Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
What the blithering flip is Vladimir Putin playing at? In the short time that Russian aircraft have been active in Syria, they have invaded Turkish airspace four times. On the first three occasions, Ankara responded by telling Moscow, in an increasingly exasperated tone, that future incursions would trigger a military response. It made no difference. President Putin likes to push and push until he meets resistance. He did it in Georgia and Ukraine; he is arguably doing it in the Baltic States; he is certainly doing it in the Levant.
Before considering whether Turkey’s response was proportionate, ask the prior question: what were Russian planes doing there in the first place? Even if we set aside the border infraction, what were they doing bombing Syria’s Turkmens, who are affiliated to the Western-backed National Coalition? Islamic State is not active in that part of Syria, the region known to its inhabitants as Bayırbucak.
Turks naturally sympathise with their sundered kindred, who were repressed under the Ba’athists, and who have since taken up arms against both ISIS and Assad. Targeting this group was the kind of calculated provocation in which Putin specialises. The repeated airspace violations, the refusal of the pilot to heed warnings, the lies that followed – all were textbook Soviet-style provokatsiya.
If you think I’m being too hard on Putin, listen to how the two governments responded to the tragedy.
Here is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “We have no intention of escalating this incident. Turkey has never wanted tensions; it will always favour peace and dialogue.” Here is Ahmet Davutoğlu, his prime minister, addressing MPs: “Russia is our friend and neighbour. Our bilateral communication channels are open.” Now here is Vladimir Putin: “The loss we suffered today was a stab in the back, delivered by the terrorists’ accomplices.” In case anyone missed his point, Putin went on to accuse Turkey of siding with Islamic State, and warned darkly that there would be “serious consequences”.
The idea that Turkey is somehow backing ISIS has become a popular meme, assiduously spread online by Russian agents provocateurs, and taken up by some in Western Europe, not least those affiliated to Marine Le Pen’s bloc of nativist parties. Since the comment thread below is likely to attract some remarks in this vein, let me address the charge.
Turkey formally joined the anti-ISIS coalition in 2014, first making its bases available to U.S. forces flying sorties over ISIS-held territory, then launching its own strikes. At the same time, it started training Peshmerga forces from Kurdish Iraq. (Western commentators sometimes refer lazily to Turkey fighting “the Kurds”, failing to distinguish between the Marxist PKK and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, which enjoys cordial relations with Ankara.)
Turks had every reason to strike at ISIS. Those desert Kharijites have either claimed responsibility for, or otherwise been implicated in, bomb attacks in Reyhanlı, Diyarbakır and Suruç. ISIS remains the prime suspect in the monstrous suicide bombing in Ankara last month, in which more than 100 people died, and 400 were injured.
Critics sometimes allege that Turkey is profiteering from cross-border trade with the Islamist badmashes, or else that it is pursuing its military campaign half-heartedly. The first charge will unavoidably have elements of truth, for reasons of geography. Turkey has a long frontier with ISIS-held Syrian territory. Where there is money to be made, people will try to make it. ISIS needs to sell its assets abroad, and trade tends to find a way.
Should the Turkish authorities be doing more to crack down on smugglers and corrupt local officials? There is always, of course, more to be done. But it’s only fair to take that country’s circumstances into account. Since Syria began its descent into hell, more than two million displaced people have sought safety in Turkey. I was working with some of them in a refugee camp on the Syrian border last year as part of an AECR social action project – Kate Maltby wrote about it for ConHome at the time – and was struck, as Kate was, by the unfussy and uncomplaining way in which Turks were dealing with the crisis. Not a single Turkish party argued that the borders should be closed, or the refugees moved on. By way of contrast, consider the reactions in the EU when it was suggested that 120,000 people might be shared out among 26 states.
This refugee crisis also contextualises the other main charge against Turkey, namely that it seems to be more concerned with fighting Assad than with fighting ISIS. Those two million Syrians living and working in Turkey are largely refugees from Assad’s forces. They brought their horror stories with them, which naturally touched their hosts’ sympathies. The consensus among most Turkish commentators – government and opposition – is that Assad is the root cause of the problem, and that his brutality is what called the Islamist opposition into being in the first place. Now you might disagree with this analysis. You might argue that the sheer wickedness of Baghdadi’s slave state ought to make its extirpation our priority. Fair enough. But that is a world away from averring that Turkey is an “accomplice” to ISIS.
None of this is to say that Ankara should be beyond criticism. Plenty of Turks, including supporters of the governing party, have been alarmed by some recent developments: the readiness to sue journalists, the judicial crackdowns, the shift in power from legislature to executive. Friends of Turkish democracy should not be afraid to point out when wrong turns are taken. Still, the idea that Turkey is somehow on the way to becoming a second Iran, or that it is no longer a proper democracy, or that it is secretly siding with ISIS, is absurd. Such histrionics make it harder to voice reasonable concerns.
Conflicts between Turkey and Russia are not new. We are a few weeks away from the centenary of the Battle of Erzerum, a grisly mountain engagement between Tsarist and Ottoman forces that marked the culmination of a 350-year Russian expansion into the Sultan’s empire. Other than a brief flirtation between Atatürk and Lenin (which Atatürk’s Western admirers studiously overlook, just as Sisi’s Western admirers studiously overlook his closeness to Putin) the two great Black Sea powers have tended to be regional rivals. Britain’s policy, for what it’s worth, was traditionally to support Turkey.
Vladimir Putin is now consciously reactivating Russia’s Cold War alignments. As Assad père was Brezhnev’s client, so Assad fils is Putin’s. Turkey finds itself in a familiar position, with Syria on one side and its Russian patron on the other. No wonder it has asked Nato for help; no wonder Nato is sympathetic.
There are no easy solutions to the Syrian imbroglio. If there were, we would have found them by now. Assad and ISIS have, between them, devastated that land, forcing Syrians either to flee or to pick one of the two extremes. About the only thing that I can say with confidence is that we ought not to be weakening those militia groups that are Western-oriented and are opposed to both ISIS and Assad. When I see Putin bombing them, I know whose side I’m on.