Turkey shooting down of Russian jet: Murky details. Russian intentions dubious. Tensions de-escalated.
By now most of you have heard that Turkey, our NATO ally, shot down a Russian military jet on Tuesday, November 24th. Some of the details are murky at this writing. Russian President Putin claims it was a “stab in the back,” that their plane had not crossed into Turkish air space, and the pilot was not given any warnings. Turkey, for its part, insists that their air-space was encroached and that they gave the Russian pilot ten warnings before their F-16 shot him down. The Turkish military has released a recording of a Turkish speaker saying, “change your heading.” Konstantin Murakhtin, the Russian navigator who was rescued yesterday, insists that they received no warnings. Videos of the Russian plane being hit and going down has gone viral on the internet, but it focuses on the distant sky and does nothing to answer the questions of airspace location and the presence or absence of warnings. Nor does it deal with the meaningful issue of what the Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber was doing in the area–which does not contain any ISIS targets.
Regular readers of this blog know that Russian bombers, thus far, mostly have targeted “rebel” forces in their support of Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad’s Alewite government. Supposedly Russia was going to direct more of their efforts to hitting ISIS targets, following the downing of the Russian passenger plane returning from Sharm el-Sheikh–for which an ISIS affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility. The Russian Su-24 apparently had been flying over Turkmen (a Turkish peoples) populated area in Syria–which may have contributed to Turkey’s action. Almost surely the Russian pilot would have checked with his military command center before probing the border. It seems probable that Russia was “testing” their military reach. That is in keeping with Putin’s modus operandi. I doubt very much that Putin wants that failed test to escalate confrontation with the West. He has threatened “serious consequences,” but both the Turkish leader Erdogan and Putin spokesmen have avoided talk of further military confrontations. Erdogan has stressed his country’s right to defend its borders (while avoiding the issue of protecting Syrian Turkmen), while Putin no doubt to address his domestic audience, referred to Russian born terrorists (presumably Islamist) and acting to insure that they didn’t return to Russia. Russia announced that it would install an S-400 air-defense unit to back up it’s Syrian operations. This would put it within reach of Turkey. And, temporarily at least, ordered Russian tourists to not visit Turkey–which could cause a significant hit to the Turkish economy. Long run, both Turkish and Russian economic needs are likely to prevail, and the substantial trade and tourism between the two countries will resume. Russian commitment to Bashir al-Assad heading the Syrian government, with the complexities involved in providing tactical support for his ally Hezbollah, in Syria, clearly risks confrontation with the West, who are focused on hurting ISIS and negotiating an alternative to Assad. If those risks are to be avoided, Russia will have to wholeheartedly join the fight against ISIS in Syria, and participate, sincerely, in efforts to change the Syrian government at the top. Iran-Russian relations are involved, as are the interests of rebel groups, most of whom are opposed to any continuation of any Alewite (Shia) rule of Syria. It’s a tough task to achieve. Consequences for not working together in Syria are enormous and risky for all sides. Without cooperation, the next step in the fight against ISIS may well be the establishing of a “no-fly zone,” and probes such as the Russians have been making increase the likelihood of further and more serious air confrontations.