Why did Turkey shoot down a Russian fighter-bomber? Tactically, the Russian Su-24 may have crossed briefly into what they Turks consider their airspace. That area, now controlled by Turkey, used to be part of Syria and is still claimed by Syria. If the Russian pilots were using Syrian maps, they thought they were still in Syrian airspace. But to the Turks, they were flying over Turkish territory.
Operationally, the Turks may have shot the plane down in Syrian airspace because it was attacking Turkmen rebels in Syria. Turkmen are ethnic Turks who live outside Turkey. They are found in an arc that runs from the Mediterranean to China. Turkey claims a special right to protect Turkmen wherever they are found.
That claim ties into the real reason Turkey shot the Russian jet down. Following the islamic bombings in Paris, French President Hollande set out to form an American-French-Russian alliance against ISIS. Russia is eager for such a grand coalition. Turkey did not want it to happen. Why not? Because at the strategic level, Turkey is allied to ISIS.
The shoot-down pulled NATO and the U.S. away from Russia, because both felt they had to line up with a fellow NATO member, Turkey. Behind closed doors, they read Turkey the riot act, but in public they had to blame the Russians. Just at a point where, thanks to the French, the U.S. and Russia might have come together against ISIS, the Turks pulled them apart.
Turkey’s de facto alliance with ISIS has been visible for some time. ISIS’s supply lines run through Turkey, which they can only do with the approval of the Turkish government of President Recep Erdogan. Recent ISIS bombings in Turkey have been directed against Erdogan’s political opponents and the Kurds. Turkey regularly carries out bombing missions in Syria aginst the Kurds, America’s only effective ally on the ground and ISIS’s most dangerous opponent. ISIS in turn fights the Kurds, Turkey’s most hated enemy.
Note that Russia now has an opportunity to put an end to those Turkish airstrikes on the Pesh Merga. It can declare any Turkish warplane found in Syrian airspace a target on the grounds that what goes for (claimed) Turkish airspace also goes for Syrian airspace. Russia is openly Syria’s ally; why shouldn’t it help Syria assert its sovereignty in the air?
Why has Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey allied with ISIS? His goal is nothing less than re-establishing the regional place and role Turkey had when it was the core of the Ottoman Empire. At home, he has overthrown Ataturk’s secular state and is re-Islamicizing Turkey. In so doing, he has had strong (and idiotic) support from the U.S. and the E.U. The guardian of Ataturk’s secularism was the Turkish military. The U.S. and the E.U. demanded it surrender that role because it was not “democratic”. Both did nothing when Erdogan arrested hundreds of Turkish officers on trumped-up charges of planning a coup. That broke the power of the military domestically. Once again, the West screwed itself by its worship of its totem, “democracy”.
Abroad, Erdogan seeks to re-establish Turkey as the leader of the region’s Sunnis. That is why Turkey is so bitterly opposed to Assad’s governemt in Syria: it is Alawite, a Shiite off-shoot. Turkey’s support of Turkmen throughout the region is also an element of its strategy to regain its Ottoman role. Protection of Christian minorities was a reason often used by European Powers in the 19th century to justify intervention in Ottoman internal affairs. The Turks now play the same game using the Turkmen.
ISIS is useful to Turkey as a tool to re-establish Sunni dominance over large parts of what used to be Syria and Iraq. The more territory it can take from the Shiites, the better. Again, ISIS is dependent on Turkey; it dare not threaten Turkey, other than Turkish Kurds and Erdogan’s political opponents. Erdogan may well have calculated–rightly, in my view–that the puritanism ISIS and al Qaeda represent will burn itself out, leaving Turkey to pick up the pieces. Those pieces, once parts of the Ottoman Empire, come home to mama. Perhaps Erdogan even sees himself becoming caliph, a title the Ottoman sultan used to hold (it still rightly belongs to the House of Osman).
Is our foreign service too bloody dumb to see all this? Yes. So we continue to act as Turkey’s ally, which is ISIS’s ally, which makes us…? That’s what happens when you intervene in someone else’s Thirty Years War. It gets complicated. Wise men stay home and tend their own fire.
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