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Syrian War Unsettles Fault Line Between Russia And Turkey


We turn now to rising tensions between Turkey and Russia. This week, Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border. Turkey said the plane had been in its airspace, and Russia denies that. On Saturday, Russia retaliated with a new law imposing economic sanctions against Turkey. For more on this, we turn to Abderrahim Foukara. He is Al Jazeera Arabic's Washington, D.C., bureau chief, and he's here with us in our studios. Abderrahim, Welcome thanks so much for joining us.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: All week, Turkish President Erdogan has refused to apologize as Russia has insisted he still hasn't quite apologized. But he has suggested regret that the incident occurred. What do you think is going on there? Why do you think that change of heart...

FOUKARA: Well...

MARTIN: ...Or change of tone?

FOUKARA: It's a change of tone. It's very difficult for him to apologize to someone who has violated the sovereignty of his country. And remember that for him, from where he stands, this is not the first time that the Russians have violated Turkish airspace. This is about the third time, so he sees a pattern emerging there at a time when the Russians are playing a more forceful role in Syria, which is obviously of great concern to the Turks.

MARTIN: So if that be the case, why would Erdogan express regret? What should he regret?

FOUKARA: Well, he's obviously under a lot of pressure. He's under a lot of pressure from many of his allies - in Europe, here in the United States - to calm things down. Turkey is a member of NATO. And if it goes to war against Russia, that means that, you know, Europe and NATO would have to support Turkey. And I don't see anybody ready at this particular point in time to engage militarily. Economically there's a lot of noise between the Turks and the Russians now. There are a lot of Russians who go and do business, a lot of tourists who go to Turkey. And the Russians may be able to push that to a certain extent. But the economic interests between the two countries are so big that if you were to sever completely business and economic relations the two, both of them would pay an exorbitant price.

MARTIN: I guess my - the deeper question is is this conflict specifically about airspace, or is it about the best way to fight the Islamic State and a difference of opinion about that?

FOUKARA: Well, the - obviously, the deeper text is the fundamental difference between the Turks and the Russians when it comes to what's going on in Syria. The Russians are obviously in there - at least in the perception of the Turks and perhaps more than just reception - to actually buttress the regime of Bashar al-Assad. So the Turks want Bashar to go - that remains the fundamental difference between the two sides. But remember that the Turks have other interests in Syria. There are minorities of Turkic origin who are now part of the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Recently, they've come under attack from the Russian air force. So it's an explosive cocktail of visions for where Syria is going between the Turks and the Russians.

MARTIN: Now, the two - these two leaders - President Erdogan and Russia's President Vladimir Putin - are both scheduled to be in Paris for the major climate change talks. Do you expect the two to talk about this there?

FOUKARA: Well, we have seen, you know, the idea of the two leaders meeting in Paris confirmed by both Ankara and Moscow. We haven't heard any confirmation from Moscow that yes, they - that Putin would meet Erdogan in Paris. We've heard a lot of, you know, war of words still coming out of both Ankara and Moscow, the Russians basically preparing, you know, new sanctions - economic sanctions - against Turkey. But ultimately, it would be really difficult for the two leaders to be in the same place under the circumstances and not talk about this in one way or another, particularly that now you have some of Turkey's allies putting pressure on the Turks to actually calm down a little bit, as they say.

MARTIN: That was Adberrahim Foukara. He's Al Jazeera Arabic's Washington, D.C., bureau chief here with us in our studios. Abderrahim, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FOUKARA: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noor Wazwaz