Salon did not publish the following column. It was filed November 27th, the day after Thanksgiving and three days after Turkish pilots shot a Russian jet out of the sky near the border between Syria and Turkey—by what evidence has been made available, probably on the Syrian side.
One truly does have to wonder, as Washington wonders, and Russia wonders, and those suddenly nervous peaceniks at NATO wonder: Why did Turkey do it? Why did Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, who presides over the steady erasure of Turkey’s secular tradition in favor of a creeping Islamization project, shoot down a Russian jet Tuesday, so risking an East-West confrontation nearly comparable with the Cuban missile crisis?
As we try to understand this astonishingly irresponsible act, a couple of assumptions.
Working assumption No. 1: We will not get a single straight syllable out of the Erdoğan government. What precious little credibility the double-dealing Erdoğan had to lose is now out the window. Ankara can no longer be treated as anything other than a dimension of the Syria crisis that must be countered. More bluntly, it consorts with allies in the fight against terror but stands among the enemies.
No. 2: We will not do a great deal better with the American press coverage of this incident. Even a brief perusal of the non-American press tells us we are now subject to yet another media cover-up, this one as brazen as I have seen at least since the coup in Ukraine last year.
All efforts to blur reality notwithstanding, something good comes of this abrupt turn in Syria’s chronology of tragedy. Study the available facts and consider the probabilities, and Turkey has just spilled the truth of the whole sordid mess out across Syria’s desert sands. And what do you know but it is black, the color of oil.
One sensed we were in for preposterous proceedings when President Obama declared his initial response to news of the air-to-air attack. “Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and air space,” he said in a joint press conference with French President François Hollande. I promise you he said this with a straight face and without irony. As one of my Twitter connections noted, Obama just gave Assad permission to down every American jet flying sorties over Syria.
Turkey’s behavior, as those following the news will know, was instantly erratic. It went to NATO to request an emergency meeting based on Article 5 of the treaty, which stipulates that an attack on any member is an attack on all. At the same time, it stonewalled all requests for communication sent to Ankara from Moscow.
Things did not go well for the Turks at NATO headquarters in Brussels. By the time the meeting convened, a U.S. official had already told Reuters that, contrary to Turkey’s claim and the already-fraying Western narrative, Washington had concluded the jet was shot down over Syrian airspace, not Turkey’s. At the session, downgraded to an Article 4 consultation, Turkey’s recordings of the warnings its pilots allegedly made were unpersuasive. There were numerous logical and logistical flaws in its chronological account of the 17-second incursion it claimed the Russian jets had made.
What you read in the American press about the NATO meeting was some variation of the statement made afterward by NATO’s secretary-general. “We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally,” Jens Stoltenberg declared with little elaboration. What you did not read was that many members were highly critical of its decision to down the Russian aircraft, found its account of the incident suspect, and more or less furious that Ankara had brought NATO so close to a dangerous confrontation.
If you sit on our side of the Atlantic, neither did you read what Sigmar Gabriel, vice-chancellor in Germany’s coalition government, said at this point to DPA, the German press agency: “This incident shows for the first time that we are dealing with an actor who is unpredictable according to statements from various parts of the region. That is not Russia. That is Turkey.”
Gabriel’s statement, coming from America’s closest ally on the Continent, is key. With it, the cold light of day starts to shine on the Syria crisis, now a running sore of subterfuge, misrepresented intentions and disinformation.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, gave a revealing account of his first conversation with Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu—when he was finally able to get the Turkish foreign minister on the telephone. Reflecting Ankara’s evident confusion as to how to account for itself, in Lavrov’s telling Çavuşoğlu could do no more than bob, weave and dissemble. “The Turkish minister assured me Turkey’s striving to preserve friendly relations,” Lavrov recounted, “but kept repeating that Turkey has the right to strike any airspace intruders. He also claimed that Turkish controllers on the ground and pilots were unaware it was a Russian plane.”
On Çavuşoğlu’s first and second points: Moscow and Ankara had long-earlier installed a hot line through which either side was to warn the other of any approaching calamity. Turkey never used it. Equally, the Russian side had given the Americans details of the flights in question in accordance with an agreement to coordinate their Syrian operations. Turkey, now in alliance with the U.S., is covered by that agreement: Either the Americans failed to advise the Turks of Russian flight plans or did so and the Turks ignored the advisory.
On Çavuşoğlu’s second point: Four kinds of jets now fly in Syrian airspace—American, French, Russian and Syrian. Planes bear insignia for a reason: They are to be read from other aircraft. Are we to believe the pilots could not read those on the Russian jets? Are we to believe that they fired on a jet of supposedly unknown nationality when it might have been American or French?
One could spend an entire column identifying the holes in the Swiss-cheesy account Turkey has provided of the events last Tuesday. Lavrov’s conclusion: The attack on Russia’s Su-24 plane “appears to have been a planned provocation.” President Putin’s is even pithier: The Turks are “accomplices of terrorists.”
There is fulsome coverage of the Turkish incident in the Russian press, needless to say. Before offering even a brief summary of it, this: One may accept it at face value or question it, but there are no grounds for dismissing it altogether simply because the assertions made are Russia’s. They deserve our scrutiny and further investigation at the very least.
As to the incident itself, Russia has provided maps, flight paths and the like that contradict most of the Turkish accounting of events. The two sides do not even agree as to where in Syrian territory the plane actually crashed. These kinds of questions have yet to be settled conclusively and deserve all the effort required to do so.
More interesting is the “why” of the incident. What lies behind Putin’s blunt charge that the downing of a Russian plane while it was flying a mission in Syria was “a stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists?”
When the first reports came that Russian planes had just started bombing truck convoys carrying oil from territory held by the Islamic State to Turkey, one sat up straight but waited for more. Since that moment, very shortly after the Su-24 went down, Moscow has practically gushed with evidence and accusations. Here is one report, published by RT on Thursday, after Putin finished up a meeting in Moscow with François Hollande, who is globe-trotting in an effort to form a kind of grand alliance against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
“Vehicles, carrying oil, [are] lined up in a chain going beyond the horizon,” Putin said at a press conference. “Day and night they are going to Turkey. Trucks always go there loaded, and back from there—empty. We are talking about a commercial-scale supply of oil from the occupied Syrian territories seized by terrorists. It is from these areas and not any others. And we can see it from the air, where these vehicles are going.”
The Russian leader’s assertions are backed up by reconnaissance footage of truck convoys and strikes against oil-storage facilities in Raqaa, the Islamic State’s declared capital. David Cohen, Treasury’s undersecretary for financial intelligence, backed them up in October—which was before the matter got as hot as it is now. Cohen put the Islamic State’s income from oil sold directly or indirectly into Turkey at $1 million a day.
Other reports allege that this activity is not the doing merely of middlemen operating on the Turkish-Syrian border. Read this report, headlined “Ankara’s oil business with ISIS.” It quotes Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev alleging “direct financial interest of some Turkish officials relating to the supply of oil products refined by plants controlled by ISIS.”
These statements coincided with Hollande’s Kremlin visit Wednesday, and this is interesting. Apart from agreeing to share intelligence in the fight against “common evil,” the French and Russian leaders agreed that it is now essential to seal the Turkish-Syrian border altogether. In Hollande’s words: “It is necessary to hit ISIS training centers, but the main thing is to hit the sources of financing, which give ISIS life in the first place—first of all oil … trucks that transport oil, transferring it to buyers on the black market, thus giving ISIS uncontrolled amount of money.”
Sounds as if Putin may have shown his French guest some persuasive video, doesn’t it? I take Hollande’s remarks as confirmation of the argument here: We need to take these charges against Turkey seriously. For the record, Erdoğan’s denial of all these charges—a denial but no denial—came this way on Thursday: “Those who claim we buy oil from ISIS are obliged to prove it. If not, you are a slanderer. Shame on you.” This is especially reassuring coming from the man who asserts that Turkey’s “coolheadedness” is what just saved the world from war.
In the following paragraph, I will recount what you have read about these matters in the government-supervised New York Times since last Tuesday—or in any other American news report, for that matter.
Next to nothing.
Not a word about the now-exposed problem of Turkey’s complicity with the Islamic State. Nothing about the flow of oil as a very realistically possible motive for the downing of Russia’s Su24 Tuesday. A report in Thursday’s paper put the attack down not to Erdoğan’s de facto alliance with ISIS but to fellow-feeling for Turkmen rebels fighting in northern Syria. You can accept that as a plausible, complete account if you like, but I decline.
To read the Times report of the Putin-Hollande encounter, one would think they spent the better part of their time bickering about the fate of the Assad government in Damascus. It appears to have come up—Hollande had just had an earful on the matter when he saw Obama in Washington—but there is no evidence the Assad question is any kind of deal-breaker as Moscow and Paris draw together to get the job done in Syria.
Here is the caker in this week’s Times coverage: “Mr. Obama, like Mr. Hollande, is committed to the ouster of Mr. Assad and believes that the Syrian strongman is complicit with the Islamic State—from which his government buys considerable amounts of oil—as a means of dividing his own opposition.”
I have looked long. I cannot find a single true thing in this sentence. Hollande is not “like” Obama on the Assad question, and I have never heard Hollande—or anyone other leader—assert that Assad is complicit with ISIS. Assad, in case you have not noticed, is fighting ISIS: It is his opposition. This is why Erdoğan backs ISIS. Erdoğan is the only one who so far accuses Damascus of buying oil from ISIS, and this comes up only now that a mountain of evidence against Turkey’s complicity comes to the surface. The sentence wins four worst-of prizes in less than 50 words.
We are in for more of this, in my reckoning, because when that Su-24 went down it ripped the veil from the true dynamic in Syria. In Washington’s eyes, this war is about who controls Syria’s post-crisis future—full stop. This is what Obama is telling every time he reiterates that Assad somehow being the main problem. The Islamic State is a secondary matter, which is why Washington has so shamefully allied with Turkey—a ridiculous contradiction were American priorities anything like what they are claimed to be.
In Moscow’s eyes, this fight is certainly about post-crisis Syria, given Syria affords it a naval base on the Mediterranean coast. Moscow just made this clear: It now has a destroyer patrolling said coast. But it is also about defeating the very real threat of terror’s spread from Syria to Russia. In the four days prior to Turkey’s attack, Russia claimed 134 sorties on 450 Islamic State targets—oil refineries, storage facilities and the like. I am in no position to confirm these numbers, but the U.S. can produce nothing like them.
Three final points of clarity.
One, Washington’s alliance with Erdoğan’s Turkey has just tipped into perversity. This is now bluntly obvious. Turkey goes into the same file as Pakistan, in my view. It is a legitimate question whether the U.S. is somewhere behind Turkey’s rash act. We must wait to see how Washington fields the now-exposed mess of its ties with Ankara in coming days.
Two, Washington appears to see nothing in Syria other than strategic advantage. It is simply not going to let go of its “regime change” objective until it is forced to. And it is doing nothing in Syria it has not done many other places. The reality that the U.S. is soft on ISIS is offensive, but better to look at it with eyes wide open.
Three, Paris has complicated the American position in a way Washington cannot possibly welcome. Hollande is neither a strong nor effective leader, but he appears to have found his voice since Islamic State militants slaughtered 130 people in his capital. There is little question he holds any candle for Assad, but neither is there a question, in my view, that his priority is closer to Moscow’s than Washington’s at this moment. We will have to see how he fares in this newly prominent position.