Turkey’s downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter bomber is already looking like a questionable act of self-defence. The small spur of land south of Aşağıpulluyazı village that Turkey accuses Russia of overflying is so negligible as to undermine Turkey’s legitimacy for this kind of provocative act. It even lends the incident a feeling of premeditation.
In recent days, Turkey’s leadership had expressed displeasure at Russia’s continued bombing of Bayirbucak Turkmen fighters (ethnic Turks living inside Syria) and now it begins to look like they had clearly decided to do something to mark that displeasure. That Turkish forces fired on a jet that briefly strayed into Turkish airspace makes the situation look badly judged but the error is compounded by the news that the two Russian pilots where shot by the Turkmen forces as they parachuted to the ground. It’s news that won’t receive much support in the West where such stories play into the larger moral argument about our engagement with Syria.
Turkey might be a member of NATO yet it’s Russia today claiming international legitimacy. They are sure to find people in and outside Western governments willing to agree with their assessment. Russia has cleverly positioned itself as a power fighting the threat of ISIS. Just days ago photographs emerged of bombs hanging from beneath Russian aircraft. On the bombs, written in Russian, was ‘For Paris’. It explains Putin’s calculated words today about Turkey’s actions being ‘a stab in the back’.
In the larger context, the situation only benefits Russia. Putin can now leverage the stresses that have recently developed between NATO nations and Turkey. Read his words carefully and notice how he seeks to exploit the now evident fault line:
Instead of immediately getting in contact with us, as far as we know, the Turkish side immediately turned to their partners from Nato to discuss this incident, as if we shot down their plane and not they ours.
From a Western point of view, Turkey’s actions are unwelcome. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has only just been returned to power but the conservative is a deeply divisive figure. Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East is being quietly questioned with Western intelligence believing that there has been continued cooperation between the ISIS leadership and Turkish officials. In a choice between trusting Erdoğan or Putin, it’s not entirely sure that Western leaders wouldn’t choose Putin who rarely overplays his hand. NATO will do nothing to isolate Turkey (the alliance is older than current presidency) but it reminds us that there is more at stake than the future of Syria.
Turkey is a nation of two faces. Istanbul spans the Bosporus, one side sitting in Europe and the other in Asia. Turkey is also the only Muslim nation inside NATO and that alone means that it is politically symbolic. Yet not all its citizens see themselves as European or are entirely opposed to ISIS. At the recent football match between Turkey and Greece, a sizable portion of the crowd were heard chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the minute’s silence held for victims of the Paris attacks. This highlights the underlying contradictions about the fight in Syria. Even as many Western nations are supporting the Kurds fighting against Assad forces, Turkish troops have been fighting those very same Kurds.
Publicly, there will be regrets and statements about the legitimacy of today’s events. In the background, there will less sympathy for Turkey whose actions ensured that this was in geopolitical terms a good day for Putin and a bad day for NATO.