Why did Turkey dare shoot down a Russian Plane? The Proxy War in Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Turkish government decision to down a Russian jet operating in the north of the Syrian province of Latakia is breathtaking in its boldness. Russia may no longer be a superpower, but it is a nuclear-armed great power. The newly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his mentor President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey can rule without the help of any other party in parliament, and seems determined to double down on its policy of intervening in Syria.

The Davutoglu government risks substantial economic harm. Russian tourism has boosted the Turkish economy, and Russia was planning an important gas pipeline through Turkey as well as the building for Ankara of a nuclear power reactor. All those activities have just been cancelled, and tour operators in Russia are looking for other tourist markets after pressure from the Putin government. Russia is attributing the attack to an attempt by Turkish officials to protect gasoline smuggling routes from Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) to Turkey, but the geography of the shoot-down tells against this interpretation. This was near al-Qaeda territory in the northwest, not Daesh territory in the northeast, and the issue is arms smuggling, not oil smuggling.

Turkey has backed a range of Muslim fundamentalist groups in northern Syria in hopes of eventually overthrowing the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is also afraid of the leftist Kurds of northern Syria, which are accused of attempting to ethnically cleanse Arab and Turkmen villages that stand in the way of their establishing land bridges between the three major Kurdish cantons of northern Syria. The People’s Protection Unites (YPG) or leftist Kurdish militias have already linked two of these cantons, defeating Daesh in order to do so. The third, Afrin, is separated from Kobane by a set of Arab and Turkmen villages north of Aleppo.

But there are also Turkmen villages in the north of Idlib province west of Aleppo, and in the north of Latakia province to the west of Idlib. Turkmen populations in those provinces have organized militias and have joined rebel groups fighting the al-Assad government. Some of them have sometimes tactically allied with the Jabhat al-Nusrah, al-Qaeda in Syria, against government troops.

The Turkmen in the north of Latakia province live in an area called Turkmen Mountain near the Turkish border, including the sub-districts of Rabia and Qastal Maaf. The Turks call this area Bayirbucak. It is alleged that Turkey and the CIA are sending weapons for the rebel groups through Turkmen Mountain. Rabia is just southwest of the Idlib city of Jisr al-Shughour, which fell to al-Qaeda and its allies in late April. This city is a potential launching pad for the conquest of Latakia Province by hard line Salafi groups who are hand in hand with al-Qaeda.

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 4.46.26 AM
Via Google Maps

One of Russia’s current strategic goals is to keep Latakia Province from falling to the rebels. Latakia contains a crucial port of the same name, as well as the Tartous naval facility leased to the Russians. Latakia is heavily Alawite, the Shiite group that is a mainstay of the al-Assad government.

Russia appears to have been attempting to cut off a smuggling route for CIA weapons such as T.O.W. anti-tank missiles through Jabal Turkmen by attacking the Turkmen militias of northern Latakia Province, in the interests of shoring up the al-Assad government there. This attack may also have been intended to panic Turkmen populations into fleeing over the border into Turkey, thus removing a power base for Turkey on the Syrian side of the border and removing a group that would aid al-Qaeda and its allies in Jisr al-Shughour to move west.

The Turkish press has been extremely exercised about this Russian campaign against the Turkmen in Rabia and Jabal Turkmen more generally, and some newspapers appear to have foreseen the attack on the Russian jet.

The centrist Milliyet wrote (BBC Monitoring trans.): “The picture has totally changed in Syria. Russian jets have hit and Al-Asad’s Hezbollah-supported troops have started an operation to expel Turkmens from Bayirbucak. Was that a calculated move? Al-Asad’s intention is to widen his sphere of influence by taking control of the Turkmen region with Russia’s support… The more Ankara says that Al-Asad will go, the stronger Al-Asad makes his position.”

The centrist, pro-government Turkish newspaper Sabah wrote on Tuesday, according to BBC Monitoring, “Now, attacks conducted by the Russia-Iran-Asad alliance against Turkmens have been added to that. The aim is clear: to draw Turkey into the war or to weaken its hand at the table. There are some other intrigues as well.”

The religious-Right Yeni Safak wrote (BBC Trans.): “Turkmen Mountain? It is Turkey’s ‘red’ line! No-one should assume that Turkey is just watching and waiting. So many things are being done behind the scenes! We will soon see them. Ankara will not be deterred by Turkey’s enemies!.. What is going on is an ‘unannounced world war’! Briefly, independent Muslim Turkey is putting up a vital fight against the Crusader-Zionist alliance!”

This paper seems to see Putin’s Russia as an Eastern Orthodox Christian power allied with Israel against Turkmen populations. (None of this is true). Its sources appear to have predicted to it Turkey’s dramatic response to the Russian campaign. The center-right Turkiye compared the Russian campaign against Jabal Turkmen as a “Second Gallipoli,” referring to Winston Churchill’s hope of taking the Gallipoli Peninsula in WW I and then marching right up to the then capital, Istanbul, thus cutting the war in the eastern Mediterranean short. The British empire was thwarted in this plan by a strong Ottoman defense and use of machine guns and artillery. Turkiye is hearkening back to WW I, when Russia attacked eastern Anatolia!

Source: Quotes package from BBC Monitoring, in Turkish 24 Nov 15

We may conclude that Russia’s targeting of Turkmen, an ethnic group that speaks a language similar to that spoken in Turkey, raised nationalist hackles in Ankara. But in addition, these Syrian Turkmen are religious, just as is the leadership of the ruling AKP in Turkey. And, further, they are a linchpin for Turkish, American and Saudi intervention in Syria, since they appear to be among the arms smugglers getting munitions to the rebels against the al-Assad government. Although the CIA maintains that these weapons only go to some 45 “vetted” groups that are not extremists, they in fact get into the hands of al-Qaeda and its allies, grouped as the Army of Conquest, as well. Russia must defeat the Army of Conquest and protect the Alawites of Latakia if it is to achieve its war aims in Syria, and appears to have decided to begin by blocking Turkmen smuggling. The Turkmen had their revenge, claiming to have killed one or both of the pilots who ejected from the downed fighter jet and also taking down a Russian helicopter that attempted to rescue them. [Update: Russia later rescued both pilots, who are actually unharmed.]

Russia and Turkey are now fighting a proxy war in Syria, and have been all this fall. As of yesterday, they are not just using proxies, but are directly in conflict with one another.

Turkey and the Turkmen are carving out a sphere of influence in northern Syria and are insisting that Russia recognize it. How severe the conflict becomes depends in part on how Russia responds to this setback for its war aims. It also depends on whether Turkish goals are more ambitious, to help the al-Qaeda-led Army of Conquest take Latakia. If Jabal Turkmen is a red line for Turkey, Latakia port is a red line for Russia. Red lines have a way of turning into hot wars.

86 Responses

  1. It is hypocrisy on the part of the Turks to complain that a Russian jet was just inside their air space when Turkey is flying right into Syria to bomb the Kurds who are fighting ISIS. The Russians have a right under international law to be in Syria as they were invited in by the government of Syria. The Turks, like all other Countries bombing Syria are in violation of international law. I think Putin should warn the Turks that another incident of this kind will result in a massive barrage of missiles rained down on the air base from which the attacking plane originated.

    • Putin won’t do anything stupid as he hasn’t got a strong position. The present campaign of bombing rebels is obviously deeply unsettling to Turkey and NATO yet they can’t directly oppose it, especially after the Paris bombing and more anti-Muslim feeling. The loss of a plane and a pilot can be accepted.
      The Russians will be hitting the Turkmans hard but will be wary of the border.

      • Well said Steerpike. That and economic retaliation but no direct attack. And in the future Russia will keep clear of Turkey proper. But then that was never the reason for the attack. Russians may also arm the Kurds and take out any Turkish planes entering deep into Syria where there is no question of whose territory it is.

    • Even today they are fighting like kids.who will get an advantage ? Both will be hurt. I request both patties to cool down have a table talk and resolve the issue and make a mechanism to prevent this from happening again.

    • Hey Gus join hands let,s find a “ win-win” solution
      a) Russia,……….. we never violated any one,s territory and did,nt violate the Turkish air space and we condemn any attack on our airship across the border.
      b) Turkey…… we won,nt let any one violate our air space and we also condemn any attack done in other territory if it has happened.
      Both statements mean the same rather you go through the a first or b first.Then why is the stess?

      In the middle of night someone wakes up President Vladimir Poutin and asks him sir a war plane from Turkey is approaching us we have given ten warnings in last five minutes and it is not stopping should we take it down? What would be his initial reaction.I guess it will be no different than that of President Ordagan,s “ idiots why asking me shoot it down”. Turkey,s prime minister had a similar reaction I guess every one will,(France,Germany,Israel,USA).you can ask them.
      The statement of president Poutin,” stabbed in back” was also Natural and heart taking. It represents how emotional and sad he felt because he had never imagined this from Turkey. He had always considered Turkey as being very close allay of his country one of the best friends.The most liked places of all Russians and he was going to provide them a nuclear reactor. It sounds more more sad when you are even abused or hit by your best friend.It does not hurt you physically but mentally deep inside your heart.You don,nt want to believe it.
      Turkey on the other hand also considers Russia as best friend and they have close ties investments,good neighbours,rather 10 percent of Turkish import and Gas pipeline ,Turkey always believed in Russia. Although they have some reservations for Turkmen and sacracy of terrirories that must be understood.It was like Turk,s felt that Russian planes are again and again enterine their territory and Russia does not consider them Important and in NATO meetings they discussed this again and again ,however media highlights concerns and I am sorry to say “seeds in hearts”. But Russia had no such intention ever however Turkey started thinking that Russians don,nt take us seriously.It,s like the same where NATO attacked Pakistani post, Relations got tense but they found a solution and even today USA and Pakistan are best friends.
      The situation evolved like a kid,s fight. Both sides became reactionary and started blaming each other inflamed by media and people.
      Who wanted this situation? Neither Turkey nor Russia.
      Why this happened? It was a mistake .. reaction of both Turkey and Russia were Natural.
      Fighting and wrong decisions will not solve problem rather it will make situation more grave , a small incident will lead to economic crash, worse relations and bad emotions between two countries which will create a bad environment.At the same time who will get an advantage?
      President Viladimir Putin has a fame as being a big analyst and all Russian,s believe him.The shock he got from news early on was later changed into anger which might be exaggerated by media and at the same time a similar situation was developing in Turkey.
      “WIN WIN” had always being the best solution. Both Russian and Turkey officials can sit on a table and analyse why the incident happened, look it has happened it cannot be reverted back. After an accident both parties think they are right. Without blaming any body they can do a joint investigation and find out what was the loop hole. In the meantime appropriate measures can be taken that this does not happened in future.
      Russia,……….. we did,nt violate the Turkish air space and we condemn any attack on our airship across the border.
      Turkey…… we won,nt let any one violate our air space and we also condemn any attack done in Syrian territory if it has happened.
      Then they can sit and start investigating………….simple………….
      Let friends be friends,……..friends make mistake ………..friends get emotional……..but a friend …only a friend understands friend………..

  2. A brilliant and truly well informed summing up of the situation and the danger of the events leading to a much greater confrontation! These blogs are indispensable to the understanding of the intricacies behind what is going on in the Middle East.

    This blog proves that the accounts about Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s help for the terrorists had not not exaggerated, and far from being just a civil war or another manifestation of the Arab uprising, the events in Syria are a part of a geopolitical game being played by regional countries, backed by Russia and the United States. If the rise of ISIS and terrorist outrages in Beirut, Paris and Sharm al-Sheikh do not bring our politicians to their senses, nothing will. It is time to call a halt to this madness and move towards a proper resolution of Middle Eastern conflicts, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shia rivalry that are devastating the region.

  3. Needless to say a situation of such great instability in Syria has only managed to attract regional and great powers into the melee, seeking geopolitical fortune and security in equal and inextricable measure. The downing of a Russian bomber jet by Turkey has great symbolic significance, of course, destroying along with the aircraft itself Russia’s air of great power (direct) untouchability.

    As concerns the most recent attacks in Paris, ISIS’s alleged modus operandi of attacking young people congregating in cafes in a working-class neighborhood and a theatre seem almost willfully counterproductive to the stated claims of being motivated by Western airstrikes against civilians, and especially women and children, in Syria. During the Algerian War as well as during the French, and later American, wars in Indochina the opinion and democratic pressure of the citizenry, and most especially the youth, of the aforementioned Western powers served to curtail and uitimately end those wars to the benefit of the insurgent autochthonous/regional forces. Would it therefore not have made sense for ISIS/Daesh to have attempted something along similar political and strategic lines, i.e. the courting of the sympathy of the democratic forces, and especially the youth populations of the Western countries in question, considering their claimed purposes of seeking a cessation of Western aggression and intervention in the regions they control/seek to control? The democratic and intellectual response in France to the Algerian War, and in the U.S. to the Vietnam War, arguably made the aforesaid countries more democratic, pliable, and responsive to their citizens, while the ongoing and ever-intensifying so-called ‘wars on terror’ threaten to make all the countries that engage in such wars much less so.

    • You’re speaking as if Daesh is made of sophisticated Western sociologists rather than obsessive Koranic textproofers. They don’t understand Western politics and sociology well – if they did, they wouldn’t be in Daesh. Most likely their thought is that the bombing will provoke a stupid and immoral reaction from the West which it can’t sustain, creating more support for the extremists. It worked for 9/11, actually. Hopefully the current leadership won’t be as idiotic as Bush was.

  4. Thanks for bringing more clarity to this murky area. You mention Russia and Turkey being in a proxy war, but it seems that their own forces are involved now too . . . as are those of the United States. I wish that I had confidence that our leaders are acting wisely, morally, justly.

    • I’d settle for wisely since morality and justice are absent in politics. No nation has either morality or justice on their agenda but I would hope most have self interest and sanity somewhere on the list. Sadly Erdogan does not but I think the rest do. At least the rest of them seem to be more prudent and rational than Erdogan.

  5. Good insights ,Juan, and new information (for me). Which of the politicized Turkish media can be trusted here ? As you point out,they all have domestic agendas.
    Another dimension is the historical fact, well-known to JC–that the oddly shaped Hatay Province–Alexandretta to Syria–was donated to Ataturk’s Turkey by Mandate France in the late 1930s, giving Turkey control of the NE corner of the Mediterranean and setting off a perpetual dispute between Turkey and Syria once the latter became independent after WW II. It was there that Syrian refugees first crossed into “Turkish” territory in large numbers in 2011/12 and from where foreign agents have been operating.

      • I do too. I’d also suggest reading Al Monitor as a place to read some excellent Turkish journalists (and Mustafa Akyol).
        But I’m not sure why you’re not noting that Yeni Safak is Erdogan’s unfiltered id.

        And I do wish you’d not hidden behind a passive construction, but said who is accusing the YPG of cleansing … the same people who are sending death squads (“Allah’s Lions”) against their own Kurdish population?

    • The irony of your comment is, the second half of your comment is precisely why all of those (otherwise untrustworthy) turkish papers are onto something about Assad and Putin’s intentions.

      As you note, the Hatay province and the Turkmen Mountain above are problematic for the Alaawite dictatorship. It’s only natural to try to change the demographics to consolidate defensible borders.

      Indeed, what are 5 million displaced persons but such a demographic shift?
      Indeed, the (otherwise saintly) Syrian Kurds have already used this past year’s chaos to clear sunni arabs to create a maximal, contiguous kurdish region. Isis, for their part, is cleansing to produce a contiguous Isis part.

      The tone of so much western writing about the Syrian conflict is a juvenile search for higher moral ground- and, the reality is, it’s utterly insane and disproportionate. Assad kills a half million Syrians, who cares? Turks kill one Russian, and everyone wants to push the shiny red button.

      And it is in the light of the above considerations that I can assert the past ten years of Erdogan’s leadership have been an unmitigated disaster. The reality is, Russia has had a stated goal of retaking(sic) Constantinople on again off again since the 18th century- Erdogan’s “Zero Allies” approach to foreign policy is going to get everyone killed.

      • Erdogan doesn’t have zero allies; he has Saudi Arabia and the Arab monarchies as an ally – the ally no one who consumes oil can say no to. That gives him leverage with the US to offset the Israelis.

  6. Since Russia is now deploying the S-400 air defense system with a range of 400 kilometers, a missile cruiser that can attack air bases and command and control targets inside Turkey, and fighters to cover their tactical bombers, I’d say the escalation has already started. The next move is Turkey’s and NATO’s. What bothers me about American foreign policy is that when we’re outmaneuvered, as we were outmaneuvered by Russia’s intervention in Syria, we don’t back off and find another way to play the hand. The Cuban Missile Crisis that led to the US pulling its missiles out of Turkey in return for the Russians pulling theirs out of Cuba is a case study the Obama administration should think about seriously.

  7. I see the US hand in this attack on the Russian jet. You kind of hint at it when you mention the CIA role in arms smuggling. The US doesn’t want Russian involvement. It wants to control things there. The US, as usual, is playing the same dangerous game it played in Afghanistan. It is in effect helping the al-Qa’ida affiliates. It is not serious about defeating ISIL. The Russians are. The US is acting in bad faith there, saying one thing for US and world consumption and doing another on the scene. The Russians have their interests surely, but they are being more honest about what they want to accomplish in Syria.

    • It’s too easy to see the U.S. at work here. Why would we conspire with the Turks, Moscow’s ancient enemy and a NATO member redolent of Cold War memories in a conscious act of war against the Russian Federation? Isn’t this conscious provocation the last thing we would indulge as we flail about in a protracted effort to seek closure there and to lower our profile in the region? As both Quax and Bill suggest below the situation is just too complex and dangerous for such adventures. I see Obama as a cautious man whose droning campaign, for example, has been primarily an effort to facilitate a strategic withdrawal, not further adventurism.

    • Glez, this has been the hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy. He says one thing for US consumption (which is then broadcast by the media), and does something entirely different in actuality. The activities in Yemen and Ukraine come to mind….How many in america are aware of our active support to saudi arabia; or our role in Ukraine.

      Obama will leave behind a world in mess worse than what he inherited; this from some one who voted for him twice!!

      • He will have accomplished a comprehensive agreement for a Palestinian State before he leaves office. That he has the power is obvious. Who could conceivably think he is not prepared to use it it? The Israelis are in a corner. That’s especially so given the situation in Syria. I understand Netanyahu made a new departure during the last visit. Those who hate him essentially because it isn’t over yet will have great difficulty explaining it during the coming year.

        • I think you have to be the most optimistic person in the galaxy!! Even if I grant you your first statement, a comprehensive agreement is not worth the paper it is written on. The Israelis have (especially, netanyahu) have used these agreements as ‘toilet paper’. Look at Oslo.

          ‘That he has the power is obvious’; what he lacks is the cohones to do anything.his bureaucracy and his cabinet and the polity in washington will negate anything he does.

          What I have learnt over the last ten plus years is that Israel has deep roots in the US government…
          He just will not want to jeopardize his future. He needs the relations to make money ala clintons going forward.

        • I think that everyone would be astounded if he accomplished anything in the ME, let alone a Palestinian state. What is your evidence of progress? Where is his power to do that? He would have to instantly blockade Israel and cut off all aid and all trade, and even then they would just bribe the mass media and the Repubs and Hillary Dems, and wait for the oligarchy to replace him. Let us know what you base this theory upon.

    • Turkey is not exactly a US lackey. It seems that both neocons and now leftist critics of US foreign policy greatly over estimate US power. Turkey has shown in the recent past that it does what it wants to do, regardless of what the US wants. Plus, as someone has already pointed out, it makes no sense for the US to create a confrontation with Russia over Syria.

  8. “Red lines have a way of turning into hot wars.”

    Well said. All of this would be bad enough, but the fact that Turkey is a NATO member gives me a major headache.

  9. The Turkish government decision to down a Russian jet operating in the north of the Syrian province of Latakia is breathtaking in its boldness.

    I’m not sure “boldness” is the right word. This action may prove to be similar to the “boldness” of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria just before the outbreak of the First World War.

      • Yes, a hero in Serbia is what is important to Serbs; and damn the millions who died because of this “hero”! Ya gotta love humans when they are at their illogical best!
        Nice post. Cheers!

        • “millions who died because of this “hero””

          Mixing and not differentiate between pretext and cause. No serious historian would say WWI would not happen if Princip didn’t assassinate Ferdinand (charlatans would).

          And by the way he is celebrated as a hero who paved the way for (that time dream of many Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Muslims etc.) uniting south Slavs in one state i.e. creating Yugoslavia.

  10. There are at least two reasons for this provocation by Turkey.

    ISIS has been financing itself by stealing Syrian oil and selling it to Turkey at a discount.

    Putin’s recent heavy bombardment of the trucks and facilities involved undoubedly irritate Erdogan, and I believe his own son is involved in this whole operation.

    The second reason for this is that it was meant to put a stop to a genuine anti-ISIS coalition.

    When I say “genuine,” I mean one which actually targets the terrorists – as Russia is doing – and not one which targets Syria and effectively protects ISIS, which is the pattern of America’s efforts, the ones supported by a disingenuous David Cameron.

    Turkey is the last country wanting a genuine coalition since it is a major supporter of ISIS. It uses those murderous thugs against both the Kurds Erdogan so hates and of course against the government of Syria, a reasonable government which opposes some of Erdogan’s fetid dreams of empire.

    It’s all a dirty business, and the only honest major player is Putin. Cameron, Obama, Erdogan, and Netanyahu are outright liars and supporters of terror. They are also guilty of supporting criminal invasion of a peaceful country. Hollande was with them but has been wavering.

    The various words by American Defense Secretary Ash Carter over recent time sound just like something from Dr Strangelove, full of dark threats and anger about America’s dirty plans being thwarted by Putin.

    If what these people were doing in Syria was honorable and acceptable to public opinion, why do they keep lying and hiding what they are doing?

    Because it is not.

    What kind of democratic behavior is that?

    • Assads regime is many things, but “reasonable government” it is not. Most of the Syrian refugees are escaping from the Syrian army’s barrel bombs and its torture chambers. When they are surveyed Daesh/IS comes in a distant second as flight cause (and surveyed they are, at least the ones who reach Germany).

      At best Assad is the least bad option at this time.

      • He surely is and that fact reflects the mistake made by the White House when it embarked on a far too complex policy of supporting some factions and not others on the altar of regime change. Assad is in fact the “least bad” choice and we are now inhibited from admitting it because of a failed policy. The French seem to understand.

        We’ve made other mistakes for similar reasons, e.g., in not destroying oil tank trucks out of concern that the drivers might not be Daesch types.

    • “When I say “genuine,” I mean one which actually targets the terrorists – as Russia is doing – and not one which targets Syria and effectively protects ISIS, which is the pattern of America’s efforts, ”

      Putin’s bombing campaign isn’t focused on Isis, because Isis isn’t focused on the Assad regime- they’re further east, in keeping with their original raison d’être, wresting control of Iraq from the Shiites.

      No, Putin is bombing the moderates because it’s the moderates who are actually applying pressure on Assad.

      If you think any of Putin’s activities are about anything other than monopolizing the flow of natural gas to europe, I have some genuine black sea amphorae to sell you.

      “It’s all a dirty business, and the only honest major player is Putin. ”

      You’re a fool if you believe there exists an honest player in this game. A fool.

      • it’s the moderates who are actually applying pressure on Assad.

        What moderates? Perhaps comparing others, anyone else, to ISIS are “moderates” but that takes a lot of stretching of the term.

    • ‘It’s all a dirty business, and the only honest major player is Putin.’

      We won the Cold War and re-made Russia in our image: a competitor in a global struggle for territory, resources, markets, and cheap labor.

      So it makes sense for Americans to view Russia as an enemy.

      But it’s irrational for us to say that Russia, personified in Putin, is evil.

    • To call Putin an honest player is so incredibly mind boggling to me that it makes me suspect you are a shill for Putin. Ex-KGB autocrat who has sought to reclaim Georgia and large parts of the Ukraine, I doubt he has been honest a day in his life.

  11. excellent piec of writing, this is Ukraine 2.0.
    just as Russia intervened in ukraine to protect her Russia-speaking people. Turkey also has a right to protect the Turkey -speaking indigens in Syria – turkmens.
    Turkey warned Russia couple of months ago on similar incident. what measure did Moscow undertaked to prevent these occurrence, NON!!!

    • So, the Germans had a right to protect the Sudetenland Germans from the Czech government? Given the arbitrary boundaries of so many post WWI states, this is a very slippery slope.

  12. Great piece. This entire thing made no sense to me until you mentioned the piece about the CIA running guns through the Turkmen militias. Now it all makes sense. I don’t think Erdogan makes this move on his own and I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, very covert American special ops were hit in the Russian strikes. Juan, you bring so much light to the situation, but there is still so much we don’t know. I can tell you this, this entire episode started with Turkey letting into Syria a group of Islamic Militants who took over the Christian, traditionally Armenian village of Kessab. My wife’s family was from there and we were getting play by play reports. Turkey opened the border allowing close to 5,000 terrorists into Syria, when the Syrian government scrambled a fighter to repel this threat against it’s sovereignty, Turkey shot the plane down on Syrian land, thus allowing the terrorists to take over Kessab. The entire Armenian population of Kessab went to Latakia as a safe haven. Turkey has been instrumental from day 1 and I am sad to say, it seems the US had a major hand in this as well. As an Armenian American, that is very very depressing. Thank you for your analysis, it has been the best around on this topic for years now.

    • What evidence do you have that the US had a major hand in allowing militants to go from Syria to Turkey? Did the US also have a hand in Turkey attacking Kurds in both Turkey and Iraq? People who see US hands everywhere are as delusional as those who used to see communistic involvement everywhere. Nations act in what they see are their own self interest. Turkey’s self interest is to not have a Kurdistan. Also, in the past they have been averse to their Armenian minority because they fear their desire for autonomy. In what way is it in the US self interest to allow terrorists to infiltrate from Syria? Your conjecture makes no sense.

  13. The german government leaked that NATO is pretty upset about the turkish attack. But it seems the sultan doesn’t care about that at all.

    Turkey is busy sending more troops (tanks and planes) to the theater. i’m afraid Putin will not simply back down and risk losing all credibilty.

    This doesn’t look good at all…Erdogan seems a very irrational guy.

    • It may not be as bad as you think if NATO won’t back Turkey. I don’t see how France would convince its population to side with Turkey. Russia is not going to invade Turkey and a fight inside Syria will not invoke NATO article 5 no matter what Russia and Turkey do. You are right about Erdogan. But that makes is easier for NATO to not back him.

  14. Is Turkey following the Putin doctrine? PD: “I can invade & annex neighboring nation territories (like Georgia & Ukraine) to protect Russians who live there.” Now is Turkey protecting its nationals (Turkmen) who live in Syria, protecting from Russian attacks?

  15. Don’t you just love it? The CIA has put the US squarely on the side of Al Qaeda.

    I’m all for aligning with and helping the heroic and brave Kurds as they are truly on the side of freedom and secularism. But, like you Juan, it is impossible to stomach the fact that we are literally backing the same people who murdered over 3000 Americans on 9/11. How can this have any other result down the line than more trouble and heart break? How can this even be possible?

    Thanks for your excellent analysis Juan, even though it’s making me sick to my stomach.

    • Heroic Kurds? They are terrorists bombing civilians e.g. PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by the UN,NATO, & EU etc.

      • Kurds also assisted the Ottoman Empire in their ethnic cleansing of the Armenians during WWI. Robert Fisk, the British journalist, interviewed some survivors some years ago and brought their shameful involvement to light.

  16. Why did Turkey dare shoot down a Russian Plane?

    The same reason Serbia faced down Austro-Hungary in1914. It is backed by an alliance that will get dragged into a war in spite of reckless and provocative behaviour by a minor state.
    A couple of years after 1914 and twenty thousand Englishmen are machine gunned down in a single day. NATO better be careful where Turkey is taking them.

    • It wasn’t Serbia that was reckless and irresponsible. Austria-Hungary, weak, riven by internal ethnic tensions, and unprepared for modern war, risked war with Russia. Even though the Russian empire had its own weaknesses, Austria-Hungary ought to have known that the possible upside of humiliating Serbia was inconsequential in comparison to the possible downside: major war, casualties in the millions, famine, and the dissolution of the regime and the nation.

  17. “The Turkish government decision to down a Russian jet operating in the north of the Syrian province of Latakia is breathtaking in its boldness. ” This may not have been their plan. The Russian jet was over Turkish territory at some point. Quite possibly, it was over Turkish territory when it was fired on. But miles pass in mere seconds at the speeds these planes go. The trouble with an air to air missile is that it will follow and kill its target even if the target gets back on its own side of the border. Fighter pilots maybe aren’t all that sensitive to such nuances. Surely Turkey is now wishing that the Russian plane had still been over Turkey when the missile caught up to it. If things had happened that way, Turkey would have been in a much stronger position diplomatically and propaganda-wise.

    • Hmm, so the Russian plane was inside Turkish airspace for mere seconds? So before that, it was in Syrian airspace and after that, Syrian airspace? But for a few seconds it cut a corner that meant it was in Turkish airspace?

      Hardly seems a justification for shooting it down, now, is it?

  18. This is a very dangerous situation. Once again as you examine the murky alliances it is clear there are no clean hands and no clear good guys and bad guys, only degrees of evil at work. The best US response is to not get pulled any further into Syria and try to back out of this mess. We absolutely should not back Turkey in this and let them fend for themselves. Neither Syria, nor Turkish recklessness is worth going to war over.

    • NATO owes a Cold War debt to the largest NATO army in Europe. Otherwise, paraphrasing a saying, Western Europe would be speaking Russian.

  19. […] This article by Juan Cole from Informed Comment (and this and this) give many reasons why Turkey is in league with and supporting ISIS, and therefore, by association, so is the US, NATO, the EU and all their western allies, all of whom are responsible for creating and sustaining that particularly unpalatable bunch of cutthroats and murderers while pretending and loudly proclaiming, through song and dance, to be trying to rid the world of them. […]

  20. Interesting map of the aircraft track in the Guardian (link to theguardian.com) suggests that the intrusion into Turkish airspace occurred over a narrow promentory of Turkish territory between Rabia and Jisr As-Shigour.

    If this is so, then the Turks appear to be too calculating by half- the plane would never have been in Turkish airspace longer than a few seconds anyway, as it traversed the promentory and re-entered Syrian airspace. This trajectory would have been evident to the Turkish air controllers. It suggests that they were looking for an excuse to attack.

    I think my biggest concern in this is that NATO senior staff may see taking a tough line as an opportunity to burnish the organisation’s international standing, at the expense of trying to reduce tensions in the region.

    • NATO rules of Engagement regarding any threat from Syria, from reckless invading Russians. Incirlik airbase is nearby.

  21. Some interesting insights. One correction of course, only one Russian pilot was killed by the local Turkmen, the other managed to run away and was rescued by Russian and Syrian forces (which included a Hezbollah detachment). The surviving pilot insists convincingly there was no warning – which is bad news for Turkey. There are indications that the Russian GPS (GLASSNOSS) is not as robust as its western counterpart and a small error may have crept in to its route putting it just inside Turkey. The rescued airman was the navigator and says weather was good and he knows the area well and they did not cross into Turkey. Why did Turkey shoot down the Russian jet and not just buzz it? Well Russia has been sending drones over this area and and inflicted damage on the local Turkmans wih one about a week ago. The Turks threatened retaliation then and may have felt under pressure to demonstrate their support for the Turkmen and to keep them on side, promised a strong response to the next Russian incursion there. Changing topic, latest economic research indicates that once the oil leaves ISIL controlled refineries, it is distributed by local entrepreneurs into the wider region for local use using fleets of trucks. Some of these dealers may of course be Turks. The US said the other day that it is now targeting these convoys to cut ISIL’s income. So it seems is Russia. But while Russia claims to be targeting ISIL it going mostly after the local opposition to Assad (I would not call any of them moderates). Turkey also claims to be bombing ISIL but is actually bombing the Kurds. Hezbollah is in there supporting Assad of course. ISIL seems to be a useful smoke screen for the Russians and Turks, who have their own agendas, but are actually targeting other local militia groups. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians are turning up in Europe.

  22. west ECONOMY is COLLAPSING over NOW, a hundred years ago they finished Ottoman Empire and took control of arabs by dictators and put the outcome of invasion. Now their bag of gold is shrinking and chains of west getting loose so they invented damned ISIS which is actually helping PYD.
    With FAKE arab spring they caused premature birth.The REAL MUSLIM ARMY Syrian patriots fighting against evil like 100 years ago. ISIS,PYD are armies of west and Muslims will put one’s head to another’s hole.

  23. How interesting this all becomes as the madness unfolds, eh? The government of Syria, under the Assad regime, has invited another sovereign, Russia, to come to its aid to assist it in its fight concerning what it perceives as a civil war. So, whatever military presence Russia has in Syria is justified under international law. In marked contrast to this are the interlopers of the U.S., Britain, and France (and their proxies), who have no legal rights to be in Syria, under international law. I can certainly foresee the possibility of Russian SAMs shooting down U.S., British, or French jets over Syrian territory – and doing so with complete justification under international law. I can also foresee the Russians specifically targeting any and all U.S. or NATO affiliated actors already within Syria – and doing so with complete impunity under international law.

    How much longer do you believe that Russia will permit itself to be humiliated in Syria by interlopers without a major show of force? They have a heavily-armed cruiser waiting just off Latakia for Erdogan to make this mistake a second time.

    • Remember Afghanistan, have the European invaders learnt nothing using puppet proxies?
      The undemocratic Alawite minority are persecuting the majority with state terror e.g. Barrel bombing its own civilians. Is that legitimate under International law? How about Sudan & Indonesia then?

  24. My worst-case scenario was outright war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. We’re now over 50% of the way there. Someone needs to derail these converging trains.

  25. Turkey had been a belligerent, and it insists that it can arm Turkmen and al Queda allies in this region of Lattakia toward destroying the Syrian state.

    This doesn’t compute as per international law, or stabilizing the situation in Syria.

    So we have a confused hodge-podge as far as the US/Turkey narrative is in this conflict.

    The major goal for the US is destroying the Syrian state, and excluding Russia and Irainian influence and alliance with Syria–and this has superceeded the surface propaganda about attacking ISlamic State–it is clear that the US is in a deteriorating position in this mess.

    There is very low probability that Russia and Iran will allow the Syrian government to be destroyed in favor of a US/Turkish/Saudi client government taking control of Syria. And that is the crux of this conflict: the US goals are inextricable with its goal of removing Russia as a rival power on the world stage.

    The US has lost control of the narrative dominance–and many in the US and Europe are seeing the core contradictions in stark relief.

    Russia is not involved in Syria for any one reason–but the fall of Syria to the jihadists and their imperial supporters would bring this jihadist agression closer to the heart of the Russian territory.

    This is how Russians perceive this situation–and perception is reality.

    Of course, I am on Syria and Russia’s side here. I don’t fake any omniscient non-biased interpretation.

    The US doesn’t represent anything healthy with life on Earth-it has become delusional and pathological. And the US actions will further its own fall as hegemon.

    • The disenfranchisement of the democratic majority I.e. Syrian Sunnis & their persecution by foreigners & the local proxy is destabilising.
      Democratic Turkey is the best example for this Muslim region.
      Russian Ex KGB Gangsters are foreign interlopers.
      With the empowerment of the majority,support for ISIS will subside

    • Syria is of no importance to the United States. It’s only importance arises from the fact that Assad has become a war criminal for his attacks on civilians and his policies have led to the advent of a civil war which ISIS has taken over as the main rebel fighters.

  26. Somehow I get the feeling that every foreign service faction gets to send support to its own favored militants. And every Ally-in-Name-Only gets to channel weapons to its favored militant actors.
    Isn’t it about tine the USA starts figuring out what its overall strategy should be, and stops letting the myraid of small players to all get their own military favors? They are all working at cross-purposes, and the only result of this shotgun approach to policy will be even worse chaos.

    • There is little to nothing the US can do about this. Nor should we even try. Putin is stupid if he thinks he can control events there. Has everyone forgotten what has happened with foreign involvement in the Middle East for the last 60 years? Continuing and total failure to control events by the outside intervenor

  27. It is all very well but… according to what Ergodan lately said, Turkey was not bold at all, they just did not know it was a Russian plane until Russians said so.
    Of course, there were telltales – transponders switched off, no identification marks on it, no answers to warnings (or Russian radios did not have international frequencies).
    On the other hand, that is exactly how Russians military aircraft usually fly, be it above the Baltic see, or on the Canada or USA shores – no transponders, no answering to any calls, totally invisible to any civil aviation, so that NATO (Canada, US) fighters have to escort them to make them visible to civil radars…

    • If nothing else Turkey should have been able to tell what the plane was by its radar signature. Secondly, almost certainly they have some SIGINT (signals intelligence) capability monitoring Russian planes and ground control. Anyone who believes the Turks didn’t know what they were doing or who they were shooting down, please see me about buying a bridge, cheap.

  28. As all here agree, Erdogan certainly gave the command to shoot down Russian planes.

    I wonder why he wanted that pipeline after seeing Russia’s constrictor behavior with the Ukraine.
    Money, probably, given an uncertain election; but after a resounding election victory, then he does not need Russian money to retain power. Or so he calculates.
    And the West? They may fume, even threaten sanctions, but they can’t do much, because of Incirlik.
    Don’t forget-Incirlik has tactical nuclear weapons.

    The Turks remember Gallipoli, and they and the Russians have the Crimean War still vivid in their memories, too.

  29. Thank you Dr. Cole for your enlightening article. In the sea of drivel that passes for journalism it is refreshing to discover your island of clarifying words.

  30. this is not a time for war. There is already enough trouble made by alliances and support for wrong groups. Russian and turkish government need to figure out problem that brought two countries to this point. It is easy two play a friendly game than showing hard side which in result sidelines the other. Both countries hiding facts and we people are missing something which will later come up

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