Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of the Republic of Turkey, may at present be the most dangerous man on our planet. Renowned as a brilliant politician domestically, who skillfully manipulates Turkish public opinion for electoral gains, he has also established a reputation for shooting from the mouth without much forethought when it comes to foreign affairs. On November 24, 2015 Erdogan went beyond words, authorizing his air force to take down a Russian fighter jet.
While some of the facts regarding the shootdown of the Russian Air Force SU-24 remain in contention between Turkey and Russia, what has emerged is deeply disturbing. Even Turkey admits that the Russian aircraft was in its airspace for a mere seventeen seconds. American authorities have informed various news agencies that the SU-24 was in Turkish skies for only a few seconds, and was actually flying over Syria when it was destroyed by a missile fired by a Turkish fighter. These facts would seem to confirm the allegation made by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the shootdown of the SU-24 was premeditated. In other words, President Erdogan had apparently ordered his country’s air force to destroy a Russian military aircraft as soon as a pretext emerged. An overflight that may have occurred over Turkish air space for a few seconds provided that pretext.
If Erdogan sought to destroy a Russian aircraft, for what purpose would he have engaged in such a dangerously brazen escalation of the already explosive reality that is the failed and disintegrating state of Syria?
The Turkish president maintains that Russia’s claim that it is fighting ISIS is a canard, and that Moscow is primarily targeting the “moderate” opposition to Assad, which Turkey supports. Until the bombing of a Russian airliner over Sinai, that was certainly true. However, after the Metrojet plane was destroyed over the Sinai desert, Russia began shifting its bombing campaign towards the Islamic State. Furthermore, Turkey has been playing the same game, under Erdogan’s instructions. Also claiming to be fighting ISIS in Syria, the Turkish Air Force has actually conducted far fewer air strikes on the Islamic State than Moscow’s air force. Instead, Turkish aircraft have primarily targeted the Kurdish militias in Syria, the same force that has been the most effective opposition to ISIS in northern Syria. Erdogan is much more interested in preventing the Kurds from achieving any form of sovereignty in the Middle East than in confronting the Islamic State.
The most likely explanation for Erdogan’s astonishing decision to launch an attack on a Russian aircraft was to thwart and strangle at birth the nascent indications of a possible grand coalition being formed to combat ISIS, involving the United States, France and Russia. After the terrorist attacks in Paris and the destruction of the Russian airliner in Egypt, French President Hollande saw a rare opportunity to bring together those three countries in facing a common danger. It must be noted that the Turks downed the Russian warplane on the same day Hollande was in Washington, meeting with President Obama prior to a follow-up meeting with Putin. The shootdown of the SU-24 probably has doomed President Hollande’s vision of a grand alliance working together in fighting the Islamic State.
Irrespective of Erdogan’s immediate objective, his reckless decision has perhaps put the entire planet on the path towards an unintended but potentially devastating war. President Putin will be forced to act in some form, not only due to his own personal feelings. No matter how cool-headed and cautiously he may intend to respond to the Turkish attack, he is not immune to Russian public opinion. Not only the shootdown, but the barbaric murder of one of the parachuting Russian pilots by Turkey’s allies in Syria–an act that is in clear violation of the Geneva Convention–will inevitably stimulate great indignation among the Russian people.
In 1914 renegade elements in a foreign intelligence service orchestrated the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo. In the weeks that followed, miscalculations intersected with a system of military alliances that put the world on the path to world war. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Erdogan has already called on NATO for full support in the face of possible future Russian military countermeasures in response to the destruction of the SU-24. Alarmingly, President Obama has already expressed public support for Turkey’s right to defend its airspace.
Before Turkey’s recklessly irresponsible leader drags the United States into an unintended military confrontation with Russia over events in Syria, President Obama should reconsider his blanket support for Turkey’s belligerent and brazen acts of violence against Moscow, and make clear that the United States–and NATO–will not be dragged into a conflict with Moscow over Erdogan’s dangerous adventurism.
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