Downing Russian jet exposes Turkey to new dangers
Turkey’s decision to approve the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber it said strayed into its airspace brings the Syrian civil war crisis into an uncharted area of potentially limitless danger.
In the words of the great English poet T.S. Eliot: “I think we are in rats’ alley, where the dead men lost their bones.”
Previously good Turkish-Russian relations had clearly been deteriorating for some time. Turkey was understandably increasingly alarmed by the rapidly growing Russian military and strategic presence in Syria. Russia’s always warm and now rapidly growing ties with Iran were also cause for concern.
Turkey’s military and political leaders had long been frustrated, angered and worried by increasing US support for and public praise of the Kurds. The memory of at least 5,000 Turkish soldiers killed fighting a long and ferocious Kurdish rebellion is a vivid recent experience to them.
Now the main Syrian Kurdish group is seeking closer ties with Russia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Moscow on September 23rd, hoping to discuss these issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin but was put off by a brief and, to him, perfunctory, meeting, according to published reports.
The Russians have also signalled their anger at Turkey for allegedly allowing the Islamic State (ISIS) to quietly transport hundreds of millions of dollars of oil supposedly banned by international sanctions through eastern Turkey to global markets.
Of course, the Kurds who are also fighting ISIS are alleged to tacitly cooperate in this lucrative trade by letting the oil flow and be transported through their own territories as well. Turkey, the Kurds, and ISIS after all, all know they live in a corner of the world where everyone, sooner or later, has to do business with everyone else.
However, none of these considerations should overshadow or distract from the magnitude of what happened on November 24th. For the first time in the 66-year history of NATO an alliance member has shot down a Russian (or Soviet) aircraft.
This had not happened through the four decades of the Cold War. It never happened during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the human race the closest it has ever been to the brink of a thermonuclear world war.
Turkey has been a major NATO member, the most easterly and south-eastern of all NATO members, since 1951 and was long felt threatened by the overwhelming neighbouring presence of Soviet military power. Yet not once during those years did Turkish air craft or ground-based defences shoot down a Soviet plane.
It is worth noting that Russian plane was brought down right after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had painstakingly advanced the Syrian peace process in meetings in Vienna.
Did leading figures in Turkey’s government and armed forces want to derail that new diplomatic track on Syria? Did they get the tacit approval from figures in Washington and the US defence establishment fiercely opposed to Kerry’s diplomacy and opposed to defusing tensions with Russia? Turkey’s command and control over its own forces has always been excellent.
What was always clear was that Putin would not take such an incident lying down. Russia has announced economic sanctions on Turkey and its support for Syria is likely to be stepped up.
This is bad news not just for Turkey and Erdogan but also, ironically, for one of Erdogan’s archenemies on the global stage, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Russian imposition of a de facto no-fly zone in Syria backed up by formidable Russian S-400 missiles potentially clips the wings of Israel’s air power even more than it does Turkey.
The most dangerous potential developments for Turkey, however, are what steps Russia may take to give support and sanction to Kurdish minority groups and to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to destabilise eastern Turkey.
From Iran’s point of view, Turkey is the most powerful major ally of the United States. The Iranians have never dared to give the Turks trouble, knowing the power of NATO and the United States were behind Ankara. However, with increased Russian support for Tehran, it may soon be a different story.
Erdogan shows no sign of apologising to Putin but he should remember Eliot’s warning: rats’ alley is a dangerous place.