Why Erdoğan Decided to Shoot down a Russian Plane
December 12, 2015
The editors of Aydınlık, a Turkish newspaper, asked Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes a number of questions about the shoot-down of the Russian plane on Nov. 24. He sent in his replies on Nov. 27 but did not hear back. We provide these replies here, as he wrote them, in English.
Turkish aircraft shot down a Russian SU-24 in northern Syria on November 24.
As relations between the Turkish and American governments have worsened in recent years, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sought improved relations with Russia and (to a lesser extent) China. With the shoot-down of the Russian SU-24 warplane, Erdoğan has seemingly thrown away this option. Why?
Erdoğan's aggressiveness has won him near total-power within Turkey, so he naturally assumes that the same methods will work on the international stage. But they do not. Although he had made some major achievements in foreign policy until about 2011, his record since then has been dismal, featuring worsened relations not only with nearly every state near Turkey but also with the great powers and even with the Turkish administration in northern Cyprus. Shooting down the Russian plane fits within this context of steady belligerence.
Do you think Turkey benefits from the shoot-down that compensates for losing Russia?
No, there are no benefits. I see only disadvantages. This incident marks a major reversal from the Turkish government's point of view.
Was it really necessary for Turkish forces to shoot down this warplane?
It was completely unnecessary. The Russian infringement was very minor, apparently lasting just 17 seconds, hardly a mortal offense between two states at peace. Also, air-space infringements take place routinely; for example, a Greek defense economist, Christos Kollias, has counted 6 infringements a day in 2014 by Turkish military aircraft – and the Greeks did not shoot a single time at them.
Perhaps relevant is that Syrian forces shot down a Turkish plane in June 2012, saying it infringed on Syria's airspace and Turkish forces shot down a Syrian plane in March 2014. The most recent shooting may have been motivated in part by a further desire to avenge the 2012 incident.
Are the economic sanctions that Russia intends to apply on Turkey realistic?
Very realistic. Russia's President Vladimir Putin showed in the Ukraine crisis that he is willing to accept economic pain to achieve his larger purposes. Noting that Russia and Turkey are among each other's largest trading partners, Putin can certainly make life more difficult for Ankara, especially at a time when the Turkish economy has slowed down.
Will this incident hurt Russian relations with the West?
I doubt it because Russia is widely seen as the victim in this incident. Indeed, Turkey's NATO allies are concerned that, for the first time since 1952, a NATO member has shot down a Russian plane – and without due cause. They see this as irresponsible and dangerous; among other problems, it impedes cooperation with Russia in the skies of Syria. Erdoğan has made Turkey a problem for NATO.
How would you evaluate Turkish-American relations after this incident?
The shoot-down adds yet another tension between the governments, on top of others such as Ankara's policies toward press freedom, the civil war in Syria, and mass illegal emigration to Europe.
What do you see as the long-term consequences of this incident?
The Russian and Turkish leaders' similar personalities suggests that neither of them will compromise or retreat, implying that this confrontation will have lasting repercussions. For the Turkish government, it is another major step toward economic troubles and its purportedly happy isolation.
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