Turkey’s decision to approve the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber that allegedly briefly strayed into its air space on November 24 brings the Syrian civil war crisis into an entirely new, uncharted, potential era of potentially limitless danger.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson, it is a fire-bell tolling in the night. It is a warning of looming, uncontrollable war.
Previously good Turkish-Russian relations had clearly been deteriorating for some time. Turkey was understandably increasingly alarmed by the rapidly growing Russian military and strategic presence in Syria. Russia’s always-warm and now rapidly growing ties with Iran were another longer term cause of concern.
Turkey’s military and political leaders had long been frustrated, angered and worried by increasing US support for and public praise for the Kurds. The memory of at least 5,000 Turkish soldiers killed fighting a long and ferocious Kurdish rebellion is still a vivid recent experience to them. (More than 30,000 Kurds died in the ferocious Turkish repression as well).
Now the Kurds have raised the ante by openly seeking closer ties with Russia too.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Moscow on September 23 hoping to discuss these issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin but was put off by a brief and — to him — perfunctory, meeting, according to published reports.
The Russians have also signaled their anger at Turkey for allegedly allowing ISIS/ISIL to quietly transport hundreds of millions of dollars of oil supposedly banned by international sanctions through eastern Turkey to global markets.
Of course, the Kurds who are also fighting ISIS/ISIL are alleged to tacitly cooperate in this lucrative trade by letting the oil flow and be transported through their own territories as well. Turkey, the Kurds, and ISIS all know they live in a corner of the world where everyone, sooner or later, has to do business with everyone else.
However, none of these considerations should overshadow or distract from the magnitude of what happened on November 24. For the first time in the 66-year history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance member has shot down a Russian (or Soviet) aircraft.
This never happened throughout all four decades of the Cold War. It never happened during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the human race the closest it has ever been to the brink of a thermonuclear world war.
Turkey has been a major member of NATO, the most easternly and southeastern of all NATO member states since 1955 and long felt threatened by the overwhelming neighboring presence of Soviet military power. Yet not once during those years did Turkish aircraft or ground-based defenses shoot down a single Soviet plane.
It is also worthy of note that the shoot-down occurred right after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had painstakingly advanced the Syrian peace process at last in the Vienna agreement.
Did leading figures in Turkey’s government and armed forces want to derail that new diplomatic track? Did they get the tacit approval from figures in Washington and the U.S. defense establishment fiercely opposed to Kerry’s diplomacy and opposed to defusing tensions with Russia? Turkey’s command and control over its own forces have always been excellent.
What was always clear was that Putin would not take such an incident lying down, especially as it involved the death of one of the Su-24’s crew. Already Russia has announced economic sanctions against Turkey. And its support for Syria is likely to be stepped up.
This is bad news not just for Turkey and Erdogan, but also, ironically, for one of Erdogan’s arch enemies on the global stage, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Russian imposition of a de facto no-fly zone in Syria backed up by formidable Russian S-400 missiles potentially clips the wings of Israel’s air power even more than it does Turkey.
The most dangerous potential developments for Turkey, however, are what steps Russia may to take to give support and sanction to Kurdish minority groups and to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to destabilize eastern Turkey in return. From Iran’s point of view Turkey is the most powerful major ally of the United States. The Iranians have never dared to give the Turks any trouble knowing the power of NATO and the United States were behind Ankara. But with increased Russian support for Tehran, it may soon be a different story.
President Erdogan shows no sign of apologizing to Putin but he really should. It is dangerous to anger leaders of a thermonuclear superpower, as Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi all found out to their fatal cost.
When the Turks shot down that Sukhoi-24 they put themselves in the frontline for retaliation by Russia and its powerful new allies. If they don’t wake up and step back from the brink quickly, Jefferson’s fire bell in the night will be tolling for them.
Top Photo: Relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been steadily declining. (Courtesy of Wikipedia & www.kremlin.ru)
Martin Sieff is a former senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. Mr. Sieff is the author of “That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths Are Keeping Us Flat on Our Backs” (Wiley 2012) and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East” (Regnery, 2008). He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting.