RD Interview: A leading Greek think tank says that the Turkish shooting down of a Russian warplane over Syria is particularly questionable, given how often Turkey itself violates Greek airspace.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a labor union meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. Photo: AP
The shooting down of a Russian Su-24 warplane in Syria by the Turkish air force brought to the spotlight some questions regarding Ankara's own actions in the region. While Turkey says that the Russian jet violated its airspace for 17 seconds and it was justified to shoot it down, Moscow categorically denies that.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claims that an unprovoked attack by the Turkish F-16 against the Su-24 took place in Syrian airspace, four kilometers away from the Turkish border.
For a very different take read the Q&A with John Hopkins University's Robert Freedman: "Lessons from Russia's moves in the Middle East in 2015"
It is indicative to look at the Turkish actions in the context of its own airspace violations of the neighboring countries, first and foremost – Greece. According to a recent study by the University of Thessaly that was based on Greek military sources, there were 2,244 violations of Greece’s airspace in 2014 alone, an increase from 636 in 2013.
From January to October 2015, the country’s airspace was violated 1,233 times, including 31 flights over Greek territory itself, according to the Greek Air Force’s headquarters. Greek press noted the Turks are taking advantage of the country’s economic hardships. However, even before the beginning of the economic crisis in Greece, the Turks were acting quite provocatively and dangerously.
For example, some incidents over the sky of the east Aegean almost triggered a military altercation. It was in May 2006 when a Turkish F-16 and the Greek Mirage-2000 that was trying to intercept it collided midair. The Greek pilot died. Ten years earlier – in January 1996 – two NATO member countries nearly avoided full-scale military conflict when three Greek officers were killed in a helicopter crash over the disputed island of Imia. To this day, many in Greece still believe that the chopper was shot down.
Below, Thanos Dokos, general director of Greece’s leading think tank, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), responds to several questions from Russia Direct about the Turkish action against the Russian warplane. He lays out the Greek perspective on the incident and analyzes its repercussions for the overall conflict in Syria and global struggle with ISIS.
Russia Direct: Given the long history of regular incursions by Turkish military jets into Greece's airspace, do you believe Ankara's recent action against the Russian warplane in Syria was justified?
Thanos Dokos: The Turkish action has certainly caused a bitter smile to any Greek, due to the nature, frequency and intensity of Turkish violations of Greek airspace and frequent low-level over flights of the Greek islands in the Aegean.
RD: Do you expect more aggressive Turkish behavior over the disputed Aegean waters after the downing of the Russian Su-24?
T.D.: The two issues are not linked in any obvious way. In fact there have been no Turkish violations of Greek airspace since the shooting down of the Russian plane.
RD: What kind of repercussions do you expect for bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara in the context of this incident?
T.D.: The cost of any substantial political, economic or military reprisals would probably be prohibitive for both sides. From the perspective of an external observer, however, some kind of – at least – symbolic reaction on the Russian side would be expected as the incident involved loss of life. The hope, of course, is that any Russian reaction would not lead to an escalation spiral.
RD: How does this incident fit into the overall conflict in Syria and the international coalition’s campaign against ISIS?
T.D.: It is a setback as, despite serious differences on issues like Ukraine and the conflict in Syria itself, the main actors, Europe, the U.S. and Russia, appeared to be moving toward a slow and gradual convergence of their respective positions regarding the need to stabilize Syria and defeat ISIS.
RD: Finally, do you think that the Erdogan government is sincere in its fight against international terrorism?
T.D.: In the context of its strenuous efforts to overthrow the Assad regime, Turkey may have offered indiscriminate support to the Syrian opposition, especially the various Islamic groups, thus unwillingly facilitating the penetration of Turkish society by ISIS. Any strong action against ISIS may prove to be quite costly for Ankara. In any case, Turkey’s priorities in Syria remain the overthrow of Assad and the prevention of Kurdish autonomy.