Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Fault lines defined?

What are the international implications of Turkey downing the Russian Su-24 fighter jet? Gamal Nkrumah looks into the circumstances of an incident that has the Kremlin fuming

Al-Ahram Weekly

A Russian warplane, a Sukhoi-24 (Su-24), was shot down by Turkey in Latakia Province in Syria according to the Russian 24/7 English channel Russia Today (RT). Turkey, however, disputes the Russian version of events while it maintains that it downed another Russian fighter jet in October. In other words, this is not the first time that Turkey downed a Russian warplane. The Kremlin conceded that last month’s violation of Turkish airspace by a Russian fighter jet was a “mistake”. The tragedy is that efforts to end these “mistakes” have been misplaced.

The outpouring of Western goodwill and support for the Turks signalled strong NATO solidarity with a fellow NATO member state. NATO supported the interception of the Russian fighter jet deemed by Turkey to be in its airspace by the Turkish military.

The downing of the Su-24 comes at a time when Russian military intervention in Syria is bearing fruit, and the Islamic State group appears to be in retreat in several key strategic areas. The Russians are livid. “This is a very serious incident,” warned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. According to the RT news network broadcasting from Moscow, the Russian fighter jet did not violate Turkish airspace, but rather was downed in the predominantly Alawi Latakia Province in coastal northwest of Syria, bordering Turkey a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu summoned the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also lambasted Karlov.

President Putin described the downing by a Turkish F-16 of the Russian fighter as a “terrorist act”. Thanks to Turkey, terrorists have led a life of commuters, moving freely across Turkey and between the Middle East and Europe. The overriding goal of Turkey has been tacit connivance with the terrorists, the Russians now openly conclude.

Western powers, meanwhile, claim they have not forgotten the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimea, and Russian meddling in Ukraine’s domestic affairs. The world’s attention may have turned elsewhere, but suspicions of Moscow’s motives in Syria remain.

Tempers are frayed and as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the prognosis was unclear. Conflicting reports by different news agencies and international television channels abound. Reuters and Al-Jazeera both reported that Ankara officials claimed the downed Russian Su-24 approached and violated Turkish airspace, a claim the Russians vehemently deny.

The downing of the Russian fighter jet is, to be sure, been one of the most dramatic crises faced by the Russians and NATO since the eruption of the Syrian civil war. “It is as if we shot the Turkish plane rather than them shooting down one of ours,” a furious Putin expounded.

“What do they want? Do they want to put NATO at Islamic State’s disposal? We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today,” an enraged Putin thundered Tuesday.

In this frenzied atmosphere Putin vowed retaliation. “Today’s loss is a stab in the back delivered to us by accomplices of terrorists. We have established a long ago that large quantities of oil and oil products from territories captured by the Islamic State terrorists have been arriving at Turkish territory,” Putin fumed.

Putin pledged to intensify sorties on Islamic State territory in Syria. He was speaking on Tuesday after discussions with Jordanian King Abdullah in the Russian Black Sea resort of Suchi. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to pay an official visit to Turkey Wednesday. Both Russian and Turkish stock exchange indexes plummeted Tuesday after the incident.

In that respect, it is easy to see why the two nations, Russia and Turkey, with diametrically opposed worldviews, may be obliged to mend fences. But the Russian president appears is no mood to do so at present, and in all likelihood a very stern message will be delivered by his foreign secretary in Ankara Wednesday. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initial response was more muted. “It is impossible for me to preserve my friendship with people who are allegedly leaders when they are attacking their own people, shooting at them, using tanks and other forms of heavy weaponry,” Erdogan said, presumably referring to the Syrian government, which Russia backs. Paradoxically, however, a recently released video showed militant Islamist terrorists shooting a Russian pilot shot by Turkish troops while parachuting in Idlib Province, Syria, in a parody of a horror movie. 

Meanwhile, this flashpoint comes just when Western leaders are turning greater attention to the Syrian quagmire, and Putin and US President Barack Obama appeared to have to terms, concluding that they need to coordinate respective activities against the Islamic State group.

America’s Fox News quoted NATO’S deputy spokesman Carmen Romero as saying that an extraordinary North Atlantic Council meeting took place Tuesday to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation between Russia and NATO. “The aim of this extraordinary North Atlantic Council meeting is for Turkey to inform its NATO allies on the details of the downing of the Russian warplane,” Romero was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. “The Turkish armed forces are clearly instructed. Even if it is a flying bird it will be intercepted,” Davutoglu extrapolated in no uncertain terms.

Fox News later clarified that the Russian Su-24 was downed by an air-to-air missile. Interestingly, six US European Command F-15s were deployed 6 November to Incerlik base in Turkey.

How detrimental the downing incident will be to attempts to push Syria towards a peaceful settlement remains to be seen. But if NATO, via Turkey, comes into direct confrontation with Russia in the environs of Syria, this development may take precedence over the pressing need of the Syrian people to see an end to their years long nightmare.

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