November 27, 2015
“Syria: Only More Trouble Ahead” was the title of a piece I wrote in early May. In a region characterized by abundance of gloom and scarcity of hope that much was easy to predict. I would readily admit, however, that the likelihood of a military incident between Turkey and Russia did not even cross my mind. Yes, Russia was supporting the regime, Turkish government the opposition and Ankara remained obsessed with Assad but Turkish-Russian relations seemed to be on track. All of a sudden the picture has changed. Because, what happened on November 24 was not an “accident” but an “incident”. President Putin is now venting anger over the shooting down of the Russian SU-24 warplane and the loss of a pilot. Moreover, he is directing far-reaching accusations against the Turkish government for having links to the Islamic State (ISIL). In response, Turkish leadership is saying that more than enough warnings had been issued for airspace violations. And, they are rejecting ISIL related accusations as slander. This much is clear: Turkey and Russia will stick to their diametrically opposite views on the incident.
Had Turkish-Russian relations been characterized by long-standing disputes, continuing tensions and antagonism, the path to this incident could have been explained more easily. But the two countries have enjoyed a stable, friendly and mutually rewarding relationship for years. Russia meets more than 50% of Turkey’s natural gas needs. Every year more than 4 million Russians come to Turkey, in particular to our Mediterranean coast for summer holidays. Turkish companies have undertaken contracts worth billions of dollars in Russia providing jobs for thousands of Turks. Bilateral trade volume is over 30 billion dollars. Russia is supposed to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Presidents Putin and Erdogan have always given the impression of maintaining a close personal relationship.
It is known that Russian military aircraft violated Turkish airspace a number of times following Russia’s intervention in Syria. Turkey protested. Russia sent a military delegation to Ankara and apologized. This was on October 15. But it seems that the cycle of violations, protests and warnings continued. Turkey had every right to protest under international law. If, however, the situation was deemed to be utterly intolerable, a phased approach could have been adopted rather than going directly from delivering protests/warnings to the shooting down of military aircraft: Turkey could have resorted to political/diplomatic escalation. Despite her UN bashing she could have taken the problem to the Security Council not after but before the incident. She could have gone to the ICAO under the pretext of ensuring the safety of civil aviation. In brief, she could have raised the stakes for continuing violations through diplomatic channels and exposed Russia. Such phased escalation would also have led to tension with Moscow, but this would have been “controlled tension” and damage control would have been a lot easier.
All of this is happening because of differences over the Syrian conflict. Had Moscow sided with Ankara to secure President Assad’s ouster the picture would have been totally different. With a bit of exaggeration, Russian military aircraft could even be flying out of Turkish bases to hit targets in Syria. The alternative to unity of purpose does not have to be self-defeating confrontation. Russia and Turkey need to cooperate to ensure peaceful political transition in Syria if for nothing else.
Nations aspire to economic development, higher standards of democracy, enhanced national security. They wish to move up to a higher league. They strive for hard and soft power. They do their best to formulate coherent national strategies to attain such goals. This, one may assume, is also true for Turkey. Unfortunately, for Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) the country’s number one national priority is the ouster of Assad. Everything else is of secondary importance. We are prepared to pay any price, undertake any sacrifice, burn any bridge to achieve that objective. And, this has blurred our vision. Turkey’s security, internal peace, foreign trade, Turkish-Russian cooperation, Turkey’s relations with other regional countries, the country’s international standing should matter much more to the government than what happens to President Assad.
Some Turkish analysts claim that with appropriate gestures this hapless episode may soon be put behind. It will not be that simple. The best one can hope for at this stage is preventing escalation. The damage this incident has done to Turkish-Russian relations would be lasting, raising further the cost of Ankara’s Assad obsession. Turkey’s leadership would be well-advised not to engage in rhetorical exchanges with Russia and allow the situation to cool. They also need to realize that in case of further escalation Turkey would be on her own. Our NATO allies also wish to see Assad go but none of them would be ready and willing to open second front with Russia adding to the already high burden of the Ukraine conflict.