Did Turk­ish coup plan­ners down Rus­sian jet?

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The pi­lots who were in­volved in shoot­ing down a Rus­sian air­craft in Novem­ber that briefly in­truded on Turk­ish airspace have been ar­rested by Turk­ish author­i­ties. A Turk­ish of­fi­cial said the ar­rests were in con­nec­tion with the failed coup. With this, one of the main out­comes of the coup at­tempt is be­com­ing ob­vi­ous. Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdogan has de­cided to re­pair re­la­tions with Rus­sia and is us­ing the at­tempted coup to demon­strate to the Rus­sians that he was not in­volved in or­der­ing the down­ing of the air­craft, but that his po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies were re­spon­si­ble.

There are some prob­lems with this ver­sion of events. The in­ter­cept of the Rus­sian fighter jet took place af­ter a num­ber of in­cur­sions into Turk­ish airspace. Ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple sources, in­clud­ing Turk­ish ones, the Rus­sian plane that was shot down was over Turk­ish ter­ri­tory for a very short time. The tac­ti­cal air de­fense con­trollers did not have time to query the na­tional com­mand au­thor­ity (their bosses) for per­mis­sion to shoot.

The de­ci­sion to shoot down a Rus­sian plane en­ter­ing Turk­ish airspace had to have been made be­fore the in­ci­dent. The al­ter­na­tive is that the tac­ti­cal con­trollers on the ground, not the pi­lots, acted with­out au­thor­ity. That would mean that the com­mand to shoot came from at most a colonel in tac­ti­cal ground con­trol.

The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing Erdogan, re­acted im­me­di­ately and with­out hes­i­ta­tion charg­ing that the in­cur­sion was not the first and that the Rus­sians had been con­stantly vi­o­lat­ing Turk­ish airspace. They vig­or­ously con­demned the Rus­sians.

There was never any of­fi­cial or un­of­fi­cial leak in­di­cat­ing that there was any­thing amiss with the shoot down, no one in the air or on the ground was re­lieved of their du­ties and there was no in­di­ca­tion of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Given that Tur­key is a NATO coun­try and its per­son­nel co­op­er­ate con­stantly with the per­son­nel of other coun­tries, any dis­ci­pline taken against those re­spon­si­ble for the shoot down would have be­come known. Sto­ries of in­ves­ti­ga­tions and heads rolling spread like wild­fire through a mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tion and the like­li­hood of it not be­ing picked up by NATO per­son­nel and Rus­sian per­son­nel is low. Re­liev­ing a tac­ti­cal sec­tor com­man­der and some pi­lots over the big­gest mil­i­tary event for the Turk­ish Air Force in years would have filled the cafe­te­ria of ev­ery Turk­ish Air Force base with gos­sip for months. It didn’t hap­pen. What did hap­pen was Tur­key’s vig­or­ous con­dem­na­tion of the Rus­sians.

The pol­i­tics also don’t make sense. The Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion in Syria was de­signed to bol­ster the Bashar alAs­sad regime. The Erdogan gov­ern­ment op­posed the As­sads for the killing of Turk­mens in Syria. This had been a blood feud for years. The Turks were fu­ri­ous at the Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion, which made Tur­key look weak at the same time ques­tions were be­ing raised about pos­si­ble Turk­ish sup­port for the Is­lamic State. The Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion put Erdogan in a dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion and its pen­e­tra­tion of Turk­ish airspace with­out re­sponse would have made him look even weaker. He was un­der pres­sure to re­spond some­how. Erdogan could not ap­pear afraid to act in the face of Rus­sian provo­ca­tion.

Shoot­ing down the Rus­sian plane made po­lit­i­cal sense and it is ex­tremely un­likely that a gen­eral or­der had not been is­sued au­tho­ris­ing rapid in­ter­dic­tion of any in­trud­ing air­craft. Any­one is­su­ing that or­der with­out clear­ance from the high­est ech­e­lons — this would go to Erdogan him­self — would have been court-mar­tialled in any air force. Hos­til­ity to the Rus­sian pres­ence in Syria was deep seated, po­lit­i­cal and not a pass­ing whim. Noth­ing Erdogan did af­ter the in­ci­dent in­di­cated that he did not au­tho­rise the at­tack and did not ap­prove of it. He held the Rus­sians re­spon­si­ble. The idea, months af­ter the in­ci­dent, that it had been part of a coup is hard to fathom.

It, how­ever, makes sense to make this claim in the con­text of cur­rent Turk­ish strat­egy. The Turks are claim­ing that Fethul­lah Gulen was be­hind the at­tempted coup. He lives in the United States and Erdogan de­manded that the U.S. hand him over if the U.S. was re­ally Tur­key’s “strate­gic part­ner.” The U.S. can’t sim­ply hand him over, given ex­tra­di­tion treaties with Tur­key and U.S. law. But em­bed­ded in the de­mand is the hint that the U.S. helped engi­neer the at­tempted coup. Mid­dle East­ern news­pa­pers have been filled with the charge. While many are ques­tion­ing whether it was ac­tu­ally a coup at­tempt, an­other claim is emerg­ing that the U.S. was be­hind it.

When the plane was shot down and Turk­ish-Rus­sian re­la­tions col­lapsed, it forced Tur­key into a closer relationship with the United States. Tur­key was not strong enough to be hos­tile to both Rus­sia and the U.S. But Tur­key was not al­to­gether com­fort­able with hav­ing closer ties with the United States. First, it did not want to take a ma­jor mil­i­tary role in Syria, par­tic­u­larly in en­gag­ing in ex­ten­sive com­bat with the Is­lamic State. The Amer­i­cans wanted the Turks to play a stronger role but the Turks be­lieved it would be­come an end­less oc­cu­pa­tion that they were not ready to un­der­take.

Sec­ond, IS ter­ror at­tacks mounted in Tur­key as the Turks shifted into the Amer­i­can de­sired pos­ture. It cul­mi­nated in the at­tack on Ataturk air­port that has dam­aged Tur­key’s tourism in­dus­try. Erdogan did not want to be­come the Amer­i­can pawn in a con­flict he didn’t want to fight. In ad­di­tion, he did not want to be pulled into an Amer­i­can en­gi­neered, anti-Rus­sian al­liance in­volv­ing Poland and Ro­ma­nia. The Amer­i­cans were try­ing to con­tain Rus­sia and Erdogan did not want to be drawn in there ei­ther.

Erdogan did not want to be­come the ju­nior part­ner of the United States and the down­ing of the jet led Tur­key in that direction. He made a sud­den move to nor­malise re­la­tions with Is­rael and al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously is­sued an apol­ogy to Rus­sia over the shoot down. The move to­ward Is­rael was in­tended to pla­cate the U.S. Erdogan didn’t want to go too far in de­fy­ing the U.S. The sec­ond move in­di­cated that he wanted to end the con­fronta­tion with Rus­sia and, there­fore, wouldn’t be drawn into any Amer­i­can de­fen­sive plan against the Rus­sians.

Erdogan was never sat­is­fied with hav­ing to make an apol­ogy. The coup at­tempt gave him an op­por­tu­nity to re­de­fine the apol­ogy. The at­tack on the Rus­sian air­craft was not au­tho­rised by him but in­stead was au­tho­rised by the peo­ple car­ry­ing out the at­tempted coup. Erdogan was as much a vic­tim of the shoot down as Rus­sia. By pun­ish­ing the coup plot­ters, he is re­pair­ing any harm done to the Rus­sians. And by with­draw­ing from the con­fronta­tion with Rus­sia, he re­cov­ers his room to ma­neu­ver and frees Tur­key from Amer­i­can pres­sure.

The at­tempted coup, or what­ever it was, had to do with a great deal more than this of course. But its af­ter­math is in part about re­gain­ing Tur­key’s space, lost as Tur­key be­came de­pen­dent on the United States fol­low­ing the shoot down. The dis­cov­ery that the peo­ple who planned the coup also planned the shoot down neatly cre­ates the open­ing and makes it ap­pear that Erdogan was not at fault. Some peo­ple will buy this, par­tic­u­larly in Tur­key, which is the in­tended au­di­ence. In the mean­time, Erdogan is push­ing hard on the United States and shift­ing his weight to­ward Rus­sia, a clas­sic bal­ance of power move.

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