Turkey’s foreign policy in 2016 will continue to revolve around the Syrian quagmire. On the one hand, Turkey wishes to influence the talks between the Syrian state and the Syrian opposition which will be launched in order to prepare the framework for a transitional period in the country. On the other hand, Turkey will have to look for ways to normalize its relations with Russia, which began to deteriorate when Russia became more actively involved in Syria. These issues present two sides of the same coin and appear to be the conundrum facing foreign policy makers in Ankara. Past practices have proven that Turkish foreign policy, unfortunately, has not been formulated by Turkey’s experts but rather by politically motivated personalities whose primary motivation for external politics lies in domestic interests.
When Russia intervened militarily against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria at the end of September 2015 and Russian fighter jets violated Turkey’s airspace in the first days of October, it was obvious that relations between the two countries had reached a boiling point. Russia and Turkey appear to be on opposite camps in Syria; Russia, under the guise of fighting “terrorism,” is targeting both ISIL targets and Syrian opposition forces that are fighting Assad, whereas Turkey is a strong supporter of Assad’s opponents and is concerned about Russia’s activities. Signs of a possible confrontation between Moscow and Ankara over their Syria policies were apparent as early as October 2015.
Russia, under the guise of fighting “terrorism,” is targeting both ISIL targets and Syrian opposition forces that are fighting Assad.
On 24 November 2015 Turkey shot down a Russian military aircraft, arguing that it had violated its sovereign air space in spite of repeated warnings. Turkey argued that it acted within its so-called “rules of engagement,” which were established in 2012 when a Turkish fighter jet was shot down by the Syrian army. Today, Turco-Russian relations are suffering from the political consequences of this incident. Russia has asked for an apology, compensation, and punishment of Alparslan Çelik (the person who shot the pilot down as he was parachuting to safety according to the Russians) in order to restore good bilateral relations. However, Turkey has refused to offer an apology. Consequently, Russia has initiated a series of economic sanctions against Turkey, which will hurt Turkey’s trade relations and tourism industry with Russia.  Starting in 2016, Turkish citizens will be unable to travel to Russia without a visa as the bilateral visa-free regime has now been unilaterally cancelled by the Kremlin. Similarly, Russian tour operators are banned from organizing programs to take Russian tourists to Turkey. Turkish constructors will also be negatively impacted due to the now limited business opportunities in Russia. The current impasse between Turkey and Russia is bound to worsen before it gets better, and is entirely counter to the mutually beneficial relationship they have so carefully developed over the last decade.
Could this incident be avoided? Apparently, both sides acted on the basis of false assumptions. Turkey seemed to believe that the seriousness of its warnings and ultimatums to the Russians about incursions into its airspace would be taken at its face value. Turkey therefore assumed that Russia would not dare continue its violations in order not to risk the eventuality of an incident with a NATO member country. Russia, on its part, apparently believed that the so called airspace violations were minor, did not present any real threat to Turkey’s security, and that Turkey would not dare shoot down a Russian plane at the risk of escalating Russia-NATO relations. Both assumptions were out of the context. The incident should have been viewed within the parameters of overall bilateral relations between the two countries. The logical conclusion is that while Ankara and Moscow have differences of opinion on international problems, these diverging views should not bear an impact on their strong strategic partnership. However, the failure to compartmentalize the incident has resulted in a situation that does not bode well for the future Turco-Russian relations and will hardly facilitate the return of the status quo ante, i.e., the situation which prevailed prior to the 24th of November 2015.
The current impasse between Turkey and Russia is bound to worsen before it gets better, and is entirely counter to the mutually beneficial relationship they have so carefully developed over the last decade.
What is to be done? Turco-Russian relations are too important to be sacrificed for the narrow interests of domestic politics. Up until a couple of months ago, Putin and Erdoğan seemed to understand each other well and had developed a good working relationship on a number of issues, both in bilateral and multilateral contexts. True, Russia’s feelings have been hurt and Russia considers the shooting down of its plane as a betrayal of a valuable neighbor, if not of a trusted partner. Confidence plays a crucial role in state-to-state relations. Turkey, therefore, needs to regain the confidence of Russia and should be expected to behave with empathy since Russia has lost two soldiers because of the incident.
Although the November 24th incident between Russia and Turkey cannot be equated to the Mavi Marmara incident between Turkey and Israel per se, Turkey can draw some important conclusions if it believes in the importance of sustaining good relations with Russia.
In order to overcome the misunderstandings and find a mutually acceptable solution to the problem, both sides should try to dignify the merit of uninterrupted dialogue. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to achieve this through official channels, hence the importance of second-track diplomacy.
In the field of diplomacy, a non-zero sum game approach is the key to successful and functional relations between countries. Such an approach, however, should not end up with a lose-lose situation but rather a win-win outcome. Anchored in overlapping interests in the region, Turkey and Russia are well positioned to end the current enmity and restore their good relations, but first they must establish mutual empathy.