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Why Did Turkey Attack a Russian Plane?

The shooting down of a Russian fighter plane by a Turkish F-16 is an extremely disturbing turn of events.

Turkey claims that the SU-24 aircraft had violated its airspace and had not responded to repeated warnings before the armed response took place. The Russians for their part claim that they were operating in Syrian airspace with the concurrence of the Damascus government. President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian television shortly after the plane went down and was clearly furious, denouncing a “stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices” and warning that there would be “severe consequences.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled a planned Wednesday visit to talk with his counterpart in Ankara.

The shoot down will have repercussions. It will inevitably involve some kind of response from NATO while also rendering the creation of any grand alliance against ISIS much less likely.

Turkey has produced a map indicating where the violation of airspace allegedly took place. If the map is accurate, it was over a finger of land two miles wide that juts into Syria. The map and Turkish commentary relating to it suggest that the incursion occurred when the Russian plane crossed the border, but there is perhaps inevitably a problem with that account. A fighter traveling at even subsonic speed would have passed over the Turkish territory in roughly twelve seconds, which rather suggests that there would not have been time for any “repeated warnings.”

Then there is the problem with where the plane actually came down. Admittedly the aircraft would not necessarily plummet straight down to mark the spot where it was hit, but the remains appear to have wound up comfortably inside Syria. A video of the plane’s downing also seems to show it being hit and then going directly down.

There is also the question of who gave the order to fire—and why. The Turks have been complaining about Russian aircraft coming too close to the border and there has been inflammatory media coverage about alleged bombings of the ethnic Turkish Turkmen tribesmen who live in the area on the Syrian side. But given the political sensitivity of what is occurring along the Turkey-Syria border, one would have to suspect that any decision to take decisive action came from the top levels of the government in Ankara. American, British, French and Russian airplanes are all operating over northern Syria. None of those planes can be construed as being hostile to Turkey while the terrorist and rebel groups have no air forces. Why a relatively minor incursion, if it indeed took place, would warrant a shoot down has to be questioned unless it was actually a Turkish plan to engage a Russian plane as soon as it could be plausibly claimed that there had been a violation of airspace.

Why would the Turks do that? Because Russia is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, apparently with considerable success, and Turkey has been extremely persistent in their demands that he be removed. Al-Assad is seen by Turkey, rightly or wrongly, as a supporter of Kurdish militancy along the long and porous border with Turkey. This explains why Ankara has been lukewarm in its support of the campaign against ISIS, tacitly cooperating with the terrorist group, while at the same time focusing its own military effort against the Kurds, which it sees as an existential threat directed against the unity of the Turkish Republic.

Would Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan do something so reckless? Only he knows for sure, but if his objective was to derail the creation of a unified front against terrorist and rebel groups in Syria and thereby weaken the regime in Damascus, he might just believe that the risk was worth the potential gain.


Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

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60 Comments To "Why Did Turkey Attack a Russian Plane?"

#1 Comment By Dan Stewart On November 26, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

No sentient being could possibly believe that Turkey attacked a Russian military jet without first conferring with its NATO partners (read: United States).

What’s been entirely absent from US media coverage of this critical incident is that Turkey was in clear violation of international law:

1. By shooting down the Russian jet over a non-hostile border incursion,

2. By shooting parachuting pilots (Turkish special forces are embedded with Turkmen rebels), and

3. By destroying a Russian rescue helicopter and killing its pilot.

The Hill contributor Charles Dunlap concisely explains the incident in the context of international law. Dunlap is a retired Air Force major general who is executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School.

To both defeat ISIL and end the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe, the US should stop arming and funding Islamic extremists trying to overthrow the Assad government, and join with Russia to support Assad’s military in regaining control over Syrian territory and borders. But there is exactly zero chance of this happening.

Russia is the good guy here and Putin the rational actor, in both supporting the Assad government and fighting ISIS. US neocons, who are ascendant in DC right now, are trying to expand the wars and are happy to start a war with Russia in either Syria or Ukraine. The news and editorials pages of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times are doing their part to foment war as well. An expanding Near East conflagration, that may include Russia, is nearing bipartisan consensus in DC.

This is by no means over. We may very well be about to see another dark chapter in history be written before our eyes.

#2 Comment By John Hanft On November 26, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

Although not widely perceived, our national interests are far more closely aligned with Russia than with Turkey.

#3 Comment By RealPolitik On November 26, 2015 @ 7:59 pm

Mr. Giraldi, I’m an avid reader of your columns, but your analysis of this incident left me scratching my head. A Russian plane violates Turkey’s airspace (as has been happening repeatedly for awhile), is warned and yet fails to heed warnings; what would you expect any sovereign country to do? Just let it go and hope that it does not happen again? Borders should mean something, especially when it comes to foreign military forces. Also you are probably well aware that Erdogan would not seek permission from anyone to take action. If anything, Turks are upset that their NATO “allies” are not backing them up forcefully against Russian aggression. I am really puzzled as to why you and many other readers here would take Russian pronouncements on the incident at face value and yet somehow see deeper factors at work behind Turkey’s version of events. You can say many things about Putin and his goals, but he is not a non-interventionist and he is certainly not in your camp.

#4 Comment By Sal On November 27, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

In August of 1988, a Pakistani F-16 shot a Soviet SU-25 who had accidentally flew into Pakistani airspace. The pilot safely ejected and was then later captured by local tribal villagers on the Pakistani side. The tribal people brought the captured pilot to the military authorities where he interrogated and was given POW status. Within less than two weeks the pilot was handed over to the Soviets. The pilot was treated quite well by both the tribal folks and the Pakistani military and ISI. Just three years later this pilot became Russia’s VP and then a year later visited Pakistan as VP of Russia!

Now contrast this treatment that the Pakistanis gave to the Russian pilot to how the terrorists treated the two Russian pilots, one captured and one killed. Totally against international law as well as Islamic law when it comes to treating POWs.

#5 Comment By Lozano On November 27, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

Erdogan already apologized to Putin in a Turkish way: he didn’t know it was a Russian plane and if he knew that before he would not shoot. Most probably he thought it was one of Assad planes (Syrian Air Force also operate Su-24s) and then decided it was an opportunity for retribution for his F-4 downed a couple years ago, not to mention his desire to show some force.

Whatever the case was, the result was predictable and in my opinion its the opposite of what the author had in mind. The response from NATO was almost unanimously to distance itself from Turkey and to call for reconciliation. And a grand alliance against ISIS is more likely now then ever. Russia is already using the incident to push for a joint operation against ISIS while European leaders give Erdogan the cold shoulder. Most important, with the S-400 becoming fully operational any plane will have to ask for Russian permission to cross Syria’s skies, which means the Western powers will have to coordinate their strikes with Russia from now on whether they like it or not.

#6 Comment By John D. R. On November 27, 2015 @ 3:19 pm

In 2012, Turkey lost an F-3 Phantom warplane to a Syrian enforcer after it strayed into Syrian airspace .
“A short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then-Turkish prime minister, told BBC at the time as he expressed rage over the downing of the plane.
And Turkey has history in terms of violating other nations’ airspace. In 2005, Turkey entered Greek airspace 1,017 times, or as often as 40 times a day, according to a WikiLeaks document.

#7 Comment By Ira On November 27, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

During his speech in Vienna in 1 March 2013 at a United Nations event, Turkish Prime minister Erdoğan described Zionism as “a crime against humanity” saying, “It is necessary that we must consider—just like Zionism, or fascism—Islamophobia.
Why does America support a country who says that Zionism is a crime against humanity? Do you want to die defending the anti Semites?

#8 Comment By Minnesota Mary On November 28, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

I recommend that everyone who is wondering or speculating about why Turkey shot down that Russian jet and also who bombed the Russian passenger plane in the Sinai read the book “The Brothers” by Stephen Kinzer. The pieces of the puzzle will come together for you in a page turner of a book. The Dulles brothers, John Foster (Sec. of State) and Allen (CIA) set in motion what is happening to day. If only Americans knew what their government has long been doing!

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 28, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

“Turks did that because the Turks knew Russians are very weak militarily and Russians won’t be able to take revenge!”

I was going to post a comment about how easy it is to make assumptions about what is going on in unknown spaces. One can hardly fault the Turks given the level of conflict at their foor step. One can hardly disbelieve that a Russian aircraft flying along narrow corridors of conflict between borders would stray into another’s airspace.

Command and control is tricky business among one’s own forves. I can easily i,agine things getting out of control among states militarily engaged with differing agendas and targets in roughly the same terrain.

Taking on disparate rebel groups is one thing. But I doubt either state wants to start a global tit for tat that would spin out of their control.

#10 Comment By chili dog On November 30, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

“Do you want to die defending the anti Semites?”

Hell no. Don’t want to die defending Israel either, which is what got this bloody mess started in the first place. I’ll vote for any candidate who credibly promises to get these monkeys off our back.