Turkey's downing of a Russian jet which briefly crossed into its airspace from Syria on Tuesday provoked a furious response from Moscow. President Vladimir Putin slammed the action as a "stab in the back" by "accomplices of terrorists" and went on to allege that the Islamic State was exporting Syrian oil through Turkey, a direct shot at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In Ankara, officials maintained their right to defend their borders, but struck a conciliatory tone. Pro-government media, meanwhile, celebrated what they saw as a stiff rebuke to Russia. In the aftermath of the incident, Turkey contacted the UN Security Council's permanent members to explain the situation and called an urgent NATO meeting, followed by a government security summit. Its first political statement came not, as protocol would dictate, from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but Erdogan himself, newly empowered by recent parliamentary elections which his AKP won decisively.
Speaking in Istanbul, he sought to downplay the situation. "Turkey does not want to escalate this incident. Turkey only defended its security and its brothers' rights," he said, referring to the Turkmen rebel groups Ankara backs in Syria, who are ethnic Turks and have been bombed by Russia.
Erdogan added that Turkey had consciously avoided a military reaction to previous Russian violations of its airspace. "The only reason that such an incident did not take place before is Turkey's good faith and its restraint," he said. "Turkey is not on the side of tension, crisis and animosity."
Davutoglu didn't mention the jet at all on Tuesday when announcing Turkey's 64th government, a cabinet dominated by Erdogan's allies, but at an AKP meeting on Wednesday, he said Russia was Turkey's friend and neighbor. "Relations between big countries cannot be sacrificed over communication accidents," he added.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party or CHP, also urged calm, whilst backing Turkey's right to defend its territorial integrity. "We call on Russian authorities to act with restraint as we do for our country's authorities. Things won't proceed with grudgefulness and anger," he said, according to remarks reported in Today's Zaman.
But Turkey's nationalist and pro-government press was less restrained, with many applauding the shooting down of the Russian plane. "Turks taught Putin a lesson", trumpeted the conservative pro-government Sabah in a piece that extensively quoted a Daily Telegraph report. Right-wing populist Takvim ran a video entitled "Turkish Eagles Warned Russia Like This".
Right-wing Aksam columnist Kurtulus Tayiz said "The most concrete result of this incident is Erdogan destroyed Putin's charisma as a world leader."
Yildiray Ogur, another columnist, welcomed the incident as a sign that Turkey is becoming increasingly "free" in foreign policy terms for the first time since the Cold War. "Turkey is making its own way… it is constructing and defending its own position by staying within the alliances," he said. "Erdogan's and Davutoglu's self-confident and down-to earth new foreign policy perspectives are behind this success."
Putin also claimed on Tuesday that the downed jet, which crashed just across the Syrian border in coastal Latakia province, had been attacking IS. The jihadist group is not thought to have a presence in the region, however, which is instead dominated mostly by Turkmen militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and opposed to the Russian-backed Syrian regime.
The Turkmen people, who are Turkish by both ethnicity and language, faced harsh repression at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ruling Baath party, which banned speaking or writing Turkish, as well as the spread of cultural practices. Many of the rebel brigades have received training from Turkish security forces, as well as continued backing from Ankara, and are fighting against both Syrian government troops and IS.
Clashes between Turkmen brigades and pro-Syrian government forces — including army regulars, Iranian troops and the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah — have been ongoing in the area close to crash site for weeks, and Russian aircraft have repeatedly bombed rebel areas. The strikes were a source of consternation for Turkey, and its foreign ministry summoned Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov to complain about what it described in a November 20 statement as "the bombardment of civilian Turkmen villages" close to its Yayladagi border crossing.
Turkey's defense of what many of its citizens see as effectively countrymen was also widely commented on by local media. "Firstly the Turkish people are deeply concerned that their Turkmen brothers and sisters are being butchered by Assad and this is being done with Russian and Iranian help only a few kilometers off the Turkish border," columnist Ilnur Cevik said in the English-language Daily Sabah.
Putin also promised a Russian reaction to Turkey's downing of its bomber, but Cevik also maintained that Turkey would stand its ground. "Turks will not be blackmailed with the prospects of their natural gas being cut off by Putin. They will not be intimidated with Russia playing a power game in Syria and hurting Turkey's security interests. They should look back on how the Turkish people did not bow to an American's arms embargo in the 1970s when Turkey was not as strong as it is today."
Many also reacted angrily to Russian suggestions of Turkish links with IS. Similar allegations have frequently been leveled at Ankara, however. Turkey's porous borders have allowed the jihadist group to supply itself with fighters and supplies relatively openly. Trading links between IS and Turkish smugglers have allowed it to export millions upon millions of dollars worth of oil, something that at least some officials are widely expected to be aware of.
Security has now been tightened significantly, but this somewhat blasé attitude is partly the result of Turkey's animosity toward Kurdish militants on both side of the border, themselves one of the only effective fighting forces battling IS in Syria.
"Turkey does not support those who are called "terrorists" by the whole world, i.e., the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)," Mustafa Aykol argued in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. "And Russia's fight is less against those terrorists but more against the rebels that the West also supports."
Turkey's partisan media outlets also used the incident as an excuse for political point scoring. The hardline Islamist and avidly pro-AKP Yeni Akit alleged that the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) was "with Russia" in a piece that said the political party had "no limits to its treason".
A separate Takvim piece described CHP's Kilicdaroglu as "Moscow's guy" in a headline, whilst Sabah said the situation was a "slap in the face" to opposition newspapers, including Cumhuriyet, Sozcu and Zaman.
Other indignant column inches were dedicated to anti-Turkish events in Russia. Sabah reported a protest in front of the Turkish embassy during which protester threw eggs and stones at the Turkish embassy in Moscow, as an "Ugly Attack to Turkish Flag in Russia". Cumhuriyet for its part ran a report saying that Russia had begun to mistreat Turkish airline passengers. The interviewees mostly described the situation as ok, apart from some delays.
Some of the protests were less elaborate. Yeni Akit also noted that a Wikipedia user had edited the Turkish-language page for Russia so that for a time it showed up in search results as a vulgar insult directed at one's mother.
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