So what will happen to Turkey as a result of shooting down the Russian plane? It is widely predicted that Russia will take some sort of military retaliation. However, Russian foreign policy at present is oriented on waiting for the West to misbehave and then exposing its hypocrisy. When it comes to Turkey, Russia may achieve whatever it wants by just sitting back and letting the events which are already in place take their course.
Turkey’s location gives it a place at the top table when international affairs are being discussed. Put simply, you can’t get anything done in the Middle East, Eastern Europe or Central Asia without going through Turkey. Therefore it can extract a high price for its friendship – and has done so for a very long time. No other Western ally would have been allowed to fall into political chaos so frequently, have such a long tradition of military rule, treat its minorities so viciously and be part of the Moslem axis regarded as a threat to world peace, even if the modern state is based on secular principles.
But all this is now backfiring on Turkey. It has long been a trusted partner of NATO and the US because they have had no choice but to trust it, even though they have interfered in its politics to ensure loyalty on a regular basis. But now Turkey has overplayed its hand, and the West has found other partners who are having surprising ease at achieving Western objectives. Shooting down the plane may have been a last ditch attempt to prevent the West abandoning Turkey, but it could end up having quite the opposite effect.
Big men with small manhoods
The West has been seeking a way out of Turkey for a long time. The last straw in this strained relationship was Turkey’s refusal to open its territory to US troops during the second invasion of Iraq. This decision was not as much to do with protecting Turkish sovereignty as it was with calculation: Turkey had its own ideas about who should follow Saddam, and as a trusted US ally it expected to be listened to. That didn’t happen, so Turkey tried to put the US in its place.
The Turkish conception of what that place is is defined by the country’s past. The modern Turkish state was founded as an antidote to the old Ottoman Empire. However Turks are well aware of the extent of that Empire, even if they don’t agree with its conduct in its final decades. Turks may not want to reconquer the old territory but they pride themselves on having once had it. Like the British, who likewise once had a great empire, Turks have an inbuilt resistance to being dictated to by the US, a johnny-come-lately which thinks itself much bigger than it is and can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t just jump to its tune.
This is one of the reasons for Turkey’s domestic instability. Its politicians have traditionally refused to even shake hands in public because that would be seen as a sign of weakness. They have to be tough and uncompromising before the public so that their state can be all the mighty empire once was.
But the US will only put up with so much of that ego-massaging. At regular intervals Turkey’s secular politicians have to be removed by the military, or rather the West, until Washington decides Turkey will be more loyal with a dose of pretend democracy. It may have to trust Turkey, but if the basis of that trust is violated the Turkish state is shown that it is only there on sufferance, and if something better comes along, like an externally-funded military dictatorship, that will replace it.
Turkey has been helping ISIS, that well-known US creation, because it wants to use it against the existing Kurdish nationalist groups who have long demanded a state of their own, which would include a chunk of Turkey. When groups like the PKK resort to terrorism, the Turkish self-conception obliges the country to respond by supporting bigger, louder and more vicious terrorists. The trouble is, the US inserted ISIS precisely to create that Kurdish state. It is doing that job very well, by the hideous methods we all know about. So the West has begun to think: do we really need Turkey, if we have ISIS? Or do we need to sacrifice Turkey to pretend ISIS can’t be defeated?
Display of nothing
There are two main reasons why Turkey illegally shot down the Russian fighter plane. One is a traditional Western one. A few days before, Russian aircraft had disrupted the supply of ISIS oil in a bombing raid. It is known that Turkish government officials are trading this oil, illegally, to Westerners who are purchasing it illegally. Being an oil-smuggling conduit is one of the unwritten clauses of Turkey-US defence agreements, so Erdogan felt he had to retaliate, first and foremost, ahead of other considerations.
The other reason is a more Turkish one. The day before the incident Putin had met Iranian leaders to discuss events in Syria. It was reported that Iran is sympathetic to resolving the conflict by supporting Assad’s replacement by someone of a similar position. Erdogan wants a Moslem Brotherhood government in Syria, and when Turkey has spoken, in events concerning a former colony, it must be listened to. The Russians want to do a contrary side deal, so Turkey has to show it is boss, until it is reined in by the US again.
So once again, Turkey wants to show the West what a good boy it is and at the same time how big it is. But will this posturing do any good this time? ISIS is bigger than Turkey, in practical terms. As long as it remains illegal it can achieve much more than a legal state, hemmed in by things like laws, can. That includes protecting the oil supplies in general, even if not the ones being traded by Turkish government members, who have always been regarded as expendable by the West. Turkey may be a good boy, but does anyone really care?
During the reign of Constantine the Great some vandals knocked the nose and ears off a statue of him. A group of people who wanted the Emperor’s favour went running to him saying how outraged they were. Knowing their agenda, Constantine felt his actual ears and nose in front of them and told them they were still in place. The conversation between Erdogan and Obama after the shooting down of the Russian plane would have been very similar.
Damned by neither praise nor blame
The biggest sign that Turkey might have fatally injured itself by shooting down the plane is the Western silence over the latest Russian claims. Sergei Lavrov has stated that the FSB has evidence of terrorist attacks being planned in, and organised from, Turkey. Usually such claims are greeted with a familiar text from the West – “no real evidence”, “scaremongering”, “desperation”. You can’t accuse Western allies of sponsoring terrorism, simply because they say they don’t.
But the US has said nothing in response. The Turks are being left to stew in their own juices. If these allegations are true, and the Turkish links with ISIS make them highly probable, Turkey would become an international pariah overnight, and knows it.
The US silence is a way of holding the whole country to ransom. Changing the government would mean cleansing Turkey of yet another group of “dangerous” civilian politicians, and also their deeds. By letting them remain, their deeds remain against the country, and the whole state can go down this time, not its rulers. Turkey will be reminded of this for as long as it takes.
Another sign is the ongoing reconfiguration of alliances. It has always been anomalous that the West is fighting on the same side as ISIS in Syria while Russia is opposing it. However, Iran is also on the Russian/Assad government side, and Iran has been an enemy for longer. So the argument up until now has been that used by Chiang kai-Shek during the Japanese occupation of China: “The Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the soul”. Iran has been the enemy for longer, so more recent opponents aren’t as dangerous, and we can ignore their crimes for the greater good.
But this position is fast becoming untenable due to the actions of other countries. Jordan, of all countries, is now supporting Assad, despite its tradition of Western political support and military training by Scotsmen. Even Israel, which has such a powerful lobby in the US, is not only maintaining political relations with Moscow but joining in with Russian MILITARY training, when Syria is where the Russian military are fighting.
These two countries can’t be part of any Western-conceived Axis of Evil. It will soon be easier for the West to disengage from Syria, and brand Turkey as another Moslem enemy, than it will to remain in alliance with ISIS if it wants to keep pretending it is against ISIS to maintain the advantages of its illegality. If Turkey shoots down planes, even enemy ones, it isn’t presenting itself in the right light to its partners – who may of course have encouraged this action, for precisely this reason.
Who are you again?
Turkey has not only painted itself into a corner diplomatically by shooting down the Russian plane. The West is also taking practical action on the ground which will only end up isolating Turkey further than it already is.
According to Italian author Alberto Negri, NATO is already beginning the disengagement from Syria by discussing a non-intervention agreement in Syrian affairs with Russia. This will doubtless be presented as a means of getting the Russians out. However NATO will be withdrawing more troops, and in all probability, this will mean ISIS troops also moving on to other areas of conflict, as the supplies to their Syrian units would rapidly dry up.
What will be the political configuration of Syria if both NATO/ISIS and Russia withdraw? A corridor between Aleppo and Damascus will be left under the control of Assad’s Alawi, as it is now, while the east of the country, stretching into Iraq, will be under the control of the Sunni. In the east, this would mean effective rule by ISIS operatives is replaced by rule by Kurds, who will belong to the same groups who have always tried to overthrow the Turkish state.
No Turkish politician could ever accept this, and neither could the Turkish public. The US knows this, and has exploited it up until now to ensure Turkish assistance with the ISIS project. Help the new guys we sponsor, behind the scenes, or get the Kurds and by lynched, Turkey has long been told. Now it seems that choice has been taken away, without the safety net of another military coup being offered to the rest of the country.
Surrounded by yourself
Turkey shot the Russian plane down in a last ditch attempt to save itself. Turkish governments know they can be overthrown at any time in favour of more reliable friends of the West. But shooting down the plane was exactly the sort of behaviour the West has used to make such transitions in the past.
Erdogan has courted the Islamist vote for a long time. This would position him as a martyr of Islam if he were overthrown, and make any attempt of his to regain power a new “Islamic Revolution”. So the West is keeping him in power, and therefore in blame. It isn’t offering “the restoration of stability”, or at least not yet.
The West has responded to the shooting down of the Russian plane by signaling that Turkey isn’t important enough to save, and Turks know who the more important US ally really is. With the US desperate to convince everyone that ISIS is an unstoppable force, or at least impervious to the Russian Federation, and now the most convenient place to show this would be the secular Moslem state just over the border from the Syria it is trying to disguise a defeat in.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.