Over the past couple of days, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been ratcheting up the war of words between Ankara and Moscow over that Russian aircraft that got shot down by Turkey a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, in what I can only assume was an appeal to Vladimir Putin’s innate sense of fairness, he asked the age-old question: “What if Turkey Had Been Bombing Inside Ukraine?” See, because Syria is on Turkey’s border, just like Ukraine is on Russia’s…um…and the Turkmen in northern Syria are just like ethnic…Russians…in…ah…yeah, I know. It didn’t work on Putin either, apparently.
Davutoğlu got way more serious today:
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Wednesday accused Russia of carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Turkmen minority in Syria, saying its airstrikes have only strengthened Islamic State.
In blunt comments that are likely to deepen strains with Moscow, Mr. Davutoglu also criticized Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria as counterproductive, and he defended Turkey’s deepening military involvement in the Middle East as essential for protecting his country’s security.
Now them’s fighting words.
Couple of things, though. First, “ethnic cleansing” is a specific concept that means the direct targeting of a particular ethnic (or religious) group for removal from a particular territory. It doesn’t just mean “killing lots of people.” Davutoğlu is accusing Russia of specifically targeting Syrian Turkmens living in Latakia with its airstrikes, but the fact is that it wouldn’t matter if it were Turkmens living there, or Arabs, or Germans, or Vogons–if they’re fighting Bashar al-Assad, the Russians are going to bomb them. Similarly, it’s exceedingly unlikely that Russia would waste time and materiel bombing those Syrian Turkmens if they were allied with Assad instead of with the rebellion. Davutoğlu is using the term “ethnic cleansing” because that’s a splashy phrase that he hopes will attract international attention, but all he’s doing is watering down the concept.
Second, let’s parse this:
Russian strikes on the town of Azaz, he said, have undercut U.S.-led efforts to cripple Islamic State. “Who is benefiting from this?” he asked. “Daesh.”
The rebel-held town of Azaz is a vital gateway for most supplies destined for rebel areas across Aleppo province, where the multisided battle for control has intensified in recent weeks.
“They are bombing Azaz to weaken opposition who is fighting against Daesh,” Mr. Davutoglu said.
This is almost too much. Yes, Syrian Turkmens are opposed to ISIS, and yes, Turkmen fighters are supposed to participate in a planned rebel operation to close off another strip of the Turkey-Syria border to ISIS. In attacking them, Russia is undeniably aiding ISIS. But you know who else has been fighting ISIS, and has closed off most of the Turkey-Syria border to them? Yes, that’s right, Syrian Kurds! Maybe you’ve heard of them? Ahmet Davutoğlu sure has, because his military has been shelling them every now and then! And when ISIS was trying to take the Kurdish-controlled border town of Kobani last year, Turkey opted to help…ISIS! It stopped Kurds from crossing the border to aid in Kobani’s defense, but it may (allegedly) have allowed ISIS to attack Kobani from Turkish territory! Whatever your position on the events surrounding the Kobani battle, though, when Turkey attacks the Syrian Kurds it is also undeniably aiding ISIS. And in its response to Davutoğlu, Russia was happy to let everybody know it.
You know, it seems like maybe ISIS has become just a convenient excuse that some countries can use to justify their actions, or a convenient cudgel they can use to whack on their rivals, rather than something that people are actually taking seriously. But that couldn’t be, could it?
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