What happened. Turkey claims the Russian plane crossed into Turkish airspace and failed to respond to repeated warnings. Russia claims it can prove its plane was over Syria the whole time. We will see if one version or the other will be generally accepted or whether a contentious muddle will continue indefinitely (cf. MH-17). However, even if the Turkish version prevails, the Russian plane at most would have been over Turkey for a well under a minute and presented no threat to anything or anyone inside Turkey. As stated by Valeriy Burkov, a Russian military pilot and recipient of the Hero of Russia medal: “It’s clear that this was a premeditated action, they were prepared and just waited for a Russian plane to show up. It wasn’t downed because of pilot error, or because he was trigger-happy or whatever. This is preplanned, premeditated action.” That assessment is likely true even if the aircraft passed momentarily into Turkey.
Motives: While the facts of the incident are murky, the motives on the part of Turkey – and specifically, of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – are not. They include:
Derailing any possibility of Russia-West accord on Syria and common action against ISIS: This is Erdogan’s top goal. Since the Paris attacks, there has been a huge growth in Western opinion favoring cooperation with Russia on crushing a common enemy: ISIS. While the fate of Assad remains a sticking point, public opinion, media, and even officials of western governments, especially in Europe, increasingly see the need to worry about ISIS first, Assad later – if at all.
Saving ISIS and comparable jihad terror groups: There can now be no doubt that in the confrontation between ISIS, al-Nusra (al-Qaeda), Ahrar ash-Sham, the “Army of Conquest” and the rest of the jihad menagerie against the civilized world, Erdogan and Turkey are on the side of the former. The canard that Russia is not hurting ISIS, already punctured by the downing of the St. Petersburg airliner in the Sanai, can now be laid to rest. ISIS and Turkey’s other proxies are in danger, and cooperation between Russia and the West could seal their fate. In particular, Turkey needs to keep control of part of its border with Syria to maintain ISIS’s lifeline for oil exports and for the traffic of terrorists in and out of Syria.
Cash cow. ISIS’s oil exports depend on access to Turkey, reaping millions for Turkish middlemen. Whether or how Erdogan’s AK Party and cronies may profit from this trade is not clear, but it would be naïve to rule it out. At the recent G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin embarrassed Western leaders – and in particular his host, Erdogan – by presenting undeniable proof of how ISIS funds itself through oil exports via Turkey. It was only after this that the U.S. joined in strikes against ISIS oil tanker trucks, something that presumably American intelligence had been aware of already. (Reportedly the US, unlike Russia, has given ISIS truck convoys 45 minutes’ notice prior to striking them – certainly more consideration than the Su-24 was afforded.)
Turkish ground presence in Syria. The Su-24’s two-man crew parachuted down into an area controlled by Turkmen militia, which fired on them with small arms as they descended. Their fate is not reliably known. [Russian and Syrian commandos later recovered surviving Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin. He said there were no warnings from Turkey.] The Turkmen militia, who cooperate with al-Nusra and other jihad groups against the Syrian government and Kurdish militias – both enemies of ISIS – are an essential asset of Ankara’s in keeping control of the portion of the border abutting Turkey’s Hatay Province. They are controlled by embedded Turkish intelligence officers. The firing on the parachuting Russian crew, irrefutably recorded on video, is a war crime, for which the Turkish government bears command responsibility and criminal accountability. (One online comment on a video of a “militia” commander claiming “credit” for shooting at the Russians asserts that from his accent he is identifiable as a Turk, presumably an intelligence officer, not a local Syrian Turkman. I am unable to confirm this claim.) [In a further aggravating development, a Russian marine was reported killed when “moderate” Free Syrian Army terrorists shot down a Russian rescue helicopter with a U.S.-supplied TOW missile.]
Western reactions: Mixed. Some media have taken evident glee in the downing of the Russian plane, as stated in one headline: “The Russians had it coming.” In his Washington meeting today with French President François Hollande, US President Barack Obama seemingly accepted the Turkish version of events and justified the shootdown, stating that “Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace.” (One wonders if “any country” includes Syria, whose airspace is violated daily by US, French, and other countries’ aircraft striking targets without permission from Damascus in support of jihadists seeking to overthrow that country’s government.) At an emergency NATO meeting, some skepticism was expressed about Turkey’s action: “Diplomats present at the meeting told Reuters that while none of the 28 NATO envoys defended Russia’s actions, many expressed concern that Turkey did not escort the Russian warplane out of its airspace.” The NATO governments are no doubt aware of Turkey’s past provocations against Syria, well before the advent of the Russian air campaign, staging border incidents seeking to trigger a Syrian response that could be depicted as an “attack on Turkey” justifying an Article 5 response. [One American military expert concludes the Turkish claim does not hold up and is a clear attempt to “NATO-ize” the conflict. Democrat-GOP establishment “Hillary Christie” may finally get the NATO-Russia clash they crave.]
Russian response: Putin made a harsh statement at Sochi prior to a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan: “Today’s loss is linked to a stab in the back delivered to us by accomplices of terrorists. Today’s tragic event will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.” Some form of retaliation is widely expected. Among the options are energy supply and tourism. Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian gas, but withholding it would hurt Russia financially as well and damage Russia’s reputation as a reliable supplier. Already, there has been some indication that Russians will curtail vacations in Turkey (a popular beach destination, both for price and because Russians don’t need a visa) and of tour companies dropping Turkish vacations packages. Ironically, tourism retaliation primarily will hurt people in Turkish coastal areas, which are generally more secular and Europeanized than central Anatolia – in short, those disadvantaged would be disproportionately Erdogan opponents, not supporters. Possible military responses include directing intensive airstrikes on Turkmen militia positions [which appear s already to have begun], with the aim of killing Turkish intelligence personnel; and stepping up supply to and cooperation with Kurdish forces. The latter would be a deft move, given the popularity of the Kurds in the US
Jim Jatras, a former US diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership, currently is the only announced prospect for the Republican vice presidential nomination.