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Trent University’s Baris Karaagac explains why Turkey would risk a close business relationship with Russia and assist Islamic extremists in Syria

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. On Tuesday Turkey shot down a Russian jet, claiming it violated Turkish airspace despite being issued several warnings. Russia denied that its aircraft entered Turkish airspace, and Russian president Vladimir Putin described the downing of the plane as, quote, “a stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists.” Some strong words about America’s ally Turkey. And at a joint press conference with French president Francois Hollande, President Obama used the incident to criticize Russia’s air campaign in Syria. Let’s take a listen. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I do think that this points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to a Turkish border, and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries. DESVARIEUX: Going after moderate opposition. Well, our guest today says that’s just not true. And now joining us to put this all into context is our guest Baris Karaagac. He’s a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. Thank you so much for joining us, Baris. BARIS KARAAGAC: Thanks for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: So Baris, let’s get into the intentions behind this incident. From a Turkish perspective, why would Turkey even attack a Russian plane? KARAAGAC: Well, the immediate reason behind such an act by the Turkish state seems to be related to Turkish concerns about the Turkmen population in Syria. There have been several announcements by Turkish authorities that are pointing to the difficult situation the Turkmens have seen as a result of particularly the Russian strikes recently. And again, today, right after the downing of the Russian plane, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, had a press conference in which he said Turkey was willing to first of all protect its own air space, but also it would protect, it would do everything to protect the Turkmens, the Turkish brothers living in Syria in addition to the Arabs of Aleppo. So this might be the reason. But we don’t know the exact, the real, the true motivation behind such an act which has increased the tension between the Turkish state and the Russian state. Right after the downing of the plane, first of all, the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov, canceled his trip to Turkey, which would take place tomorrow. And then Russians announced that they were freezing all their military relations with the Turkish state. And this is significant tension between two countries at–again, this is in a way a little bit unexpected, such a move by the Turkish state. Because mostly what comes to my mind is the trade relations between those two countries. And Russia is one of the major trade partners of Turkey. When we look at, for example, the oil imports and the natural gas imports by Turkey, Russia is one of the main suppliers. Actually, Turkey is reliant, is dependent to a great extent on Russian natural gas. About 60-65 percent of the gas consumed in Turkey comes from Russia. Also in the case of tourism there have been a lot of interaction, and very actually close relationship between the two countries in the past years. After German tourists, Russian tourists constitute the second largest national group in terms of the tourists coming to Turkey. About 4.4 million tourists from Russia visited Turkey in the year 2014. Plus there are so many major Turkish construction companies doing business in Russia. And again, Russians doing business in Turkey. So this is a major, this is a very important cause of tension which would jeopardize such relations between the two countries in the near future. DESVARIEUX: And it’s definitely going to jeopardize what happens in Syria. You know, there are talks that are going on about a political transition in Syria. So maybe we have to dig a little bit deeper, Baris, and talk about the Turkish objectives in Syria. What are they hoping to get out of whatever happens in the future in Syria? KARAAGAC: Well, since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011 Turkey has been very clear. Turkey wanted, has wanted, Assad out. But on that point Turkey has been isolated, particularly in the past couple of years, by the international community. That it’s been so stubborn on its demand that future Syria be constructed without Assad. And with the Russian involvement the picture has completely changed, to a great extent in favor of Assad. So Turkish foreign policy with regard to Syria has been a failure. It would not be an exaggeration to make that argument. And here we–also I would like to talk about–I’m deviating from the question you just posed, but I would like to say a couple things about the press conference done by President Obama and President Hollande. In this press conference, Obama said that Russian strikes against the moderate forces were strengthening the Assad regime, and the Russian strikes should be targeting ISIS instead of the moderate parts of the Syrian opposition. This discourse is quite misleading. What we’ve been–look at the Free Syrian Army. Maybe, yes, it could be considered a moderate opposition force. But it is not the only actor on the ground today in Syria. Another important actor which came to being in 2015 is the army of, the so-called Army of Conquest, which is a coalition of a number of Islamist groups in Syria. And they are also quite active around the Alawite heartland that is controlled by Assad. And this is a coalition that has been targeted by Russian strikes. These guys are anything but moderate. The two main components, elements of this coalition are Ahrar ash-Sham, an Islamist Salafist group, or a coalition, again, and the other one is Al-Nusra Front, which is Syrian Al-Qaeda. I cannot understand how these people can refer to such groups or actors as moderates. And this is the hypocrisy of the Western powers when it comes to the situation in Syria. DESVARIEUX: All right, Baris. Let’s pause the conversation there. In part two of our discussion we’ll get into more about the West, as well as Russia’s relationship now that this incident took place. Baris, thank you so much for joining us. KARAAGAC: Thanks for having me. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Baris Karaagac is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.