Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Really Happened to the Russian Jet - And Why It Matters

And also, a question I don't answer: why the hell can't I read this in my national paper of record already?

Maybe trying to conduct two separate great-power interventions in a single battlespace against a vaguely defined enemy isn't a good idea after all. I wonder how the optics of Sunni radicals blowing up a rescue helicopter with American-made arms sells in Moscow.

Every immediate short-term crisis, as I often tell my students, has a very long history behind it.  The jet crisis's history begins in 1937. Hatay -- and its little southern finger, where Turkey targeted the Russian jet -- used to belong to the Syrian Mandate. By rights, Syria says, it should have inherited Hatay when it got its independence. Instead, France took away Hatay and gifted it to Turkey. Even if Russia doctored its radar plot of the jet, always a safe operating assumption, that plane never left territory that Syria regards as its own.

Since the Russian intervention in Syria, there have been complaints that it was targeting "legitimate" anti-regime groups in addition to ISIS. By "legitimate," I mean our groups. Arguably from Russia's perspective they are bombing insurgents who are trying to overthrow the duly recognized government of Syria, which happens to be Russia's ally. (A duly recognized government that uses chemical weapons on its own people, no less!)

It's a safe bet that Russian planes have been saving a little time and fuel by jogging over this piece of Turkish territory for weeks. I say it's a safe bet because even though the flight path brought them over Turkey for all of seventeen seconds, Turkey just accidentally happened to have not just an F-16 in the area ready to fire a missile at the offending plane, but also a camera crew on the ground to capture the excitement on tape. It's hard to believe this all happened unexpectedly, out of the blue.

And judging by the timing and the territory involved, if there was a missile involved, there is a real possibility that the Turks either fired it before the Russians crossed the border, or fired it with the knowledge that it would strike a target that was, at the moment of impact, in a foreign country.

NATO will apparently stand by Turkey, because they're our ally, even though Turkey's behaviour was ridiculous. There's no international law preventing a state from shooting down a military intruder. Russia shouldn't have violated Turkish airspace (if they did). On the other hand, Turkey shot down the jet over disputed territory, while the plane was on a flight path that clearly was bringing it out of Turkey, not farther in.

However, if this crisis melts away, it will be because Putin had the grace to let it pass, not because Turkey's provocative behaviour and NATO's melodramatics forced the Russians into a corner.

In the meantime, I wonder what the Russians plan to do to the Turkmen rebels who shot down their plane, gunned down the pilots who were descending via parachute, and then destroyed the rescue helicopter? I'm not sure on the third point, but the second would be a war crime. If the Turkmens were a national army.

Of course, as I already pointed out, they aren't a national army. They are an insurgent force who want to carve out a piece from Syria, so naturally, that makes them our allies. Incidentally, the Kurds are also an insurgent force who want to carve out a piece from Syria, and they're our allies too. But they're not Turkey's allies. Turkey, en route to bombing ISIS this summer, accidentally on purpose spent weeks bombing the Kurds. If that's your measure of morality in this macabre absurdity, Turkey is no better than Russia.

Worse, actually, because all those trucks full of ISIS oil were getting across some border somewhere to reach the black market, or they were until they started getting blown up last month. It's a fairly safe bet they were going to Turkey. Turkey uses its NATO membership card to behave like a petulant child, and the region collapses around it.

Of course, on the bright side, I have yet to come across any allegations that Turkey is arming Al-Qaeda. In contrast, other U.S.-backed groups regularly give some of their American arms grants to Al-Qaeda as part of so-called safe passage agreements. Al-Qaeda is ISIS's enemy and the Syrian regime's enemy, but in this case, the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy, supposedly.

Well that's great.

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