By Nuray Mert
Last week, Russian planes killed three Turkish soldiers and wounded 11 in “friendly fire” on the same day as the new head of the CIA visited Turkey.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the incident was a “mistake” and expressed his sorrow, there is still no common agreement on the causes of the “mistake,” as Turkish officials claim that they informed the Russians of the location of the soldiers 10 days ago. Nevertheless, the government and its Islamist supporters have exhibited a curious kind of sobriety in the face of this terrible incident.
As freedom of expression remains terribly limited, the Turkish media has generally also refrained from scrutinizing the event. The reason for this restraint must be related to the policy of avoiding any confrontation with Russia.
Still, the incident reminded me of the dubious quality of “friendly fire.” Veteran SAS member Niall Arden’s book on a clandestine mission heading by himself in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003 (Desert Fire, The SA in Iraq- A Shocking True Story, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006) came to my mind right after the Russian friendly fire incident.
Among other operations in the book, Arden tells the story of a Kurdish force that encountered “friendly fire” by the U.S. on its way to Kirkuk. Arden writes that the issue was complicated by the conflicting demands and concerns of Turkey and Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq over the contested city of Kirkuk. Kurdish forces were willing to march to Kirkuk and take control of the city, while Turkey was extremely sensitive about preventing Kurdish control of the city and the Americans warned the Kurdish forces against their claims in response to Turkey’s pressure. Arden writes that despite the American warning, a branch of Kurdish forces decided to march to Kirkuk anyway and was only stopped by friendly fire from the Americans: “[I knew that] the Americans would use any measures to stop them taking Kirkuk … Perhaps this friendly fire incident had been intended to resolve the situation.
Just as Turkey’s military operation in Syria recently advanced to the point of seizing Al-Bab, the Syrian regime’s forces also recently reached the borders of the town. A recent New York Times article (Feb. 10) claimed that “Turkey and Russia have agreed that the pro-government forces not the rebels (that Turkey supports) will enter the city.” It has all become a very difficult situation. Perhaps Turkey was not sufficiently convinced by Russia’s plan for Al-Bab and the “friendly fire” incident can thus be seen from this perspective.
By the way, the sobriety of the Turkish government and Turkish Islamists has not been limited to their reactions to the Russians. The Israeli Parliament recently approved thousands of new settlements in the West Bank and conducted missile attacks on Gaza, but there has been great silence on the side of Turkey’s government and Islamist circles. Those things happened while Turkey’s minister of culture and tourism was visiting Israel last week, yet he chose to talk about the prospects of more Israeli tourists visiting Turkey instead of making a fuss about settlements and Gaza.
The recent executive order by U.S. President Donald Trump banning visas on a number of Muslim countries, including Syria, was also met by great silence by Turkey and many other Muslim countries. Sobriety is certainly a wise quality in politics, but it is quite curious to see it extolled by Turkey’s Islamists, who not so long ago were on the verge of declaring war on their allies, let alone their foes.
What’s more, this sobriety must also be reserved for reactions to foreign countries, as the Turkish government has increasingly little patience for its internal critics.