26 November 2015
Turn to page 214 in the book “War-making for Dummies.” You will find: “plan air operations right on your neighbor’s border, zig in and zag out, make rude gestures at enemy pilots, and shoot them down if you can.”
On Tuesday this week, the inevitable air clash occurred on the Syrian-Turkish border west of Aleppo. From what we know so far, two Russian SU-24 bombers that had been pounding anti-Damascus forces on the border briefly intruded on Turkish airspace for all of 17 seconds.
Turkish F-16 fighters, clearly pre-positioned in the area, pounced on the Russians and downed one Sukhoi with an air-to-air missiles. One of the Russian pilots was killed – probably by pro-Turkish Syrian tribesmen while parachuting to earth. A Russian Marine was killed when the helicopter in which he was flying to recuse the downed airman was hit by a US-supplied TOW anti-tank missile.
Turkey claimed it had warned the Russian warplane 10 times’ before shooting. How the Turks could pre-position its F-16’s and issue ten warnings within 17 seconds was not explained. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin furiously accused the Turks of murder and supporting ISIS extremists.
The US-led NATO alliance rushed to back up member Turkey, which moved forces to its long border with Syria. Putin ordered lethal, long-ranged S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and missile cruiser “Moskva” to station off Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Both systems can cover large parts of western Syria, including areas routinely intruded upon by US, French, British and Israeli aircraft.
In short, a perfect witch’s stew for the beginning of a real war between Russia and the West that has been simmering in Syria and Ukraine. US forces are now operating in both nations within spitting distance of Russian troops.
The location of this Russo-Turkish clash was very interesting, though unnoted by western media. It occurred along the southern end of a small, narrow salient of Turkish territory jutting into Syria.
The Turkish territory in question is Hatay Province: it contains the former Crusader stronghold of Antioch and the important port of Iskenderun. Hatay has been the arena of military crises since the first recorded battle there in 853 BC.
Hatay belonged to historic Syria until detached after World War I by Syria’s French colonial masters and handed to Turkey in an attempt to bribe the Turks to become French allies. Syria has long demanded the return of Hatay.
This week’s clash over Hatay will likely revive Syrian demands for a return of Hatay. Turkey dismisses all Syrian claims. The groundwork has thus been laid for a new Syrian-Turkish conflict.
Who is to blame for the latest crisis on the Turkish-Syrian border? Both sides. Neither should have been flying combat patrols over the border region. There should have been a minimum ten km buffer zone on both sides of the sensitive border.
Turkish trigger-happy hotheads are to blame for authorizing deadly force when a few wing wags would have served to warn off the Russians – if they were in fact intruding. Turkey is in no position to claim it’s the injured party when arms, munitions and logistics support for ISIS has been pouring across its border into Syria for almost five years.
Russia, which accidentally shot down a South Korean airliner in 1982, is no angel either. Nor the US, which downed an Iranian airliner in 1988.
Turkey is point-man for the odd coalition of stealthy ISIS backers that includes the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, France and Britain. ISIS is their weapon of choice against Shia Iran and its Syrian and Lebanese allies and, very soon, Taliban in Afghanistan. Problem is, they back ISIS but can’t control its youthful members. The rabid dog they helped breed is now running around biting people.
By picking a fight with Russia, Turkey is shooting itself in the foot. Russia and the predecessor of modern Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, fought innumerable wars from the 1680’s until World War I. Russia has never abandoned its desire to seize the Straits, as Constantinople and the Dardanelles were called.
Turkey exports $4 billion to Russia, and imports large quantities of wheat, oil, gas, steel. Four and a half million Russian tourists come annually to Turkey. Shooting down a Russian warplane will make hyper-nationalist Turks beat their chests but the hangover will seriously damage Turkey’s unsteady economy.
Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan should meet asap to resolve their issue before it becomes yet another step on the road to World War III.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2015