The war in Syria is metastasizing, as long predicted by this author and others. It’s perilously close to a direct confrontation of Turkey and Russia in combat — a situation that didn’t start with the warplane shootdown today, but rather seems to have culminated in it. The ground picture in the area of the shootdown is the key.
What we know for sure today is that Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft, which the Turks say was violating their air space. The Turks report that an F-16 fighter pair took out the Russian aircraft.
It also appears that Russian helicopters sent on a rescue mission for the Su-24 air crew were destroyed. If a video posted by Syrian rebels (below) is valid – assuming it shows something the rebels pulled off today (24 November) – it looks like the rebels used TOW missiles to attack the Russian helos while they were on the ground at the Su-24 crash site.
These rapid-fire events raise questions that will not be answered at a leisurely pace. The basic question is what Russia and Turkey will do now. But there is also the question of “why now?” Turkey has been closely tracking Russian air activity for weeks. The two air forces have interacted at dangerous levels before; the Aviationist has a good summary here. But today, instead of warnings and sword-rattling, the Turks shot the Russian aircraft down.
There is another question, which the Russians could justifiably consider urgent. Rebel video and news reporting appear to indicate that the rebels not only attacked the Russian rescue helos, but “shot dead the two pilots as they tried to land safely in northern Syria after ejecting from the jet.” Shooting at the air crewmen is an egregious violation of the law of armed conflict. Attacking the rescue helos is probably one as well, assuming they were indeed targeted while they were on the ground and unable to mount an attack themselves.
(NOTE TO READERS: The Syrian rebel video has been removed from YouTube for “violating their terms of service.” In this case, that appears to mean it presents a depiction of violence, in a way that appears to advocate violence for wrongheaded political purposes. That said, YouTube has often left similar videos up on its site. I suspect either the Russian or Turkish government asked YouTube to remove it. Regardless, if I can find the video hosted somewhere else I’ll reload it.)
I doubt Russia will wait to drag the Syrian rebels into court in The Hague. That’s probably not even possible, under “routine” circumstances, since the rebels aren’t a recognized nation-state. If the Russians’ punitive attack on these rebels isn’t underway already, I imagine it’s being planned.
But we should take note of how quickly the niceties of the Geneva Convention fall away, once the U.S. is out of the picture. See more on that below.
The key to this answer is that the jet that was shot down was an attack aircraft: a tactical bomber. That means its target was on the ground. (And don’t get creative; the Su-24 has close to zero capability for anti-air attack. It’s not a “strike-fighter” like the F-15E or the F/A-18 Super Hornet. It can do a little limited self-defense against an enemy fighter aircraft, but it is a dedicated battlefield bomber, with even its under-mounted cannon having only a look- and shoot-down capability.)
The target(s) could very well have included the rebel group that posted the videos afterward and claimed the TOW attacks on the Russian helos, and the killing of the pilots. At the least, it’s quite possible the rebels were following the entire sequence of events via a communications network that included Turkish forces.
Turkey’s official justification for the shootdown is that the Su-24 violated Turkish air space. But Turkey held fire in October, when a Russian Su-30 fighter reportedly locked on to a Turkish fighter with fire control radar, and maintained the lock-on for over five minutes (see links at the Aviationist, above). The Turks would have been justified in shooting that aircraft down too. But they didn’t. The one they shot down was an attack aircraft on a mission to attack targets on the ground.
That tells me the tiebreaker for the Turks was what the Russian aircraft was doing. It mattered what and whom the Russians were targeting.
For some days, Russia has been bombarding rebels on Turkmen Mountain in northern Latakia Province, on Syria’s northwest coast. The location is very close to Turkey’s border (see map), and as the tallest peak in the area (at around 5,500 feet), Turkmen Mountain commands territory not just in Syria, but across the border in Turkey as well. Turkmen Mountain lies between Turkey and the sea, moreover. It’s key terrain Turkey doesn’t want falling into Russia’s hands. As of Monday (see link), local reporting indicated that rebel forces (some of which include ethnic Turkmen) had lost key positions to Assad’s army.
There’s…motive. The Su-24 shootdown reportedly occurred near the provincial border of Idlib and Latakia, some 12-15 statute miles east of Turkmen Mountain. And a local source reported on 21 November that the Turks were actually deploying troops into the Turkmen Mountain battle area, in Syria, to defend it against the Russian-led coalition. Turkey would therefore defend those troops against attacks by Russian aircraft.
The Syrian rebel group that posted the videos of the Russian aircraft under attack is the so-called First Coastal Division*, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. It is considered a “vetted” group and has been supplied with U.S. equipment, with Obama’s blessing, mostly through Qatar.
Two things about the First Coastal Division. One, Russia has been specifically targeting it, in its positions in Latakia, since October. According to the rebel group, Russian jets targeted at least one location, for a second time in a day, only after rescue workers had arrived. (These allegations on both sides will probably never be adjusted to anyone’s satisfaction – but again, they go to the point that with the demise of U.S. power, the Marquis of Queensberry has left the building.)
Two, the First Coastal Division is represented, along with a number of other rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army, by the Revolutionary Forces of Syria media office, which operates out of Turkey (meaning with the support and approval of Turkey).
Turkey has been embedded in the Syria fight for some time, supporting rebel factions with differing degrees of openness. (This was virtually inevitable, given that the Syrian civil war spilled over into Turkey almost from the beginning. Turkey has a natural investment in the stability and overall situation of Syria, even apart from Ankara’s concern about Kurdish groups.)
In May 2015, the Turks and Saudis concluded an agreement to coordinate their support for the Syrian rebels, and installed a new joint command center in Idlib Province, neighboring Latakia (just inland to the east. See map).
As mentioned, the Su-24 shootdown occurred just at the provincial border of Idlib and Latakia. Besides seeing a tactical campaign against Turkmen Mountain succeeding, right on Turkey’s border, the Turks have had a strategic investment in the very area where Russia has been concentrating her operations in recent weeks.
These developments are basically inevitable, as the confrontation in Syria builds. I’ve been warning for months now that the maneuvers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey are driving much of what happens in Syria, and today’s events are new and pointed evidence of that, with the bonus of U.S. military equipment being wielded by rebels to attack Russians.
The NATO Council (the governing political body) is reportedly to hold an extraordinary meeting “at Turkey’s request” – something that Turkey frankly shouldn’t have to request. As traditional leader of the alliance, the U.S. should have convened the meeting because it’s the right, and necessary, thing to do.
But it’s leadership that is sorely lacking at this point. Obama has responded by lecturing Russia in a prissy manner: warning that these “mistakes” are bound to happen if Russia persists in attacking rebel targets instead of ISIS.
UPDATE: This parenthetical entry came next in the original: (Sorry I can’t locate video of his remarks, which I’ve seen run on Fox several times now, before going to post.)
The White House has now released a transcript of Obama’s comments at today’s joint presser with Francois Hollande, from which the remarks I referred to came. Here is the relevant passage:
Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace. I think it’s very important right now for us to make sure that both the Russians and the Turks are talking to each other to find out exactly what happened, and take measures to discourage any kind of escalation.
I do think that this points to a ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to a Turkish border, and they are going after a moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries. And if Russia is directing its energies towards Daesh and ISIL, some of those conflicts, or potentials for mistakes or escalation, are less likely to occur.
[Continuing the original text] This is worse than useless, since it accomplishes nothing but also antagonizes Russia. The Russians aren’t bombing the Syrian rebels by mistake or happenstance; it’s the main thing they’re there for. Russia’s strategic goals are the issue – and Obama won’t affect them by giving schoolmarm-ish lectures.
Russia and Turkey will end up deciding what they’re going to do. Perhaps France – perhaps Germany – will be able to help defuse this particular situation. I don’t know that either Russia or Turkey is ready to go all-out over the tactical situation at the Syrian border. My sense is that it’s a little early for that, and the parties may find a way to pull back and let it sit stable for some undefined period.
But I could certainly be wrong about that. This conflict has no obvious path ahead, because there’s no overarching political strategy to settle it. There are just competing regional powers pushing their own interests. This won’t be the way to destroy ISIS, that’s for sure.
* The Free Syrian Army announced the formation of the First Coastal Division in October 2014. It was formed from previously-existing groups
The Free Syrian Army forms the 1st Coastal Division
The Free Syrian Army announced the formation of the First Coastal Division, operating in the Syrian coastline, in order to unify efforts and to conduct organized military operations in the region. The Division includes three brigades: Al-Adiyat Brigade, the First Brigade, and Al-Asifa Brigade.
The leaders of the three brigades stressed the necessity to adopt a unified logo for the new force, and to work under a unified military structure headed by a joint military council. They emphasized that the Division aims to topple the Assad regime and establish stability and safety for the Syrian people. They also called on the leaders of all factions operating in the Syrian coastline to unite in order to achieve victory.