putin, who insists the jet never left Syrian airspace.
That leaves Berlin caught between a rock and a hard place as it seeks good relations with both parties involved in the current crisis.
The incident in the Hatay border region between Syria and Turkey immediately prompted a flurry of incendiary responses.
“We reserve the right to take any necessary measure in reaction to border infringements,” said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Mr. Putin, speaking on Russian television, warned of “serious consequences” for what he termed a stab in the back administered by “the accomplices of terrorists.”
In general, the events unfolding in Syria have placed the German government in a quandary. It threatens Berlin’s role as mediator between the West and Mr. Putin, and also endangers the desired alliance between the main powers against the terrorists of Islamic State.
“Of course every country has a right to defend its territory but on the other hand we know how tense the situation is in Syria and in the surrounding area.”
Syrian rebels initially claimed they had shot dead the two Russian pilots as they parachuted from their jet. However, Russia’s ambassador to France said Wednesday that one of the pilots was rescued by the Syrian army. On Tuesday the Russian military said that another marine was killed during a search and rescue mission when a military helicopter came under fire.
After the incident, Moscow announced that military contacts with Turkey would be severed and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, canceled a planned trip to Ankara for Wednesday and warned Russian tourists not to go to Turkey.
On Wednesday Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on the Russian government website that economic ties with Turkey could be damaged: “Long-standing friendly relations between Russia and Turkey, including economic and cultural relations, have been undermined,” he wrote. “This damage will be difficult to repair. The direct consequences are likely to be the renunciation of a number of important joint projects and the loss by Turkish companies of their positions in the Russian market.”
Meanwhile, Turkey also came in for some fierce criticism from Germany, with Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor and leader of the center-left Social Democrats, saying: “The incident shows we have a player who according to statements from various parts of the region is incalculable,” adding that he was referring to NATO partner Turkey, not Russia.
Berlin has been placing hopes on peace negotiations for Syria that could agree a roadmap to elections. Recent talks in Vienna had been constructive and Berlin is worried that the tensions caused by Tuesday’s incident could serious endanger them and put a political solution to the crisis out of reach.
On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament that the shooting down of the jet had complicated efforts to find a political solution in Syria.
“We need to do everything to avoid an escalation,” she said. “Of course every country has a right to defend its territory but on the other hand we know how tense the situation is in Syria and in the surrounding area. I spoke yesterday with the Turkish prime minister and asked him to do everything to de-escalate the situation.”
Germany also needs Russia’s cooperation in other key security matters. In the Ukraine conflict, Ms. Merkel along with French President François Hollande had already initiated the Minsk peace deal, which aims to resolve the standoff between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists in east of the country.
The conflict followed the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula last May, which prompted a slew of Western sanctions against Moscow. A number of German politicians had been lobbying for Mr. Putin to be brought back into the fold of world diplomacy.
But now, the Germans are in a dilemma. While she might hope to ease Russia back into the fold, Ms. Merkel is also pinning her hopes on Turkey to help her limit the influx of asylum seekers by agreeing to keep more refugees. Germany is expecting up to 1 million asylum seekers this year and many of them are crossing into Europe via Turkey. An E.U.-Turkey summit later this week in Brussels is supposed to come up with concrete proposals to address the issue.
But Turkey feels provoked. It said the bombs of Russian jets were destined for Turkmen forces, made up of Syrians of Turkish descent, and not for the terrorist group Islamic State, which it says wasn’t operating in the region in question.
At the same time, Russia needs Germany to help it come in from the cold. Last weekend Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, indicated that if Russia helped with resolving the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, then it might be re-admitted to the G8 group of industrialized nations.
Russia launched military strikes in Syria in late September, ostensibly against Islamic State. However, other Syrian rebels, backed by the U.S. and other NATO allies, say they have become the target of the Russian airstrikes, accusing Moscow of actually trying to prop up the regime of its ally, Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
An extraordinary meeting of NATO’s council was convened on Tuesday at Turkey’s request and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Ankara and Moscow to keep calm.
Meanwhile, the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on “all relevant parties to take urgent measures with a view to de-escalate the tensions.”
The situation in Syria is complicated, to put it mildly. Turkey is fighting Kurds, Russia fighting IS as well as other forces opposing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, France against IS and Mr. Assad, the IS against everyone.
Germany has the particular problem that it wants to help its closest ally France but isn’t able to go along with every escalation from Mr. Hollande, who is on a war footing after the Paris attacks.
Yet, while Berlin is unlikely to support France with any direct military intervention in Syria, it wants to try to ease its military burden elsewhere. On Wednesday, German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, told the parliamentary defense committee that she wants to send 650 Bundeswehr soldiers to Mali.
Germany currently has 200 soldiers taking part in an E.U. training mission in the relatively safe south of the country. Last week, a terrorist attack on a luxury hotel in the capital Bamako killed 19 people. France, the former colonial power in African country, has been enforcing a fragile peace three years after Islamists took over much of the north of the country.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday President Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama showed a common front, urging Mr. Putin to concentrate his fire on IS. Mr. Obama said he would go ahead with a visit to Paris for a key U.N. climate summit starting in the French capital next week. He said the terrorists must be shown that they can’t stop the world community fighting for a better future.
Ms. Merkel will visit Paris later today. The talks will focus on help for France, but of course also on Mr. Putin, seething for revenge for his pilots.
Mathias Brüggmann is Handelsblatt’s foreign editor, Thomas Hanke is the paper’s Paris correspondent, Moritz Koch reports from Washington. Siobhán Dowling, an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, Till Hoppe, security correspondent in Berlin, and Donata Riedel, a Berlin-based economics correspondent, contributed to this article. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.