Dear Russians, let’s de-escalate, please

Dear Russians, let’s de-escalate, please

Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane right on the Turkish-Syrian border, not too surprisingly, proved to be a major incident. For sure, Ankara and Moscow are not going to war over this. But a sort of cold war seems to be unfolding, with various channels of Russian anger being directed against Turkey.  

Yet this is a cold war that is going to help neither Turkey nor Russia, which have huge economic ties with each other. So, instead of chest-beating and letting the anger boil over, it is in the interest of both nations to de-escalate the tension and try to revive the status quo ante.  

For sure, de-escalation involves not just mere calls, but an understanding of what happened and why. And of course, there are always two sides any to story, at least, but here are some facts on the Turkish side. 

First, there seems to be a conviction on the Russian side that the downing of the plane was a premeditated provocation by Ankara. But that really does not seem to be the case, and the best evidence for this is Ankara’s obvious effort since the first day to calm Russia down. (Why would you intentionally provoke the world’s quasi-superpower, and then try to undo what you did?) The messages given by President Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu all show that Ankara is “sorry” about what happened. This does not translate into an apology, but it shows regret. Ankara clearly seems to be wishing that this incident had never happened. 

Why it happened is first of all related with Turkey’s much-hailed “rules of engagement,” which were changed back in 2013, when the Bashar al-Assad regime downed a Turkish jet and killed two Turkish pilots. Turkey’s response was to tighten its rules of engagement on its southern frontier: Any “military asset” approaching from Syria would be considered a threat. What happened on Nov. 24 with the Russian warplane seems to be just an application of these rules, which the Turkish air force was ordered to implement without any hesitation. 

It is also notable that the Turkish military was unsure whether the plane was Russian or not. Erdoğan notably said: “The nationality of the plane was unknown at the time of the incident. We do not have any reason to target Russia with whom we have strong relations.” It could also have been a Syrian plane, since the Syrian Air Force uses many Russian-made aircraft. 

It also seems fair to assume that the Turkish Air Force targeted the Russian warplane only with the perception that it violated Turkish airspace. Otherwise, they would not dare. (I am referring to a perception here, for the Russian argument is different, which could be taken as the counter-perception, even if there is no evidence on any side.)

Besides such technicalities, it is no secret that this indecent took place against the backdrop of the conflicting strategies Russia and Turkey have been following regarding the future of Syria. Russia is among the biggest patrons of the al-Assad regime, while Turkey is among the biggest enemies of the same regime. Moreover, Russia is targeting the “terrorists” that Turkey considers as freedom fighters – in a very typical dilemma, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Yet it would be unfair and counter-factual to think that Turkey’s “freedom fighters” include the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). No, Turkey considers ISIL a terrorist group, and actually fights against it actively, in tandem with the United States. No wonder ISIL routinely condemns the Turkish government as an “apostate” and a pawn of the infidel’s Crusade. 

The real Turkey-supported groups in Syrian are more moderate jihadists, which fight both al-Assad and ISIL, and also the Turkmen fighters with whom Turkey has strong ethnic and emotional ties. One cannot expect any Turkish government to disregard the Turkmens. Moreover, Turkey’s support for them has been actually quite mild and temperate when compared to what Russia did in Ukraine on the pretext of its own ethnic and emotional ties with the Russians of Ukraine.  

I bet Erdoğan and Putin – two very similar personalities – can reach some understanding on these matters once they sit down and talk. And we can all help that by being a bit less provocative.