Danger of escalation

Has Ankara overextended itself? Esen Uslu looks at the possible repercussions of the downing of the Russian Sukhoi 24

Earlier this week Turkish airforce F-16 fighter planes shot down a Russian ground attack Sukhoi 24 jet on the pretext that it had violated Turkish airspace - for 17 seconds. The Russian plane crashed in Syria and the crew ejected from the plane. One of them was shot and killed while he was descending by parachute; the other was rescued by a Russian-Syrian joint operation.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, immediately publicised the incident, while he was speaking at an assembly of teachers’ organisations and the news of the downing of a Russian plane was met with rapturous applause. That moment is sufficient in itself to explain why the government favours such organisations as that of the teachers.

However, Erdoğan appeared startled by the reaction of the audience and scolded them that it was not a matter for applause. But he defended the shooting down by stating that the airspace and territorial integrity of Turkey was sacrosanct. Following his comments, the whitewash crew went into action.

The new cabinet, which was to take office on the same day, and the outgoing caretaker ministers, went into action. The ambassadors of permanent members of the UN security council and Nato countries were informed. An extraordinary meeting of the North Atlantic Council was called. The Turkish military released radar images of the path of the Su-24 over Syrian territory, followed by the momentary incursion into Turkish airspace, as well as of Turkish fighters patrolling the area, ready to pounce.

Russia claimed it was apparent that their plane had no hostile intent against Turkey. Turkey replied that Islamic State had no presence in a Syrian region mainly inhabited by Turkomans, and so Russia had no reason to attack.

The direct intervention of Russia into the Syrian conflict has resulted in several incursions into Turkish airspace, which have created a diplomatic storm, but no military response until now. The Russian side had suggested a joint forum to avoid such incidents, but Turkey’s response was to change the rules of engagement for planes patrolling the Syrian border - which included the go-ahead for a military response against any future ‘violation’.

The Russians were, of course, carrying out ground attacks supporting the advancing mobile infantry of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. While IS is not dominant in the region close to the Turkish border, the al-Nusra Front and other Salafi-jihadist groups, as well as Turkoman militia, are waging a conjoined war against Assad. They are supported financially and materially by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their subcontractor, Turkey.

As readers may know, the National Intelligence Agency has been running guns to the jihadists under cover of the aid convoys provided by Turkish humanitarian organisations. A military border operation stopped one such convoy and searched the heavy goods vehicles, in which arms and ammunition were found, but the central government intervened. A cloak of secrecy was once more thrown over such actions, but not before charges of revealing state secrets relating to the inspection of the vehicles had been drawn up. Since then the genie has been out of the bottle, even though prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has railed against the ‘treachery’ of those who disclosed the weapons shipments to Turkoman militia.

The predominantly Sunni Turkoman region is a contested area not only for the various vying parties in Syria. It has been considered an extension of Turkey by generations of nationalist and expansionist politicians. Bear in mind that the bordering province, Hatay, was part of the territory left to the French under the UN mandate after World War I, and in 1939, following Hatay’s declaration of ‘independence’ from newly formed Syria, it was gobbled up by Turkey.

Up to recent years Syrian school maps showed the region as a territory occupied by Turkey, while on the Turkish side the province has been considered a land lost and its people as our kin. In any case, it has great strategic value if one wishes to control the north-eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean.

We should also remember that an Israeli bombing raid on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007, known as Operation Orchard, utilised the radar shadow cast by high ground on the border between Turkey and Syria. The entry and exit route was undetectable by ground-based Syrian radar. Eventually the Russians helped Syria replace its radar tracking system and enhance its air‑to-ground missile targeting capabilities. A Turkish reconnaissance plane gathering intelligence about the efficiency of the system was shot down in June 2012.

Oil and regional hegemony

The Russian air war on Syria has changed the balance of forces on the ground in many respects. The Russian airforce has targeted the facilities of the non-IS Salafi-jihadi forces. Some of those forces were drawn from Chechens and other Caucasian nationalities, as well as other Russian Muslims with combat experience against Russia. Even the Muslim Uyghur rebels from the Xinxiang region of China have a presence there. During a counterterrorism operation a bunch of Uyghur jihadists with false Turkish passports were arrested. These examples give an indication of how deeply involved Turkey is in the dark art of exporting terrorism through its support for various Islamists.

However, the game in Syria was quite obvious. Syrian oil has been controlled by IS and exported through friendly countries - first and foremost through Turkey. One of the finance-capital groups closely associated with the AKP government and Erdoğan himself is renowned for receiving preferential treatment and has been heavily involved in importing and selling IS oil. In the recently formed government a representative of that group was awarded the post of minister of energy and natural resources, at the instigation of Erdoğan. The group has amassed billions and helped plug the gap in Turkish foreign currency reserves. Just like the sanctions-busting operation in Iran, the illegal trafficking of oil was apparently not detected by the various international institutions overseeing the Turkish economy and advising policymakers.

However, last week the Russian airforce started to bomb IS oil production facilities. Then it attacked convoys of oil-carrying tankers (videos are available on YouTube). The Americans followed suit by attacking oil convoys in Deir Ez-Zor province in Iraq. As Russia started to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the possibility that it might come to terms with the US-led ‘alliance’ was wide open. Carrying Iran along, Russia could become a big thorn in the side of the AKP government and Turkey’s nationalist military.

The deliberate shooting down of the Russian Su-24 has thrown a spanner in the works of the imperialist-backed International Syria Support Group. It represents an attempt by Turkey to create circumstances not conducive to a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict. The danger for Turkey and its allies in the Muslim world, in the aftermath of Paris atrocity, was that a temporary deal over Syria might be struck, with an interim regime that includes Assad.

Taking on a stronger opponent is not a good tactic even in street games and Turkey knows it. It has been rebuffed by Nato several times, particularly when the AKP government showed its intentions in the region and overreached itself. This time the initial reaction of its allies in the west has been to advise restraint and the avoidance of any escalation. Lip service has been paid to the defence of airspace, but there has been strong advice not to rock the boat at such a delicate time for the region.

The Russians seem to have adopted a measured response - advising its citizens not to travel to Turkey, because it is as dangerous for them as Egypt, where Metrojet flight 7K9268 was blown out of sky on October 31. This will, however, have an immediate effect on the Turkish package tour industry and impact upon Turkey’s foreign currency reserves. Also Moscow has indicated that Turkish companies operating in Russia will not be looked on favourably when it comes to new contracts, while investments in Turkey will be curbed.

But Russia has not employed the potent weapon of natural gas supplies, upon which Turkey is fully dependent. Nor has anything been said about the fate of a nuclear energy plant being built in Turkey with credit supplied by Russia.

However, Moscow may respond by bringing a navy vessel carrying advanced anti-aircraft and anti-missile capability into Syrian waters. It may also add air-superiority jetfighters to its ground attack aircraft, which would represent a significant escalation. Just as the Turkish side had waited for an opportune moment to shoot down a Russian plane, now the Russians may deliberately provoke another attack which would be met by Mig-31 or Su-27 fighter aircraft, to which Turkey would have no answer. But for its part the US has a number of its own fighter aircraft at the Incirlik air base in Turkey.

If the US puts a brake on further Turkish adventurism, or if the Syrians bring their formidable anti-aircraft capabilities into play, Russian domination over the regional airspace will become more secure. The AKP government, in its abject desire to be one of the prime movers in the regional power game, may have over-extended its hand.