In The Media

Turks only hurt themselves by shooting down Russian plane

by Patrick Martin (feat. George Petrolekas)

The Globe and Mail
December 3, 2015

Russia and Turkey have been enemies for more than 500 years and, during that time, they’ve fought 17 wars. Russia won them all.

Their latest conflict involving the shooting down of a Russian bomber that strayed over the Turkish border from Syria will end no differently. Indeed, says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Turkey has lost this battle already.

Since the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011, Turkey and Russia have backed opposing sides. Turkey’s goal was to see the regime of Bashar al-Assad defeated and rebel Islamist parties, friendly to Turkey, take over. Russia, on the other hand, wanted to see the Assad regime triumph and the Islamists, long-standing enemies of Russia, sent packing.

In the past few weeks, since Russian forces entered the fighting, and especially since Nov. 13 when people loyal to the Islamic State staged deadly attacks on Paris, Turkey has seen its hopes dashed. Not only has the Assad regime enjoyed a resurgence thanks to Russia’s intervention, but Western nations have become united with Russia in wanting to see the destruction of IS, the rebel force Turkey figured to be the Syrian rulers’ most effective enemy.

If Ankara thought the Nov. 24 downing of the Russian SU-24 was going to change anything, it was badly mistaken.

“This was clearly an ambush,” said George Petrolekas, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. The Turkish planes had been lying in wait for a Russian fighter to cross the border even for a few seconds, he noted.

“I think Turkey had hoped to drive a wedge between the NATO countries and Russia,” he explained, in order to break up the new coalition against the Islamic State that had come together in the wake of the Paris attacks. Turkey immediately called for NATO’s protection.

But Turkey’s action forced Russia to go on the offensive, politically.

Russian President Vladimir Putin renewed his call for a united “powerful fist” made up of all European and North American forces with which to smash the Islamic State and the rest of the terrorists. And he began to attack Turkey in his statements, condemning the country under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for colluding with the IS.

He accused Turkey of purchasing illicit oil from Islamic State-controlled wells in Syria and Iraq, thereby helping fund the very terrorist group that European and other countries are determined to destroy.

“Allah must have punished Turkey’s ruling clique by depriving it of sense and reason,” Mr. Putin said in a major televised speech in Russia Thursday.

Turkey is suspected of having helped the Islamic State in other ways as well: Through Turkey’s southern border have passed enormous quantities of weapons and thousands of foreign jihadi fighters destined for Islamic State forces and other rebels battling the Assad regime.

As well, Turkey has been shelling some of the Kurdish forces who have been fighting strongest against IS forces in northern Syria. (Ankara claims it is only hitting at outlawed members of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who are helping the Syrian Kurdish fighters.)

“Russia has forced the NATO countries to confront this reality and view Turkey more closely,” said Mr. Petrolekas, who had worked closely with NATO during his career as a staff officer in the Canadian Army.

As a result, European countries have insisted that Turkey commit itself to the anti-IS effort. And Ankara, since it now needs the protection of NATO, has had no choice but to comply.

Whereas only a few months ago, Turkey was denying NATO forces the use of Turkish bases from which to attack IS positions in Syria, now it is permitting the newly deployed British fighter and German reconnaissance jets to operate from Turkish bases.

Turkey is clinging to what’s left of its once-vaunted ambitions for Syria.

“Turkey’s Syria policy now aims to secure Ankara a seat at the table when negotiations are held for Syria’s future,” said Mr. Cagaptay. And even this can only happen “if Turkish-backed rebels continue to hold on to strategic zones in northwestern Syria.”

Russia’s heaviest bombardments are now being focused on those very rebels, many of them Turkmen fighters, trying to make sure that Turkey doesn’t even achieve that.

Mr. Putin must be pleased with himself. His timely intervention appears to have saved the Assad regime, at least for now, and his deft handling of the SU-24 episode may guarantee a united front against the Islamic State, thousands of whose members are jihadis from the volatile Russian districts of Chechnya and Dagestan.

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