Last week ISIS scored a stunning victory, and without breathing very hard to do it. The uncontested facts are simple: two Turkish F16s shot down a Russian SU24. The pilots parachuted down into Syrian territory, and one was shot by anti-Assad militias, and a Russian rescue helicopter was fired at by a US made shoulder-held light missile launcher. President Obama could not wait to announce that Turkey had the right to defend its territory. Those who shot at the pilots were almost certainly Turkmen, of which there are a number in Syria.
The disputed information is whether the aircraft flew over Turkish territory. The Russians claim it did not; the Turks claim it flew over a narrow finger of Turkish territory that points into Syria. The Turks finally stated that the aircraft was over Turkish territory for 17 seconds. The Turks claim they spent five minutes warning the Russian aircraft; the Russian recovered from the aircraft claim no such warning was received. Nobody has stated where the aircraft was when it was shot down, but if the Turks are to believed that the aircraft was over Turkish territory for 17 seconds, it follows it had left it after those 17 seconds, and it was shot down over Syria. That is not defending its territory.
The puzzling question is whether Turkey planned this. My guess is, they did, and bearing in mind how narrow that “finger” is, and how fast a F16 flies, it is highly probable the Turkish planes flew into Syrian airspace at some point. Let us consider the question of the “warnings”. What the Turks have NOT announced is on what frequency these warnings were sent. A radio set generally only monitors one frequency at a time, and warplanes would presumably leave ground control to monitor enemy frequencies. At the speed they fly (although the SU24 is rather old, and is most certainly not a fighter) the crew will still have plenty to do besides sweep through radio frequencies in case there is something relevant. If the Turks wanted to be malicious, all they had to do was to send their warnings on frequencies the Russians would not receive.
The next question is why did the Turks simply not protest through diplomatic channels and threaten to shoot aircraft down if this was repeated. Assuming the Russians did fly over Turkey by mistake, the mistake would be corrected. Of course, then Erdogan could not claim he was “being tough on Russia” in the forthcoming elections.
The reasons why Turkey might have planned it are reasonably clear. Doing that and getting away with it is good election material. Erdogan has a deep dislike of Assad, and the Syrian Turkmen are strongly resisting Assad, and hence may well be subject to Russian bombing. The Turkmen resistance is, of course, another example of people working against their own best interests. In the event that Assad goes, who will rule Syria? My guess is obvious: ISIS. And if the Turkmen think Assad is bad, wait until they see ISIS up close. Meanwhile, the Russians are less than happy with the Turkmen who shot the Russian pilot while parachuting. Apparently they have stated that Alpaslan Celik is a “dead man walking”. We may now see how good the modern Spetsnaz is. To add to the confusion, President Obama is apparently deploying further US special forces to Syria, with the apparent goal of killing ISIS leaders. How much good this will do remains to be seen.
As for Turkey’s role in this, it flaunts its NATO membership when it shoots down a Russian plane, while expecting the threat of NATO will prevent Russia from taking any revenge. It had better be right, because that could trigger WW III, and nobody wins that. On the other hand, it knows many of its NATO “allies” are fighting ISIS, so what does Turkey do? It helps ISIS. Syrian oil comes from the eastern part of the country, while oil also comes from ISIS controlled areas in Iraq. The oil money finances ISIS, so where do they sell the oil? A casual glance at the map leaves one country as an obvious transit point: Turkey. Russian air strikes had apparently destroyed 800 tankers of oil heading towards Turkey, and that may have inspired the attack on the Russian aircraft. Russia is satisfied that it understands Turkey’s role, and is apparently imposing a number of economic sanctions on it, which may not be what Erdogan wants to see in his election campaign. The situation in the Middle East is not getting any closer to resolution any time soon.