by Austin Bay
December 1, 2015
The Nov. 24 downing of an intruding Russian bomber by Turkish jet fighters produced understandable anger in Moscow. A trace of Cold War-era angst spread throughout the civilized world.
The incident had Cold War echoes. Russia lacks the Soviet Union's armed might, but has nuclear weapons. Last year its bullyboy president, Vladimir Putin, shook the Kremlin's nuclear saber at Eastern Europe.
Turkey is a NATO member. NATO was formed to stymie Soviet aggression. Violation of a member's territory by an armed aggressor does not immediately commit the rest of NATO to combat, but it guarantees an alliance response. The U.S. and its nukes must enter the military calculus.
Since the incident, neither Turkey nor Russia has escalated. After the shoot-down, Putin ordered his military units in the region to immediately retaliate against any perceived threat to Russian forces. He imposed economic sanctions and threw a series of fist-clenching propaganda tantrums.
A week after the incident, there is no indication that Russian forces are preparing for retaliatory action. At the time, Putin's order was a political signal with a sophisticated message. It delivered a threat -- Russian forces could shoot. But it clearly said Russian forces were on alert, not going to war.
Turkey refuses to apologize for downing the plane. However, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said his country regrets the incident and the death of a pilot. Erdogan is another bully-in-charge, but, like Putin, he can be diplomatically adept. His statement signaled that Turkey intends to cool passions. It acknowledged a common concern for the loss of life.
This week at the Paris climate conference, Erdogan one-upped Putin after the Russian president outrageously claimed that Turkey shot down the plane to "protect its secret oil trade" with the terrorist Islamic State in the Levant. Erdogan replied that the Russian plane violated Turkish air space. However, he will resign as president of Turkey if Putin can prove his ISIL accusation. Erdogan added a zinger: If Putin's accusation is not proven, and then Putin should resign from office.
Erdogan would win this challenge. NATO's secretary-general told media that NATO intelligence corroborates Turkey's version of the incident. The Russian Sukhoi Su-24 violated Turkish air space and ignored repeated warnings from the Turkish interceptors tracking it. NATO has other relevant intelligence. For weeks Russian aircraft had been targeting non-ISIL rebels who oppose Syria's Assad dictatorship, which the Kremlin backs. The downed SU-24 was specifically attacking rebels who were also ethnic Turks. Senior Turkish officials had warned senior Russian diplomats that Moscow must quit bombing non-ISIL rebels or face severe consequences.
NATO certainly has intelligence resources in the region. The huge Turkish airbase at Incirlik includes a vast air control and electronic intelligence operation. British base areas on Cyprus are another likely source. NATO air control planes and naval vessels could also track the engagement.
Similarly, NATO could surface-to-air missile defense batteries near the Syria-Turkey border. However, anti-aircraft missile units in Turkey have become a sore subject symptomatic of two major, unresolved NATO alliance issues the SU-24 downing also engages. First, how should NATO defend Turkey's southern border? Second, what must NATO members do in order to destroy ISIL?
A U.S. Patriot missile unit recently withdrew from southern Turkey. Other NATO Patriots remain, but Turkey wants in-country commitment. Since 2012, Ankara has publicly mulled invoking NATO protection to help stem spill-over violence from Syria It doesn't accept spill-over air war, either.
As for destroying ISIL: While the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition nibbles away at ISIL's Iraq-Syria domain, ISIL has established itself in Libya, Egypt's Sinai and Yemen. ISIL attacked French territory. If NATO member France is at war with ISIL, isn't a broader, more forceful attack on ISIL strongholds justified?