This morning the Turkish military shot down a Russian military aircraft on the border with Syria. It is unclear so far whether it was ground fire or Turkish jets that brought down the Russian plane. But that is a mere detail. What is quite clear is that this was a blatant provocation by the Turkish ruling clique.
Turkish military officials claimed that Turkish F-16s had shot down the plane after “repeatedly warning” its pilots that they were “violating Turkish airspace”. Russia's defence ministry said an Su-24 had crashed on Syrian territory after being hit by fire from the ground, and that its pilots had managed to eject. Russia insists that its warplane did not violate Turkish airspace. The ministry stressed that "throughout its flight, the aircraft remained exclusively above Syrian territory", adding: "Objective monitoring data shows it." The fact is that video footage showed the plane crashing into mountains in Latakia province – that is, inside Syria. The pilots also landed inside Syrian territory. Even the Turkish radar imagery seems to confirm that the plane was shot down over Syrian airspace.
Was it an accident?
Was this a case of a mistake on the part of the Russian pilot? Was the navigation system defective? Such explanations are of course possible. But the first question must be asked is about the readiness of the Turks to open fire. The skies over Syria have got rather crowded lately, with the risk of collisions or other accidents ever present. This is exactly the kind of incident that many have feared since Russia launched its air operations in Syria.
The dangers of operating near to the Turkish border have been all too apparent. It is well known that arrangements to avoid incidents between warplanes over Syria have been made. Why were they ineffective? The bringing down of a Russian plane was a very serious step that could not be taken without express permission from the highest level – that is, from the Turkish President himself. We should point out that Turkish planes have already shot down at least one Syrian air force jet and possibly a helicopter as well earlier on in the civil war.
The Turkish authorities may claim that the arrangements to avoid clashes in the air do not cover the approaches to their “own airspace”. But what exactly constitutes their “own airspace”? The Turkish government claims that the Turkmens who inhabit an area of Syria adjacent to the Turkish border have always been under their “protection”. This assertion gives the game away straight away.
Erdogan’s regional ambitions are well known. He wishes to re-establish something resembling the old Ottoman Empire, bringing large parts of Central Asia and the Middle East under Turkish control. In order to further this ambition he attempts to use the Turkic-speaking peoples like the Turkmens for his own cynical purposes, just as Russian tsarism used the South Slavs in the past as the pawns of an expansionist foreign policy.
It is also an open secret that Erdogan has been supporting ISIS and other Islamist gangs in an attempt to overthrow President Assad and grab slices of Syrian territory. That is why he has allowed a large number of Islamist fighters to cross the Turkish border and join ISIS in Syria, while blocking the supply of arms and volunteers to the anti-ISIS forces in Syria and brutally crushing the Kurds who are fighting ISIS.
And all the while the West has been turning a blind eye to the fact that the Turks – along with the Saudi and Qatari gangsters – have been supporting, arming and financing the Jihadis in Syria – including ISIS. But lately all that has changed.
The Russian intervention in Syria has changed everything. It has compelled the Americans to step up their offensive against ISIS. They have forged an uneasy alliance under the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces, composed mainly of Kurdish fighters but including all sorts of so-called “moderate” Syrian oppositionists, tribal warlords and other riff-raff.
The Kurds have made significant advances against ISIS in recent weeks. Previously they had also succeeded in closing large parts of the border between Syria and Turkey, the main conduit through which ISIS is receiving its supplies and volunteers. This did not please Erdogan, the de facto Turkish Godfather of ISIS. But what happened next pleased him even less.
Following the Paris attacks, there has been a flurry of activity on the diplomatic front. The UN passed a resolution that calls on the whole world to fight not only against ISIS but also the other Islamist, Jihadi and al-Qaeda gangs. Paris and London have moved closer to Washington on the Syrian question, and all three have, with many a tear and sigh, moved closer to Moscow. Putin, not they, now holds the key to Syria.
Turkey, Russia and the West
The deal that has been struck between Putin and the Americans is in direct contradiction to the interests of the Turkish and Saudi leaders. The West has had to accept the Russian demand that Assad must stay – at least for now – pending a “negotiated settlement” of the Syrian question. They also agree that the struggle against terrorism in Syria will not be confined to the fight against ISIS but will be broadened to include other, pro-al Qaeda outfits.
The UN resolution passed last week calls on UN members to “take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law” against Isis and calls for the eradication of “safe havens” in Syria and Iraq. As well as Isis, it also includes Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.” This means that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are being left out of the deal made between Russia and the West. This was already made clear in October, when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were formed, supported by the West, mainly in the North and Eastern provinces consisting of the Kurdish YPG and a series of tribal and other US connected militias but excluded Turkish and Saudi supported groups.
For some time Turkey has been trying to force NATO into starting a campaign against Assad in Syria. It has appealed to NATO several times since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War to help it overthrow Assad. It has not changed its position. Since the Russians started their intervention the Saudis have stepped up arms shipments to its Islamist, al Qaeda-connected stooges. In the last week the clashes between the Turkish-Saudi supported proxies have stepped up attacks against US-supported groups. Jabhat al-Nusra has threatened to attack the Kurdish Canton of Afrin and yesterday the Mare Operation room - which is close to the Islamists - has warned of an offensive against US supported Jaish alThuwur, which is a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Since the Turks, Saudis and Qataris have been supporting these Jihadi groups for years, pouring billions of dollars into their coffers, the rapprochement with Russia (and by implication with Assad) represented a mortal blow. This is particularly true in the case of Erdogan. Though he assiduously cultivates the image of a powerful Ottoman ruler, he is sitting on a very shaky throne.
In the case of a murder, the first question a lawyer asks is: cui bono? (Who stands to gain?). In this case the question answers itself. Neither the Americans nor the Russians had any interest in bringing about this action, and least of all at the present moment when they are striving for a deal. The man who has most to gain from performing an act of provocation aimed at driving a wedge between Russia and NATO is Erdogan.
By downing a Russian plane he hopes to provoke Russia into a retaliatory strike against Turkey – a member of NATO. That would then lead to NATO taking steps to defend Turkey, and so break off relations with Moscow. That would allow Turkey to continue its interference in Syria and provide a welcome breathing space to its Jihadi stooges. However, it is hardly likely that he will succeed in his desperate gambler’s throw.
Turkey, which is supposed to be an American ally, is pursuing its own agenda and its own interests. These do not correspond with those of US imperialism at this moment in time. In effect, Erdogan is throwing his weight around, as if to say: “If you think you can ignore me, you are very much mistaken. I must be included in any negotiated settlement in Syria, and our interests must be maintained.” The situation in Syria has now suddenly become a good deal more complicated. This is not something the Americans would welcome.
World War Three?
Some superficial observers are predicting that these events will end in a new world war. They point to the similarities with 1914, when the Great Powers were all entangled with the contradictions in the Balkans. Now all the major powers are involved in Syria: Russia, America, France, Britain, together with their allies and proxies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon and Iran.
Yes, there are similarities with the world of 1914. But there are also important differences. As a matter of fact, the contradictions between the imperialists are now so sharp that in the past they would already have led to war. The question that must be asked is: why is the world not at war once more? The answer is in the changed balance of forces on a world scale.
To begin with the parallel with 1914 when war broke out in Europe: there would be no point in Germany invading Belgium now, or seizing Alsace-Lorraine, for the simple reason that Germany already controls the whole of Europe through her economic might. All the important decisions are taken by Merkel and the Bundesbank, without a single shot having been fired. Maybe France can start a war of national independence from Germany? It is sufficient to pose the question to see immediately its absurdity.
The fact of the matter is that the old pygmy states of Europe long ago ceased to play any independent role in the world. That is why the European bourgeoisie were forced to form the European Union, in an effort to compete with the USA, Russia and now also China on a world scale. But a war between Europe and any of the above-mentioned states is entirely ruled out. Apart from anything else, “Europe” lacks an army, navy and air force. Such armies that exist are kept jealously under the control of the different ruling classes, who, behind the facade of European “unity”, are fighting like cats in a sack to defend their “national interests”.
From a military point of view, no country can stand against the colossal military might of the USA. But that power also has limits. There are glaring contradictions between the USA, China and Japan in the Pacific. In the past that would have led to war. But China is no longer a weak, backward, semi-colonial nation that could be easily invaded and reduced to colonial servitude. It is a growing economic and military power, which is flexing its muscles and asserting its interests. How could America even consider a war with a country like China when it cannot even respond to the continuous provocations from North Korea? The question is a concrete one.
What about the Middle East? As a matter of fact, it is precisely in that region where the limits of American power stand revealed most clearly. The invasion of Iraq solved nothing for US imperialism and has plunged the whole region into an abyss of chaos and war that now threatens the interests of the most powerful imperialist state that has ever existed. The USA has already burned its fingers badly in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was unable to intervene in Syria to bomb Assad because the American public is sick and tired of foreign military adventures. It is precisely for this reason that America decided to do a deal with Russia over Syria. That shows weakness, not strength.
How will Russia respond?
If you poke your finger in somebody’s eye, that person is likely to be a bit annoyed, but if you poke both fingers in somebody’s eyes, they will most certainly be annoyed. That is precisely what Erdogan has done to Putin. And Putin is not a man to forgive and forget. When a Russian civilian plane was brought down over Sinai by a terrorist bomb, the Russians immediately took their revenge by stepping up their bombing campaign against ISIS.
That is entirely in line with what we know about the character and psychology of Vladimir Putin. So far he has been fairly restrained in his comments. We are asked to be patient. No doubt the demand for patience is a convenient cover for the frantic telephone conversations that must be taking place between the Kremlin and the White House.
Asked whether Russia will invoke its right to self-defence as envisaged in the UN Charter over the loss of its military aircraft on the Syrian-Turkish border, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitriy Peskov replied: “Until there are clarifying reports, it is impossible to answer this question.” He added: “So far, the defence ministry has not yet confirmed what brought our warplane down. We know for a fact that the aircraft was in Syrian airspace, above Syrian territory.”
These words speak for themselves. If it is true that the Turks shot down a Russian plane in Syrian, not Turkish, airspace, that would amount to an act of war. There are rumours that President Vladimir Putin was planning to call an extraordinary meeting of the Russian Security Council following the incident. It would be surprising if this were not the case. And it would be even more surprising if some kind of retaliation were not being prepared.
Publicly, NATO’s response has been guarded: Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance, which has said it is ready to defend Turkey if Russia violated its airspace. But how can it defend Turkey when the US army is thousands of miles away? And even if it could do so, it is not in its interests to be involved in a shooting war with Russia – and certainly not to be dragged into such a conflict to defend Erdogan, who is increasingly seen as a nuisance in Washington.
Not long ago Washington and NATO were breathing fire over the Ukraine, threatening to provide Kiev with weaponry, to teach Russia a lesson and so on and so forth. But in practice it was merely hot air. American military assistance to the Kiev regime has amounted to next to nothing, while the “economic aid” from the US-controlled IMF, apart from being completely insufficient, is accompanied by the most vicious and painful conditions. The EU gave Russia a one-week ultimatum to reverse course in Ukraine or face more sanctions. The ultimatum came and went, just like all the other ultimatums. Putin remained defiant. As usual, the Americans rant and rave and then – do nothing. This time it will be no different.
In the first place, the relations between Russia and the West have changed dramatically since the Ukrainian crisis. The Americans need Russia to help liquidate the Jihadi menace in Syria. That is the main plank of their policy. In fact, it is just about the only plank. Compared with this, the downing of a single plane comes under the heading of small change. And although Putin will be breathing fire and brimstone, in practice it is the same for Russia. That, however, does not mean the Russians will do nothing.
In his first public statement Putin said that Turkey had stabbed Russia in the back by downing the Russian warplane and acted as accomplices of the terrorists. He insisted that the plane was hit as it was travelling one kilometer away from the Turkish border, not towards it. The plane therefore posed no threat to Turkish national security. Putin said the plane was targeting terrorists in the Latakia province of Syria, many of whom came from Russia. Putin also said that, Russia had noticed the flow of oil from Syrian territory under the control of terrorists to Turkey.
It is a fact that IS not only receives revenue from the smuggling of oil, but also has the protection of a nation’s military, Putin said (meaning Turkey). This may explain why the terrorist group is so bold in taking acts of terrorism across the world, he added, warning that the incident will have grave consequences for Russia’s relations with Turkey. The fact that Turkey did not try to contact Russia in the wake of the incident and rushed to call a NATO meeting instead shows that Turkey wants NATO to serve the interests of IS, he added.
Putin’s reputation inside Russia depends on his image as a tough man who is standing up to Russia’s enemies, particularly America. He cannot allow an insult like the one delivered by Erdogan to go unpunished. What form the punishment will take is unclear. But one thing is very clear: whatever action he decides to take will be communicated to the Americans in good time. The latter may not like it, but they will have no alternative but to swallow it.
The constant demands for patience and restraint while “the facts” are studied indicate that the mood in Brussels and Washington is not belligerent but extremely nervous. The fact is that both the Americans and the Europeans want Moscow to be part of the solution in Syria. They will be doing everything possible to pacify the Russians and put the brakes on the Turks.
According to some reports the two Russian pilots were murdered by the Turkmen forces. If this is true it will cause a wave of fury in Russia. One can confidently expect diplomatic fireworks to follow and quite likely some real ones as well. But the Third World War is not about to commence any time soon.
London 15.00hrs. 24 November