The friendship between Russia and Turkey must not be frittered away

Repeatedly violating a country’s borders – despite all previous warnings – puts the leader of that country in a difficult position. But should the response be shooting down a plane?

Screenshot from video purporting to show Turkish F-16s shooting down warplane‏ (photo credit: screenshot)
Screenshot from video purporting to show Turkish F-16s shooting down warplane‏
(photo credit: screenshot)
Turkey and Russia are friends rather than mere neighbors, that have managed to get along ever since the leadership of Ataturk and the era of the Soviet Union. The downing by Turkey of a Russian plane on November 24 therefore profoundly shocked the peoples of both countries.
Analysts attributed the incident to several factors. Was this really imperative, or was it a mistake?
The aforementioned analysts claimed that the incident was retaliation for Russia’s attacks on Turkmen in Syria. Turkey had previously issued several warnings to Russia concerning attacks on areas inhabited by Turkmen, it was argued, and declared publicly that some of the areas bombed harbored no radical elements. Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told that the bombing of Turkmen villages could have serious consequences; Russia was asked to put an immediate end to the operation. The Russian bombing of Turkmen areas had therefore been a sensitive issue for Turkey for some time.
However, if the aim behind the downing of the Russian jet was really to issue a warning to Russia on this matter, then Turkey should have seen benefit from it. Russia should have realized its error and pulled out of Turkmen areas. However, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis Russia continued its bombing of Turkmen areas and even restricted the airspace around them by moving in advanced air defense systems, thus limiting Turkey’s ability to act in the region. That Russia would do this was not difficult to foresee. It is obvious that the downing of a Russian plane could do Turkey no good in that sense, and it is therefore unrealistic to regard it as some kind of retaliation for attacks on the Turkmen.
Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assurance that they wouldn’t have downed it had they known it was a Russian plane also confirms the fact that it couldn’t have been an act of retaliation.
The second allegation of some analysts commenting on the incident was that Russia and Turkey support different sides in the Syrian civil war and will – sooner or later – come into direct conflict. First, if this is the case it is illogical for the two sides to have waited five years. Moreover, a diplomatic initiative has been taken aimed at a solution in Syria. Although these diplomatic steps haven’t been put into practice on a large scale, the Vienna talks were perhaps of most concern to Turkey. The questions of the Turkmen of Georgia, Crimea and Syria, also of close concern to Turkey, had previously been resolved by diplomacy and negotiation between the two countries. Although there are certainly differences of opinion on numerous issues between the two, they have managed to get along and it is unrealistic to expect their disagreements over Syria to suddenly transform into an all-out shooting war.
Looking at the subject once again in the light of all this, it appears that the action was aimed not against Russia, but for the defense of national borders. The border violation consists of a number of details:
Following the downing of an unarmed Turkish jet with its identification system turned on by the Syrian regime on June 22, 2012, Turkey changed its rules of engagement. Accordingly, any military element approaching the Turkish border from Syrian territory would be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target. This decision, which is in line with the international law, had been shared with all relevant countries.
Some analysts point to our Aegean border with Greece as a similar instance. Border violations between Greece and Turkey happen on a frequent basis, and jets routinely warn and chase one another off. However, it is inaccurate to compare the disagreement in the Aegean to the present matter, because the rules of engagement that were changed in 2012 refer only to the Syrian border. Indeed, a Syrian Air Force Mig-23 fighter and a MI-17 helicopter were brought down within the scope of the new rules, and drones were also responded to on two separate occasions.
Let us remember that Turkey cannot afford to not protect its border with Syria as Turkey and NATO have many militarily and financially significant bases in the region. In addition, many of our people in Turkish border villages have lost their lives due to border violations. Therefore it is impossible for Turkey to ignore any violation of its border with Syria. Russia is the country most responsible for such violations. Russia commenced its aerial campaign in Syria on September 30, and committed 13 violations in the space of just seven days. The violations continued, and on October 3-4 Ambassador Karlov was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and reminded again of the rules of engagement. On October 16, a Russian drone was shot down by Turkish jets.
These violations increased when Russia started its attacks on Turkmen areas but were not directly made public. However, they were put to delegations at high-level meetings with Russian military officials. When the number of violations increased, Turkey sought US assistance, and F-15 fighters capable of fighting Russian Su-34s were sent to Turkey’s Incirlik air base. Although such violations were frequent, Turkey and Russia, two good allies, always managed to solve these problems amicably.
Repeatedly violating a country’s borders – despite all previous warnings – puts the leader of that country in a difficult position. But should the response be shooting down a plane? Of course not.
Although escalating the rules of engagement to war conditions is permissible under international law, shooting a plane down endangers the lives of the pilots and people on the ground. We cannot therefore possibly approve of such a course. The important point here is to emphasize that there was no irregularity under international law and that we have no hostility toward Russia. Indeed NATO, and countries such as the US, France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain and Holland have declared that there was no breach of the law in the application of the rules of engagement.
We are in a very sensitive time. It is essential for leaders to avoid harsh words and an angry tone that they will later regret. People know that I have long bravely opposed the policy of isolating Russia in my writings and other statements. Harsh words may strengthen that isolation worldwide and that is not what we desire. Commentators on both sides must act with reason, use a language of peace and love and avoid language of anger and hatred. Angry words may come to one’s tongue very easily for a moment, but they are exceedingly hard to retract. It must not be forgotten that such intemperate language can push ignorant, loveless and vengeful types totally out of control, and that this would seriously damage both communities. Those who strive for peace must now become engaged.
The Turkish and Russian peoples do not desire any falling out. That is one of the main reasons for the approval our peace messages in Russian newspapers have received. Turkey is an important doorway through which Russia and the Islamic world can come together and interact more strongly. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rational policies have strengthened that solidarity. This valuable friendship we enjoy with Russia must not be frittered away through harsh rhetoric that cannot be retracted.