The recent Turkish action in shooting down a Russian bomber makes sense in terms of Turkey’s strategy in the region. As far as I can tell from news reports it was motivated by feelings of solidarity for the Turkmens, a fellow Turkish ethnicity that has had the misfortune to live on the Syrian side of the border, rather than in Turkey, where they obviously belong. It is noticeable that since the Russians started to take a more active role in the Syrian conflict, they have mainly been concentrating on the non-ISIS sector, in particular those groups in the West of the country that are directly threatening President Assad’s Alawite homeland. This includes various Sunni groups, including Syria’s Turkmens, one of the few minorities in the country that is inclined to side against Assad.
So, both the fact that Russia has been bombing the Turkmens and the fact that Turkey has retaliated are understandable in their own ways.
The problem, however, is that Turkey can only afford such machismo and reckless swagger because it is playing the game with somebody else’s money. Whatever difficulties they get into at the geopolitical casino table, they fully expect to be bailed out by much bigger players.
This is nothing new. The Turks have been in this position since at least the Crimean War (1854–56) when Turkish belligerence and refusal to compromise was steeled by the support of Britain and France.
The confidence the Turks gained from this support, which saw the Russians temporarily humbled, also played its part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, which stemmed directly from Turkish atrocities against their Bulgarian subjects.
Here the Turks misjudged. The ugliness of the atrocities saw them lose the vital support they relied on from the great powers of the West, in particular Britain. The leader of the British Liberal Party, William Ewart Gladstone, wrote an important pamphlet “The Bulgarian Horror and the Question of the East” which greatly undermined any public support for the Turks with its unequivocal and damning tone:
Let me endeavor, very briefly to sketch, in the rudest outline what the Turkish race was and what it is. It is not a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race. They are not the mild Mohammedans of India, nor the chivalrous Saladins of Syria, nor the cultured Moors of Spain. They were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went a broad line of blood marked the track behind them, and, as far as their dominion reached, civilization disappeared from view. They represented everywhere government by force as opposed to government by law.—Yet a government by force can not be maintained without the aid of an intellectual element.— Hence there grew up, what has been rare in the history of the world, a kind of tolerance in the midst of cruelty, tyranny and rapine. Much of Christian life was contemptuously left alone and a race of Greeks was attracted to Constantinople which has all along made up, in some degree, the deficiencies of Turkish Islam in the element of mind!
Gladstone’s campaign caught on and changed the public mood, making it impossible for the Conservative government, led by Benjamin Disraeli, to offer their ally any significant support, even if they had wanted to. The result was that the Ottoman Empire was crushed by superior Russian military power and only saved from being dismantled by the intervention of Bismarck, who wished to preserve the balance of power in Europe and prevent Russia becoming too powerful.
But, Turkey, rather than recognizing that it was now a second- or even third-rate power, and thus behaving with greater restraint and deference to its neighbours, continued to play the role of the grand gambler with other people’s money.
In World War One, it sought to re-establish its power in the Caucasus and the Middle East, much of which had fallen under Russian and British influence, by riding on the coattails of German militarism. When this failed, Turkey too was brought low, as it fully deserved to be on its own merits.
In the post-WWI world, the wisdom of Kemal Ataturk led to a more cautious policy that helped the new Turkish state consolidate and modernize, but with the arrival of the Cold War, Turkey found itself once again in its old familiar position of being a weakling playing the role of a strongman because of the powerful allies backing it up, this time America, NATO, and to a certain extent Israel.
In the most recent case, Turkey has been viewing the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to extend its power and influence through supporting Sunni groups, including ISIS. This would be a respectable if somewhat Machiavellian position if Turkey could make this kind of play on its own merits. But the fact is Turkey can only strut like this because of its big friends in the background.
But perhaps more interesting than the nature of Turkish weakness and strength, is the fact that the Turks do not seem to be fully aware of their true position.
Rather than seeing themselves as what they are — a minor power occasionally backed by other, much greater powers, the Turks seem to be blinded by their more distant history and still very proximate pride into believing that they are still the great empire. The caution that the Russians show them because they are simply a member of NATO — just like Belgium or Norway — they misinterpret as respect for their Janissary prowess.
But just like 1877, when the big guns backing them up chose to take a step back and let them swing in the wind, so today the Turks could find themselves in a similar unenviable position. Just like 1877, they are again tainted with atrocity. The connections between Turkey and ISIS are well established (see here and here), and there is also a great deal of discontent in places like Europe with the role that Turkey has been playing in the mass migrant invasion of Europe that is now forever connected in the public mind with the horrific events in Paris.
As for the war in Syria, whatever Western sympathy there is in this struggle is more towards groups like the Kurds and, in the wake of the Paris attacks there is even an uptick in support for Assad’s regime, rather than the groups the Turks have been assisting, which seem just as savage as the irregular Bashi-bazouks that their predecessor state used to rape, murder, and massacre Bulgarian civilians in 1876. In general, the Turks seem to be supporting any non-Kurdish Sunni groups, including the Turkmens, ISIS, and their fellow jihadis Al Nusrah. As Patrick Buchanan notes, “it now seems clear that in Syria’s civil war, Turkey is on the rebel-jihadist side, with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on the side of the Syrian regime.” Indeed, Noam Chomsky claims Turkey has been giving less to moderate, secularist groups and more to fanatical groups, naming Al Nusrah. As Buchanan notes, this may not end well:
As of today, Putin supports U.S.-French attacks on ISIS. But if we follow the Turks and begin aiding the rebels who are attacking the Syrian army, we could find ourselves eyeball to eyeball in a confrontation with Russia, where our NATO allies will be nowhere to be found.
In whatever way the Russians choose to get their revenge on the Turks, one thing seems certain, Western sympathy for Turkey will be in shorter supply than the Turks expect. Instead of warm reassurance at their back, they may instead find a cold wind blowing.