A Strange Event
The topic of the SU-24 Russian plane shot down by Turkey over the weekend in Syria has been discussed all over the media ad nauseam by now, but we want to add a few observations and suggestions of our own. Some have perhaps not received the attention they possibly deserve.
Image of Russian jet shortly after it was hit by a Turkish missile. Luckily someone was promptly at hand to make a qualitatively acceptable video of the incident. As is well known, cameramen just waiting to film every remotely interesting activity are standing by all over Syria, which is why we get so much material about what is really happening there.
Photo credit: DPA
Judging from reader comments in the mainstream press, many people are uncertain as to what opinion would be the most politically correct to express at the current juncture. Both Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin are not exactly “model democrats” and are known for frequently defying the wishes of Western power elites. Who are we supposed to hate more right now?
Further below we will briefly discuss an interesting comment made by Germany’s vice chancellor in this context. Other than that, we are more interested in what facts are actually known and what can be inferred from them.
The entire incident is very strange. An extensive comment on this aspect is available at the German language section of Der Spiegel, but it isn’t easy to find a comparable summary elsewhere.
It seems to be true that the Russian jet has been warned about 10 times by Turkish forces via radio that it was getting close to Turkish airspace. This has been confirmed by others who are recording the radio chatter in the region. Such warnings are routinely sent over the “guard emergency frequency”, which means they can be heard by everyone listening in on this frequency and were definitely heard by the Russian pilots as well. It is however extremely odd that they are said not to have reacted to the warnings at all.
“CNN Turk” has published the following chart of the plane’s flight path – which has been provided by Turkey’s ministry of defense:
The red line shows the Russian jet’s flight path, the blue line that of the Turkish plane that allegedly intercepted it. We say “allegedly” because the Russians assert the jet was shot down by a ground-to-air missile, and no video evidence of the Turkish plane is available. Those alert cameramen either plain forgot to film it, or it remained out of sight – click to enlarge.
Russia disputes the correctness of this image. The Russian ministry of defense insists that the plane never crossed Turkish airspace. We cannot ascertain which of these sources is telling the truth. It is however a fact that the plane went down in Syrian territory (which isn’t proving where exactly the plane was when it was shot at). A video of the flight data released by Russia can be seen here:
Video of the jet’s flight data released by Russia’s ministry of defense
However, for the sake of this discussion, we will assume that the image provided by Turkey is correct. That still doesn’t make the incident any less strange. As noted above, it is very odd that the Russian pilots showed no reaction to the warnings. In the heat of battle, a single warning may be overheard, but 10 warnings received over the span of five minutes must have been noticed. The Russians have GPS on board (Glonass, a Russian version of GPS), which shows them quite clearly where exactly they are at any given time.
However, even if we accept the version of the flight path offered by Turkey as the gospel truth, another things is also clear: The Russian plane can at most have spent a few seconds in Turkish airspace. Moreover, as a close-up of the Turkish version of the flight path shows, it was clearly only crossing over a small piece of Turkish territory that is jutting into Syria. The implicit assumption that it actually planned to attack Turkey and should therefore be shot down, must have taken quite a leap of the imagination.
If we believe the Turkish version of the flight path, then the Russian jet spent only a few seconds in Turkish airspace
Image by Business Insider
Vladimir Putin’s reaction to news of the downing of the plane was to describe it as “a stab in the back, carried out against us by accomplices of terrorists.” This was a for Putin typical none-too-subtle hint, pointing to what is anyway an open secret: Turkey’s government hasn’t really treated IS as much of an enemy (evidence to this effect is not hard to find).
Since most of the oil IS sells on the black market is bought by unknown parties in Turkey and most of the foreign fighters joining IS are traveling through Turkey, it seems clear that Turkey’s government is not exactly making a big effort to suppress the self-anointed Caliphate’s activities. Moreover, when Turkey finally announced it would join the air war against IS, most of the sorties were aimed at the PKK – the Kurdish group with which it has been fighting for decades.
Be that as it may, the possibility that a Russian plane would be shot down in Syria by a NATO member hitherto seemed to be a distant and theoretical – if somewhat frightening – concern. There is a bit of recent history that has to be considered in this case. In early October, a Russian plane’s tracking radar honed in on several Turkish planes in the vicinity. Following this incident, Turkey’s government warned Moscow emphatically not to let any Russian planes enter Turkish airspace.
Der Spiegel has solicited the opinion of a former German fighter pilot, who noted among other things that if one still gets no reaction after issuing 10 warnings, “not to shoot would entail the danger that one will no longer be taken seriously”.
However, said pilot also opined that the shoot-down seemed a completely over-the-top reaction, considering the jet was at most a few seconds over Turkish airspace (if indeed it was there at all). This makes it actually possible that the missile that brought the plane down in fact only struck it after it was already back in Syrian airspace.
Given that five minutes passed between the first warning and the order to shoot the plane down, there was plenty of time to consider what to do. Presumably those who fired the missile did whatever they thought was necessary to cover their behinds. Read: they most assuredly asked for permission from higher-ups.
Reading Between the Lines
Turkey immediately asked for a special NATO meeting to be convened to discuss the incident. It is interesting that NATO, while affirming its support for a member, reacted by calling for immediate “deescalation”. It can probably be assumed that the recent attempt to coordinate the fight against IS with Russia is seen as an urgent priority, at least by some NATO members (especially the big continental European ones like France and Germany). The incident has thrown this effort off course, at least temporarily.
Possibly there is even a rift within NATO regarding the willingness to cooperate with Russia against IS. Prominent neo-conservatives in the US have openly agitated for an “alliance with Al Qaeda”, so as to fight IS and Assad simultaneously (yes, they really are that stupid and callous). Their opinions are presumably shared by at least some members of NATO alliance (though not, we believe, by the Obama administration). It all depends on how deep a government’s mistrust of Russia is, resp. what its assessment of Assad is. Mr. Erdogan’s priorities in Syria are not exactly a secret.
Here is what Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor had to say (our translation) – which confirms to us that the Germans were actually looking forward to burying the hatchet and cooperating with Russia again. They are evidently quite unhappy:
“First of all, the incident shows that we have a player in this game who is, according to statements from various sources in the region, unpredictable: and that is Turkey, not Russia. The fact that the Russians may have triggered the confrontation by violating Turkish airspace must not blind us to the fact that Turkey is playing a difficult role in this conflict”
This basically sounds like diplomat-speak for “F*** you Erdogan, you crazy bastard”. Gabriel stressed that he hoped that no damage to the effort to coordinate the fight against terrorist groups internationally would result from this.
In various media reports about the incident it is mentioned that the people who assert that they have killed the Russian pilots after they ejected from the plane (by firing on them as they parachuted down) are “Turkmen rebels fighting Assad”.
A few videos have appeared in this context, such as the following one that was one of the earliest posted on youtube and purportedly shows one of the pilots severely wounded and surrounded by Allahu Akbar shouting men armed with AK 47s:
Rebels surrounding Russian pilot (not enough detail is visible to really confirm this claim,
but Russian authorities have by now issued a statement that they believe at least one of the pilots to be dead).
Another video shows FSA rebels (“Free Syrian Army”) shooting down a Russian helicopter that was reportedly sent in an attempt to rescue the pilots:
“FSA” shooting at a Russian helicopter
Lastly, here is a link to a video in German language, in which Turkmen fighters state that they were the ones who killed the pilots (you have to suffer through a brief ad at the beginning). Evidently, they are unaware of the Geneva convention.
Keeping aside for a moment that there is superficially nothing that helps one to differentiate between assorted “moderate” beheaders and IS fighters (the constant invocations of Allah are quite conspicuous; they are a well-known trademark of IS and al-Nusrah fighters), we find it quite interesting that Turkmen are said to be involved. Turkmen, as the name implies, are ethnically close to Turks and Turkey, and Turkmen rebels have indeed risen up against Assad’s government in this particular region.
Our inference from this is that Turkey’s government is probably eager to specifically protect Turkmen rebels. This seems to be a far more likely motive for downing a Russian plane than the alleged infringement of Turkish airspace. The fact that Turkmen rebels are active in the area would also explain the earlier spats over Russian planes operating there. In short, it would not surprise us if Turkey is simply trying to protect Turkmen rebels from air raids, while using violations of its airspace as a pretext.
We doubt however that Mr. Putin is differentiating between so-called moderate and extremist rebels in the region. After all, it is known that they are cooperating rather than fighting each other. Moreover, Russia’s goal is not only to fight IS, but to keep Assad in power – at least for the time being (Mr. Putin can probably be persuaded to accept a replacement, as long as Russia gets to keep its Mediterranean port access and as long as the successor is not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or a similar figure).
Many people have pointed to the risk that an incident such as this one could precipitate a much bigger conflict, one that could eventually mushroom into something akin to World War III (mushroom is probably a good term in this context). We don’t want to minimize the danger; small mistakes can sometimes have enormous unintended consequences. The web of alliances tying various parties together can quickly lead to a conflict widening, especially if the politicians in charge are either slightly crazy or simply incapable of properly assessing the risks. Word War I stands forever as a monument to such miscalculations and how alliances can broaden a conflict.
On the other hand, one must not forget that everybody would have a lot to lose and very little to gain. World trade has greatly expanded in recent decades, and in its wake the prosperity of previously backward countries has greatly increased. As Bastiat remarked, as long as goods are crossing borders, there is a modicum of insurance against armies doing so. Our assumption is that after the initial posturing, some sort of arrangement will be found. Hopefully that doesn’t turn out to be wishful thinking.
Lettuce hope it won’t come to this.