A Russian warplane cruised the fringes of Syrian airspace yesterday, as has become ordinary since Russia jumped on the Syria bomb-wagon some weeks ago, but attracted an extraordinary response from Turkey.
Official Turkish military sources provided the following account: after warning the jet “10 times in five minutes” to exit Turkish airspace, which it hadn’t yet violated, the Russian SU-24 jet then entered Turkish airspace for a total of 17 seconds before reentering Syrian airspace, where it was then intercepted by Turkish F-16s.
Turkish warplanes violated Syrian airspace in their pursuit, firing upon the Russian jet 1km departed from the infringed territory, causing it to crash some 4km from the Turkish border. Both pilots ejected: one was rescued, the other killed by (Turkish-backed Turkmen) Syrian rebels.
Russia contests the Turkish account: it denies that its jet ever encroached on Turkish airspace and claims never to have had contact with Turkish military authorities, by way of warning or otherwise, before the jet was downed.
NATO’s Secretary General has (unsurprisingly and somewhat unconvincingly) confirmed that Turkey’s account is consistent with “assessments we have got from several Allies” and Obama has voiced his nation’s support of Turkey’s “right to defend its airspace”.
The official Russian reaction was unbridled: President Vladimir Putin branded it “a stab in the back” knowingly committed by the “accomplices of terrorists” and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has since told Russian TV that it “looks very much like a planned provocation”.
Let’s retreat from the heat of the event and see if there’s a backdrop with which to contextualise this incident.
Minor, short-term violations of NATO members’ airspace is a Russian thing: there were 39 violations in an eight month period last year alone (notably without any such incidents). Turkish airspace has been no exception since Russia (overtly) entered the Syrian war. Turkey has complained, Russia has apologised; it’d all been quite considered and cordial. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davtoglu even declared that, “Russia is our friend and neighbor. There is no tension between Turkey and Russia in this sense.”
In point of fact, Turkey is big on airspace violations itself: US cables released by WikiLeaks have exposed the “inflammatory” inclination of Turkey to impress its power over Greece by flying up to “40 aircraft a day… to make its political point”.
Three years ago Turkey lost one of its own warplanes over the Syrian airspace it was coolly violating, causing Prime Minister Erdogan to proclaim: “A short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack”.
In view of the above, we can discern Turkey’s motive for responding in such a fashion isn’t because Turkey feels the Russian infringement is extraordinary and/or threatening. We know that Turkey doesn’t give a flying shit about international law in respect of airspace (or anything else for that matter). And Erdogan put himself firmly on the side of the Russians some time ago as the above quote shows. So why the double standard?
Inspection of Russian military actions in relation to Turkey’s interests may reveal agenda-driven justification/s for shooting the bomber:
- Russia is providing airpower for Assad. Turkey wants Assad gone.
- Russia is bombing Sunni militias. Turkey is predominantly Sunni with a despotic Sunni leader that directly and indirectly provides many such Sunni militiamen, their weapons and other supplies through its porous border.
- Russia is bombing ethnic Turkmen Sunni militiamen. Those of Turkmen ethnicity are seen as de facto citizens (Russia takes a similar view with Russophones in its former and current spheres of influence – see Ukraine).
- Russia is bombing on behalf of a Shia government backed by the Shia regional power, Iran, which Turkey fears for its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.
- (Oh, and Turkey imports 90% of its oil, 60% from Russia. The same Russia that’s currently bombing Islamic State convoys exporting oil on the cheap to Turkish companies (allegedly including companies owned by Erdogan’s son) – just sayin’.)
This is the first time a NATO member state has shot down a Russian plane since the height of the Cold War in the 1950s – at no point in the last half century has any NATO member broken rank and done so. Erdogan doesn’t care for 17 seconds of airspace ‘violation’: this was a premeditated play – “Russia, back the fuck off.’” Why else would he not apologise?
At the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, Turkey put its cards on the table: it wanted Assad gone and it put a motherload of resources in to securing that prospect. That prospect has become little more than a wish, now we’re half a decade in to the definitive clusterfuck of civil, proxy and religious wars all multiplied and magnified by the War on Terror. Russia is hurting Turkish interests on several fronts and Erdogan, in that unfathomably stupid and excessively violent way of his, is likely sending a shot across the Russian bow. Perhaps it seems too obvious?
One mightn’t have ever conflated good’ole Turkey with the theocracies and reactionary elements of the Middle East: Turkey has a(n alarmingly thin) secular and democratic guise, NATO membership, shiny American-made warplanes and explicit US backing in situations such as this – Turkey’s ‘legit’.
Only it’s not: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is a repressive, authoritarian and ruthlessly ambitious regional power that’s overflowing with the ideological bedfellows of Islamic State (and the other detestable Islamic states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar) in government and society.
To consolidate the point: when thinking Turkey, one shouldn’t think NATO and Europe and freedom and rule of law, one should think what NATO and Europe purport to fight against.
NATO champions freedom of speech, supports the Kurds in their heroic struggle and is fighting a war against the Islamic State and other regional fuckwits.
Turkey, just somewhat antithetically, is comprehensively repressing free speech at home, indiscriminately bombing Kurdish territory and tacitly supporting the Islamic State and Jahbat Al-Nusra (AKA Al-Qaeda).
Hell, let’s just fucking say it: Turkey is in large part the reason behind the Islamic State and the reason it manages to continue fighting multiple fronts in Syria at all.
It beggars belief that NATO should count its tyrannical Eurasian garrison among its members, let alone excuse its reckless provocations and turn a blind eye to its sponsorship of the current NATO bogeyman. Read that back: Turkey is all but the enemy here, but of course, isn’t.
Well, at least a fitting alliance in a nondirectional and ultimately, as is, pointless war of power plays in which, as fucking usual, the innocent have, do and will continue to suffer the most.
Happy Wednesday x