Neo-Sultan provokes neo-Tsar
by Sandhya Jain on 01 Dec 2015 9 Comments
The downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane that ostensibly made a 17-second incursion over Turkish air space on November 24 is a watershed in Syria’s prolonged civil war. The episode differs qualitatively from the ISIS strike on a Russian Metrojet over the Sinai (October 31), and is a calculated move against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally. The action favours al-Nusra and Islamic State (ISIS) that came under severe pressure after Russia began bombing their strongholds on September 30.


The likely provocation was President Putin’s assertion after the G-20 at Antalya, Turkey, that around 40 countries, including some G-20 members, were financing ISIS through an illegal trade in oil from seized oilfields in Iraq and Syria. “They are protected by the military of an entire nation”, that is why “they are acting so boldly and blatantly”, wreaking terror across the world, including the heart of Europe (Paris), he said. He provided photographic evidence of long trains of oil tankers carrying oil from ISIS-controlled territory into Turkey, from where it is shipped to Europe, even Japan. The linchpin of this trade, estimated at $50 million a month, is allegedly Bilal Erdogan, the President’s son.


The incident occurred despite a signed agreement between Moscow and Washington to prevent such incidents in Syria; Turkey claims to be part of the US-led coalition against ISIS in Syria. When the US State Department clarified that the accord did not cover its allies, President Putin announced (Nov. 26) that Russia had given America prior information of the flight path of the ill-fated plane.


Moscow is enraged that Captain Sergey Rumyantsev was shot by a Syrian Turkmen brigade after ejecting from the plane – a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The navigator, Konstantin Murahtin, returned safely to base. Later, an Mi-8 helicopter searching for the pilots was attacked and a Russian marine killed in the incident; the rest of the crew and servicemen on board were evacuated to Russia’s Hmeymim Airbase in Syria.


As an immediate response, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled his proposed visit to Istanbul on November 25. Claiming that terror threats with roots in Turkey are as high as in Egypt, Moscow asked its citizens to cancel trips to Turkey for tourism or any other purpose. This will cripple Ankara’s hospitality industry as Russian tourists spend nearly $151 million in Turkey annually.


Moscow has suspended military contacts with Ankara, enhanced security of its air base in Syria and is closely monitoring the movement of Turkish vessels near its sea ports. Moscow took a dim view of Ankara hastily calling a NATO meeting after the shooting, instead of contacting the Kremlin. Mr Lavrov told a Turkish minister who called to express sorrow that the hotline between the Russian National Defense Control Center and the Turkish Defense Ministry was not used.


According to the Hmeymim airfield radar, the Turkish fighter jet entered Syrian air space and made no attempt to contact the Russian pilots before attacking the bomber. Turkey’s claims of having issued ten warnings during a 17-second transgression fail the test of credibility. Russia has now deployed the guided missile cruiser, Moskva, equipped with the ‘Fort’ air defense system, similar to the S-300, off the Latakia coast.


This is the first time a NATO member has downed a Russian/Soviet military aircraft since the 1950s. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg supported Turkey, but Europe is conflicted and fears war. The US dissociated itself from the incident, but President Barack Obama insisted Turkey has a right to defend its territory and air space. Washington confirmed that US-supplied TOW missiles destroyed one Russian search-and-rescue helicopter.


Turkey has played a leading role in fomenting unrest in Syria to oust President Assad since 2011. Ankara aided, abetted, and funded ISIS by keeping its southern border open with Syria, allowing radicals from Europe to move back and forth across ISIS-controlled territory, which facilitated the Paris carnage. Hence, at a meeting at the White House on November 24, Presidents Hollande and Obama agreed on the importance of closing the Turkish border to restrict the movement of extremists into Europe; both nations observed that Russia was targeting Syria’s “moderate opposition” that is supported by Turkey and the US-led coalition.


Interestingly, on November 26, Ankara arrested editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül of the daily, Cumhuriyet, for a story about Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) trucks bound for Syria in January 2014, laden with what the newspaper alleged were weapons and ammunition. Senior commanders are being prosecuted even as an enraged President Erdogan claims the trucks were delivering humanitarian aid to Bayirbucak Turkmen; few believe this.


Russia, meanwhile, is ramping up its offensive. Turkey’s lira has taken a dive. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has ordered measures including freezing some joint investment projects with Turkey, restricting financial and trade transactions and changing customs duties. Civil flights to and from Turkey may be limited and plans for a Free Trade Zone dropped. The visa-free regime for Turks has been halted and curbs put on hiring Turkish nationals from January 1, 2016. Several Turkish organisations have been banned, and controls are being tightened over food imports for alleged safety standard violations.


Questions remain about the $12 billion Turkish Stream gas pipeline and $20 billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant. Turkey gets 60 per cent of its natural gas supplies from Russia, which needs the market at a time when low oil prices have hurt its export-dependent economy. A low-cost measure is to aid Kurdish rebels in Syria and Turkey, who are fighting Turkish forces and ISIS. Russia has had close ties with Kurdish tribes for nearly two centuries; it forged links with Turkey’s PKK in the Soviet era. Another option is for Russia and China to jointly exert pressure on the US in the western Pacific and force its overstretched military to shift more forces to Asia from Europe and the Middle East.


A little known aspect of Russia’s interest in Syria is that Hatay and the route to Latakia is important to the Russian Orthodox Church. A village called Kasab was home to Syrian Orthodox laity until overrun by al-Nusra and now ISIS, forcing all non-Muslims to flee to Turkey. For Moscow, a foothold in the Middle East’s historic and biblical towns means matching the clout of the Greek Orthodox Church and Patriarchate in Fener (Constantinople, near modern Istanbul), which could make the Church of Moscow more powerful than the Ecumenical Patriarchate as protector of Orthodox Christians.   

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