‘Anlaştık mı?’ Nyet! ‘Güzel!’
When, in the late 1950s, Kemal Nejat Kavur was serving as the Turkish ambassador to Moscow, Andrei Gromyko, the then Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs asked him: “Your Excellency, your country has the most number of men under arms in Europe. If it’s against your traditional enemies, the Greeks, it is too big. If, on the other hand, it is against us, it’s too small. So, what’s the reason for it?” Little seems to have changed since then.
Turkey’s military rules of engagement over its long border with Syria have eventually had to dictate a “hug with the bear.” Let’s hope the hug will not leave behind deep scars. At least the Turkish military - which on Nov. 24 became the first NATO armed force to shoot down a Russian or Soviet fighter jet since the 1950s - happens to be more precise than Turkey’s nationalists, who last week protested Russian air strikes in Syria in front of the Dutch Consulate. If it had not been, it might have shot down a French fighter by accident.
Judging from what has in recent years come into the public domain, one might suspect that Turkish and Russian state dignitaries speak their own language when they meet to discuss strategic affairs - and without interpreters. Russia - militarily, and heavily - intervened in Syria in a way that would not make the Turks happy exactly 38 months after an Anadolu Agency headline in July 2012 read: “Erdoğan: We have consensus with Russia over Syria.” The story quoted the then prime minister as saying: “Russia is positive about a transition government without [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad.”
In December 2014, President Erdoğan said: “Generally speaking we have a consensus [with Russia] for a solution [in Syria].” In July 2015, on his way back from Indonesia, Erdoğan said: “Russia’s attitude over Syria is much more positive than before ... I believe [Russia] could give up on al-Assad.” Three months later, Mr. al-Assad received the red-carpet treatment in Moscow.
On Nov. 11, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said he could “see Russia coming closer to [a Syria without al-Assad].” About a week later, Turkey’s top diplomat and then interim foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioglu, said: “I cannot say that ‘the Russians have agreed to al-Assad’s departure, but they do not resist it either ... Al-Assad running in future Syrian [presidential] elections is out of the question.”
A week later, Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was in Tehran, where Russia and Iran jointly declared that they are united in being “against ‘external attempts to dictate scenarios for a political settlement’ [in Syria], and only Syria’s people could decide to drop al-Assad through elections after a ceasefire.”
President Erdoğan recently observed that “Russia does not border Syria” and asked “Why is it so interested in Syria? I want to understand this. I want them to review this” Mr. Erdoğan will probably understand soon. But certainly he has every liberty to ask the Russians to “review this.” In response, the Russians may agree to “review it,” though these revisions may not come under terms Mr. Erdogan would wish to see.
The shooting of the Russian SU-24 jet is in fact a mere strategic - not tactical - triviality. It is no more than a backgammon move on a chessboard. Whether the Russian jet violated the Turkish airspace or not, or how Russia will act “if next time there is a similar incident,” are also strategic trivialities. There will be many similar moves on the chessboard - though one of the players is only a backgammon master. It is not a good omen.
All the same, the shooting by Turkey of the Russian fighter jet may have earned Mr. al-Assad a reinforced life and career insurance policy. Turkey’s rules of engagement have perhaps indefinitely shelved any glimmer of hope that Moscow could be convinced to dump Mr. al-Assad.
Any other casualties will also be the backgammon player’s.