Shooting down the Russian jet a symptom of Turkey’s central malaise

Shooting down the Russian jet a symptom of Turkey’s central malaise

Ever since Turkey downed the Russian Su-24 on its border with Syria, I have been thinking about the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident between Israel and Turkey. In many ways, the jet incident is to Russia what the Mavi Marmara was to Turkey. Russia’s demands for an apology made the cases all the more similar. The only difference is that Russia understands this is not about legality, but rather about saving face. 

Remember that Israel killed nine Turkish activists heading to Gaza, and Ankara could do nothing about it. Before the incident, Turkey had been the big Muslim-majority country in the region that had not been bruised by Israel in any meaningful way. The Mavi Marmara incident ended the myth of Turkish invincibility in the eyes of the Arab masses. 

Russia is determined not to make the same mistake. On the day after the Su-24 came down, Putin cancelled military contracts with Turkey, bombed supply trucks in Syria coming from Turkey, and halted the flow of Russian tourists to Aegean beaches. He even cancelled a football game against the Turkish national team. And it looks like this is only the beginning of it.

The million dollar question is: Why did Turkey do it? The Russians were violating Turkish airspace on an almost daily basis. Did it feel like it had to make good on its threats for earlier violations? Why now? 

Since the start of this war in Syria, Turkey has wanted to be taken seriously. Syria shot down a Turkish plane in 2012, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took Turkish Consulate staff in Mosul hostage for months, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) is steadily gaining ground with Western backing. Russia’s blatant disregard for Ankara’s concerns was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Turkish leadership felt it necessary to show it means business, and shooting down a Russian plane, they thought, might have been a way to show that. But was it the right move? President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he would do it again if he could go back, but he also said we might have reacted differently had we known that the unidentified aircraft was Russian. I’m not sure which statement to believe.

In Turkish, we sometimes say “I am telling this to my daughter with the hope that my daughter-in-law will get the message.” People in this part of the world communicate obliquely. What is Turkey’s overriding concern in Syria? It is keeping the PKK/PYD in check, plain and simple. Turks are obsessed with this, to the extent that talking about fighting ISIS makes them uncomfortable, not necessarily because they like the group, but because they don’t want to overshadow the threat of the PYD. They have not forgotten that the PYD was established by Abdullah Öcalan during his exile as a small Syrian arm of his operations. Thanks to the civil war, the PYD has in some ways surpassed Öcalan’s dreams. It has become a governing institution of the Syrian Kurds, and the YPG, its armed wing, has become the main instrument of the Western coalition against ISIL. That means Turkey cannot fight it directly. Meanwhile, Turkey’s reconciliation process with its own Kurdish population has come to an abrupt halt. Why? Because the civil war in Syria shifted the balance of power in the Kurds’ favor. 

Why did Turkey down that Su-24? Because it needed its Western allies to know that it means business, even if it won’t hit PYD bases directly. That would not normally be a problem, but the range of responses from Ankara shows that it was not a very calculated step. Rather, it was a product of our tangled feelings toward Kurdish politics, which manifested obliquely in the debris of that plane. Similar to the Mavi Marmara incident, the episode will probably be useful in domestic politics but it will end up disproportionately hurting Turkey’s foreign policy. 

Ankara must learn to measure its actions based on realities out there on the ground, not its emotional and ideological echo chamber at home. In the case of Syria, this means facing up to our feelings about the Kurds, at home and across the border, once and for all.