The Russian jet and the Turkish presidency
Yesterday, at around 9 a.m. in the morning, Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet right at the Syrian border. According to the Turkish Chief of Staff, the plane had violated Turkish air space “for five minutes, despite being warned 10 times.” Russia said there was no violation and that Turkey had downed the plane while it was in Syrian airspace.
I am no expert on the issue and have no secret information to confirm any of the claims. But I will just give you an objective thought: Had the Russian jet not violated Turkish airspace, Ankara would not have put itself into this trouble. Despite all its tough rhetoric about Syria since the early stages of the civil war, the Turkish government has been very careful about not getting itself involved in any military adventure. It has avoided a military confrontation even with the bloody regime of Bashar, a much less powerful force then Russia. So, the idea of Turkey initiating an escalation with Russia, a former world superpower, is just not reasonable.
This does not mean that this incident will not cause bitterness between the two capitals. The response by Russian President Vladimir Putin was very harsh. He blamed Turkey for “supporting terrorists” and stabbing Russia, who is supposedly fighting these terrorists, “in the back.” But this was pure demagogy. Turkey does not support those who are called “terrorists” by the whole world, i.e., the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And Russia’s fight is less against those terrorists but more against the rebels that the West also supports.
In fact, in the past few days, the Russian Air Force in Syria was busy bombing an armed Syrian group that has nothing to do with ISIL: The Turkmen fighters that defend Jabal Turkman, or “the Turkmen Mountain,” in Latakia, northwestern Syria. The Turkmens, who are just Turks who remained on the other side of the border when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, have great support and sympathy in Turkey, all across the political spectrum. And they aim at nothing at but defending themselves from the fighting forces in Syria, including the Bashar al-Assad regime.
We will see what Putin’s warning about the “consequences” of this event will be. In any case, it may help Ankara to get closer to its NATO allies, who should not shy away from supporting Turkey on this.
Meanwhile, this plane incident also highlighted something else regarding Turkey’s domestic politics. The technical statement about the downing of the Russian jet came from the Chief of Staff, as usual and expected. However, the first political statement, which would normally come from the prime minister’s office, rather came from the president’s office. As many took it, this was yet another sign that President Tayyip Erdoğan’s much-anticipated “presidential system” is now already in practice, as a de facto reality.
Yesterday, by the way, an important meeting took place in Ankara: Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Erdoğan, to consult with him on the new cabinet. It is no secret that this meeting had been delayed, for Erdoğan was not fully satisfied with the cabinet members Davutoğlu had in mind. In the end, the list was announced, and it proved to have the Erdoğan mark all over. Ali Babacan, the boss of the economy since 2002, was excluded in spite of Davutoğlu’s known insistence in keeping him in his seat.
In other words, while the downed Russian jet may put Ankara and Moscow politically at odds, one could say that Turkey is gradually heading toward a Russian-style presidency. We truly live in interesting times.