Border violation or election ploy?

After Turkey shot down a Syrian plane that allegedly crossed into Turkish airspace on Sunday, some claim it was part of a ploy to make the ruling AKP look strong going into the upcoming elections.

al-monitor Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), talks during an interview in Ankara, Dec. 7, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

turkish politics, turkish policy on syria, turkey elections, syrian civil war, internationalization of the syrian conflict, akp

Mar 24, 2014

For the past week, diplomatic circles have predicted a Turkish air strike against the al-Qaeda militants massed around the sovereign Turkish enclave in Syria that houses the tomb of Suleyman Shah. Such an operation was expected to take place before the elections.

But the shooting down of a Syrian aircraft March 23 for violating Turkish airspace came as a surprise.

Was yesterday’s incident an "election ploy," as Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has predicted for some time? Or was it an ill-timed test from the Syrian regime? To give a proper answer, we have to know exactly what happened.

The Turkish armed forces stated yesterday that the Syrian plane was about one kilometer inside Turkish airspace when it was hit. Other Syrian jets have approached the border and Turkey immediately responded with its own F-16s, which turned away the Syrian aircraft. The Turkish military also said warnings were issued, but one of the two Syrian planes did not comply.

Border violations are serious affairs. Turkey was legally justified yesterday. I don’t really think that Ankara would have shot down a Syrian plane inside Syria, even to manipulate elections. But we don’t know if the government had instructed the military not to tolerate Syrian incursions.

The reality is that in our region, the leaders who enter elections as "victorious commanders in chief" start the race a few points ahead of their rivals. The best example of this effect is in Israel, where leaders love to launch operations on the eve of elections. Five of the last seven elections in Israel were preceded by major military operations. That doesn’t mean they make secret deals with Hamas to have it fire a few rockets at Israel, but leaders are usually tougher and less tolerant before elections. This is tantamount to telling the security establishment: "Attack."

I should point out here that the shooting down of the Syrian plane won’t create any similar fuss to that over the banning of Twitter. The world is concerned with Ukraine. People want to forget Syria. I don’t think either NATO or Western countries will express strong support for Turkey beyond a few murmured words.

Why not? First, the international community doesn’t want a hot war in Syria. Second, the image of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the Gezi Park protests of last year has deteriorated so badly that many will be suspicious of this incident and may well interpret it as a pre-election show of force by Erdogan.

The reality is that the prime minister, by banning Twitter, has damaged himself and this country far beyond his own imagination. He is now seen by the world as an oppressive autocrat trying to intimidate people seeking freedom with pepper gas and bans. So sad!

That Erdogan is still popular with a segment of the population doesn’t affect the perception that the order he has set up is an authoritarian regime. The massive crowd that the AKP brought to the Yenikapi-Istanbul election rally yesterday doesn’t change the reality that the prime minister is on the wrong side of history.

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