Did Turkey send a deliberate message to Russia & was the US involved?

By Deniz Çifçi | ( Your Middle East ) | – –

Two Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russia warplane . . . This will most probably have serious consequences in both countries, on their relations, and will also influence regional balances, particularly on the Syrian crisis. 

Turkey justifies its actions by explaining that despite ten warnings within five minutes, the Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace. Russia rejected the accusation stating that their warplane was almost 1 km inside the Syrian territories. Airspace violation, if this was in fact the case, excuses Turkey’s reaction when considering its rules of engagement. Nonetheless, taking into account both countries’ close economic relations and Russia’s power both in the region and international relations, shooting down a Russian jet cannot be explained only by Turkey’s airspace violation or rules of engagement. Such a case holds deeper political connotations and will have certain severe consequences. 

Since the onset of the uprising in mid 2011, both Turkey and Russia have been intensively involved in the Syrian crisis, taking opposing roles. Previous to this, Turkey had a close co-operation with Bashar al-Assad, which developed as Turkey softened its water policy on the condition that PKK activities would be banned in Syria. However, with the outset of the Syrian crisis Turkey was one of the first and main countries that supported the Syrian opposition. 

For instance, in all its capacity, Turkey has started to back a number of Syrian opposition groups, including extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. During the conflict between ISIS and the Kurds, Turkey shut their eyes to ISIS activities, including the crossing of recruiters and logistical supplies across the border. Although this strongly damaged Turkey’s image in international relations, for Turkey it most probably would be worth it if Bashar al-Assad would be ousted and the Kurds lose their territorial control. 

Russia, on the other hand, regards continuance of the Bashar al-Assad regime as a necessity for its political and military interests within the region. Since the beginning of the crisis Russia has therefore provided political, logistical, intelligence and military support to the Syrian government. This split in Turkey and Russia’s Syrian policy has pushed both countries against each other and further intensified Russia’s airstrikes against ISIS as well as some moderate oppositional groups. Siding with the US, Turkey wanted Russia to attack only ISIS and not Syrian oppositional groups.


Turkey further amounted its warnings over Russia’s airstrikes on Bayirbucak Turkmen groups (Turkish-speaking ethnic group), which were also involved in the Syrian opposition. Turkmen groups are Turkey’s main allies in the Syrian opposition. Although Turkey didn’t show much interest toward these groups when they were oppressed by Hafez al-Assad, it closely associated itself with them as the situation in Syria began to escalate, providing them with all types of support including weapons. The Turkmen groups have relatively low numbers and are quite dispersed, however Turkey still regards them as an actor in the Syrian opposition. Due to a common ethnicity Turkmen groups also provide conditions for Turkey intervening in the region particularly Kurdish areas. 

Although the above-noted dynamics are crucial, Turkmen groups’ geographical location and their challenge to the Kurds territorial establishment are most significant to Turkey. Most of the Turkmens reside in the Kurdish territories with a high concentration in the Jarablus region, which is currently under ISIS control and cuts the geographic connection between the two Kurdish cantons, Kobani and Afrin.

“Turkmen groups are Turkey’s main allies in the Syrian opposition”

Turkey deems the formation of a Kurdish line in Northern Syria as a threat to its security and wants to prevent the formation of a Kurdish autonomy or corridor (from Qamishli to Afrin) at all costs. For that reason, Ankara wants to place Turkmen and some Syrian opposition groups in the Jarablus region with the aim of wiping out ISIS from the region. This will prevent the two Kurdish cantons – Afrin and Kobani – from merging and as a result halting the creation of a Kurdish line. 

In contrast to Turkey’s policies, Russia has developed warm relations with the Kurds, mostly politically but also by endorsing the Kurds’ struggle against ISIS in the media. It can be argued that it was Russia that announced the Kurds’ Kobani resistance to the world. Moreover, unlike Turkey, Russia did not show a strong opposition to a Kurdish Corridor formation. It even considered it as a step for the creation of a democratic Syria and a means for eliminating extremist groups. It seems that Russia would also allow the Kurdish Democratic Union Party – which is a party Turkey regards as a PKK-affiliated group – to set up their office in Russia. Signalling Russian recognition of the PYD. 

Considering all of the mentioned factors together, it can be debated that Turkey’s harsh opposition to the Assad regime, severe challenge to the establishment of a Kurdish Corridor, and its close association with Turkmen groups strongly influenced and shaped its Russia policy in Syria. The incident therefore could be regarded as a message to Russia. However, considering Russia’s regional and international power, Turkey’s stance raises another question: did the US also want to send a message to Russia through Turkey? The US has also criticized Russia’s airstrike against Syrian moderate opposition groups and has demanded it to confine its attack only to ISIS. 

On the other hand, due to Turkey’s NATO membership a military reaction may not come from Russia, but relations between both parties will definitely be strained. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, in reaction to the downing of its warplane claimed that Russia was “stabbed in the back.”  Putin also accused Turkey of co-operating with ISIS: “The loss of our aircraft comes in the context of our fight against terrorism. But today’s loss was a blow in the back by the accomplices of terrorists”. He added that Turkey “is one of the main sources of funding for the terror group.” These are no doubt serious claims, and if Russia is able to prove them Turkey will face harsh consequences in international law.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries will most likely turn tense. For instance, Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has cancelled his planned visit to Turkey today and has warned Russian tourists in Turkey. Russia could also potentially intensify its attacks on certain Turkey affiliated groups in Syria, as well as developing relations with the Kurds, which of course will irritate Turkey. 

In addition to all of these factors and consequences, economic relations between the two can also be negatively influenced. Russia is Turkey’s largest energy supplier, particularly of natural gas. As a result of today’s incident, it is likely that Russia will restrict its supplies to Turkey, which in the long run will greatly damage the Turkish economy.

Dr. Deniz Çifçi is a Middle East analyst at the Centre for Turkey Studies in London.

Reprinted with kind permission from Your Middle East


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Ukraine Today: “Russia-Turkey War of Words: Erdogan warns Russia not to ‘play with fire’”

Posted in Russia,Turkey | 6 Responses | Print |

6 Responses

  1. I’m 8000 miles away and I’ve always been 8000 miles away, however I’ve read a lot of history.

    The historical empires of ethnic Turks, culminating in the Ottoman empire, were never recorded as being particularly focused on, or bothered by, speakers of the Kurdish language. Militarily, they just rolled over all of their neighbors in their times of success. Also, it’s important to remember that in history there were many, many small language-groups, local societies unconnected with any others, Central Europe alone had over 600 language groups as recently as the 1400’s and 1500’s, who were later gradually absorbed into Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, and so on. While I don’t know any specifics about Anatolia, I suspect that today’s Turks are almost certainly, and today’s Kurds are probably highly likely to be, the results of a similar process.

    The modern Turkish state, in the last 40 years, has apparently become ultra-focused on opposing all possibilities any Kurdish success, anywhere, out of the fear of an eventual Kurdish seccession from Turkey. Yet like many other imperial-political-ethnic-conflict type situations around our world, it does seem that the intensity of that fear, and the steps taken to ward it off, become the primary cause of the eventual evolution/revolution.

  2. And the point that I wanted to get to in my previous comment, was that both sides (but especially Turkey) have so much more to gain by eventually cooperating in a global culture of “we’ve all just got to get along, so we can solve serious problems that threaten us all.”

    In addition to the challenges of possibly quite literally suffocating in our own waste products on a swiftly-warming planet, I do count the modern nation-state system that allows and excuses authoritarian and totalitarian nation-state governments (of all backgrounds and types) to exist and waste resources and lives as a serious problem that threatens us all.

    Obviously such ideals won’t be easy or quick to achieve, hopefully we can at least get a start on before widespread environmental disasters thrust the necessity of cooperation between “ordained enemies” such as the Turks and the Kurds, or between American whites and American non-whites, ruthlessly in front of our faces.

  3. I have been reading a lot on this matter and to date I cannot see how shooting down a Russian fighter jet can in any way help Turkey or advance its interests. I understand all the arguments that Turkey was unhappy with Russia’s military actions and their support for Assad and wanted to send a strong message to Russia but I can’t see how this could help the Turkish cause. Russia can do great damage to the Turkish economy and its international image. Russia has just deployed their most advance air defense systems which in effect creates a no fly zone for Turkey in Syria. All the things Turkey didn’t want attacked in Syria are going to be hit all the harder now and Russia will have very little interest in considering Turkey’s interest when a political settlement for Syria is discussed. From my limited perspective Turkey just made their position in Syria considerably worse.

    It would have made more sense to me if Turkey had aggressively joined the anti-ISIS coalition and deployed ground troops. They could have deployed bases and command centers in areas they didn’t want Russia to attack because Russia would not risk attacking Turkish troops and If ,as is alleged, that Turkey is working with ISIS on some level they could then attack ISIS centers after warning ISIS before hand. Thus they would get credit for attacking ISIS while not actually doing them any harm and they could disguise the oil smuggling as Turkish military supply routes. Plus with a military force on the ground everyone would have to consider the Turkish position on a political solution for Syria.

    While I can see a case being made that shooting down the Russian bomber advances US interests I cannot see how it helps Turkey. It seems to have made their lives considerably more difficult.

    • Turkey’s ruled by its own chickenhawks, it’s not especially opposed to ISIS and from kidnappings in Iraq to bombings in Suruc and Ankara, ISIS hasn’t been bashful about sending messages.
      On the other hand, after the shootdown the MHP leader pledged his undying manly love to Erdogan as long as he does things like that. So, yeah, I can see Bahceli actually giving Tayyip his new constitution just because he’s stupid like that.

    • It is my theory of politics that when you have a government controlled by one man or one party/movement, those in control are more likely to identify the national interest as being the same as their own, personal interest. I don’t think Russia has been well served by its policies in the Ukraine, either, but Putin seems intent on trying to regain past glory, so he chooses policies that fill that goal rather than a long term view of what is in the national interest of Russia. Erdogan is more firmly in control since the recent election than before, so I think that leads to more adventurism in foreign policy, and more poor choices in foreign policy.

  4. Several points:

    It is important to note that Turkey took the position that those being bombed by the downed Russian jet were not ISIS but rather ethnic Turkmen that Erdogan considers brethren.

    The missile strike on the Russian jet that was shot down did not kill either the pilot or co-pilot, but the pilot was killed later by Syrian rebels while the co-pilot hid and was later led to safety.

    Also, the article above suggests Turkish support for the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra; I am not aware of any credible information that the Turkish government has given active support to this group – which the U.S. State Department has designated as a foreign terror organization.

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