Tur­key: seven­teen sec­onds

It seems quite clear that Pres­i­dent Tayyip Er­do­gan really wanted to shoot down a Rus­sian air­craft

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

The key fact is that the Rus­sian plane, by Tur­key’s own ad­mis­sion, was in Turk­ish airspace for pre­cisely 17 sec­onds. That’s a lit­tle less time than it takes to read this para­graph aloud. The Turks shot it down any­way – and their al­lies pub­licly backed them, as loyal al­lies must.

NATO Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Jens Stoltenber­g de­clared: “We stand in sol­i­dar­ity with Tur­key and sup­port the ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity of our NATO ally, Tur­key.” Pres­i­dent Barack Obama called his Turk­ish coun­ter­part, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, to as­sure him that the United States sup­ported Tur­key’s right to de­fend its sovereignt­y. But pri­vately, they must have been curs­ing Er­do­gan. They know what he’s up to.

This is the first time in more than 50 years that a NATO plane has shot down a Rus­sian plane, and it hap­pened in very sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances.

Even if Turk­ish radar data is to be be­lieved, the two Rus­sian SU-24s only crossed the bot­tom of a very nar­row ap­pen­dix of Turk­ish ter­ri­tory that dan­gles down into Syria. As Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin said: “Our pi­lots, planes did not threaten Turk­ish ter­ri­tory in any way.” What harm could they have done in 17 sec­onds?

Ac­cord­ing to the Rus­sian radar data, it was the Turk­ish planes that crossed into Syr­ian ter­ri­tory. In this version of the story, the Rus­sian planes were fol­low­ing a well-es­tab­lished route just south of the Turk­ish border, prob­a­bly turn­ing into a bomb run against Syr­ian rebels in Latakia prov­ince. How strange that there was a Turk­ish TV crew in north­ern Syria, po­si­tioned just right to film the in­ci­dent. (The Rus­sian plane crashed four km. in­side Syria.)

Ei­ther way, it seems quite clear that Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan really wanted to shoot down a Rus­sian air­craft, and that the Turk­ish pi­lots were un­der or­ders to do so if they could find even the slight­est pre­text. So why would Er­do­gan want to do that?

Pres­i­dent Putin said bit­terly that Er­do­gan and his col­leagues were “ac­com­plices of ter­ror­ists.” That’s hard to deny: Er­do­gan is so ea­ger to see Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad over­thrown that he left the Turk­ish-Syr­ian border open for four years so that re­cruits and sup­plies could reach the Syr­ian rebel groups, no­tably in­clud­ing Is­lamic State (IS).

Er­do­gan is ut­terly de­ter­mined that As­sad must go, and he doesn’t really care if As­sad’s suc­ces­sors are Is­lamist ex­trem­ists. But he also wants to en­sure that there is no new Kur­dish state on Tur­key’s southern border.

That is a prob­lem for him, be­cause that state al­ready ex­ists in em­bryo. It is called Ro­java, a ter­ri­tory that the Syr­ian Kurds have carved out in the far north of the coun­try along the Turk­ish border, mainly by fight­ing Is­lamic State. In­deed, the Syr­ian Kurds are the US-led coali­tion’s only ef­fec­tive ally on the ground against IS.

When Er­do­gan com­mit­ted the Turk­ish air force to the Syr­ian war in July, he ex­plained it to the United States as a de­ci­sion to fight against Is­lamic State, but in fact Tur­key has made only a to­ken hand­ful of strikes against IS. Al­most all Er­do­gan’s bombs have ac­tu­ally fallen on the Turk­ish Kurds of the PKK (who had been ob­serv­ing a cease­fire with the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment for the past four years), and above all on the Syr­ian Kurds

Er­do­gan has two goals: to en­sure the de­struc­tion of As­sad’s regime, and to pre­vent the cre­ation of a new Kur­dish state in Syria. He was making some progress on both ob­jec­tives – and then along came the Rus­sians in Septem­ber and saved the Syr­ian army from de­feat, at least for the mo­ment.

Worse yet, Putin’s strat­egy turns out to be quite prag­matic, and even rather at­trac­tive to the United States de­spite all the rit­ual anti-Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda emit­ted by Wash­ing­ton. Putin wants a cease­fire in Syria that will leave ev­ery­body where they are now – ex­cept Is­lamic State, which they can all then con­cen­trate on de­stroy­ing.

This strat­egy is now making some head­way in the Vi­enna cease­fire talks, but it is ut­terly ab­hor­rent to Er­do­gan be­cause it would leave As­sad in power in Da­m­as­cus, and give the Syr­ian Kurds time to consolidat­e their new state. How can he de­rail this Rus­sian-led project?

Well, he could shoot down a Rus­sian plane, and try to get a con­fronta­tion go­ing be­tween Rus­sia and NATO.

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