BY Chris - Nov 25, 2015 0
The big news today (or yesterday, if you get news alerts) is that Turkish F16 fighters have shot down a Russian Su24. Despite the fact that something like this has been brewing ever since the great powers, and also Russia and Turkey, decided to play kingmaker in Syria, the usual panic-merchants, spin doctors and instant military experts are expressing shock, outrage and surprise. Yet again, we have been chilled by warnings of WWIII and bombarded with both Russian and Turkish claims of innocence and injury.
Russia claims that a pair of Su24 warplanes were innocently bombing ‘terrorists’ on the Syrian side of the border when, without warning or provocation, Turkish terror sympathisers shot down one of their planes. The Turks are claiming that two aggressive, apparently unidentifiable Russian warplanes violated Turkish airspace, were warned ‘ten times in five minutes’ and, when one of them wouldn’t leave, they were regrettably forced to shoot it down. It is possible that one of these versions of events is completely correct, but it is far more probable that neither bears more than a passing acquaintance with the truth.
Russian credibility has become something of an oxymoron of late and their statements on Syria are no exception to this tendency. Russian operations have been almost exclusively in areas where there is little or no ISIS activity, and yet the Russian propaganda machine continually spews out article after article claiming ISIS routs and casualties. Latakia, where the Russian Su24’s were bombing, is known to be primarily in the hands of factions backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Only the wilfully blind could fail to see that all that Russia has planned or achieved is to create a ring of fire around the Assad regime’s heartland, regardless of who they have to blow up to do it. And they have lied, brazenly, continuously and demonstrably, about their actions, their intentions and their priorities.
As for Turkey, the country is going through some very interesting times. Kemal’s grand secular experiment seems to be coming to an end, with Erdogan doing his level best to Islamise as much of Turkey’s government and history as possible. His key ally in this process is rampant nationalism, with constant references to Ottoman and Hittite* glories and their essential repeatability. The fact that a key rival both for regional hegemony and Western favour is currently burning to the ground has presented Turkey with challenges, certainly, but also with exciting opportunities. The problem, however, is that Turkey is currently a smoking hot mess, riven with internal turmoil, rolling border disputes, a disaffected middle class and, to top it all off, a refugee crisis that makes Europe’s look tiddling by comparison. If Turkey’s actions seem schizophrenic and unpredictable, this is partly because they are trying to juggle a myriad of factors and interests in the midst of a fluid and dangerous situation. And also because they lie pretty much as often and as whoppingly as Russia.
Anyone who knows anything about modern warplanes knows that five minutes is practically an eternity, and that it is impossible to put one in the air with an idiot in the cockpit. Incompetence or stupidity are not probable factors in this situation. What we have here is an incident that was at least partially deliberately engineered. Russian tactics in this conflict, and for most of modern history, are well known to be ‘probing’, which is diplomatic jargon for ‘invasive’ and ‘insolent’. It is not just conceivable, it is probable, that the Russian warplanes were deliberately probing Turkish airspace for both political and military reasons. As always, the situation is not particularly clear cut. Latakia borders Hayat, which is one of the places where the Sykes-Picot line gets a little bit confusing. And if we are to believe accounts that the plane came down in Hayat, then they were cutting it extremely fine at the very least. Little wonder then, that both Turkey and Russia have been able to broadcast absolute ‘proof’ that the warplanes either were or weren’t inside Turkish airspace.
Turkey’s Rules of Engagement (RoE) are very clear, and so is their position on violations of their airspace, but here’s the thing: supersonic jets operating in the vicinity of an invisible and, in this case, somewhat blurry line, present sovereign powers not with a threat but with a choice. They are probably going to violate what they perceive to be their airspace, especially if they’re Russian, but not necessarily deliberately or with hostile intent. Knowing this, a decision has to be made as to just how rigidly RoE will be applied. Considering how long Russia has been operating in border provinces like Latakia and Idlib (another ISIS free zone), and knowing how Russian forces tend to operate, it is difficult to understand why it’s taken this long for an incident to occur. Until we consider the fact that the latest rebel group to come under Russian fire have been the Turkmen factions fighting for the FSA against Assad.
And then it all suddenly clicks into place. Russian forces have been bombing ethnic Turks and Turkey wants them to stop. Russian forces just being themselves, in combination with stringent RoE, has provided a pretext for Turkey to make a very emphatic point about this. Turkey is well aware that, by itself, not many countries have very compelling reasons to listen to them. Shoot down a Russian jet, however, and people stop talking about Turkey and start talking about NATO. And pretty much everyone listens to NATO, even if, like Russia, they pretend very loudly not to.
So who’s telling the truth about this situation? Neither of them, and it couldn’t matter less. This is just another facet of a confused, confusing and morally toxic conflict, where human lives are used as gaming tokens and atrocities as diplomatic currency. While it is not impossible that a major war could accidentally snowball out of this incident, there is no indication that either Russia or Turkey want a deeper conflict. This is apparent in the unusually measured rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and the immediate way in which Turkey has fled under NATO’s skirts. If we can all remain calm, we will all have forgotten about this in a fortnight.
Apart, that is, from the pilots, their families and the poor bastards who were and are being bombed.
*It is worth noting that for a good portion of the history that Erdogan is glorifying, the biggest single enemy of the Turks was the Russian empire. I’m not counting the Hittites because viewing them with reference to modern Turkey is just bizarre.