Main challenge in Turkey-Russia axis

Otherwise, it would have been fairly easy to de-escalate the situation and defuse the tension right after the incident, which is likely to be a result of a breakdown in communication for a few critical seconds when the Russian aircraft strayed into Turkish air space. There is no shortage of ample opportunities and plausible explanations for both sides to tap into “mitigating” circumstances, given that Ankara has already publicly announced its revised rules of engagement for any aircraft approaching its border with Syria, showed it means business after shooting down a Syrian plane before and made it abundantly clear to the Russian side in various meetings that harassment and incursions would not be tolerated.

Well, damage control did not happen, precisely because dwelling on a single incident while trying to make sense of prospective Turkish-Russian ties is not enough to explain the true picture behind the smokescreen of the downing of the Russian jet. In other words, one has to look deeper and further to see the real shift in Turkish-Russian ties and not lose sight of the forest for the trees in this particular case. The problem goes far beyond Russia’s loss of an airplane and crew member and rather boils down to deep suspicions lingering on the Russian side about the real motivations and ambitions of the current policymakers in Turkey.

For one, Russia is apparently concerned about Turkey’s future bearing, given the heavy emphasis on ideological zealotry and hardline political Islamist narrative in populist policies pursued by the current leadership. It fears the spillover impact from the Turkish Islamists’ meddlesome policies in the region and beyond that are generously sponsored by state resources. Moscow remains edgy about this activism reaching out deep into Russian heartland and encircling its hinterland in Central Asia. It may be the tip of the iceberg, but the likelihood of the return of battle-hardened foreign fighters who went from Russia to Syria facilitated by Turkish brokers remains a scary specter for Moscow elites.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks a day after the plane incident might shed further light on the fundamental problem that complicates Turkey’s ties with its giant neighbor to the north. He told reporters: “The problem is not in the tragedy we faced yesterday [the Su-24 incident], the problem is much deeper. We see — and not only we, I assure you that the entire world sees that — that the current leadership of Turkey has been for a number of years pursuing a purposeful policy of support and the Islamization of the country.” He immediately added that Islam was a great world religion, one of the traditional religions, including in Russia. “We ourselves support Islam and will continue doing so, but the point at issue is the support of a more radical branch. And that in itself creates a very unfavorable environment, the atmosphere that one cannot see at first sight,” Putin said.

Putin’s blunt remarks explain the real story behind Russian maneuvering with respect to Turkey against the background of the downing of the Su-24. Real or not, it also feeds into the widely circulated Russian conspiracy that the West, primarily the US, is using the political Islamist network to weaken and eventually destabilize Russia. It also exposes the main challenge Turkey has been facing on the domestic and foreign policy front, which is its ideological zealotry in advancing a political Islamist discourse that at times borders radicalism and extremism. Frankly, this new shift has neither served the interests of Turkey nor has it benefited Turkey’s allies and partners. The problems Ankara started to experience with some of the countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, the Gulf, the Balkans and Central Asian republics have a lot to do with these ideological leanings in Turkish foreign policy that amounted to blatant interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh response to Putin’s remarks cited above indicates that the current leadership in Ankara will continue to stick to this flawed policy. He said, “The Syrian issue is a fundamental matter for us just like Iraq, Egypt, the Balkans, Crimea and the Caucasus.” Recalling their Ottoman past, the Turkish president noted that the Middle East and North Africa are an inseparable part of Turkey. Perhaps Erdogan and his Islamists do not realize it but no country in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood and beyond wants this sort of reaching out that is tantamount to open interference into their internal matters.

Earlier this month, the Moroccan Interior Ministry abruptly canceled an Arab-Turkish forum that Turkish government officials were due to attend, despite the fact that Science, Industry and Technology Minister Fikri Isık and a number of ruling party deputies had already arrived in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. The reason was not announced but it was speculated that Morocco did not want to provide a platform for a bunch of Turkish Islamists who were trying to broadcast their radical ideology to its own populace under the guise of an academic meeting. There are various examples of this sort; many countries have grown suspicious of the true intentions of Turkish Islamist elites.

Even in a number of Western European countries and the US, Turkish Islamists have been busy financing and organizing Muslims among Middle Eastern, African and Asian immigrant communities in order to set up proxy groups that are ready to mobilize for political goals. Erdogan tapped into these groups by orchestrating protest rallies in Western capitals when he faced difficulties on the home front and abroad. This clandestine business stirred quite a discussion among the intelligence communities of various countries, especially in Europe where more Turkish immigrants live, prompting host governments to take measures to thwart Ankara’s initiatives that disrupted integration policies.

The way Erdogan and his political Islamist brethren have been handling this shooting incident cannot be explained by prudence, vigilance or national interests at all. With spin masters in the media, they are trying to turn this very delicate issue on its head by creating a heroic narrative to further amplify the political Islamist message to audiences in Turkey and abroad. The stark contrast between the reaction of the Turkish military and Islamist rulers to the crisis clearly shows the diverging interests and motivations among government branches. The former, having full grasp of the seriousness of the incident, is trying to defuse the tension with a careful approach while the latter is throwing more fuel onto the fire to benefit from hyped nationalistic and religious fever.

Given that the new government in Turkey is all stacked with Erdogan loyalists, the aggressive pursuit of an ideological campaign and intrusive approach in foreign policy is not likely to change anytime soon. However, the end result is that as Erdogan wins, Turkey loses.

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN

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