On Tuesday 23 November a Russian Air Force Su-24 Fencer ground attack aircraft was shot down by an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile fired by a Turkish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon interceptor aircraft. The pilot was killed by ground fire after he and his navigator ejected successfully from the stricken aircraft and the navigator was later rescued by Syrian and Hezbollah commandos. The pilot was killed by ground fire from Turkmen militia with close links to Turkey. There is video evidence to prove that both the crewmen came under fire while they were descending in their parachutes, which is against the Geneva Convention and a war crime. Further, a Russian helicopter send to retrieve the Su-24 crew came under fire and was subsequently destroyed with the loss of one crew member. The attack on the helicopter was carried out by US-backed rebels with US-supplied TOW (Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided) missiles.
Ankara claims that it had warned the Russian fighter ten times before firing the missile because it threatened the security of the nation. However, it also accepts that the aircraft strayed into Turkish airspace only for a fleeting 17 seconds. It is difficult to imagine how a 17-second incursion by a single aircraft posed a security threat to Turkey. Following this incident, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey, and implicitly President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of ‘stabbing [Russia] in the back’ and of being ‘accomplices of terrorists’. Putin warned of serious consequences in the bilateral relationship between Russia and Turkey. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov, cancelled his scheduled visit to Ankara, which was meant to improve this very relationship. During the initial war of words, the US kept a distance from the spat, denying any involvement in the fiasco.
The shooting down of the Russian Su-24 cannot be viewed as an isolated incident—it has a long history behind it. On 22 June 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom Reconnaissance jet, almost certainly with a Russian supplied, and maybe even manned, air defence system. This increased the tension between Turkey and both Syria and Russia. Since then Turkey has been keen to demonstrate its capability to safeguard the sovereignty of its airspace. It had also managed to convince the US to deploy a Patriot air defence missile battery early this year in response to its concerns regarding air violations by Syrian aircraft. However, the battery is being withdrawn now, much against Turkey’s wishes and ‘demands’ that they be left in place.
Politically, Erdogan has been vociferous in his condemnation of the Russian intervention in Syria, even warning that Turkey would re-examine the energy deal that it had agreed to with Russia. However, most observers considered it rhetorical bluster meant for a domestic audience. Turkey’s position concerning Syria is at odds with that of Russia, especially with regard to the future of Basher al-Assad and his regime. The seven week old Russian campaign has wiped out all the ‘gains’ made by the US-Turkey-Saudi-Qatar supported jihadi terrorist groups. Currently the pro-Assad Syrian Army is on a winning streak with Russian support. This is anathema to Turkey, and the AKP’s, read Erdogan’s, electoral victory on 1 November seems to have increased its assertiveness and willingness to use military force. The shoot down of the fighter jet indicates a rigidity in Turkey’s stance regarding Russia’s expansion of its campaign.
Immediately on bringing the aircraft down, Turkey asked for an extraordinary meeting of NATO ambassadors. This was obviously a calculated move to—deter any immediate Russian military response; push for further US and NATO commitment to safeguarding the sovereignty of Turkey’s airspace; and to throw a spanner on the French initiative for the ‘Western’ coalition to operate cooperatively with the Russian campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and other rebel groups, some of which are directly supported by Turkey. However, the European nations are unlikely to be swayed in support of Turkey since their domestic compulsions make them more interested in finding a political solution to the Syrian Civil War. Given the status of Turkey as a member of NATO, the incident is highly unlikely to be escalated into an air war, but there is no doubt that tensions between Russia and NATO will exacerbate.
This ill-considered action is akin to Turkey shooting itself in the foot and there will be immediate repercussions. Turkey has been pushing strongly to create what it calls a ‘safe zone’ along its southern borders, but in Syrian territory. This safe zone, in actuality a no-fly zone, is meant to provide sanctuary for the extremist Turkmen that it supports and who act as Turkey’s foot soldiers in its bid to remove Assad from power and convert Syria into a Turkish vassal state. The act of toppling the Assad regime is the centrepiece in realising Erdogan’s dream of creating a new ‘Caliphate’ with Turkey as the core. After the November election victory, the AKP has been concentrating on salvaging and reinstating a failed strategy that aims to replace a secular Syrian government with an Islamic one. With this single aerial encounter the concept of a ‘safe zone’, from within which the Turkmen would operate into Syria to remove Basher al-Assad, has died a premature death even before seeing the light of day.
So who are these Turkmen? They inhabit the Latakia region of Syria and are reported to have numbered more than 200,000 before the Civil War. They are allied with Turkey and are Sunni Muslims speaking a language that is very close to Turkish. They have always maintained intimate relations with the Turks, because of ethnic and linguistic closeness, so much so that Turkey considers the Turkmen region its historical legacy inside Syria. At the start of the Syrian Civil War, the Turkmen formed a rebel group with active Turkish assistance and was one element of the militia called the Free Syrian Army.
Turkey had struggled to sell the idea of a ‘safe zone’ to NATO for three reasons. First, the affiliation of the Turkish-backed rebel groups who would have occupied these areas was uncertain and second, their ability to clear the IS on the ground from these areas was also seen to be at best questionable. The third reason, perhaps more important that the other two, is that the creation of a safe zone would have brought NATO into direct confrontation with Russia’s strategic objective of securing the Assad regime, since Russia would have retaliated against the Turkish-backed rebel groups who would have inhabited the area. In these circumstances, downing the Russian fighter aircraft could also be seen as an action meant to nudge or incite NATO to confront Russia directly. What is certain, however, is that by opting to openly display its chauvinistic nationalism, Turkey has once and for all let the chances of enforcing its concept of the creation of a safe/no-fly zone go up in smoke. In any case, the viability of the concept had always been in question.
The Existing Dichotomies
The only nation that is operating legally within sovereign Syrian airspace or on the ground is Russia, since it was invited by the government of the nation to intervene. Irrespective of the ‘feeling’ of nations like Turkey or Saudi Arabia, and even the US, and their argument that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy, the fact remains that it is the legal government of Syria. The US and its allies are therefore carrying out attacks in Syrian territory in direct violation of existing international law. The attack on Russian military forces by Turkey, for that is what shooting down the Su-24 clearly denotes, makes the US only one step removed from the unlawful action—irrespective of the declaration of their non-involvement.
The US is being drawn deeper into the conflict, with or without its consent.
Turkey has violated Syrian airspace many times and attacked targets within Syria without the permission of the Syrian Government. Its ground forces have conducted operations within Syrian territory and Turkey provides direct support to armed groups that want to overthrow the legitimate Syrian regime. Irrespective of Turkey’s liking or otherwise for the current Assad regime in Syria, all these acts are illegal and is condemnable within international norms. Yet Turkey opted to attack the only armed force operating legally in Syria. Had it not been for the seriousness of the situations, the dichotomy would have been almost funny.
There are two ways of looking at Turkey’s maverick actions. First is that the actions obviously had at least the tacit approval of the US, even though they are now distancing themselves from the fall-out. If this is indeed the case, it is believable that Ankara may have been asked to take this step to stop, or at least slow down, the increasing influence that Russia has started to wield in the region. With Russian assistance, the Assad regime has started to flex its military muscle and is gradually changing from an almost defeated entity to having a fighting chance at keeping the rebels at bay indefinitely. This is not palatable to some in the US coalition, especially Turkey and the Arab block.
Second is a more sinister situation, where Turkey has blind-sided the US and NATO with this action, where it will be able to evoke the ‘mutual assistance’ clause to make these nations come to its aid, as and when Russia retaliates. If this is the case, there are a number of underlying reasons for Turkey to have initiated this action. The Paris attacks have changed the Western perception regarding Turkey’s insistent claim that its jihadi Turkmen would be able to gain the upper hand and rule Syria. By claiming that it has acted in self-defence Turkey is creating a false impression to bring in NATO, and by default the US, deeper into the conflict and may be even draw them into a ground war. Only a ground intervention would give the Turkmen rebels, Turkey’s foot soldiers, a reasonable chance of making some gains against the Syrian regime. Turkey has depicted the Russian air violation as a threat to its security as a reason for the downing of the Su-24, an explanation that hangs on a slender thread in terms of authenticity.
The effectiveness of the Russian intervention made the AKP leadership realise that their strategy of using the Civil War to expand Turkey’s geo-political reach meant to cater to their neo-Ottoman fantasies was rapidly failing. Something had to be done to bring the strategy and the dream back on track. Russia’s restrained response to the episode, at least from a military perspective, has once again thwarted the initiative. Turkey is in a far more precarious condition now than before the unfortunate incident.
President Putin knows fully well that he needs to respond, strongly and decisively. His long-term aim is to restore Russia as a global power as the natural successor and with the same status as the erstwhile Soviet Union. It is likely that Russia believes that the action is a push-back to its growing regional influence being orchestrated by the US, using Turkey as a pawn. However, the US may not be able to cajole the rest of NATO into becoming more belligerent and initiating actions against Russia, more than the sanctions that have already been put in place. The European nations know that in the case of a war, the geographic battlefield will once again be their own backyards. More importantly, they are already war-weary and domestic issues that have to be surmounted are gradually taking precedence over foreign military adventures. There is a ground swell of anti-American sentiment in Europe that could become further entrenched if the US pushes too hard for action. Putin senses this clearly.
Within a week of the shooting down, the incident has already forced all participants to reconsider their individual positions in both the Syrian Civil War and the broader fight against the IS. This incident has all the hallmarks of becoming the most important game changer in the long-running Syrian conflict and could define the future of Russia’s relationship with the West. There is a high likelihood of Russia swinging back to full support for Basher al-Assad and an acknowledged partnership with Iran. The earlier and more flexible stance, where it was tacitly understood that Assad would only play a temporary role leading to his eventual removal, would now be off the negotiating table. The pendulum has swung fully to the other side.
The current impasse is also turning out to be a critical test for NATO’s commitment to its members. As yet there has not been unequivocal support for Turkey and its intransigence is being viewed with scepticism. The Baltic States are already wary of NATO’s commitment to their security in the face of Russian belligerence and may not be forthcoming in supporting actions to protect Turkey. Another factor that must be closely monitored is NATO reaction to Turkey’s continuing dealings with the IS; its gradually declining adherence to human rights; the muzzling of the press; and the spreading religious intolerance in the country. NATO’s actions in the coming weeks will determine the future of the alliance.
Russia had a number of options available to it at the start of the stand-off. The first was to immediately mount a retaliatory attack on Turkey’s bases. Very prudently they avoided this course of action, which would have led to escalation and a possible Russia-West conflict coming to a head. The US operates from some of Turkey’s air bases and would have been caught in the middle of a Russia-Turkey conflict. Further, a direct Russian attack would have made it easy for Turkey to evoke Article 5—the mutual protection clause—of the NATO alliance. Currently, even with claims of national security being jeopardised by the incursion of the Russian fighter, Turkey is finding it hard to evoke the clause since the claim is extremely tenuous. There is however, a distinct possibility that the Russian Air Force operating in Syria would shoot down any Turkish aircraft that violates Syrian airspace. It is certain that the Russian detachment in Syria would be operating under revised rules of engagement.
The second option, some parts of which have been already put in place, is economic and trade sanctions that Russia can evoke against Turkey. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner and supplies more than half of Turkey’s natural gas imports, which has now been put within the sanctions. Russia has in the past few days—stopped imports from Turkey; stopped visa-free travel for Turkish citizens; asked for the repatriation of all Turkish citizens currently in Russia, estimated to be 90,000 strong, working in Russian companies; and ended all charter flights between the nations. The construction of the Akkuyu nuclear plant is also on the line to be halted.
The third option, which could also be gradually introduced is to provide direct aid to both Syrian and Turkish Kurds and also provide air cover for their operations if necessary. Such a move would have the added advantage of tying up the Turkish military indefinitely in a war of attrition that could progressively strain the Turkish economy. The fourth option is for Russia to become even more involved in Ukraine through ramping up support for the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. This would be logical since Ukraine and Russia share centuries of history, more as one country than two. In an indirect manner, Russia could demonstrate its chagrin to the European nations.
The fundamental fact is that Putin cannot but demonstrate strength at this juncture, especially with Erdogan’s highly confrontational pronouncements even if they were meant for domestic consumption. There is a feeling among observers that this time Erdogan’s rhetoric and actions went far beyond what were necessary. Russia’s Syrian expedition has so far been strategically good for the country, bringing it back into global relevance and Putin will not let Turkey spoil it. The stakes in the Syrian conflict, for all participants, just went up one big notch.
By a thoughtless action, Turkey has strengthened the jihadi cause. However, considering its proclivity for siding with the Syrian rebels, this could very well have been a calculated act that has backfired. The result is that it has become a hundred-fold more difficult to find a solution to the Syrian crisis that is spiralling out of control. In four and one half years that it has been raging, the Civil War has led to the death of unaccounted thousands and to the rise of the IS. These are facts that seem lost on Turkey’s leadership who are single-mindedly obsessed with the removal of the Assad regime. Pursuing this aim in a blinkered manner, Turkey did not close its borders with Syria, becoming the transit point for IS sympathisers to join its ranks and in the bargain making Syria the haven of global jihadists.
Turkey blames Russia for attacking the Turkmen and other anti-Assad groups while itself carrying out air attacks against the Kurds who are at the forefront of the fight against the IS. The immediate question that emerges is whether or not Turkey is serious about fighting the IS or waiting in the wings to create a grand geo-political alliance with the IS to create its cherished ‘Caliphate’. Trying to precipitate a crisis by shooting down a Russian fighter aircraft somehow reinforces the belief that Turkey’s leadership has prioritised warped objectives for the nation.
For the Western coalition, the crisis marks a moment of decision. It has to choose between continuing an almost unwinnable fight against the IS or accepting the Basher al-Assad regime till a relatively peaceful transfer of power can be affected at some future date. With the Arab lobby and Turkey at odds with this option, it is hard to predict where subsequent events will lead, although it is certain that the world is witnessing the beginning of an upheaval much larger and more eventful than before. Putin cannot afford to let the event go unpunished and the enforcement of sanctions that have been announced will only be the first of many actions that is bound to follow. He is unlikely to let the rest of the world forget that Russia is the only country acting legitimately in Syria. Turkey has strategically isolated itself, at least for the moment, through the maverick actions of its ego-centric and narrow focused leadership.
This article was first published in the blog www.sanukay.com