There is no single explanation for Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian SU-24 bomber over Syria on November 24. That it was shot over Syria (and did not merely fall inside Syria) is by now a matter of record, confirmed almost immediately by U.S. military sources:
The United States believes that the Russian jet shot down by Turkey on Tuesday was hit inside Syrian airspace after a brief incursion into Turkish airspace, a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said that assessment was based on detection of the heat signature of the jet.
Reuters would not have published the story had its anonymous source not been credible, later reactions from the White House notwithstanding. That the Turkish move was “overly aggressive” and “pre-planned” was also the assessment of Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, an expert on handling threats from fighter jets, who previously served as Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad).
Particularly strange was the hastily made Turkish claim that the jet violated the border along 2.19 kilometers (1.36 miles) for 17 seconds, which would mean that it was flying at only 288 miles per hour—a physical impossibility for the supersonic SU-24—and that the Turks did not know the nationality of the plane. Even if the attacking Turkish F-16 happened to be in the immediate vicinity just by chance, 17 seconds would not have provided it with enough time to take aim and lock on the missile. Russia’s subsequent detailed analysis of the shootdown (overlooked in the mainstream media) suggests that the incident had the character of a premeditated ambush.
In any event, Turkey’s version of the story directly contradicts Ankara’s own official position on airspace violations. In June 2012 Turkey lost an F-4 Phantom II to a Syrian missile after it entered Syria’s airspace. “A short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was Turkey’s prime minister at the time, declared as he expressed outrage over the incident. Turkey’s then-president Abdullah Gül said that “it is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over [national] borders.” Let it be added that Turkey is a serial violator: in 2014 alone Turkey violated Greek airspace more than 2000 times. Interestigly, such routine daily violations have suddenly stopped after November 24.
When I heard of the incident last Tuesday morning, my immediate hunch was that Turkey’s president Erdogan acted of his own accord – without consulting or seeking prior approval from Washington or from the NATO HQ in Belgium—for a variety of nefarious motives. As I told RTTV less than three hours after the downing of the SU-24, Erdogan probably wanted to throw spanners into the works of France’s attempt to develop a joint anti-ISIS strategy with Russia and thus to to sabotage the war against ISIS fanatics, whom he covertly supports. In addition, I said, he likely wanted to assert Turkey’s role as the protector of Turkmen jihadists in northern Syria and to provoke Russia’s over-reaction, which would further poison Moscow’s relations with the West and perhaps induce NATO to get directly involved in the dispute.
Six days later the score appears considerably more complex. A significant new development was President Vladimir Putin’s statement, at a joint press conference with President Francois Hollande of France in Moscow on November 27, that the Russians had told the U.S. in advance the location and time of the Russian planes’ flights, “and we were hit exactly there and at that time.” Putin made an additional interesting remark which was not reported in the major U.S. media: “Either [the Americans] are not in control of what their allies are doing or they hand out this information every which way without understanding the implications.” It is noteworthy that Putin’s assertion has not been officially denied by the U.S. government.
On balance I do not believe that Washington overtly suggested to Erdogan to shoot down the SU-24. Supplying him with detailed information on the Russians’ flight plans was more likely done in full awareness of the “implications,” while providing plausible deniability as to the likely consequences of the act. Those consequences, predictable in the case of a reckless gambler that Erdogan is, appear to be perfectly conducive to the interests of the neoliberal-neoconservative duopoly: create a crisis between Russia and Turkey, to the detriment of both parties, and gently steer them to make the breach permanent.
This is eerily reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s behavior in advance of Mikhel Saakashvili’s doomed attempt to conquer South Ossetia by force in August 2008. Georgia’s then-president did not get an overt green light from Washington to stage the attack, but he felt tacitly authorized to go ahead. When things went awry the U.S. let him hang out to dry. Saakashvili is long gone (he is on Georgia’s most-wanted list, while bizarrely lording over Ukraine’s Odessa region), but the rift between Russia and Georgia persists to this day.
Russia reacted predictably, with the freezing of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project an immediate consequence—and the Balkans thus slipping further away from Russia’s influence, with the rest of Europe forced to diversify its energy supplies. Turkey will be deprived of the billions of euros generated by four million Russian tourists a year, Israel being the likely immediate beneficiary. More importantly, Erdogan—the wily neo-Ottoman “sultan”—will be more pliable now that he needs Washington’s backing in the standoff with Moscow. Tragically, this means that his covert support of ISIS will be overlooked for now and forgiven in the future. He will not change his overall strategy of pretending to be a player in the U.S.-led “coalition,” while pursuing his agenda of helping hard-core jihadists in Syria, and battling the Kurds who have fought the Islamic state with bravery and determination (notably in Kobani in 2014).
If the Russians up the ante by lavishly arming the Kurds in Syria, knowing that some of the hardware will be passed on to the PKK inside Turkey, they would be doing exactly what the U.S. “deep state” – the war hawks at different levels of the Duopoly—want them to do, as the result would only cement the above scenario. Even Erdogan’s many opponents in the deeply divided Turkey would come to look upon Russia as an existential threat to the nation’s unity, or else risk being branded as traitors. The army top brass, which hates his guts, would have to play along. A military coup, however theoretical at the moment, would finally become an impossibility.
On its own terms the Duopoly did very well with the downing of the SU-24. Its capacity for engineering divide et impera scenarios is not to be doubted. That the overall grand-strategic implications are catastrophic for the long-term interests of the American people is of course irrelevant to its calculus.