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.

ForParisTurkey 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.

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3 Comments on "The stab in the back: Turkey gives Putin the moral high ground"

  1. Shooting a jet down as it leaves your airspace, a clumsy aggressive act, exactly what we have come to expect from Mr Erdogan. Having lived in Turkey you are right that it is a nation of two parts but that is true politically and demographically also. The coastal west is wealthy, educated and very much Muslim-lite (a lot of people drink, a good portion don’t observe ramadan properly), it is also solidly anti Erdogan, the inland areas are poor, backward and religious and form the backbone of Erdogans support. It was openly known when I lived there that ISIL was running recruitment centres in the country, that the southern provinces were buying oil from ISIL and that the authorities were not only turning a blind eye to foreign fighter using the country as a transit route to Syria but was also funnelling arms from the Gulf into Syria too, there is no doubt in my mind that Turkey is currently a major part of the problem. I believe that this act will backfire badly on Erdogan, part of Turkeys ‘hand’ is that while they are a member of NATO and ally of the USA they they periodically pretend to flirt with Russia for instance taking the opportunity to step into the shoes of EU suppliers when the sanctions came into place. In short they get away with murder because the US fears them falling under Russias influence. Having committed this act they have weakened that hand and hopefully will now come under intense pressure from ‘the west’ to stop backing ISIL.
    I would also just like to make a comment on the football, I cannot hear Allahu Akbar being chanted in the clip, I can hear booing and I can also hear Sehitler Olmez, Vatan Bolunmez which translates to Martyrs they do not die, they are immortal, homeland (our land) is indivisible which is also always chanted after terrorist attacks by the PKK. Whether it was wise to do it during an international game is open to question but it was not the purposeful act of disrespect that it has been painted out to be by western media outlets.

    • Thanks Rob. Your insight is useful and backs up my feelings about this whole sorry incident. I noticed that Lavrov today claims it was a planned provocation, which is how it felt yesterday and still feels. I thought I also saw something about the USA admitting the plane never left Syria but I might be mistaken. If Erdogan’s support is based in poorer, perhaps more nationalist areas of Turkey, then the shooting becomes more obviously a statement to that base. Noticed today that there’s been very little coming out of NATO, which perhaps speaks volumes.

      The chanting: I read elsewhere an explanation about the chanting and people better placed than me said it was ‘Allahu Akbar’. However, I stand corrected if that’s not what it was. However, chanting through a minute’s silence is still pretty despicable.

  2. Hello, I should point out that the article was written by David Waywell, and also that I no longer work at Sky News. Tim Marshall.

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