Conflict Between Russia and Turkey: Old Habits Die Hard...

Lou Brien |

Ten times in five minutes. That is how often and for how long Turkey says they warned the Russian warplane to stay out of Turkish airspace last week.

Seventeen seconds; that is how long it took the Russian plane to traverse the sliver of southern Turkey that protrudes, like a thumbs-down, into Syria. Not much time, but that is all the time it took for Turkey’s F-16 fighter jet to decide to shoot down the Russian Sukhoi Su-24; which it did, on Tuesday morning, November 24.

This was not the first five minutes and seventeen seconds of a new conflict between Turkey and Russia, but rather the latest moments of a relationship that has been contentious for centuries, and it occurred over a parcel of territory that most likely was not a random stage for the next act in this ongoing drama.

This is not to imply that you can connect the dots between historical events and the recent incident. But there are about a dozen conflicts from the 17th to 19th century that can be described as Russo-Turkish wars; they started as early as 1676, though some place the first battles as far back as 1568. I think it can be said that the literal hatchet has never really been buried…it’s just been put off to the side… over there…on the table…easy to access…just in case.

The wars trace the long, gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire coinciding with the expansion of Russia southward to the warm water ports of the Black Sea.


Notable among the conflicts were: the Great Northern War in the early 1700s and the Crimea War of 1853-56 and the last one, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

Russia and Turkey were on opposite sides in the First World War, but Turkey was neutral for most of World War II; they came out with the Allies quite late in the conflict, not until February of 1945. However, even though Turkey did not choose sides for most of the war, the non-aggression pact that they signed with Germany in 1941 allowed the Nazi regime access to the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, much to Russia’s chagrin.

NATO was formed in 1949 in order to provide collective security against the Soviet Union; Turkey was an early joiner in 1952 and is behind only the US in the number of troops committed to the organization; more than 600,000. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was resolved in part because of a quid pro quo involving Turkey; Russia agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba only after the US agreed to expedite the removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey a few months hence.

But by the mid-sixties, the Soviet Union/Turkey relationship began to change. Commercial contacts pushed forward bilateral political contacts. In 1987, the Soviets started supplying Turkey with natural gas; they now account for sixty percent of the market. In recent years, Russia became Turkey’s number two trading partner. Millions of Russians vacation in Turkey and tens of thousands of Turks live and work in Russia, while billions of Turkish investment money has been poured into Russia.

A Deep and Longstanding Conflict

For many centuries, the Ottoman Empire was the Sunni Islamic caliphate; the seat of the religion. To be sure, religion often played a role in the Russo-Turkish conflicts. Turkey became a secular state in 1920 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and while that helped to lessen religion as a factor in relations between the two countries, the issue has never gone away. Ninety-eight percent of the Turkish population identifies as Muslim, and most are Sunni. Turkish President Recep Erdogan proudly wears his religion on his sleeve, and though he denies it, there are some who think he wants to make Turkey a fundamentally conservative Muslim society.

On the one hand, Russia has long perceived that Turkey supports the Sunni Muslim separatist movement in the Chechnya conflict, though that is always denied to be the case. On the other hand, I think it can be said that Turkey sees Russia’s closer relationship with Shia Muslim Iran and their support of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad in terms of religion, as much as politics.

The Russian bombing campaign in northern Syria has been very helpful to the Kurdish natives of the region in their fight against ISIS. But the Kurds and Turks are no friends. Tens of thousands of people have died over the years in the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish independence group known as the PKK. “For us the PKK is the same as ISIS,” said President Erdogan last fall, “It is wrong to consider them in different ways.”

However Rus,sian bombs have fallen onto Turkmen tribal areas in Syria, and this is a group to which Turkey feels a historical attachment. Interestingly, the Russian plane that was shot down by Turkey had been flying over an area that’s heavily populated by Syrian Turkmen.

Turkey wants al-Assad out; now! Russia is not in such a hurry. Turkey doesn’t want another country’s fighter jets repeatedly flying in its airspace, as they claim Russia has been doing. Russia does not want its planes shot down by a country that is supposed be on the same side of the conflict.

I don’t know what happened the morning of November 24 along the border of Turkey and Syria, nor do I know how the situation between Russia and Turkey will be resolved, but it sure looks like old habits are hard to break.

The recent Russo/Turkish incident occurred in or about the airspace above the Hatay Province of Turkey; it is the red area that protrudes down into Syria on the map of Turkey below. Turkey claims that the Russian plane traversed the bottom bit of Hatay, a 17 second trip above the southernmost tip of Turkey, as indicated by the second map.

What About Hatay?

“The province is a melting pot of ethnic Turks and Arabs. It is also a religious mélange, with many Muslims but also a large Christian population, as Hatay includes the biblical city of Antioch. And the province has an acrimonious history,” explained theNew York Times last week. “The League of Nations granted Hatay Province to France after World War I as part of France’s legal mandate over Syria. Ethnic Turks led the province’s secession from Syria and declaration of an independent republic in 1938, and that republic then joined Turkey the next year—much as Texas seceded from Mexico a century earlier, became a republic and soon joined the United States. Syria has periodically questioned the loss of Hatay over the years. ‘If you look at Syrian maps, that province, that chunk of territory, is shown as belonging to Syria,’ said Altay Atli, an international relations specialist at Bogazici University. When Hatay seceded from the French mandate of Syria, Hatay’s borders did not encompass all of the ethnic Turks in the area; many Turkmens remained just across the border in what is now northernmost Syria. For decades, it was difficult for families divided on either side of the border by the secession of Hatay to even visit one another. Tensions finally began to ease during the years immediately before the Arab Spring, but they have resumed in the last several years as Turkey has led calls for the removal of Assad. The fact that Russia has, over the years, expressed sympathy for Syria’s claim to Hatay make the province even more delicate for Turkey, and Tuesday’s incident with the Russian jet even more important, said James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He questioned whether the Russian jet had strayed into Hatay Province’s airspace accidentally or whether Russia might have been deliberately allowing incursions by its jets during military activities in Syria because of Hatay’s tangled history.”

Old habits die hard…

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