Turkey

Turkey’s provocation

Print edition : December 25, 2015

An image grab made from a video shows a burning Russian fighter jet coming down after being shot down near the Turkish-Syrian border, in Hatay on November 24. Photo: AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, on November 16. Photo: Anadolu Agency/AP

Turkey downs a Russian fighter plane for airspace violation, but Russia says it was a premeditated act of provocation as its intervention in Syria had upset Turkish plans to capture more territories along its long border with Syria.

EVEN as the international community was making belated attempts to forge a coalition to fight the Islamic State (I.S.), a Russian Su-24 bomber on an anti-terror mission was brought down by the Turkish air force on November 24. Russia insisted that its fighter plane did not deviate from its flight path and was flying over Syrian airspace. The plane’s debris was well inside Syrian territory. Even if the plane had briefly entered Turkish airspace as claimed by Ankara, the normal practice is to issue a warning and let the plane proceed. The Russian military said a Turkish F-16 fighter slammed a missile into the Su-24 bomber without a warning.

One of the two pilots who ejected from the plane was shot as he was parachuting to safety. A so-called “moderate” group of opposition fighters belonging to the Turkmen minority in Syria, propped up by Turkey but aligned with the I.S., claimed credit for his killing. The other pilot, Konstantin Murakhtin, was rescued under dramatic circumstances but one Russian soldier got killed in the exercise. Murakhtin said the Turkish authorities did not issue a warning before shooting and that the plane did not violate Turkish airspace. Russia has produced evidence to back up its claims. Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the incident “as a stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists” and warned that there would be “severe consequences” for its perpetrators. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was due in Ankara for talks the day after the shooting down of the plane, cancelled his visit.

The Recep Tayyip Erdogan government seems to have taken the decision to shoot down the Su-24 in a cool and calculated way. Rattled by the prospects of Russia’s military intervention derailing its long gestating game plan for regime change in Syria, Turkey probably made one last desperate attempt to turn the tide in its favour. Syrian forces, with Russian help, are near the Turkish border and on the verge of securing the area used for transporting arms and fighters into their country. Turkey was using its Turkmen proxies to capture more territory along the border. Turkey had plans to establish a “safe zone” and then a “no-fly zone” along the border with Syria with the backing of the United States. With Russia’s entry into Syria, both these goals have become unrealisable.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to claim credit for the November 24 incident. He told the media that he had given orders to the Turkish Air Force to shoot down any plane violating the country’s airspace following tensions with Russia on alleged violations of the Turkish airspace in October. Stories were planted in the pro-government Turkish media about Russian planes specifically targeting the Turkmen-controlled areas along Syria’s border with Turkey. The right-wing nationalist government in Ankara feels that it is duty-bound to defend the Turkmen groups in other countries who share a close ethnic and linguistic affinity with Turks.

In effect, Turkey gave its military the green signal to shoot down Russian and Syrian planes engaged in anti-terror activities along the long Turkey-Syria border. In the past, Turkey had turned a blind eye to major infringements of its airspace. It allowed Israeli airplanes to violate its airspace while going on bombing missions to Syria. The air forces of Turkey and Greece have been violating each other’s airspace for years.

Initially there were absolutely no expressions of regret from Turkey for the plane downing incident. Erdogan was more intent on justifying the precipitate act of his government. He and his Prime Minister stated that attacking the Turkmen-dominated terror group was almost akin to attacking Turkey. “No one can legitimise attacks on Turkmen in Syria using the pretext of fighting the Islamic state,” Davutoglu said.

Lavrov said the incident looked like a “pre-planned provocation”. He said even if Turkey’s contention was right and the plane had briefly intruded into its airspace, it did not warrant the shooting down of the plane. He recalled Erdogan’s statement in 2012 after a Turkish jet was shot down over Syrian territory. Erdogan had said at the time that a brief incursion did not warrant an attack. “Even if the plane was in their airspace for a few seconds, that is no excuse to attack,” he had said.

Grand anti-I.S. coalition

With the downing of the Russian aircraft, Turkey has signalled that it opposes the grand anti-I.S. coalition that Russia and France want to assemble. The bombing of the Russian plane over the Sinai and the terrorist attack in Paris have united the two countries.

In the wake of the Paris attack, French President Francois Hollande called for a “grand, unified” fight against the I.S. But Turkey seems to have the support of the U.S. for the time being as it works overtime to thwart attempts to form an international coalition to take on the I.S. U.S. President Barack Obama said Turkey had the right to defend itself. “Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and airspace,” he said at a joint press conference he addressed during Hollande’s visit to Washington. He suggested that such incidents could have been avoided had Russia directed its attacks solely on the I.S.

Obama was dismissive of Russia’s role in the Syrian crisis saying that while the U.S. led a coalition of 65 countries, Russia has only Iran as its partner. He did not mention that in Iraq, it is the U.S. that is partnering Iran in the fight against the I.S. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), endorsed Turkey’s aggressive action. He said NATO was in solidarity with Turkey and “support[s] the territorial integrity of our ally”. After bringing down the Russian plane, Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO demanding action against Russia. Many European leaders do not trust Erdogan but want to keep him in good humour. The European Union (E.U.) is giving Turkey 3.4 billion euros in exchange for enforcing tighter border controls and stopping the flow of refugees to Europe.

Turkey is among the founding members of NATO despite its geographical location in the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts, far away from the Atlantic Ocean. For its more than six decades of loyalty to the West, Turkey now wants the West to support its terrorist proxies in Syria and its pipe dream of effecting regime change in Damascus.

Under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, it is incumbent on member states to rush to the defence of a fellow member. However, there are signs that the U.S. is no longer willing to look the other way at the tacit alliance between the Turkish state and the jehadi groups. Washington has told Ankara to seal a 100-kilometre stretch of its border with Syria, which was used as a supply route by the I.S. Half of the border is under the control of Syrian Kurdish fighters backed by the U.S. The Syrian Kurds are allies of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The Turkish state is currently waging a war against the PKK and the Syrian Kurds.

Ahead of Putin-Hollande meeting

At a joint press conference with Hollande in Moscow in the last week of November, Putin said Russia was ready to cooperate with the military coalition led by the U.S. but cautioned that “incidents like the destruction of our aircraft and the killings of our servicemen” are unacceptable. The Russian plane was shot down on the eve of the scheduled meeting of Hollande and Putin. Putin said the U.S. was in a way responsible for the incident. Moscow had, in good faith, relayed information of the flight path of the plane to the U.S. military authorities so as to coordinate better attacks against terrorists and avoid accidental mid-air encounters. The U.S., according to Russia, tipped off Turkey about the plane’s flight path.

After his talks with Putin, Hollande stated that the two countries had agreed to fight terrorism jointly. “What we agreed, and this is important, is to strike only terrorists and Daesh [the I.S.] and to not strike forces that are fighting terrorism. We will exchange information of whom to hit and whom not to hit,” he said. As most of the fighting inside Syria is being done by forces which the West has categorised as “terrorist”, there is not much ground for confusion.

Putin, meanwhile, has been repeatedly emphasising that there is no question of agreeing to the Obama administration’s demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. The Russian position has been consistent that only Syrians can decide the fate of their President.

France and Russia have agreed to single out the lucrative oil trade of the I.S. for attack. The convoys of oil-laden trucks from Syrian oil fields under the control of the I.S. will no longer be allowed to pass through safely to buyers in Turkey and northern Iraq.

Russia retaliates

Russia has retaliated against Turkey on various fronts despite Erdogan offering an apology of sorts at the end of November for the downing of the Su-24. He expressed “sadness” over the incident, saying he wished it had not happened. His request for a meeting with Putin was rebuffed. Putin has even refused to take his calls.

“The circumstances are unprecedented. The gauntlet thrown down to Russia is unprecedented. So, naturally the reaction is in line with the threat,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman.

Military cooperation between Russia and Turkey has been severed and the military hotline between the two countries disconnected. Russia has now deployed advanced S-400 Triumph long-distance mobile air defence systems in Syria to further enhance its firepower.

Russia has issued a decree calling on Russian tour companies to stop selling holiday packages for Turkey and ordered the cancellation of all charter flights to the country with immediate effect.

Russians were the second biggest group of tourists after the Germans and were a large source of revenue for the Turkish exchequer. Russia has also scrapped visa-free travel for Turkish nationals. Russian officials are talking about cancelling the multi-billion dollar gas pipeline project that was announced with much fanfare by the two countries earlier in the year. Russia is also Turkey’s biggest supplier of natural gas and its second biggest trading partner.

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