It's absolutely impossible to understand why the Turkish government would engage in the suicidal strategy of downing a Russian Su-24 over Syrian territory -- technically a NATO declaration of war on Russia -- without putting in context the Turkish power play in northern Syria.
President Vladmir Putin said the downing of the Russian fighter jet was a "stab in the back." So let's see how facts on the ground allowed it to happen.
Ankara uses, finances, and weaponizes a basket case of extremist outfits across northern Syria, and needs by all means to keep supply line corridors from southern Turkey open for them; after all they need to conquer Aleppo, which would open the way for Ankara's Holy Grail: regime change in Damascus.
At the same time Ankara is terrified of the YPG -- the Syrian Kurd People's Protection Units -- a sister organization of the leftist PKK. These must be contained at all costs.
So the Islamic State group -- against which the United Nations has declared war -- is a mere detail in the overall Ankara strategy, which is essentially to fight, contain or even bomb Kurds; support all manner of Takfiris and Salafi-jihadis, including the Islamic State group; and get regime change in Damascus.
Unsurprisingly, the YPG Syrian Kurds are vastly demonized in Turkey, accused of at least trying to ethnic cleanse Arab and Turkmen villages in northern Syria.
Yet, what the Syrian Kurds are attempting -- and to Ankara's alarm, somewhat supported by the U.S. - is to link what are for the moment three patches of Kurdish land in northern Syria.
A look at an imperfect Turkish map at least reveals how two of these patches of land (in yellow) are already linked, to the northeast. To accomplish that, the Syrian Kurds, helped by the PKK, defeated The Islamic State group in Kobani and environs. To get to the third patch of land, they need to get to Afryn. Yet on the way (in blue) there is a collection of Turkmen villages north of Aleppo.
The strategic importance of these Turkmen lands cannot be emphasized enough. It's exactly in this area, reaching as much as 35 km inland, that Ankara wants to install its so-called "safe zone," which will be in fact a no-fly zone, in Syrian territory, ostensibly to house Syrian refugees, and with everything paid by the EU, which has already unblocked 3 billion euros, starting Jan. 1, via the European Commission (EC).
The now insurmountable obstacle for Turkey to get its no-fly zone is, predictably, Russia.
Using the Turkmen
Who are the Turkmen? Here we need to plunge back into ancient Silk Road history. There are roughly 200,000 Turkmen living in northern Syria. They are descendants of Turkmen tribals who moved into Anatolia in the 11th century.
Turkmen villages also sprout north of Idlib province, west of Aleppo, as well as north of Latakia province, west of Idlib. And it's here where we find a rarely discussed bunch: a gaggle of Turkmen militias.