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‘Turkey Losing Autonomy to Syria Crisis,’ says expert

Although Ankara and Moscow have provided conflicting accounts on what led Turkey to shoot down a Russian jet along the Turkish border Tuesday morning, Turkey-Syria expert Gokhan Bacik says one thing is clear: the Syrian crisis is transforming Turkey’s foreign policy.

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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Turkey downed a Russian warplane Tuesday morning along its shared border with Syria, marking the first time a NATO member has engaged militarily with Russia in Syria.

Ankara and Moscow have provided conflicting accounts on what led to the incident, which took place along the border separating Latakia in Syria and Iskenderun in Turkey in yet another case of Syria’s civil war slipping over its borders.

Dr. Gokhan Bacik, an associate professor of International Relations at Turkey’s Ipek University and an expert on Turkey-Syria relations, told Syria Deeply that Tuesday’s crisis highlights one thing in particular: the dynamics of the Syrian crisis are transforming Turkey’s foreign policy.

“Syria is becoming a kind of soap opera for Turkey,” said Bacik. “At the beginning [of the crisis], if you had said one day Turkey would shoot down a Russian plane, nobody would have believed it. But it’s becoming reality.”

“It’s transforming Turkey. Turkey is becoming more involved in Syria and is somewhat losing its autonomy in a way, due to the crisis next door. As a state, it [Turkey] is becoming a serious part of the problem. It’s bad for Turkey.”

Bacik said that Turkey’s obsession with the sanctity of its airspace is at odds with what has been at times almost an open-door policy on the ground.

“It’s become something we’re regularly hearing about – the scrambling of jets, air-space violations, the downing of unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Bacik. “So I’m not surprised to hear about this. But the question is, how will Russia react?”

All these events are somehow eroding the autonomy of Turkey’s foreign policy, according to Bacik, who said the incident dramatically exposed the increasing gap between Ankara and Moscow, whose interests in Syria are diametrically opposed.

Syria Deeply spoke with him via Skype on Tuesday to determine whether the incident along the border has the potential to affect Russia-Turkey-NATO relations, and what it may mean for the future of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.

Syria Deeply: Why did this happen?

Bacik: Well so far, there are conflicting stories. Even the office of the Turkish president has changed its original statement concerning the downing of the Russian jet. But, official declarations, if I can summarize, are typical. They underline that a fighter jet entered Turkish airspace. It was warned several times over a period of about five minutes. But because it failed to respond to the warnings, it was shot down. The Turkish military’s official webpage confirms that a Turkish F-16 shot down the plane.

This is interesting because since the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, Turkey has been obsessed with its airspace, a much different case when compared to its actual physical border. Turkey’s Syrian border has been very weak. It’s almost 100km (about 62 miles) in length and it’s not very difficult to move across. But when it comes to airspace, Turkey sees it as a kind of symbolic or metaphoric thing. They’re obsessed with it. It’s become something we’re regularly hearing about – the scrambling of jets, air space violations, the downing of unmanned aerial vehicles … so I’m not surprised to hear about this. But the question is, how will Russia react?

And, because we have many similar stories so far – most of which involve Russia – I have some personal fears that this may lead to unexpected consequences. Russia is now acting in a different way in Syria, and we have some reports that Russia has immediately called a UN Security Council meeting over the issue, so … if this becomes a new pattern between Russia and Turkey, it could bring unpleasant consequences for both countries.

Syria Deeply: This is the first time that any NATO member has directly engaged with Russia within the Syrian arena. What could the consequences be?

Bacik: Yes, that is very symbolic. I checked my notes, and it is the first time [that a NATO member has militarily engaged with Russia in Syria], but I don’t think it’s correct to label it as NATO. I don’t think the Turkish jets involved in the incident were in the area as part of a NATO program. Turkey is a member of NATO, of course, but I’m not sure if its possible, thus far, to make this a Russia vs. NATO kind of thing – although Turkey would probably be happy to hear that. It depends on how NATO will react. NATO may re-contextualize it as being between NATO and Russia, but we can’t be sure.

The second consequence will be economic. Turkey and Russia are trade partners, but are in opposite camps in Ukraine and in Syria. It’s not as it was three years ago. Bilateral relations are very sensitive, very fragile. This incident will negatively impact tourism, energy trade and what both countries are doing regarding Syria.

This is another milestone that will increase the gap between Turkey and Russia. Things are not the way they were three years ago or even several months ago. Just a couple of months ago, Mr. Erdogan was in Russia opening a new mosque – a ceremony with the Russian president. Things have changed very quickly. The countries are diverting to very opposite camps. And I’m positive that these contending routes will create contending strategies on the ground in Syria.

Syria Deeply: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is set to visit Istanbul tomorrow most probably to speak about the situation in Syria. What effect will today’s incident have on the meeting?

Bacik: Turkey and Russia have totally different perspectives on everything from ISIS (the Islamic State) to the Assad regime, so there have never really been grounds to coordinate. Turkey’s priority is Assad’s regime. Russia is becoming more and more focused on ISIS, and recently they claimed the group shot down their airliner over Egypt. So, I don’t know… as a scholar focusing on Syria, Turkey and Russia I’m confused about what there is to coordinate. The priorities are very different.

Russia is not acting in a vacuum. It is very linked to Iran and Assad, even India and China, so there is a block acting in Syria and I don’t think there is similar Western block that is taking the same kind of actions. I mean, we have the comments from Western leaders toward Syria but they’re not acting. You have the U.S.-coalition, okay, and France with some independent actions, but there is not much action. But between Turkey and Russia, I don’t think there is much for them to coordinate on.

Russia has had a very different perspective since the very beginning. When you read what Russians – including Mr. Putin – are saying about ISIS, you feel something critical about Turkey’s role. It’s not a secret that Russia sees Turkey as somehow responsible with ISIS in the region … When you read the background of Russia’s perspective on Turkey’s role in Syria, I find it’s increasingly critical. It’s about radicalism and its rise in Caucasia and other areas, but on the other hand, I don’t think that for Russia, Turkey is that big of a problem.

I feel that Russia is happy to contextualize itself through Turkey. By doing this type of thing [downing a Russian warplane] it is giving Russia a pretext to become more active in Syria. It is sad news for Russia, of course, this pilot was killed, but these events are creating much more space for Russia on Syrian ground.

Syria Deeply: The Russian plane downed this morning was reportedly working with Assad’s forces in nearby Latakia area against opposition factions – one of which was the 2nd Coastal Division, a force made up of Syrian Turkmen. Was Turkey’s decision to down the Russian plane this morning in any way connected to Russia’s targeting of Turkmen militias in Syria?

Bacik: In this insistence, the typical reaction from the Turkish government is always about the violation of airspace, but it never satisfies us. Behind the scenes, it could very well have something to do with the mission of the jet and what’s been happening on the ground.

The real story could be something regarding the ongoing power struggle on the ground between Turkmens, the opposition groups, the regime groups – it could be about that – but we need some more proof in order to speak more conclusively. But hypothetically, I would say yes.

Syria Deeply: How will this morning’s incident influence Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian arena?

Bacik: Syria is becoming a kind of soap opera for Turkey. At the beginning [of the crisis], if you had said one day Turkey would shoot down a Russian plane, nobody would have believed it. But it’s becoming reality. So gradually, it’s transforming Turkey. Turkey is becoming more involved in Syria and is somewhat losing its autonomy in a way, due to the crisis next door. These events are transforming Turkey. As a state, it’s becoming a serious part of the problem. It’s bad for Turkey.

All of these incidents have somehow been solved successfully, but one day they may not. This is Russia. I don’t think Russians will tolerate so many of such incidents. I’m sure Russian TVs are broadcasting the videos of opposition groups shouting as they stand over the dead body of a Russian pilot. It is something that is disgusting for any public, including Russians. I mean, Russian is Putin-land. They love him, but even he needs to keep public reactions in mind. I don’t think Russia will tolerate many more of these types of incidents.

The dynamics of the Syrian problem can surpass the politics and decisions of countries’ capitals. It may end up digging them into unexpected war-like situation. It’s very dangerous. We shouldn’t underestimate or overlook the significance. This is an alarming incident that could very well escalate things between the two countries.

Syria Deeply: One of the two Russian pilots reportedly remains alive, and has apparently been taken by one of the rebel groups operating in the Latakia area. If it turns out that Islamist or Jihadist forces – like Al-Nusra Front or ISIS – have taken him, what will the consequences be for Turkey? Because obviously the Turkey will be blamed for whatever happens to this Russian pilot.

Bacik: In that case, I think Turkey will put pressure on opposition groups to give the pilot back. What you said is proof of what I said. These developments are continually decreasing Turkey’s autonomy when it comes to Syria. They are becoming increasingly linked, in a very bad way. This is very simple. You attack an airplane and the pilot falls into the hands of some sort of opposition group, so now you’re part of the problem.

All these events are somehow eroding the autonomy of Turkey’s foreign policy. The second thing that remains to be seen is what NATO’s reaction will be. Some may say that Turkey is becoming too costly a partner to keep on board. Turkey has been very unilateral in its relationships with both Syria and Russia. I don’t think NATO is willing to back Turkey in whatever it does. The organization will at least expect of Turkey to harmonize its major decisions – particularly vis-à-vis Russia. Of course, Turkey is a member of NATO, but I doubt it is the one to determine NATO’s strategy toward Russia.

Top image: Mourners gather during a funeral procession in Istanbul, on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015. Aziz Guler, a Turkish Kurd, was killed two months ago after stepping on a mine in northern Syria, while fighting alongside Syrian Kurdish fighters against the militants of Islamic State. (AP Photo/Cagdas Erdogan)

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