Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane on November 24 has set off a chain of consequences that could easily spin out of control and lead to a war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and Russia. According to the Turkish government’s letter to the president of the United Nations Security Council, two SU-24 jets were in Turkish airspace for a period of 17 seconds as they traversed a tongue of Turkish territory 1.36 miles in breadth, at a point 1.15 miles from its tip. The Turkish authorities warned the pilots to change course and fly south 10 times, but they ignored the command and flew on, whereupon a Turkish F-16 was ordered to shoot one of them down.
The Russian version of events, confirmed by the pilot who survived the attack, is that the two planes were returning from a bombing mission a good way further east and were passing south of the tongue of land when they were attacked without any warning. The missile hit the aircraft from the rear, taking them by surprise.
From the details of the incursion given by Turkey, The Telegraph, London, has calculated that the planes had been flying at 283 miles an hour, a third of their maximum speed. This confirms that none of the four pilots in the two planes knew that anything was amiss, and makes Turkey’s claim of sending repeated warnings suspect.
After studying the doomed aircraft’s heat signature, US officials have also confirmed that it was hit in Syrian territory. So even if the planes had strayed, the Turkish F-16 fired upon the doomed plane knowing well that it was leaving their territory. The only way this could have happened was if the pilot had explicit or standing orders to shoot down any non-Nato plane that entered Turkish airspace, irrespective of its course and intention. After Russia’s entry into the war on the Islamic State (IS), a non-Nato plane could only be a Russian aircraft.
That does President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plan? Is it to draw Nato into the war in Syria? And if that is so, is he acting on his own or, as the Russian foreign minister suggested, in concert with some members of Nato?
While the second is unlikely, the first is a near-certainty. For Erdogan has been bent upon ousting Syria’s secular Baathist regime and imposing Turkey’s control on the country through a hand-picked Sunni surrogate, ever since the start of the Arab Spring. He has felt emboldened to do so because this is a goal he shares with the US, the European Union and, most importantly, Israel, whose control over US foreign policy cannot be underestimated.
In October last year, Turkey had offered to sweep the IS out of Kobani but only on condition that it was allowed to continue to Damascus. US President Barack Obama had baulked at that but informally agreed to Erdogan’s demand for a no-fly zone to keep Syria out of Kobani and the Syrian border region. Since then the US-led coalition has bombed the IS targets in Iraq, but steered clear of, and, therefore allowed it to consolidate its hold on larger and larger parts of Syria. With the IS totally dependent upon Turkey for its survival, Erdogan believed that he was halfway to his goal.
But Russia’s entry into the war against the IS has changed all that: Its goal is to clear the way for, and provide air cover to, the Syrian army to destroy the IS.
For Erdogan, the turning point may have come when Russia joined France in striking deep inside the IS’ core areas and, in particular, against the IS’ lifeline, the oil tankers that daily carried thousands of barrels of Iraqi and Syrian oil to refineries in Turkey. Moscow estimates that in five days its planes have destroyed 3,000 tankers. This single act has not only destroyed the IS’ financial base but also exposed Turkey’s complicity in ensuring its survival.
With every likelihood that the Vienna peace process could end with a united Syria under Assad, at least temporarily, Erdogan seems to have decided to stake everything on one last throw of the dice. This has required creating a crisis and invoking Article 5 of the Nato agreement to force it into the war that will follow.
That is why Erdogan followed up the shooting down of the SU-24 by contacting not Moscow but Nato headquarters in Brussels to drum up support for his action.
A confused western alliance has not only given him this, but by asking both countries to avoid escalating the conflict after Turkey has fired the initial shot, managed to shift the onus for doing so to Russia.
Moscow is willing to oblige Nato only up to a point. It has moved its advanced guided missile carrier ‘Moskva’ closer to Lattakia (Syria), and is shipping S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries, capable of tracking 60 targets at a time, to its bases in Syria. Its intention is obviously to interdict Turkish planes from even approaching within missile range of Russian planes. It is doubtful whether their use can be confined within the Syrian border.
Should even one missile land, or one Turkish plane be shot down, inside Turkey, Erdogan will invoke Article 5 of the Nato agreement. The rest of its members will then have to choose between war and letting Turkey down. In 1914 when confronted by German support for the Austrian invasion of Serbia, the ‘Allies’ chose war. It remains to be seen whether they will know better this time.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal