Turkey’s rules of (dis)engagement

Turkey’s rules of (dis)engagement

Neither Turkey nor its NATO allies got the Russian message, conveyed through Syria, when a Turkish military reconnaissance aircraft was shot down, apparently in Syrian airspace over the Mediterranean in June 2012. 

After the incident, no doubt a humiliation for an emerging superpower, Turkey said it changed its military “rules of engagement” over its Syrian border and would now “disproportionately retaliate against ANY violation of its airspace” along the border. It did, when in 2014 and 2015 the Turkish military shot down one Syrian military aircraft, one helicopter and one drone.   

But on Oct. 3 and Oct. 4, Russian warplanes twice violated Turkish airspace during a bombing campaign in Syria aimed at bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regional/sectarian nemesis. Subsequently, Syria-based (Russian) missile systems harassed Turkey’s warplanes while eight Turkish F-16 jets were on a patrol flight along the Syria border. In addition, an unidentified MIG-29 harassed Turkish jets on Oct. 6. 

The rules of engagement? Disproportionate retaliation in the event of ANY violation of the Turkish airspace along the Syrian border? The Turkish “disproportionate” retaliation against the Russian gambit over Syria came in a few punishing ways:

1- President Erdoğan warned Russia against losing Ankara’s friendship: “It is, of course, not possible to remain patient about this [violation].” An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO, Mr. Erdoğan said, citing Article V of NATO’s Treaty.

2- Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu: “Let me put it bluntly: Turkey’s rules of engagement are valid for Syria’s, Russia’s or another country’s warplanes. The Turkish Armed Forces have been issued with open instructions.”

3- The foreign ministry announced that Turkish military officials were ready to meet with their Russian counterparts “to get explanations for the violations of the Turkish airspace.”

How should we sum up the way Turkey exhibited hints about its wrath? First, Turkey has two sets of rules of engagement over violations of its airspace over its Syrian border: Disproportionate retaliation if it comes from Syria; no retaliation if it comes from Russia. That’s realistic, if not principled. 

Second, Mr. Erdoğan’s veiled threat that “it is not possible to remain patient” could only cause laughter in Moscow. Third, Mr. Davutoğlu’s reminder that “Turkey’s rules of engagement are valid for Syria’s, Russia’s or another country’s warplanes” could only cause a laughter spasm in Moscow –or in Tehran. Even a 10-year-old would have the simple logic to ask: Why, then, did Turkey not retaliate against the Russian violation in the way it retaliated against a Syrian violation? 

It is too easy to understand that when Messrs Erdoğan and Davutoğlu spoke on the Russian violations, they were not speaking to their Russian or NATO counterparts but to Turkish voters just ahead of elections –as always, they feel compelled to fulfill the commitments of having made serious foreign policy issues a voting matter. 

Third, the Foreign Ministry’s much less populist –and more restrained- language intends to balance the leadership’s rhetoric aimed at domestic consumption and shyly confesses that Turkey’s rules of engagement over its Syrian border are valid for a failed state only – not for a country any Turkish diplomat knows Turkey could not bite (as a country that supplies about 55 percent of Turkey’s annual natural gas needs.)

Mr. Erdoğan should be able to understand that the Russian gambit over Syria is a broader concept than not caring about losing Turkey’s friendship. Similarly, Mr. Davutoğlu should be able to understand that no serious country would take his “blunt warnings” seriously. Two times two will not make five just because Mr. Davutoğlu loudly says so a dozen times a day.  

Unfortunately, the very important men in Ankara have an ideological reflex not to see the visible if the visible goes against their Islamist dreams of grandeur. 

It’s funny. The Russian violations of Turkish airspace over the Syrian border took place only a few days after President Erdoğan said that “he would ask the Russians to review their policy on Syria.” 

Apparently, the Russians had reviewed their policy on Syria – even before Mr. Erdoğan asked them to. Call it neo-Ottoman soft (and hard) power!