Many headlines of Turkish newspapers loyal to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have described Syria’s shooting down of the Turkish F-4 fighter jet as “playing with fire,” warning that the incident has serious implications for relations between the two countries and in the region.
Amid the clamor on the part of some Turkish newspapers and certain statements made by senior AKP officials, The party’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to respond “firmly.” Vice President Omar Celik described the incident as an “aggression,” saying that relations between the two countries have entered a “new phase.” Thus, it can be concluded that Turkish rhetoric toward Syria following the incident will not go beyond media hype.
In this context, we note the following facts, indications and conclusions:
1. It has been proven that the Turkish jet violated Syrian airspace over territorial waters — Turkish President Abdullah Gul has admitted this. Regardless of the justification for the violation, the tense atmosphere between Syria and Turkey leaves no room for hesitation in dealing with such cases. At the height of the Turkish-Syrian honeymoon, Israeli jets used Turkish airspace to strike Syria’s Deir al-Zour facilities. On their way back, the jets emptied some fuel tanks over Turkish territory. Therefore, it is only normal for Syria to deal firmly with threats against it. This is especially true since Turkey is one of the most threatening players for the Syrian regime, as it harbors the leadership and elements of the “Free Syrian Army” and the Syrian political opposition.
We will not go so far as to say that Damascus carried out a “vengeful” act against Turkey for its support of armed groups inside Syria. But this does not settle questions about what the Turkish jets were doing in Syrian airspace. The responsibility ultimately rests with the Turkish government, which, given the high level of tension with Syria, should have exercised the highest degree of precaution in order to avoid any contact with Damascus, and not make any mistakes that could cost it dearly.
2. Gul’s admission that Turkey had violated Syrian airspace is an important indicator that Turkey will not respond, because it lacks a legal standing. There are actually several indicators that Turkey will not respond. A “high-level” official gave a statement to Milliyet newspaper yesterday [June 24] saying “we will not go to war, but the shooting down of a plane belonging to another state is a serious violation.” Also, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot take the unilateral step of declaring war on Syria, which the Turks fear even more than other countries do.
Erdogan is well aware that his policies and authority will be at stake if he embarks alone on any military or non-military venture in Syria. In his meeting with opposition leaders yesterday, he may have wanted to obtain cover for going to war or simply been trying to maintain calm. He might also be seeking to involve other Turkish political forces in any new venture in Syria. But this is unlikely, given that the leaders of all Turkish political parties are opposed to his Syrian policy, including the leader of the Republican People's Party Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party Devlet Bahtcla and, of course, the Kurds. Now that it has been proven that the Turkish jet violated Syrian airspace, it highly unlikely that these leaders will back Erdogan.
Even if there had been no violation of Turkish airspace, the leaders of the opposition would be unwilling to whitewash Erdogan’s position on Syria. The Turkish prime minister did not miss a chance to exhaust both his opponents at home and his enemies abroad. The leaders of the Turkish opposition understand that Erdogan is unable to take direct action against Syria, and that Turkish diplomats made mistakes in their approach to the crisis in Syria. Syria is after all a foreign country, no matter how much Ankara ties the potential effects of events there to the domestic scene in Turkey. The Syrian crisis would not affect Ankara, had Turkey not aligned itself and taken sides in the crisis. If it had sought distance and to heal the rift between the parties, this would not have happened.
Therefore, Erdogan will not be able to take any serious action against Syria in the absence of support from the Turkish political opposition and national consensus on the issue. Turkey does not want to repeat the experience of the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, when it fought a war alone and suffered considerably in the international arena. It continues to suffer from these actions to this day. Although Erdogan knows that, he may have called for a meeting with the opposition leaders to find a way out for himself.
3. Erdogan is aware that the Syrian crisis is no longer a local issue, after all the developments that have happened. The downing of the jet indicates that Turkey is incapable of taking any steps that have repercussions on the international arena. The “hunting down” of the Turkish plane by a Russian missile was no coincidence, especially after it was rumored that Russia recently set up a radar network in the Syrian border area of Kasab in response to the deployment of the NATO missile shield in the Turkish area of Malatya.
Russia’s full support for Syria at present and the plane incident send a very strong message that Moscow will not be lenient with any attempt to overthrow the Syrian regime, even if this leads to war with Turkey.
A source from the Turkish intelligence community told the Turkish newspaper Sabah that Russia’s renewal of the Syrian defense system — located on the Syrian coast in Latakia — three months ago must be taken into consideration. The source added that Syria is not able to face Turkey on its own and does not wish to do so. Therefore, Turkey must pay heed to Russia’s support for the Syrian regime. Turkey must think carefully before making a counter-move to the downing of the jet. Instead of retaliating by hitting the Syrian air defense, Turkey must analyze the situation carefully.
4. The downing of Turkey’s aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea is directly linked to the escape of Syrian pilot, Hassan Mari’h, who defected with the Russian-made MiG 21 plane to Jordan. Bringing down the Turkish jet was a swift and direct retaliation to this incident. Russia and Syria’s message was clear: any attempt to target and dismantle the Syrian army will not pass unnoticed.
5. Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Necedet Ozil drew much attention when he delivered a speech just one day before downing the jet. He said that the Turkish army cannot carry out any military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq without prior consent from the US. Had it not been for the Turkish jet incident, which diverted attention, this scandalous statement would have aroused controversy across Turkey as to Ankara’s new image: a country that waits for permission from Washington to make its own foreign-policy decisions.
Turkey cannot settle “Qandil’s problem” — which is very clear and limited in time and space — without Washington’s permission, and it cannot solve the jet incident that could ignite a regional and global war. It is clear that the Obama administration does not wish to start any regional war via Syria. Last week, during a meeting in Mexico with the Turkish prime minister, Obama made it clear that Turkey must not take any step before the US presidential elections. In addition, Washington has begun to search for common ground with Russia to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. Hence, Turkey will not take a unilateral step against Washington’s will.
6. In the same context, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has become the spokesman for those in Turkey who have adopted a hawkish attitude toward the Syrian crisis, urged Turkey to be rational in dealing with the aftermath of the downing of the Turkish plane. He said that the international community is not ready to tolerate any Turkish attack on Syria.
7. Many Turkish officials, including Omer Celik, AKP vice chairman and chairman of foreign affairs, have recently stated that the shooting down of the Turkish jet should be considered aggression against NATO, Syria’s neighbors and international legitimacy. Because NATO is not willing to carry out a military intervention in Syria, Ankara will abide by this decision, especially seen as Turkey clearly violated Syrian airspace.
8. Gul and Celik have stated that the incident played out in “bad faith.” Syria did not warn the Turkish jet before shooting it down. Turkish officials have emphasized the need for warnings before any offensive action is taken. This is the case in the relations between Turkey and Greece whenever Aegean sea borders or airspace are violated by either party.
However, this comparison is only of limited use since Greece and Turkey are not in a state of war and neither of the two countries is injecting money and arms into the other or is training its opposition groups. Although there is no official state of war between Syria and Turkey, this is the situation on an informal basis. The Turkish level of intervention into Syrian affairs is unprecedented. According to Derya Sazaq from Milliyet, “Turkish pressures on Syria are linked to the neo-Ottoman dream. The relations between the two countries were becoming nearly idealistic, until recently. Now, their relations have been strained to such an extent that they are hostile. This led Syria to shoot down the Turkish jet without warning.”
“Is it a coincidence that the Turkish jet incident happened on the same day it was revealed that the CIA is providing the Free Syrian Army with arms?” added Sazaq.
Koray Caliskan from the Radikal newspaper said, “There has to be an explanation for a jet flying at a low altitude, exploring the territory of another country that is under the threat of changing its regime.”
In view of the ongoing Turkish pressures on Syria, it was only normal that Syrian-Turkish relations would hit rock bottom. One can only hope that Turkey will realize that exerting pressure on Syria, interfering with its internal affairs and working to change the regime in Damascus (and in Baghdad and Lebanon, if possible) are unacceptable. Meanwhile, Turkish officials continue to seize every every opportunity to label Assad with the ugliest possible qualities and Syrian officials try to avoid any rhetoric with the same contemptuous tone. So, in view of all this, we must ask: “Who is playing with fire? Syria or Turkey?”