While admitting that he was not in possession of all of the facts regarding Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane on November 24th, President Obama was quick to blame only Russia. He said at a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande that Turkey had “a right to defend its territory and its airspace.” Obama also criticized Russia for propping up Syrian President Assad by going after the so-called “moderate” rebels rather than concentrating on ISIS. From the information that has come out so far, however, Turkey appears to have acted precipitously, without sufficient justification or forethought about the potential consequences. Russia does bear some responsibility for what happened, but Turkey overreacted to a minor alleged violation of its airspace. In doing so, Turkey risked a major escalation of hostilities with Russia that could draw in NATO. Turkey’s action also undermined efforts to forge a coordinated strategy with Russia to combat the common enemy, ISIS.
The Russian Su-24 aircraft was hit by an air-to-air missile while apparently flying in what Turkey claims to be its airspace very close to the Syrian-Turkish border. The alleged incursion lasted around 17 seconds before the plane was hit and then crashed inside Syria. The pilots were reportedly shot at by Turkmen tribal rebels on the Syrian side of the border as they were parachuting down from the stricken aircraft. One of the pilots was killed. The other managed to hide and was eventually rescued by a team composed of Russian and Syrian Special Forces. Armed Syria-Turkmen rebel soldiers were filmed cheering and shouting “Allahu Akbar,” the jihadist rallying cry shared by ISIS fighters, over the bloodied corpse of one of the pilots.
The Obama administration has been supporting the so-called “moderate” Turkmen rebels and does not appear to be particularly disturbed by the Turkmens’ evident violation of the Geneva Conventions (Protocol 1, Article 42): “No person parachuting from an aircraft in distress shall be made the object of attack during his descent.”
As for Turkey, it fully backs the Turkmen rebels operating in Syria in opposition to the Assad regime and regards them as under its protection. Turkey’s real motive in shooting down the Russian aircraft may well have been to send a clear message to Russia to stop bombing the Turkmen tribesmen, whom Turkey is protecting in northern Syria. This interpretation of Turkey’s real motive is evidenced by the fact that, days earlier, Turkey had summoned Russia’s ambassador to Turkey to deliver a demand that Russia cease such bombing. The Turkish Foreign Ministry had warned of “serious consequences” if Russia persisted. Evidently, Turkey decided to follow through on its unheeded demand.
The encroachment into what Turkey alleges to be its airspace took place over territory, the Hatay region, which is still disputed between Turkey and Syria. Turkey had unilaterally taken the Hatay territory from Syria and annexed it in 1939, an action which Syria still rejects as unlawful. Thus, Turkey’s claim that it was simply acting in self-defense in order to protect its territorial integrity is of questionable validity. Syria, which Russia is militarily supporting at the request of the Syrian government, disputes Turkey’s assertion of sovereignty over the Hatay territory to this day.
Moreover, even assuming Turkey had an unassailable claim that its airspace was being encroached upon by a Russian warplane despite repeated warnings to back off, Turkey responded in a grossly disproportionate fashion. Turkey has cited no evidence that Russia intended any aggressive action targeting individuals or facilities within Turkey itself. Instead of shooting down the plane, Turkey could have launched a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council, or to another international body where Russia does not have a veto such as the International Court of Justice, in order to seek recourse. Turkey decided to shoot first and then send a meaningless letter to the Security Council.
True, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rhetorically distanced himself from some of ISIS’s brutal tactics and its pretentions to caliphate rule. And Turkey, a member of NATO, finally did come around to allowing the U.S. to launch sorties against ISIS from a base in Turkey. However, Erdogan is at heart a jihadist who shares more in common with ISIS’s Islamic supremacist ideology than he does with Western secular values.
Erdogan even offered a justification for ISIS’s planting of an explosive that took down a Russian jet in Egypt, killing 224 people. Dubai TV quoted Erdogan as saying: “How can I condemn the Islamic State for shooting down a Russian plane as its passengers were returning from a happy vacation in a time when our co-religionists in Syria are bombed by Putin’s fighter jets?…it is the natural outcome of Moscow’s actions in Syria and the support for Assad.”
Obama contends that Russia is at fault for not doing more to go after ISIS rather than bombing rebels “supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries.” However, he has given Turkey a free pass for pursuing its own agenda, even if aiding ISIS in the process. In fact, Turkey’s number one target of its own bombing campaign within Syria (violating Syrian airspace) has been Syrian Kurds. Turkey is determined to do everything it can to prevent Syrian Kurds from building the foundation for their own independent state that Kurds living in Turkey would want to join. The Kurdish militias in Syria, as described by the New York Times, “have become the most important allies within Syria of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.” Russia, by the way, supports the Syrian Kurds. Thus, in order to block the Kurds’ aspirations for self-determination, Turkey has been violating Syrian airspace to attack an effective militia force in Syria that the United States and Russia both support in the common fight against ISIS.
Turkey is not only trying to kill members of the most effective local forces fighting against ISIS in Syria. It is Turkey, not Russia, which has actually been helping ISIS. For example, Turkey has facilitated the black market sale of oil from ISIS-controlled territories, which helps finance ISIS’s expanding terrorist campaign. As reported by Al-Monitor, quoting a lawmaker from the main opposition party in Turkey, “$800 million worth of oil that ISIS obtained from regions it occupied this year [the Rumeilan oil fields in northern Syria — and most recently Mosul] is being sold in Turkey.”
Turkey has also served as a convenient transit point through which foreign ISIS recruits pass on their way to Syria. The same Turkish opposition lawmaker stated: “Fighters from Europe, Russia, Asian countries and Chechnya are going in large numbers both to Syria and Iraq, crossing from Turkish territory. There is information that at least 1,000 Turkish nationals are helping those foreign fighters sneak into Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. The National Intelligence Organization (MIT) is allegedly involved.”
Erdogan’s major difference with ISIS is where the Islamic caliphate ultimately should be based. He believes in the restoral of a caliphate under Ottoman rule. He was willing to risk a wider war in the region to protect his “co-religionists in Syria” and thereby strengthen his own claim to leadership of at least the Sunni Muslims. This is the man whom Obama has named as one of his top five friends among world leaders. It is long past time for Obama to unfriend this authoritarian jihadist.