Syria becomes a matter of prestige for government

Syria becomes a matter of prestige for government

The Wall Street Journal article casting doubts on Turkey’s account of the downing of its jet by Syria has sent the blood rushing to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s head once again. The fact that unnamed sources in Moscow also are telling much the same to the Russian media is no doubt increasing the anger in Ankara.

The announcement by the Turkish military on Tuesday that the wreckage of the jet has been located in the deep waters of the eastern Mediterranean, and in international waters, merely adds to the mystery.

While serious questions linger, the general mood in Turkey, even among opposition columnists, is nevertheless to go along with the government’s account in essence. That says that Syria downed the Turkish jet – which was not on any mission against that country - in international airspace. Ankara admits the jet strayed momentarily into Syrian airspace, but insists this was no excuse for shooting it down in a hostile manner.

Sometimes, however, the simplest questions are the best in such cases, which are confusing for members of the public, who have no means of corroborating anything, and who have merely to accept one account or another.

One such question is why Turkey’s NATO allies, Britain and the U.S, are not coming up with their own evidence to support Ankara here. The jet went down, after all, in one of the most monitored parts of the Mediterranean, which is covered not just by British and American radars, but also by Israeli ones. Russia of course has the place covered, too.

Washington and London are publicly accepting the Turkish account. As for the information leaked first to the New York Times and subsequently the WSJ, and which denies this account, the Obama administration has taken a “don’t accept or deny” stance, merely castigating the “sources” leaking the information to the media.

The intention is clearly not to embarrass an ally at a crucial moment when NATO is united against Syria, and when Turkey is taking the lead in saber rattling against the al-Assad regime. It is unlikely that Britain and the U.S. will change this position at this stage.

This in turn makes it unlikely that we will get to the truth of the matter under these circumstances. There is of course another possibility, namely of Russia coming in with its account of the matter. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said they are prepared to share information on the matter with Ankara.

It was telling however that this remark was made as unnamed officials in Moscow were quoted in the Russian media saying the jet had been downed in Syrian airspace by anti aircraft fire, thus denying the Turkish account.

Moscow is clearly treading cautiously here too since it also has to maintain delicate ties with Turkey, even if the sides disagree seriously on Syria. Moscow could also be keeping the information as a card up its sleeve in case matters get out of hand between Syria and Turkey, and appear to be moving towards a military confrontation.

The simple fact is that the whole Syria affair is turning into a matter of prestige for the Erdoğan government. In the meantime the policy it pursued towards this country from the start is being questioned at home where more and more people are wondering why Turkey has been brought to a position of war with a neighbor when there are no apparent national interests at stake.

This is why the government has to pursue this case in a way that enhances its political credibility at home and abroad, since ending up in a position of eating humble pie over Syria will hardly tally with the “regional power image” that Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are plugging hard for Turkey.

There is a Turkish saying which has it that “the sums done at home do not always match the realities of the marketplace.” Looking at the big picture Ankara seems to be faced with just such a situation over Syria.