Russian and Turkish Stand off Over Syria. What Now?
Early on the 24th of November 2015, 2 Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24M2 that strayed into Turkish territory. A lot has been said on the subject already. The news and propaganda war went into overdrive all day. Let’s see if we can explain what happened and then go to the roots of the problem.
The Known Facts
At around 9.10 GMT, a Su-24M2 of the Russian air force operating from the Lattakia airport in Syria, was shot down by two Turkish F-16s. The Turkish government instantly communicated on the event, saying the Russian aircraft had strayed into Turkish territory and was warned 10 times inside of 5 minutes before finally being shot down.
Initially, Russian news said one of their aircraft had been shot down by ground fire.Within 5 minutes, the Turkish television showed amateur footage of the Su-24 in flames falling toward the ground. Both pilots were said to have ejected. The pilots and the wreck of the plane ended up on the Syrian side of the border. Moscow denied its plane had violated Turkish airspace.
Turkish news released a sound recording of a Turkish pilot apparently warning repeatedly his Russian counterpart in English that he is getting close to the Turkish border and that he must turn round and head South.
The Turkish radar print, however contradicts that version as it shows the Russian plane flew a course East to West along the Syrian-Turkish border on the Syrian side.
It did indeed cross a Turkish salient poking into Syria but that salient is only 2 km wide. According to Turkish official sources, It took the Su-24M2 seventeen seconds to cross that salient. And that is where the Turkish pilot opened fire and launched a missile. The missile hit the Russian plane as it was already back inside Syrian airspace.
The Russian imagery shows both Turkish and Russian planes on their respective side of the border when the Su-24 was shot down.
At 9.34 Turkey requested an emergency NATO meeting that convened at 16.00GMT, is also requested a UN meeting.
In the meantime, We know one of the pilot of the Su-24M2 was wounded by incoming ground fire, he was basically shot at by rebels/insurgents as he came down, helpless. The FSA (Free Syrian Army, affiliated Al-Nusra) published several videos and pictures of his body.
The second Russian pilot may have been found alive by the SAA and is apparently repatriated back to Lattakia airbase by the Syrian authorities.
During the afternoon, a Mi-8 Hip on a SAR mission in the area of the wreckage of the Su-24 was shot at and damaged, killing one Russian marine inside and wounding several others.
The pilots of the damaged Mi-8 managed to land it and both pilots and the crew managed to evacuated it before it was hit again. The other Hip in the vicinity managed to safely pick up the survivors and bring them back to base.
An insurgent group has released a video showing them shooting at the downed Mi-8 with an American made TOW ATGM system.
At 12.52 Putin issued a statement saying the Turkish downing of a Russian plane was no less than a stab in the back on the part of a country that supports terrorism. Less than an hour later, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister that was supposed to fly to Ankara the following day cancelled his trip.
Russia Versus Turkey : A Bit of History
There have been 12 wars between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire between 1568 and 1918. So those two are not the best of friends. Tensions have never ceased to simmer below the surface despite both countries trading extensively with each other: Turkey provides Moscow with a lot of fresh and tinned goods while Turkey is one of the favourite holiday destinations for Russians seeking sunny vacations. Turkey is also Moscow second biggest natural gas consumer.
The possible reasons and theories for today’s incidents and the slow rise in tension between those two best enemies.
At the end of the 90’s, tension flared up between Turkey and Russia as the second Chechen war was ongoing as Moscow accused Ankara of supporting the Islamic insurgency in this Northern Caucasus territory and of providing shelter and logistic to Chechen insurgents inside Turkey.
In March 2014, The Ukrainian territory of Crimea joining the Russian Federation may have pleased a majority of Russians and Crimean but was largely seen as an annexation by the international community at large and especially by Turkey and by the Tatar community living inside of Crimea.
The Tatars are a Turkic people who have lived in Crimea for centuries. But between 1942-1943 Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Tatar population from Crimea as a collective punishment. They were accused of having collaborated with the Nazi invaders. The Tatars were only allowed back into Crimea from the beginning of the 90’s onward.
So it is not a surprise than while ethnic Russians in Crimea were happy enough to be part of Russia again, the Tatars were less impressed by the situation. Russia has been building for some time a strategy based on the support and defence of ethnic Russian populations wherever they are.
It can be seen as a tool to keep or regain influence in the sphere of the old Soviet empire. At the same time, Turkey under Erdogan is erecting itself as a protector of all Turkic and Turkoman populations and is actively trying to gain influence over those areas… This includes the Southern Caucasus, Crimea and… Syria. Russia and Turkey meet again…
In August 2015, Russia and Armenia signed an agreement that guaranteed Russia a lease on a military base in Armenia up until 2044. In exchange, Russia became guarantor of Armenia’s security and took on the commitment to supply the Armenian army with modern weaponry and hardware.
Turkey and Armenia are not best of friends since the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 that caused the death of 1.5 million deaths. Ankara was enraged that Putin attended the 100th anniversary of the genocide at Yerevan (Ankara denies a genocide was ever perpetrated).
On the 27th of October 2015, negotiation broke down between Russia and Turkey on the Turkstream pipeline (Or Turkish Stream) project. Turkey is the second biggest Russian customer for Gas behind Germany.
The main pipeline/supply route for Russian gas to Europe goes through Ukraine and Russia is anxious to build another supply route/pipeline toward Europe that avoids Ukraine at all cost.
The Turkstream would have enabled Russia to build a pipeline through the Black Sea all the way to Turkey which would have served as a hop-off point to extend the pipeline toward the South of Europe. This is a vital project for Russia and Turkey knows it. Turkey requested a rebate on its gas price.
Gazprom offered a 6% discount. Ankara wanted double that. Moscow refused. Turkey is now going to an international court to contest the price of Russian gas. In the meantime, Russia relies on the ever unreliable Ukraine to supply gas toward Western Europe… Moscow is not pleased.
Turkey was not the happiest when Russia started its operations in Syria on the 30th of September. Russia supports Assad. Erdogan is more sympathetic to the Al-Nusra and ISIS causes and wants Assad gone.
Turkey has been supporting the various rebel groups operating inside Syria. It has operated an open border policy, letting new recruits go inside Syria to join the insurgent groups, it has been passing on weaponry and hardware supplied by Saudi Arabia and the US to those same jihadi groups.
The reasons are various but in short, it enables Turkey to gain influence over the area and undermine Assad. It also enables Ankara to fight a war by proxy against the Kurds by arming and equipping ISIS. Finally, it enables Turkey to get rich.
As the Turkish border is the main supply line of ISIS, it is where ISIS sells its oil and smuggles precious artefacts pillaged and stolen from museums and antique/historic sites inside Syria and Iraq. It is quite a business for Turkey that purchases the goods at a good price and then sells it back with profit.
On the 3rd of October a Russian jet had already strayed into Turkish airspace and had been intercepted and forced to turn around. Moscow had recognised the navigation error and stated it was due to bad weather conditions. Then on the 16th of October, a Russian drone was also shot down over the Syrian – Turkish border.
In the week of the 16th to the 22nd of November, tension had escalated even further as the Syrian Arab Army started operations in the North of the Lattakia province with the support of the Russian air force and started regaining ground against rebels there and regained control of stretches of its border slowly but surely. Ankara accused Moscow of bombing villages inhabited by Turkoman Syrians and said this was unacceptable.
Russia is willing to include any group/country willing to fight ISIS into its own coalition. That does include the Kurds which is angering Ankara no end. Ankara has been requesting a “buffer zone” inside Syria alongside its own border for some time.
This would enable Erdogan to deploy 10.000 Turkish soldiers on Syrian soil, securing the supply lines of the various groups Ankara supports while “pacifying” the Kurdish regions. That would not be possible if the Kurdish entities were armed by Moscow and fighting ISIS as part of the Russian coalition.
A defeated ISIS and Al-Nusra would mean a strategic and economic loss for Ankara as well as Assad staying in power. A slap in the face for a man as proud as Erdogan.
Finally there is a before and an after 13th of November 2015. Prior to the Paris terror attacks of the 13th of November, Iraq, Iran and Russia were the only powers stating the fight against ISIS was the priority over the fate of Assad. Turkey, the US, the UK and France were on the same side, against Assad.
Then the terror attacks of Paris brought the ISIS threat home, at the heart of Europe. Public and political opinion started shifting toward the Russian point of view that ISIS’s defeat did indeed maybe prime over Assad’s fate.
The Turkish missile that shot down that Russian plane yesterday could well be Erdogan’s own torpedo against this new found consensus between West and Russia. It certainly looks like Turkey by going ahead with this act of war is trying to provoke Russia into an overreaction or retaliation.
Moscow would lose instantly the good boy image it’s been trying to build over the past months within the international community. And NATO member states would have no other choice but to rally to Turkey if it was to invoke article 5 of the NATO charter. And who knows… Erdogan could indeed have his buffer zone after all.
The Possible Consequences. Now What?
Well, predictably, at the issue of the NATO summit earlier on tonight, the alliance issued a statement supporting Turkey. You always support your own.
But you can be sure most member states were not really happy about this incident. European states have worked hard to rekindle their communication and diplomatic links with Moscow over the past few months and this reckless event has the potential to jeopardise all that hard work.
Despite Turkey’s many betrayals and double game, it will not lose the support of the organisation. Turkey is too important to NATO: Turkey has the second largest standing army within the Atlantic Alliance. Its Incirlik Air Base is way too valuable to the US to lose. The position of the country as a bridge between Europe and the Middle-East is a strategic one and the ability of Turkey to shut the Bosporus Straight on behalf of NATO and trap the Russian fleet inside the Black sea is invaluable.
Russia will retaliate, but not head on, not militarily speaking. Not pro-actively at least. Russia will play on the economic side. Its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already issued a statement advising Russians to avoid going on holiday in Turkey as the country is “dangerous and terrorist acts occur there regularly”.
Expect to see a “Boycott Turkey” campaign soon. Russia may also be tempted to arm the Kurdish opposition in Syria, Iraq and maybe also within Turkey, playing the same proxy war game Ankara plays in Syria already.
The Moskva cruiser which is equipped with the S-300 system and is based in the Mediterranean has been ordered today to “open fire on any threats”. That’s plain language for “Turkish planes flying inside Syrian airspace”. additionally, S-400 SAM batteries have been ordered to deploy inside Syria.
You can finally expect to see more Russian fighters coming in from Russia to be based in Lattakia. Russia has announced all its bomber flights will be escorted from now on. Those will certainly be equipped with AA missiles as well as Electronic Warfare Systems, electronic counter-measures and other jammer pods to escort Russian bombers flying close to the Turkish border.
Moscow has invested too much effort, diplomacy, money and pride to stop working in Syria now. But Ankara has worked equally hard on its own side, the opposite side. Will any of them yield ? it is unlikely. And yet. Yet, those two enemies do need each other economically speaking.
Erdogan most definitely tried to provoke an incident, yesterday. He is a proud and ambitious man and his foreign policy is being challenged in his own backyard by Russia, the old enemy.
Erdogan could not have ignored the importance of his decision to shoot down a Russian plane: This is the first Russian jet downed by a NATO member state since the 1950’s.
This was a reckless act that threatens not only the search for a global, common approach for a solution in the region by all the main actors involved; It also threatens the stability and world peace.
Turkey did pull the trigger from behind the NATO shield, using it as cover, for its own personal agenda, putting all the other member states unwillingly on the line. You can be sure that behind closed doors, some strong words were exchanged at NATO HQ, yesterday.
As for Moscow, it will most certainly make sure Turkey will pay the price, one way or another. And it will all happen behind the scene. There is, however, no telling what may happen if a similar incident occurs again. We are living in dangerous times. The next few days, weeks and months promise to be tense.