Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made incendiary remarks on Thursday, warning that he does not fear chilling diplomatic relations with Russia if Russian planes continue to violate Turkish airspace in their campaign to support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“It is Russia that should be sensitive on these issues. We are the number one consumer of Russia’s natural gas. Losing Turkey would be a serious loss for Russia. If needed, Turkey can supply its natural gas from very different places,” he argued, after dismissing Russia’s reasons for having entered Turkish airspace over the weekend as lacking in “seriousness.” Russian planes violated Turkish airspace at least three times between Saturday and Tuesday, though Russia has only ceded that one of those events occurred. The Russian government cited “bad weather” as the reason for the intrusion.
“We can’t accept the current situation. Russia’s explanations on the airspace violations are not convincing,” he told reporters on a flight to Japan.
Erdogan added that Turkey has “been hurt” by the violation and that he would not be contacting Russian President Vladimir Putin, as “there is no sense in calling under these conditions.”
Erdogan further threatened that, not only is Turkey prepared to confront Russia, but that he had absolute confidence that he could count on both the United States and NATO to support him should he act against Russia’s aggression in Syria. “I don’t believe that the U.S. and Russia could be entirely on the same line concerning an issue involving Turkey… Above all, Turkey is an ally of the U.S. and a member of NATO. So can you imagine that these two states [the U.S. and Russia] would be on the same line in any wrongdoing against Turkey? It’s not possible,” he told reporters.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made clear statements that NATO is ready to take action to defend Turkey at any time. “NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats,” he told reporters on Wednesday, adding, “NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey.”
Erdogan’s statements follow similar words from his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who stated on Monday that Turkey is ready to shoot any Russian aggressor out of the sky if it violates international norms. “Even if it’s a flying bird, whoever violates Turkish airspace will be subject to the necessary actions,” he told Turkish television.
Turkey has been a vocal opponent of Russia’s presence in Syria since the Kremlin announced airstrikes in support of Assad two weeks ago. The Turkish government adamantly opposes Assad’s presence in Damascus, calling for him to be removed as well as the Islamic State and warning that Russia’s presence may only “escalate” tensions in the region. Russia is Assad’s strongest ally, followed by Iran, which has supported Russia’s endeavors.
While the Russian government has claimed that its airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State, Turkish intelligence, Davutoğlu said Wednesday, found that only two of 57 airstrikes, since the Russian campaign began, hit ISIS targets, about 0.03 percent of them. Most are hitting rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army, which opposes both Assad and the Islamic State.