Turkey and Syria will not go to war because of a downed Turkish warplane, but the incident will put new pressure on the Assad regime to relinquish authority, while Turkey’s credibility as a rising regional power will also be scrutinized.
Since the Syrians brought down the Turkish reconnaissance flight on Friday, the ruling AKP government has reacted with moderation. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “decisively take the necessary steps” once the incident is “fully brought to light.”
On Sunday (June 24), Turkey called a meeting of NATO member states for this Tuesday to discuss possible next steps. Erdogan also met with the leaders of three opposition parties — CHP, MHP and BDP, who have representation at the Turkish Parliament — to brief them on the incident.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the chief opposition party, the CHP, said after the meeting that while the opposition appreciates the government’s outreach, they did not hear anything new or different from what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu shared with the public earlier in the day during an interview on the state television.
Forty-eight hours after the downed plane took off from the Malatya Erhac airbase, Davutoglu announced that Syrians shot the Turkish jet in “international waters,” 13 nautical miles off the coast of Syria, "without any warning.” The foreign minister admitted that the Turkish warplane violated Syrian airspace briefly, but said it had no “covert mission related to Syria,” and the only mission it had was to “carry out a training flight to test Turkey’s radar capabilities.”
Whether or not Davutoglu’s statements answered all questions related to the incident, it is clear that Syria did not have to fire on the Turkish jet and that this is not the first time Turkey has lost citizens to its neighbors’ actions.
While the whole world knows that Israeli soldiers killed nine Turks in a flotilla in international waters off the coast of Gaza in May 2010, few people know about the more than 40 Turkish citizens killed by Iranian soldiers along the Turkey-Iran border in the past five years. Turkish President Abdullah Gul first raised the matter during a state visit to Tehran in February 2011, but Turkey asked for neither an apology nor compensation for the victims’ families.
According to Turkish Human Rights Association records, the Turks were killed at the border, inside Turkey near the border or a few kilometers into the Iranian territory. Many of the victims were smuggling gasoline.
“We think [the Turkish state’s] silence is about ethnic nationalism. It’s now important for Turkey to cooperate with Iran against the PKK, [a Kurdish separatist terrorist organization],” Mehmet Ali Sen of the Human Rights Association Van branch told Al-Monitor. “If these incidents were to happen at Turkey’s borders with Greece or Bulgaria, there would be at the least a protest note given to these countries. But the people there have sympathy toward the PKK — and this is the price they pay.”
The Erdogan administration initially warmed its relationships with Iran and Syria after the US invaded Iraq in 2003 to prevent Kurdish elements from taking advantage of the conflict. Under a policy of “no problems with neighbors," Turkey tried to be on the side of everyone. But the policy has broken down on account of the brutal Syrian crackdown on largely Sunni Muslim rebels.
Although the first responsibility of any government is to protect its citizens, the AKP government made a decision to choose silence over defending its Kurdish citizens at the border with Iran in order to maintain stability in its relationship with Tehran. Those calculations, however, are undercutting Turkish credibility as the number of incidents rises.
The Syrian regime is in a fight for survival. It regards all its military personnel and civilians defecting and escaping the country as traitors, and targets their host countries as enemies. Not long ago, Erdogan tried to lessen Bashar al-Assad’s isolation and help him move into the international arena. But Syrian actions are threatening to expand its civil war into Turkish territory.
On April 9, Syrian forces fired on Syrian rebels and killed at least one person in a refugee camp at Kilis in Turkey. Erdogan then threatened to invoke NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one member country is an attack on all. However, Erdogan did not press for NATO intervention at the time and it is unclear whether he will request such intervention when NATO meets in Brussels on Tuesday (June 26). His foreign minister instead invoked Article 4, which asks only for consultation, not intervention. NATO certainly does not seem eager to get involved, although the US is providing logistical support for Arab arms deliveries to the rebels.
“Why did we come to the brink of a war with Syria?” asked Kilicdaroglu. “Why do we intervene in the domestic affairs of Syria?”
While the AKP government now calls for regime change in Damascus, the contrast between Erdogan’s rhetoric and actions suggests that he is caught between his desire to see Assad’s ouster and his responsibility to protect the lives of all Turkish citizens.
Tulin Daloglu is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst based in Ankara, Turkey.