Dangerous provocation

The downing of a Russian plane by Turkey near the Syrian border is indeed a dangerous act that could escalate the already complex Syrian conflict into a much wider war. Ankara’s claim that it acted only to defend its territory because the Russian jet had violated its airspace is hardly enough reason to justify its ghastly act. Turkey and Russia are not at war, and according to Ankara’s own version the Russian incursion lasted only 17 seconds. How did it pose a security threat? An airspace violation is not the rarest of the rare incident in the modern world; nor does every country use firepower to deal with such occurrences. Turkey itself has a long history of violating airspaces and coping with such incidents in its airspace diplomatically. Israel had violated Turkish airspace to bomb Syria in 2007. Turkish and Greek planes violating each other’s airspaces was quite common in recent years. Did Turkey use an F-16 to shoot down all those aircraft? More important, Syria is a complex war theatre where two coalitions consisting of dozens of countries and their proxies are fighting a jihadist group. Turkey, which at least on the record is part of the U.S.-led coalition, should have acted as a responsible power. It could have taken up the issue with Moscow and pushed diplomatically for solutions to prevent confrontations in the air. But by deciding to shoot down the Russian plane, Turkey has not only provoked Russia but strengthened the jihadis’ hands by making it more difficult to settle the Syrian crisis.

It is not a secret that Ankara has been a supporter of Syrian rebels since the beginning of the civil war. Four and a half years into the conflict that killed lakhs of people and led to the rise of Islamic State, Turkey still appears to be obsessed with the removal of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. One of the reasons that made parts of Syria a haven for global jihadism was Turkey’s failure to seal its border, which effectively became a transit point for militants from around the world. It also faces allegations, such as the one Russian President Vladimir Putin raised on Tuesday, that Turkish officials are facilitating oil trade for IS, helping the group raise funds. Though Turkey, under global and domestic pressure, declared war on IS earlier this year, the focus of its bombers was not really on the jihadist group but on the Kurdish militias who were fighting IS on the ground. All these incidents pose serious questions about Turkey’s commitment in the war against IS. Does Ankara really want to defeat the Islamists, or is it hand-in-glove with them for geopolitical reasons? Whatever the reality, the action against the Russian jet has only reinforced the latter view. If not, Turkey should seriously rethink its approach, apologise to Russia, and work along with other nations to settle the Syrian crisis.