Here are several reasons why Ankara decided to aggravate its hard-won positive relations with Moscow.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of the G-20 Summit in Antalya. Photo: AP
In the skies over Syria an event took place on Nov. 24 that is unprecedented in the history of relations between Moscow and Ankara – a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian bomber. It is not ruled out that this was a provocation and that it had been prepared in advance. Perhaps, they were waiting for a plane exactly at that spot.
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Turkish leaders quickly made contact with NATO and told their own public that it was a case of self-defense. On the border with Syria a team of Turkish journalists with professional equipment appeared as soon as the incident occurred to film the burning plane. Moreover, the first reports concerning the intentions of the Turkish political elite to shoot down Russian planes appeared roughly a month ago and was posted by the well-known Turkish blogger and political insider Fuat Avni.
Why did Turkey find it necessary to aggravate its hard-won positive relations with its northern neighbor? After all, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been actively involved in developing and expanding cooperation with Russia since 2003.
Thanks to his energetic work, our trade turnover with Turkey has grown by more than 10 times in just over a decade and a strategic partnership has been established between our countries. In August 2008, Ankara actually supported Moscow in its conflict with Tbilisi, as well as on a number of other political issues. However, the Arab Spring drove a wedge into the Russian-Turkish friendship.
Split over Syria
In late 2011, after a year of deliberation, Turkey finally decided to make an unequivocal bet on supporting revolutions in the Middle East. The logic behind this move was rather obvious. Erdogan had led his Justice and Development Party to power in 2002 on a wave of criticism of the corrupt secular army-oriented republican regime. The revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria also supported a similar platform.
The Turks thought that the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa would be replaced by moderate Islamic politicians, reflecting the aspirations of their people and infinitely friendly to Turkey. This would allow Turkey to implement a strategy that called for the integration of the post-Ottoman geopolitical space, as conceived by the current Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was previously the presidential adviser on foreign policy and the Turkish Foreign Minister.
Regimes friendly to Turkey did come to power in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, albeit, very briefly. Revolutions in the other countries of the region were seized by revolutionary movements and ended in civil war and the disintegration of previous governments. In spite of all this, official Ankara’s position on Syria has not changed with the passage of time.
Since the end of 2011, Turkey’s leaders have repeatedly made statements about the inevitable and imminent collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the transfer of power in Syria into the hands of democracy-oriented rebels. Now, seeing the clear failure of this strategy, this course should have been abandoned long ago.
However, Turkey, just like four years ago, maintains its support for Syrian rebels and is waiting for the imminent demise of the current Syrian leadership, despite the fact that it cannot achieve its goals in Syria. Additionally, the policy itself does not appear to be very effective and seemingly contradicts Turkey’s national interests.
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After all, the Turkish economy has been suffering from the broken ties with Syria and Egypt, as well as the need to feed more than two million Syrian refugees. Moreover, the bloodiest attacks in the history of Turkey took place in Ankara in October 2015.
Why Turkey supports the Arab Spring
What has caused the Turkish leadership to keep supporting the fading Arab Spring? Most likely, this is due to extremely large investments already made in the region and inflated hopes for the implementation of their plans.
In particular, this applies to a project conceived back in 2009 involving the transportation of Qatari gas from the Persian Gulf region directly through the territory of Jordan, Syria and Turkey to Europe, for which the creation of a friendly regime in Syria is necessary.
In addition, Ankara is still obsessed with plans to expand its zone of influence through the so-called policy of Neo-Ottomanism. Having lost Egypt, Libya and other countries in the sunset of the Arab Spring, the Turks are hoping to win at least in Syria, or at least in a part of Syria.
Turkey believes that the conquest of even small areas (for example, those populated by Turkic tribes, who are related to the Turks) would at least serve as some justification to the public for their long campaigns in support of the Arab revolutions.
The reason for the destruction of the Russian fighter jet could have been operations being conducted by the Russian Air Force near the Turkish border. Militants made up of Turkmen brigades, who are financed, armed and replenished by volunteers from Turkey were the ones that came under the fire of Russian planes. For these groups, the loss of direct communications with the Turkish border is equivalent to defeat.
However, the elimination of pockets of resistance on the Syrian-Turkish border became the principle goal for Russia and its ally, the Syrian Army. As long as the border regions are controlled by opposition militant groups, then weapons, ammunition, equipment and food will keep flowing into Syria, and volunteers and the wounded will cross back and forth over the border. The blocking of this supply route will lead to the severe depletion of resources for the factions fighting in the north of Syria and their eventual degradation.
How will Russia respond?
A symmetrical response from the Russian side is not even under consideration. Russia will not shoot down a Turkish aircraft in the skies over Syria based on the principle of “an eye for an eye.” Moscow only wants Ankara to admit that they were wrong in this incident, apologize, pay compensation for the downed plane and to the family of the killed pilot and no longer interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign Syria.
Above all else, Russia is irritated by statements made by Turkish leaders on Nov. 24, the day of the incident, about the legitimacy of such a move. By the way, Prime Minister Davutoglu assumed direct responsibility for giving this order.
Moscow can gradually introduce newer and newer sanctions against Turkey, which would be effective given that Russia is the country’s second most important economic partner. Of course, all direct communications between the leaders will be discontinued for the time being. The visits of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Istanbul on Nov. 25 and of Turkish President Erdogan to Kazan in December have already been cancelled.
The summit meeting of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council, scheduled for early 2016, is now in question. Turkish client groups in Syria will now receive special attention from Russian aircraft. The recommendation being given to Russian tourists is not to visit Turkey, agricultural product sales will cease between the two countries and negotiations on new contracts will be terminated.
All of this could inflict serious damage to the economy, which could lead to a wave of discontent from the Turkish public, who are already dissatisfied with the country’s sharply declining economic indicators.
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It should be remembered that a great potential for civil unrest remains in Turkey, which has been repeatedly demonstrated. Recent incidents include the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and unrest among the Kurdish community in 2015, who won an unprecedented percentage of votes during June elections, then was subject to significant pressure from the government. In the current environment, it will not take much effort to sway the Turkish boat.
Russia has made a point of not interfering in Turkey’s internal affairs; however, Russia is now prepared to cease all communications with Erdogan. This would be along the same lines as relations with former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili after the 2008 War and will likely toughen Russia’s stance towards Turkish positions.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.