Downing of the Russian Plane and its Consequences

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak examines how the diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Russia has caused Ankara to reevaluate its foreign policy, especially towards Israel, and the reaction on Turkish social media.

The downing of a Russian plane that penetrated Turkish airspace on November 24 was the focal point of discussions on Turkish social networking sites (SNS) in recent weeks. The crisis between Turkey and Russia that arose following the incident forced Turkey to re-assess its international diplomatic situation, due to its dependence on Russia for energy (54.76% of Turkish gas comes from Russia),commerce, and tourism.[1] Given its problematic relations with Israel, Egypt, Assad’s regime in Syria, Iran and Iraq, the crisis deepened Turkey’s international isolation. It is against this background that we should understand the messages of reconciliation that Ankara recently began transmitting to Jerusalem. Indeed, Turkey is trying to make the best of a bad situation and its’ “Precious Loneliness” (Değerli Yalnızlık; in the sense of preferring Islamic moral values ​​over short-term national interests) in the international arena. It seems that Ankara is beginning to consider Israel’s Mediterranean natural gas as a possible alternative to Russian sources, and that change is being reflected on the diplomatic level. However, discourse on SNS indicates that the new policy can be expected to encounter resistance from citizens of Turkey, and harm the ruling ‎Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The downing of the Russian fighter jet was met with widespread expressions of support on Turkish SNS; the plane was shot down after completing a bombing mission targeting Syrian Turkmen fighters that were battling the forces of Assad (and his Russian supporters) in the Mount Turkmen region of northwestern Syria. Many in Turkey consider the Turkmen population in Syria an integral part of the greater family of Turkish peoples. Users boasted about the downing, stressing that Turkey is neither the Ukraine nor Georgia, and Ankara will not assent to having its sovereignty threatened by Russia. Because the plane was downed on Teachers’ Day in Turkey, many users tweeted, “Turkey taught Russia an important lesson: do not violate airspace borders.” Turkish nationalist activists, who have been collecting money and food for Turkmen fighters for some time, leveraged the wave of anti-Russian sentiments, distributed posters urging Turks to support “their Turkmen brothers” and used SNS to organize protests outside Russian diplomatic missions in Turkey. Only a few Turkish users expressed reservations about the downing of the plane, and complained that the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had damaged the country’s relationship with Russia.‎ ‎

It is important to note that Russia made extensive use of SNS to deliver messages to the Turkish people, because leading institutional media outlets in Turkey refused to air the Russian version of events. Thus, the official Twitter accounts of the Russian Embassy in Turkey and the Russian Turkish-language news agency Sputnik became the main channels through which the Kremlin sought to influence public opinion in Turkey. Among other things, these accounts sent messages to Turkish users, inviting them to watch the Russian army’s press conference in Moscow. At that conference, the Turkish government was accused of supporting ISIS. While Turkish users who support the opposition retweeted the Russian messages, government supporters called them “cheap, Pravda-style Cold War propaganda.”[2]

Against the background of the crisis with Russia, Ankara began to reconsider its foreign policy. In retrospect, it may be that the public candle lighting held on the eighth night of Hanukkah in Istanbul’s Ortaköy Square, with municipal sponsorship, was the first sign of a change in Turkish policy towards Israel. For the first time in history, Turkish Jews lit Hanukkah candles in a public space. In the spirit of the holiday, they reported that the event was “a great miracle happening there” (pictured). On SNS, too, this event was widely interpreted as being a first step towards normalization of relations with Israel, after years of decline.

Another clear sign came after Erdoğan’s visit to Turkmenistan, where he tried to promote energy projects that could be an alternative to dependence on Russia. Upon returning home, he sent Israel a conciliatory message: “Rapprochement between Turkey and Israel is crucial for the entire region.”[3] A spokesman for AKP, Ömer Çelik, even declared, “There is no doubt that the State of Israel and its people are friends of Turkey.”[4] This newly positive attitude is apparently an outgrowth of the administration’s aspiration to expand the sources of energy available to Turkey, making Israel’s gas reserves something to be wooed. However, in order to avoid political damage, the Turkish government is concealing this new foreign policy for now. Its supporters avoided addressing the issue on SNS, as did government-affiliated newspapers. In contrast, opposition supporters flooded SNS with strong criticism, emphasizing that relations with Israel were being improved even though there was no change in the status quo in Gaza. Supporters of the AKP also voiced criticism, particularly of the statement made by the party spokesperson, claiming that Çelik had expressed his personal view and nothing more. On the other hand, some justified normalization with Israel on the grounds that it served Turkey’s national interests.

In summary, the Turkish discourse on SNS shows that the growing tension in relations with Russia following the downing of the plane did not put a significant dent in support for President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. In contrast, the mood on the networks shows that cautious reaching out to Israel is received with mixed feelings by supporters and opponents of the government alike. Erdoğan and his colleagues are aware that this issue is sensitive, and without the problematic geopolitical situation of Turkey and the worsening crisis with Russia, they probably would not have made such a move. Indeed, they dared to take it only after the general election, when their political position was secure. Either way, contrary to the standard dogma that supposedly dictates the course of Turkish diplomacy, on which Davutoğlu bases his philosophy (and his book Strategic Depth), it seems that Turkey is now forced to change its colors like a chameleon, in response to circumstances.