Just two months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were photographed together at the opening of Moscow’s grand mosque. Putin used the ceremony to assail the Islamic State while praising Islam. His spokesmen later said the Putin-Erdogan meeting would produce large-scale economic cooperation, and that the two leaders saw eye to eye on a solution to the Syrian civil war.
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The downing of a Russian jet Tuesday by Turkish forces – whether in Turkish airspace (Ankara’s version) or Syrian airspace (Moscow’s version) – shows how misleading photo ops and mutual praise can be. It’s likely to be a long time before these two stage another joint photo.
But one didn’t need this incident to realize that Turkish-Russian relations were on the brink of an explosion. True, Erdogan declared soon after the Moscow meeting that it didn’t matter whether a transitional Syrian government was “with or without” Syrian President Bashar Assad, a change from Turkey’s former stance that Assad had to go before negotiations over Syria’s future could begin. But the next day, Erdogan insisted that Turkey’s policy on Syria hadn’t changed. Moscow demanded clarifications from Ankara, but received ambiguous replies.
In late September, Russia began massive airstrikes on Syria, mainly against the Syrian rebels fighting Assad. Only a few strikes targeted the Islamic State. Turkey soon grasped that Russia’s goal wasn’t to fight ISIS, but to help Assad survive. Not for the first time, Erdogan discovered that a “misunderstanding” had occurred during his talks in Moscow.
Moreover, addressing the UN General Assembly earlier that month, Putin had said the only people fighting ISIS were the Syrian army and the Kurds. Erdogan was furious. Once again, Turkey was being accused of supporting ISIS, or at least not fighting against it.
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Erdogan, whose party faced a crucial electoral test on November 1, was trying to win votes from the nationalist right. Thus he responded to the airstrikes by striking a nationalist pose, warning that if Russia continued to attack Syrian rebel bases, Ankara would reconsider its relationship with Moscow. In particular, he said, Turkey might stop buying Russian gas or cancel contracts worth $20 billion for Russia to build nuclear reactors in Turkey.
These, however, were always empty threats. Turkey buys more than half its gas from Russia, and its contracts obligate it to pay for a fixed amount of gas every year even if it doesn’t actually import the gas. Moreover, Turkey recently sought to up its purchases from Gazprom by three billion cubic meters in 2016, a request the Russian company refused, apparently as part of Putin’s effort to discipline Turkey. And canceling the reactor contracts would require Turkey to pay Russia enormous compensation.
Though the Turkish threats quickly evaporated, Putin neither forgives nor forgets. Russia stopped granting entry visas to Turkish trucks en route to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Mongolia, thereby causing an estimated $2 billion worth of damage to Turkish exports. Moreover, Russian customs officials started conducting exhaustive checks of Turkish trucks carrying fruits and vegetables to Russia, which sometimes resulted in entire shipments rotting.
After the jet was downed, Russia “advised” its citizens not to vacation in Turkey. That’s not a major blow, since due to Russia’s economic crisis, few Russians go abroad these days. But it’s one more in the string of punishments Russia has imposed on Turkey.
The question now is whether Moscow will make do with economic punishments – which, incidentally, hurt Russia as well, since it uses Turkey to circumvent Western sanctions imposed over its meddling in Ukraine – or whether it will also take other steps. On Tuesday, for instance, it announced an end to military coordination with Turkey.
Russia’s problem is that it needs Turkey not just economically, but also diplomatically, to implement its plan for ending Syria’s civil war. Turkey has significant influence over the rebel militias, since it gives them economic and logistical support. Thus if Turkey opposes Russia’s plan, diplomatic efforts to end the war are likely to fail.
Turkey is furious at Russia’s support for Syrian Kurds, whom Ankara considers a diplomatic and political threat. Russia sees the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party as an ally, and the party’s co-leader got an official reception when he visited Moscow on October 9. But Ankara sees the party and its military wing as terrorist organizations, due to their close cooperation with Turkey’s PKK party, which it defines as a terrorist organization.
Turkey has managed to persuade Washington not to directly aid the Syrian Kurds; instead, aid is transferred indirectly, via Syrian Arab rebels. But if Turkey had hoped it could persuade Russia to distance itself from the Kurds as well, any such chance has now vanished.
On this matter, too, it seems Erdogan erred in reading the international map, because the Western coalition is now planning a major assault on Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa and views the Kurds as the most effective ground force available for this assault. Thus Turkey’s war against recognizing and arming the Kurds is seen in the West, and in Syria, as hampering the battle against ISIS.
And Putin put another nail in the coffin of Turkish foreign policy Tuesday when he said ISIS is “protected by the military of an entire nation.” No elaboration was needed to realize that he meant Turkey.
Turkey has every reason to try to contain its crisis with Russia if it wants influence over efforts to end the Syrian war. But as in other cases, rational considerations may be trumped by Erdogan’s enormous ego – or by Putin’s.
Ankara is convinced it was justified in downing the Russian plane, saying that after having made do with warning Russia following several similar incidents, it could no longer forfeit its “national honor” by ignoring violations of its airspace. It also said it warned the pilots at least 10 times before downing the plane.
Nevertheless, a source in Turkey’s ruling party told Haaretz that downing planes is something you do to enemies, “not to a country you have relations with, even if relations are tense.”
“It seems to me that Erdogan was lying in wait for an opportunity to show leadership,” he added. “I have no doubt that Turkey will pay the price for it.”