Following a report in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday that the Turkish jet shot down by Syria was in Syrian airspace and that it was brought down by an anti-aircraft gun with a limited range of only 1 1/2 miles, Prime Minister Erdoğan went on the warpath yesterday, denying the WSJ report and blasting the opposition and the media at large. According to both Erdoğan and the Turkish military, the Turkish F4 Phantom was 13 miles off the Syrian coast and brought down by a surface to air missile. From a foreign policy perspective it isn’t going to matter whether the plane is dredged up in international waters or Syrian waters, or whether it has small anti-aircraft gun perforations in its side or a gaping missile hole when/if it is found. I don’t tend to believe any claims made by Syria, and that goes double for Syrian claims supported by their friends the Russians, but none of this really makes any difference because Turkey isn’t going to war with Syria. The reason it matters where the plane was shot down is because it has the potential to rattle Turkish domestic politics and harm the AKP if Erdoğan’s claims turn out not be true.
Even by Erdoğan’s standards, Sunday’s performance was a doozy. Like he did in May over the WSJ’s Uludere report, Erdoğan once again claimed that the paper was printing lies in order to influence the U.S. presidential election and went after Turkish media outlets for accepting a foreign paper’s word over that of the Turkish military and Turkish Foreign Ministry. Newspapers that translated or relayed the WSJ report were deemed to be “following the path of the cowardly” and the PM attacked CHP opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as standing “shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s values and the Baath regime” for not being supportive enough of the official government position (never mind that last week Kılıçdaroğlu was being criticized by members of his own party for being too supportive of the government). As usual, Erdoğan brought all the subtlety of a jackhammer to his fight with the opposition and the media.
The problem is that by doing so, Erdoğan has really raised the stakes in a situation that could very well backfire on him in a bad way. When he has savaged the opposition or the media in the past, it has not been over the reporting of facts that might turn out the other way. In this case, Erdoğan is banking on his version of events being the right one, and given the ambiguity that exists and the fact that the plane hasn’t yet been found, he might be dead wrong without even knowing it. I don’t think that Erdoğan is in any way lying since I am sure he believes the facts as he laid them out, but there is enough evidence out there – between the WSJ report, eyewitness accounts of the Turkish plane flying at low altitude, and the fact that it was a surveillance plane and was acknowledged even by Turkey to have been flying in Syrian airspace at some point – to suggest that the plane may have been brought down in Syrian territory. If this turns out to be true and Erdoğan is wrong, then his credibility will be damaged in a big way, and it will be tougher for him to cow the media and the opposition going forward by using his well worn scorched earth rhetorical tactics. The next time he accuses Kılıçdaroğlu or any other opposition leader of being an Israeli or Syrian stooge, it will be a lot easier to shake off.
This also highlights the problem that exists when the government is perceived to be less than always truthful and has a reputation for anti-democratic behavior when it comes to the media. Thundering that the press should just trust the Foreign Ministry’s account and ignore any outside reports or evidence to the contrary does not exactly inspire confidence that you are telling the truth, or even that you are interested in it. The Turkish media has been engaging in a lot of self-censorship, and part of Erdoğan’s strategy is to intimidate them to continue to do so. If his claims turn out to be wrong in this case, it will be harder for the media to keep their mouths shut in the future, which will either lead to more open challenging of the official government story line or even more blatant anti-democratic behavior of the type outlined here. Either way, it’s not good for Erdoğan and the AKP, and so yesterday’s performance actually raised the stakes and increased the pressure on the government for the plane to be found where Ankara says it should be and with damage that could only be done by a missile. If not, Erdoğan has dug himself a hole from which he may find it difficult to climb out.