Turkey Downs Russia Jet. Beginning of NATO Russia Confrontation?
Yesterday I wrote a post entitled Putin is Turning up the Heat on ISIL, which discussed Putin’s fierce response to ISIL downing Russian flight 9268. Today the heat has been turned up a few notches further, this time by Turkey, which has shot down a Russia warplane that allegedly violated its airspace. In fact we could be on the verge of a dangerous conflict involving Turkey and NATO against Russia.
The details are still a bit uncertain but here is what we currently know of the incident. Around 9:00 am on Tuesday morning two Russia Su-24 Fencer bombers were flying near to the Turkish border in the Syria province of Latakia. According to Turkish officials when the two planes entered within 15 kilometers of the border they were repeatedly warned of their proximity to Turkish territory, 10 times during a five minute period. Then the Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace and were intercepted by two Turkish F-16 fighter jets, which launched air-to-air missiles downing one of the Su-24 jets, which crashed near the Syrian village of Yamadi.
The fate of both pilots is uncertain. We know that they both safely ejected from their stricken bomber. Initially it was reported by Turkish sources that the pilots were captured alive by Syrian Turkmen rebels, but these reports turned out to be false. There is video of the pilots descending in their parachutes being shot at by rebels on the ground. There is also video of rebel troops standing over the lifeless body of one of the pilots yelling “Allahu Akbar,” which confirms at least one pilot is captured and presumably dead. In addition to all this, an officer from the Syrian rebel group the 10th Brigade in the Coast confirmed that they had shot at and killed the pilots.
The Russian officials have only confirmed that one of the pilots is dead. They therefore must believe that the other pilot is alive as their helicopters are scouring the area in an attempt to rescue him. At least one Russia soldier has been killed during this rescue mission. It has also been reported by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that they have shot down one of the Russian rescue helicopters. Interestingly they said they used a TOW anti-tank missile an American made missile (I wonder were they got that from).
Now the Russians have denied the Turkish accounts of events, stating that the two Su-24’s did not violate Turkish airspace. However, Turkish officials countered this claim by releasing radar data showing that the Russians planes did in fact violate the southernmost tip of Turkey (see image below). Regardless Putin claimed that “Neither our pilots nor our jet threatened the territory of Turkey. This is obvious.” Based on the map provided by Turkey, which shows a very minimal incursion into their airspace and which according to them only lasted 17 seconds, it does seem that Turkey over reacted to say the least.
Now the shoot down of the Russian bomber did not happen out of the blue, there is some related incidences that preceded it. On June 22, 2012 a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet violated Syrian air space and subsequently, without warning, was shot down by a Syrian SAM killing both pilots. It goes without saying that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who at the time was Prime Minister of Turkey, was not very pleased with the incident.
More recently on October 3, 2015 a Russian Su-30 Flanker violated Turkish air space and Turkish fighter jets were sent to intercept. Initially the Russians said the aircraft had a navigational error and then the excuse was that it was performing evasive maneuvers to avoid a rebel air defense system within Syria. Then on October 4 an unidentified MIG-29 “harassed” two Turkish F-16’s on patrol near the Turkish Syrian border and then the next day a similar incident involving a MIG-29 and eight Turkish F-16’s occurred.
The Prime Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoğlu told Habertürk TV “Let me put it bluntly: Turkey’s rules of engagement are valid for Syria’s, Russia’s or another country’s warplanes. The Turkish Armed Forces have been issued with open instructions. Even if it’s a flying bird, whoever violates Turkish airspace will be subject to the necessary actions.” So while Russia’s most recent alleged incursion was a seemingly minor occurrence, Russia was forewarned of the possible consequences of violating Turkish airspace.
As an aside we may wonder why Russia engages in such behavior? Now the Russian explanations for the October 3 violation of Turkish airspace appears to be a made up excuse. There are many reasons why Russia would violate Turkish airspace. Firstly to probe Turkish and NATO air defenses and to determine how they react to the presence of their fighter planes. Secondly it is a rash way by Putin to project his power to other countries by skirting their airspace, something that is commonly done by Russian strategic bombers to northern European NATO members. Thirdly, according to Walid Shoebat and his Syrian source Taleb Ibrahim the Su-30 was actually chasing and tracking rebel fighters who had fled into Turkey to take cover from Russian airstrikes.
Immediate Russian response
With the some of the background to the downing of the Russia Su-24 in mind, we can now focus on what everyone is interested in and that is how will Russia respond to this situation. Putin does not appear too pleased. In response Putin said, “This incident is a stab in the back. I can’t describe it in any other way.” Then he implied that ISIL was being assisted by Turkey. “Isis has such huge resources of hundreds of millions and billions of dollars coming from illegal oil sales, and they are protected by the armed forces of other states, then it’s clear why they are so brazen, why they are killing people, why they are carrying out terrorist attacks throughout the world including in the heart of Europe.” He also ominously said that there will be “significant consequences.”
Beyond Putin’s words Russia has already taken concrete action. The Moskva missile cruiser, equipped with the formidable S-300 anti-aircraft missile system is moving closer to the coast of Latakiah to provide protection for Russian aircraft in the area and from now on Russian bombers will always be accompanied by fighter escorts. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has announced he has cancelled his official planned visit to Turkey. Lavrov has also advised Russian citizens that “The critical mass of terrorist incidents on Turkish soil, according to our estimates, is no less of a threat than in Egypt. For this reason of course we do not recommend that our citizens travel to Turkey for tourism or any other reason.” It has not taken long for Russia to react.
How will Russia get back at Turkey
One can only image what a “stabbed in the back” Putin is capable of doing to enact revenge. With respect to the shoot down incidence he has said that there will be “significant consequences.” Now what exactly will those consequences be for Turkey? Here are six courses of action that Russia could take in response.
- A Turkish military airplane may be shot down by the Russians in an eye for an eye type retaliation. If any Turkish warplane enters into Syria expect it to be shot down by either a Russian jet or a S-300 missile from the Moskva cruiser. It should be remembered that Turkey and the US are bombing ISIL targets in northern Syria, although Turkey is more focused on bombing the Kurds than ISIL. Regardless, this indicates that it is likely that Turkish military planes may enter into Syria, where they will most likely be targeted by Russian forces
- Russia may wage economic warfare against Turkey. Already Lavrov has suggested that Russian tourists avoid going to Turkey because of the threat of terrorism. If Russia tourists do stay away from Turkey this will be a significant blow to the latter’s tourism industry. Russia may also place economic sanctions on Turkey and may ‘shut off’ the natural gas they sell to Turkey. Any type of economic warfare against Turkey may have a considerable negative effect as Turkey is already experiencing significant economic difficulties.
- Russian Spetsnaz are already in Syria and these soldiers are adept at sabotage. So it is possible that they may be used to infiltrate into Turkey and clandestinely strike targets, although this may be a risky endeavor to say the least.
- Russia may begin to provide support to the PKK, who are currently at war with Turkey. Although the PKK is predominantly based in northern Iraq, Russia could provide them with supplies and intelligence. Since PKK bases in Iraq are frequently bombed by Turkish warplanes it is possible that Russia could give the PKK anti-aircraft missile systems so as to be able to shoot Turkish planes down.
- Turkey has been wanting to establish an ISIL-free no fly zone in northern Syria, in a piece of land extending 40 kilometers south into Syria from the Turkish border and spanning 98 kilometers in length between the towns of Mare and Jarablus. The real purpose of this zone for Turkey to prevent the Kurds in eastern and western Syria from linking up together. Russia and Syria could try to position their forces in this zone so as to deny Turkey influence in it. This would thwart Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions in Syria, but could further bring Turkey and Russia into conflict.
- If the situation escalates further Russia could deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Syria as a deterrence to both Turkey and NATO. This possibility is now being seriously discussed by Russian analysts and is a rather frightening possibility.
These are just some of the possible speculative responses Putin could carry out against Turkey. In my opinion 1 and 2 are the most likely occurrences. 2 is likely because it is an effective punishing tactic that will not lead to a direct military escalation. While 1 is likely because Putin will obviously be seeking to show the Turks that he and his country are not to be trifled with.
Where does this all lead?
Undoubtedly Putin will formulate and employ what he considers to be an adequate response to Turkey’s rather provocative actions. The danger is that Putin’s response may lead to a further escalation of the situation in which Russia and Turkey may come to blows leading to all out war. Even more dangerous is the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, and if it is attacked by Russia then Article 5 of the NATO Charter may be invoked and then Russia will be at war with Turkey and the countries of NATO, including America.
Such a war, if confined to Turkey and Syria, could be considered a regional war, albeit a very serious one. But if such a war occurred then it could further escalate to a world wide conflict and we would have a World War 3 scenario on our hands. From there it is not much of a stretch to imagine that the use of nuclear weapons could occur. This is the worst case scenario, and it could arise simply because a Russian airplane violated a small unimportant portion of Turkish airspace for only a few seconds. (If you think a world war cannot be caused by a seemingly unimportant event, re-read the history of the First World War).
One hopes that cooler heads will prevail, but unfortunately the three major players in this situation are just as likely to stand their ground and be confrontational rather than conciliatory. First lets look at Putin. While he is undoubtedly a ruthless man, he is also a highly shrewd strategist, who while wanting to further his geopolitical interests would not want to do so at the cost of all out or nuclear war.
The problem with Putin though is that he is in a situation were based on his pride, his sense of honor and the image he is trying to portray to the world he must take some form of stern action against Turkey. Furthermore he has already for all intents and purposes accused Turkey of supporting ISIL, an accusation which is based on much evidence and which is most likely true, which means that if Putin actually wants to defeat ISIL he may have concluded that to do so may require that he ‘deal’ with Turkey, ISIL’s sugar daddy.
The next player in this drama is President Erdoğan of Turkey. Here is an Islamist and neo-ottomanist who’s desire is to unite the Islamic world and reconstitute the Ottoman Empire. In other words he wants to be a Sultan. And like any good Sultan he is a pugnacious egomaniac. This makes Erdoğan a dangerous man because he has grandiose, unrealistic aims coupled to an indomitable will to accomplish those aims. So while Turkey is militarily significantly weaker than Russia, such pragmatic considerations may hold little sway over Erdoğan. He most likely believes that he is a greater potentate than Putin, and for this reason he may have a go at Russia, even though it is absurd to do so. As such we have cause to believe that Erdoğan will not back down and may escalate the situation further.
Now we come to the final actor in the cast and that is President Obama of the US. Compared to the other two he is the least capable (we should remember that Erdoğan came from a worker class family and worked his way up by his own efforts to being the dictatorial President of Turkey, no small feat). While Putin is ruthless and shrewd, and Erdoğan is egomaniacal and cunning, Obama, in terms of foreign policy, is dithering, vacillating, aloof, weak and even childish. We should remember that he referred to ISIL as the JV team. He sounds more like a pseudo-intellectual sophist than a commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation in the world. And time and time again he has been out maneuvered by Putin.
The danger with Obama is that when it comes to foreign policy it really appears that he does not know how to respond to people like Putin and even to his own ally Erdoğan. As such there is a good chance he could make a geopolitical mistake and in the situation that has engulfed the Middle East such a mistake can be disastrous. Furthermore Obama may see this stand off between Russia and Turkey as the perfect moment to move against Putin. He may gamble that if he, Erdoğan and the rest of NATO stand up to Putin at this moment then Putin may back down and somehow America will be able to oust Assad from power in Syria. Or Putin will not back down and we will have a serious war on our hands.So this is the situation we are in, and it is a very dangerous one. We have Putin who’s desire to fight ISIL and to maintain his honor may lead him to take action against Turkey. We have Erdoğan who wants to expand his neo-ottoman empire into Syria and is crazy enough to have a go at Russia to do so. And we have Obama, who while trying to maintain and promote America’s unipolar hegemony over the world, is inept enough that he may try to stand up to and antagonize Putin in Syria. This situation is a very volatile one. We already have Russian analysts discussing deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Syria as a deterrence to Turkey and NATO. If the situation is handled poorly we could very well have a World War Three scenario play out. One hopes and prays that cooler heads will prevail and the situation will be diffused, but if not we will be in for a wild and dangerous ride.