Untangling the murky Turkey plane incident


The downing of a Russian Sukhoi-24 bomber by Turkey reminds us of the risks which attend military intervention. There are, however, a number of additional complicating factors which promise to make the Syrian war even more dangerous and bloody for all sides.

Falling Russian warplaneSome of the facts of the matter are still murky. Russia and Turkey have released rival satellite traces. On the Russian account, the plane never entered Turkish airspace — staying at least a kilometre within Syria at all times.

If this is correct, this is a straightforward act of Turkish aggression (Russian planes fly in Syria with that country's Government's consent) and would, in days gone by, have led to a declaration of war.

The Turkish version has the Russian plane crossing Turkish airspace twice, but spending no more than 17 seconds inside Turkey.

The Russians have form, having previously admitted accidental incursions over Turkey, and the Turks have previously declared a zero-tolerance policy for further incursions. Nevertheless, even on the Turkish version, the plane was clearly shot down in Syria and international practice is to escort intruders out of one's airspace, only shooting as a last resort.

Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that Turkey's client Turkmen militia in Syria claim to have shot the pilots as they parachuted from their plane, killing at least one. This is a war crime in both customary international law and by treaty. Would-be rescuers were also shot at and at least one killed.

This could escalate dangerously. Turkey is a NATO member and article 5 of the NATO Treaty allows any NATO country claiming an act of aggression to invoke mutual defence — raising the spectre of a wider NATO-Russia war. Given that both sides are armed with nuclear weapons this would be catastrophic.

Fortunately NATO seems unwilling to provide more than verbal support to Turkey, and Russia has also restricted itself to vocal condemnation (although it has announced that future bombing missions against ISIS and other anti-Assad groups in Syria will have fighter escorts).

Behind all of this lies the overlapping great power games which bedevil the Syrian war. As is well-known, Russia regards all enemies of Assad as legitimate targets, while NATO (and Turkey, in particular) have declared a wish to see the Syrian president removed — if not as their first priority, then at least as a close second.

This has led to some uneasy alliances, with even conservative US newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post expressing disquiet that Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is being supported by the US as a 'moderate rebel group' now that the Pentagon's own 'train and equip' program has failed.

If the Western allies are not picky about who replaces Assad, their Gulf colleagues and Turkey are even less so. Jaish al-Fatah, an umbrella group including Al-Nusra, has long been receiving backing from Saudi and other Gulf States, and Saudi and Qatari backers have been implicated in ISIS funding.

Turkey has been supporting the Turkmen and has been accused of turning a blind eye, at best, to ISIS' activities. The fact that Russian aircraft have been targeting oil tankers shipping oil from ISIS-held fields in Syria into Turkey will not have improved relations between the two countries. The Turkish border was already relatively porous, with ISIS not experiencing a great deal of difficulty moving from side to side.

In fairness, it is not clear whether Turkey has actively been supporting ISIS or merely whether it has had other priorities.

Kurdish rebel groups, regarded by Russia, the US and Israel as reliable bulwarks against ISIS, have been fighting for their own state in the Turkey-Syria-Iran-Iraq region for years. While no friends of Assad, geography alone (ISIS has its base on the Iraq-Syria border) meant that they had been bearing the brunt of the anti-ISIS campaign.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayip Erdogan, fresh from his recent election victory on an avowedly Turkish nationalist platform, sees the Kurds as a much bigger threat than ISIS and has been prioritising his military actions accordingly: waging enthusiastic war on the Kurds (including cross-border strikes into Iraq and Syria), with only token contributions to NATO's anti-ISIS campaign.

In short, if this kind of event is not to become much more common — potentially leading to a much wider war — genuine peace talks with a lot more honesty on each side need to be a priority.


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Russia, Turkey, Syria



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Existing comments

This is certainly an explosive situation between Turkey and Russia. A peaceful solution should mean that Russia respects Turkey's boundaries and Turkey perhaps needs to calm down sufficiently not to see a 17 second incursion in such a defensive manner. Peoples' lives have been lost - time to say "enough".

Pam | 25 November 2015  

Some comments on Justin's excellent article: Either the Russians or the Turks are lying. Calling for greater frankness on all sides is a bit like saying both sides were to blame when B accuses A of unprovoked assault and A denies it. Either A or B must be lying. Here one looks at the evidence, both direct and circumstantial. My reading is the Russians are telling the truth and the Turks lying. 'Turkish flight recordings' are easily simulated. I note the US has not come in with claimed satellite collateral evidence. Trained Russian Air Force pilots do not lose their way in a war zone. The vehemence of Putin's language - 'a stab in the back' - and Lavrov's - 'a provocation' - and the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman's scornful rejection of the US State Dept briefing that perhaps the Turkmens shot the parachuting pilot (which as Justin notes is a war crime) because ‘they feared he might be attacking them’ as ‘words she will never forget’. These are all clear signs that the Russians are livid over this. Your readers should check what they actually have said about future bombing missions in the area being fighter-escorted, and that they will destroy against any attacking source. This could mean hitting on-the-ground missile bases in Turkey. (‘Russia deploys missile cruiser off Syria coast, ordered to destroy any target posing danger.’)


The whole sad incident indicates that NATO and U.S.have lost control over Turkey. If they had ,they would have insisted on a immediate Turkish apology to Russia for the 'friendly fire' incident . To talk of 'staying calm','waiting for the facts to become more clear', rubs salt in Russian wounds. This is certainly a major setback for the anti-ISIS coalition agreed just two weeks ago, ironically at G20 in Turkey. Did Turkey plan to shoot down this aircraft as it flew past just south of the Turkish border? The other urgent question is, did the US have any foreknowledge of such a plan?

Tony Kevin | 26 November 2015  

Russia and Turkey are bad guys; ISIS and most of the Syrian rebel militias are bad to very bad guys; Iran and its fiefdoms in Syria (including Assad and Hezbollah) and Iraq are bad guys; Saudi Arabia and Qatar are bad guys. The Kurds seem rather better than most but not sure if exactly good guys; happy to see them getting some airforce protection. The only roll I can see for Western soldiers` boots is to provide safe havens for persecuted minorities, and especially Christians; and "we" are not yet doing that! All the bad guys could then fight it out among themselves for as long as it takes for what`s left to come to negotiations. On this Obama is close to being right; and he is one of the few good guys..

Eugene | 26 November 2015  

The shooting down of the Russian jet by Turkey is certainly worrying. While Turkey is officially a NATO member, since 2002 Erdogan and his Islamist party have distanced Turkey from the West. Some believe Turkey is now a liability for NATO. Ankara recently showed its readiness to purchase Chinese missile defence technology which might enable the Chinese to gain access to classified NATO military plans. Under pressure from the Obama administration, it has indicated it may cancel these plans, so it seems the West may still have some leverage over Turkey. In addition there is much disagreement over how to fight IS, although Turkey has recently taken steps to stem the movement of foreign fighters. Still, a 2014 survey showed 76% Turkish public support for NATO, and Turkey’s geographic location at the centre of the Middle East crisis area, shows its strategic importance to NATO. It is a delicate situation, particularly since Russia seems to be the only country willing to take on IS in an effective manner. Finally, the New York Times is not a conservative newspaper. Even its Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, recently admitted to Breitbart that it was liberal, which reflected its readership.

Ross Howard | 27 November 2015  

For a serious analysis of who the 'good guys','bad guys' and 'very bad guys' are in Syria, readers might like to be aware of this article http://on.rt.com/6xmz

Tony kevin | 27 November 2015  

Erdogan is an Islamist and is happy to support fellow Islamists in ISIS and all the other so called "rebels". Not only that but Assad was a democratically elected leader of Syria who was not an Islamist leading a secular regime and protected the minorities. He is the only one that we should be supporting in addition to going in and saving the Christian and other minorities from total annihilation.

Michael | 27 November 2015  

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