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Turkey’s Plane Incident Shows Crackdown on Assad Regime, Disapproval of Russia

October 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In stopping the Syrian plane and confiscating military equipment onboard, Turkey sent a message not only to Syria, but also to Moscow, whose government has blocked international efforts to encourage Syrian political transition. Margaret Warner talks to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what’s behind the plane incident, I’m joined by Soner Cagaptay. He’s director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a columnist for Turkey’s oldest English-language newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News.

And welcome to the program.

SONER CAGAPTAY, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, this is a pretty bold step to send fighter jets to intercept and bring down a foreign plane. What provoked Turkey to take this very assertive step?

SONER CAGAPTAY: I would say two things.

One is, this is Turkey upping the ante with the Assad regime, because Turkey is the spearhead of the international community’s policies to confront his slaughter of the civilians and the demonstrators. But, secondly, and perhaps as importantly, it’s also a snub to Russia.

Russia’s at the forefront of the international opposition to the Western alliance and NATO and Turkey’s policy to confront Assad, and their supporting of Assad’s crackdown. And I think Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is very upset with Putin, and this is his way of telling Putin, I’m upset with you.

And the fact that this plane was forced to land in a Turkish airport just days ahead of Putin’s anticipated visit to Ankara is Erdogan’s way of telling Putin, I don’t want you in my country anymore. Don’t come. And Putin got the message. His scheduled visit for the 15th of this month has now been postponed to November.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet again.

But explain a little more why the tensions are so deep that at least Turkey feels toward Moscow over this. I mean, obviously, Moscow is not cooperating at the Security Council, but…

SONER CAGAPTAY: It’s kind of surprising because for the last two decades, we have seen an improvement in Turkish-Russian ties. Trade has boomed. There’s been business lobbies in both capitals promoting closer relations in both energy and elsewhere.

But now you have seen Turkey confronting Russia, only a snub, though, not really picking a fight because this is the most the Turk cans do. They are scared of the Russians. I think Turkey is seeing that next door in Syria, civil war is brewing. It could turn into sectarian and ethnic war, and that could spill over into Turkey.

So, it’s a fire next door that could burn Turkey as well. They’re scared of what’s going on in Syria. And the more the international community delays action, the more that fire is going to get bigger. And they see Russia and Iran as being responsible, Iran because it supports the regime, Russia because it blocks the international efforts to sanction the Assad regime.

So Turkey’s very angry at the Assad regime, but more so at Iran and Russia because they’re supporting the Assad regime or blocking international policies to punish him.

MARGARET WARNER: And so — and why is Russia standing behind Assad, at least on the Security Council? How do they see Turkey’s role?

SONER CAGAPTAY: I think Russians are for a variety of reasons standing behind the Assad regime.

Obviously, this is their last client state in the Middle East. It’s their only naval base in the Mediterranean. Russians have always wanted to have access to the warmer seas. Russia is a landlocked country, so losing Syria and their Tartus space there is a big loss.

But there’s also other elements. Russia doesn’t like the fact that Syria’s fall is going to create yet another Sunni-dominated state. I think Russia feels that it has a soft belly of Sunni Muslims. And it also feels that…

MARGARET WARNER: In its own country?

SONER CAGAPTAY: In its own country, and it doesn’t want to see Sunni political excitement build to its south, which could resonate inside Russia.

And then there is more reason, which is that the Russians are looking at Turkey’s pivot in the last few years, as Turkey has come back closer to us, to the United States. And they’re not comfortable with that, because they saw NATO and Turkey and the United States get together and take out Gadhafi, and they don’t want that to happen again to yet another ally.

And, finally, last but not least, this is also Putin’s primal fear that if he sets up a precedent of supporting an uprising and the international community to back that uprising, to take out a leader, he is saying, what if tomorrow there’s a Russian spring and what if the same happens to me, too?

So I think he doesn’t like what’s going on in Syria at all.

MARGARET WARNER: But so what message is Turkey sending to Russia? Don’t ship — Russia is a major arms supplier to Syria. Are they saying you can’t use Turkish airspace to ship arms in? Are they saying or at least not on passenger planes? And can they enforce it?

SONER CAGAPTAY: Well, I think that there’s a gray area of legality here and the Turks are enforcing that.

They are saying we can do this because it’s our airspace. We can land your planes down. And they’re probably acting on intelligence that might have come to them from other places. Usually, if the Turks have this kind of good intelligence, it’s not theirs. So, I think there’s a NATO angle in this. And the Turks are — this is their way of…

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning it could have been NATO intelligence?

SONER CAGAPTAY: That’s possible. And I think the Turks felt comfortable to use that intelligence because it’s for them a show a strong arm to both the Russians and the Syrians at the same time.

It’s showing to Assad and saying that the shelling has stopped, but Turkey will not stop confronting his policies, and the best way to do that is to effectively end the arming of the Assad regime.

MARGARET WARNER: So, let’s go back to the Turkey/Syria border, where things really are hot.

The Turkish chief of staff said I think it was yesterday, if these shells don’t stop coming in, we’re going to have a tougher response.

How far is — Turkey has a pretty mighty military. How far are they really ready to go to use that military muscle?

SONER CAGAPTAY: I think Turkey doesn’t want a full-blown conflict for a variety of reasons.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean a conflict with Syria?

SONER CAGAPTAY: With Syria with full-blown war, because — first of all, because they would have to do it alone. It would be difficult to get NATO back in if this was a fait accompli.

There are a number of Europeans like the French who are not keen to come to Turkey’s defense, even though the United States would support that war effort. And a war just at the cusp of the U.S. election campaign wouldn’t necessarily be popular.

And I think Turkey would be left alone for a variety of reasons, so — and possibly the economy would be hurt. Turkey has been on a 10-year growth pattern and nobody wants that kind of a conflict that could end Turkey’s phenomenal growth. So I think, for a variety of reasons, Turkey doesn’t want full-blown conflict with Syria.

What I think we will see in the next few months is the new normal, which is that every time Assad picks a fight with Turkey, whether it’s shelling Turkish territory or something similar, Turkey will act in kind and reciprocate.

And now that we have seen that Turkey has shelled Syria in return for Syrian shelling of Turkish cities, the question is, what if there’s an incident in which, accidental as it might be, the Syrians end up shelling at one more Turkish town, because some of the shelling is not precise and the Syrians are not known for their mastery of these artillery targeting, and what if it falls — if there’s another shelling that could create a large number of casualties, Turkey would have to respond with a larger force.

So I could see the conflict escalating, but I think the Turks really don’t want it to get to the next level, unless they know that the United States and NATO support them.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Sonaer Cagaptay, it’s kind of a bleak picture, but thank you so much.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Thanks for having me.