Turkey prepares for Russian retaliation after jet incident
ISTANBUL - Turkey insists it was within its rights when it shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border but the action could have far-reaching consequences in Ankara’s relations with Moscow and further complicate the diplomatic and military morass over Syria.
“This incident took place completely within rules of engagement that were clear beforehand,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after Turkish F-16 jets shot down a Russian SU-24 warplane near the southern Turkish province of Hatay on November 24th.
Turkey and Russia are in opposing camps in the Syrian conflict, with Ankara calling for an end to the rule of President Bashar Assad and Russia supporting the Syrian leader. Before the downing of the Russian jet, both countries were determined to maintain good relations despite sharp differences over Syria. The incident on the border has shattered that tacit understanding.
Erdogan accused Russia of using the stated aim of fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) militia as a pretext to bomb other groups in Syria, including moderate Syrian Turkmen rebels, an ethnic group linked to Turkey in north-western Syria, where the Russian SU-24 was brought down.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of a “stab in the back” and of helping terrorists in Syria. Moscow suspended military cooperation with Ankara and sent a guided missile cruiser to the waters off the Syrian coast.
Erdogan signalled Turkey was ready to overcome the crisis. “We have no intention to escalate this incident,” he said. “Turkey is not on the side of tension, crisis and hostility but has always stood on the side of peace, dialogue and diplomacy.”
Retaliatory action by Russia could hurt Turkey economically, observers say. As Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas for its energy needs, any move by Moscow to restrict or stop the flow of gas could bring Turkey to a standstill.
“The Russians have 100% control” over gas supplies, the Hurriyet newspaper quoted an unnamed representative of the natural gas sector as saying. Another concern for Ankara is a possible boycott by Russian tourists, 4 million of whom visit Turkey and its beaches every year.
With so much at stake, Turkey and Russia should try everything they can to contain the crisis, Mehmet Barlas, a columnist close to Erdogan, wrote in the Sabah newspaper. Both countries should not “make the atmosphere of dialogue and friendship a victim of the inability of an ignorant military pilot”.