Turks wonder if they are at war with Russia
Istanbul - Sharp divisions between Turkey and Russia over Syria are escalating following Turkish complaints about a new air incursion by a Russian jet and revelations that a Turkish national accused of killing a Russian pilot can move freely in and out of Syria.
The government in Ankara said a Russian SU-34 warplane operating over northern Syria entered Turkish airspace on January 29th despite several warnings. No shots were fired, unlike an incident last November in which Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian aircraft on the Turkish-Syrian border. One of the two pilots was killed after he had ejected from the plane.
Moscow dismissed claims of an incursion as propaganda but Ankara sent additional planes to the border and gave its pilots permission to attack foreign warplanes in Turkish airspace without first checking with the military leadership, according to news reports. The United States and NATO called on Russia to respect Turkish airspace.
Turkey’s leadership sent stern messages to Moscow. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Russia would have to bear the consequences if air incursions continued. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia of helping the jihadist Islamic State (ISIS) by attacking moderate opposition groups in Syria. He also said Russian air strikes in northern Syria were forcing additional refugees across the border into Turkey.
“We are warning Russia one more time,” Davutoglu said during a late January visit to Saudi Arabia. “Weakening the Syrian opposition and constant threats are not in Russia’s interest.”
Russia entered the war in September 2015 to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkey is backing opposition groups seeking Assad’s removal from power. For a long time, Ankara and Moscow put conflicting interests aside to safeguard close political and economic ties but the downing of the Russian warplane in November threw the relationship into crisis.
Davutoglu, a former foreign minister and the architect of a Turkish foreign policy that sees the country as a regional leader, said Moscow’s aims in Syria were not constricted to helping Assad. Russia was trying to regain influence in the Middle East that it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and viewed Turkey’s plans for the region as a stumbling block, he said.
“Two visions are clashing here,” Davutoglu said in Saudi Arabia. “Our vision of bringing the region together with the help of economic relations and their vision of splitting up the region with the help of sectarian and ethnic confrontation.”
After the latest alleged Russian incursion, signs are that matters are likely to get worse. Erdogan publicly asked for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin but reportedly did not receive a reply. The news of the SU-34 entering Turkish airspace came as a Turkish man wanted by Moscow for the killing of its pilot after the November incident boasted that he could travel between Turkey and Syria as he pleased.
Alparslan Celik, son of a local leader of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), an opposition group with 40 lawmakers in Ankara’s parliament, attended the funeral of a party member who had been killed in Syria while fighting with the Turkmen, an ethnic group in northern Syria with close links to Turkey. Celik has also been fighting alongside the Turkmen.
Russia says Celik was among those who killed a Russian pilot parachuting from the stricken plane in November. Celik has publicly defended the killing, saying the pilot had bombed Turkmen villages minutes before his plane was shot down. At the funeral in Istanbul, Celik said he frequently travelled to Syria to fight. “I’m here for the funeral only,” he said. “I am going back” to Syria.
The Turkmen region of north-western Syria has been under attack by Russian planes and Syrian government forces for months. Turkish authorities said more than 1,600 refugees entered Turkey in two days in late January. News reports said another 20,000 could be preparing to cross the border.
Erdogan has accused Assad and Russia of stepping up their offensive in the Turkmen region close to the Turkish border as part of a wider push to secure the area around the port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. Latakia, a stronghold of the Alawite community to which Assad belongs, was to form the core of a “boutique state” in the event that Syria broke up, Erdogan said.
Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party Vice-Chairman Tarik Sulo Cevizci said recent attacks by Syrian troops and Russian aircraft around Mount Turkmen on the Turkish border were supposed to strengthen the government’s position at peace talks in Geneva.
“This place is of strategic importance,” Cevizci said. “If no solution comes out of the Geneva talks and if everybody starts to create their own state, Assad wants to put the Mount Turkmen area within the borders of the Nusayri state he wants to form,” he added, using another term for Alawite.
With Turkish-Russian tensions climbing, some Turks wonder whether their country is sliding towards an open confrontation with Moscow.
“At this point, my country runs the risk of entering an open war if it continues to support confrontations in Syria,” columnist Nuray Mert wrote in the English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. “We should know whether we are at war with Russia.”