Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian Su-24 bomber over northwestern Syria on November 24 may be a game changer in that strategically positioned Middle Eastern country. Various parties have been forced to declare their true agendas. Strategic clarity is finally emerging, which is the precondition for an eventual solution—even though no solution is yet in sight.
According to claims made by Russian President Vladimir Putin—claims belatedly and cryptically denied by the Obama administration—Russia provided advance information about her planes’ flight paths to the United States, and the Americans passed it to the Turks, who then used that information to set up an ambush and shoot down one of the two Russian planes operating near the Turkish border. Turkey’s claim that the jet violated the border along 1.36 miles for 17 seconds would mean that it was flying at under 300 miles per hour—a physical impossibility for the Su-24. Even if the attacking Turkish F-16 had just happened to be in the area, 17 seconds would not have provided it with the time needed to issue repeated warnings, take aim, and lock on the missile.
Turkey’s president Recep Tay yip Erdogan, an increasingly unstable Islamist autocrat, had several likely motives for this move. First, he may have wanted to undermine France’s and other Western countries’ readiness, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, to cooperate with Russia in fighting the Islamic State. While Erdogan understandably supports ISIS less ostentatiously than he supports other jihadist groups in Syria, he has been determined to prevent the emergence of an effective coalition that could actually defeat it; and he was loath to close Turkey’s border with ISIS-controlled areas to the oil trade, arms smuggling, and terrorist trafficking. In addition, Erdogan tried to manipulate NATO into confrontation with Russia and into direct involvement in Syria by asking for an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council within hours of the incident, although the alliance is not engaged in the region, and Turkey was not attacked or threatened. Last and perhaps least, Erdogan was said to be livid following Russia’s destruction of hundreds of ISIS oil tankers (the ones the United States had been “unable” to detect for 15 months), which had provided his son Bilal with lucrative middleman fees.
Erdogan’s Byzantine ploys have failed on all fronts. His hopes of “NATOizing” the crisis have been dashed. At a meeting in Moscow on November 26, two days after the shootdown, presidents Vladimir Putin and François Hollande agreed to share intelligence about targets in Syria, and Putin said that Russia was “ready to cooperate” with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in fighting “terrorists.” President Obama met Putin in Paris three days later, politely expressed regret over the Su-24 incident, and appeared less ill at ease than usual when meeting his Russian counterpart. He seems to have decided that the effort to find a viable formula for Syria should not be held hostage to Erdogan’s histrionics. Simultaneously the United States started demanding that Turkey close a 60-mile stretch of her border with Syria, which is the sole remaining crossing point for ISIS jihadists. The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior White House official as saying, “This is an international threat, and it’s all coming out of Syria, and it’s coming through Turkish territory.”
In the meantime Russia’s military presence in Syria has been significantly upgraded. It now includes a Slava-class cruiser, armed with a S-300F surface-to-air missile system, just off the coast near the Turkish border. The S-400 Triumf air defense system, with a range of 250 miles, has been deployed from the Khmeimim air base near Latakia. Russian interceptors are now routinely providing protection to its bombers. Turkey has been effectively excluded from Syria’s airspace by the Russians, which is certainly not what Erdogan had in mind when he repeatedly called for a “no-fly zone in northern Syria.”
Also, the Russians appear to have stepped up arms deliveries, intelligence sharing, and logistical support to the Syrian Kurdish militia, and some of that hardware is reaching the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Again the problem is of Erdogan’s own making. In July 2015 he announced the end of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish army and the PKK in order to boost the electoral prospects of his Justice and Development Party in the November 1 election. He probably regrets that decision now.
If indeed it did occur as Putin alleges, supplying Erdogan with information on the Russians’ flight plans was irresponsible. Certainly, the immediate outcome suits the neoliberal-neoconservative War Party in Washington to a T, as it has helped to create a crisis between Russia and Turkey, to the detriment of both.
That the overall result is contrary to the interests of the American people is of course irrelevant to the cabal’s calculus.