Aerial Duel over the Skies of Syria

The competing interests of two despotic powers edge the world closer to war.

Russia suffered a blow to its prestige yesterday as its warplanes clashed with Turkish fighter jets and came off on the losing end of the stick. In the early morning hours of November 24, a Russian Su-24 bomber operating in western Syria was shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet, in an area north of Bashar Assad’s stronghold of Latakia, near the Turkish border. The plane crashed in an area controlled by Syrian Turkmen, who oppose Bashar Assad’s rule and are allied with Turkey.

A veteran of many wars and battles, the Su-24 is a formidable and versatile ground attack fighter. It features a side-by-side seating arrangement for its crew of two, similar to the American F-111. Equipped with advanced avionics, it is capable of carrying a wide variety of ordinance including guided and unguided bombs, air-to-surface missiles, rockets and 23mm gun pods. Though the F-16 is also capable of bombing missions, it is also an unrivaled dog fighter and the Su-24 is no match for it. The outcome of this engagement was predetermined from the start. The missile likely used by the Turks to bring down the Russian bomber was the AIM-9 Sidewinder, a supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, which carries a high explosive warhead and has a passive infrared guidance system.

Video footage shows that both pilots of the doomed craft safely ejected but were fired upon by anti-Assad Turkmen rebels as they parachuted to the ground. At least one Russian was confirmed dead, likely killed while helplessly floating to the ground or possibly executed by Turkmen militia fighters after he landed. In another video, a bloodied Russian, confirmed to be one of the pilots, is seen lying motionless while armed militiamen surrounding him are heard shouting the obligatory “AllahuAkbar.” In Syria, as well as other Muslim Mideast conflict zones, the laws of war have given way to medievalism where prisoners of war are quickly murdered, if they’re lucky.

The second Russian was initially believed to have suffered the same fate as his unfortunate comrade but that belief proved unfounded. He was recovered by Syrian regime soldiers, the so-called SAA, and is alive and well.

Compounding the Russian disaster, a Russian helicopter carrying Russian commandos was dispatched to the area to conduct a search and rescue operation. The chopper was brought down by anti-aircraft fire, possibly an anti-tank missile. Once on the ground, rebels belonging to the Free Syrian Army fired an American TOW anti-tank guided missile at the grounded aircraft turning it into an expensive heap of scrap metal. According to reports, the helicopter was carrying 10 to 12 personnel including crewmembers and Special Forces. All but one, a Russian marine, safely evacuated before the second missile hit.

The Turks claim that the Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace noting that they provided the Russians with ample warning of their transgression before firing. The Russians of course dispute this and claim that they were operating well within Syrian airspace. The surviving pilot vehemently denied receiving any warning from the Turks.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. According to reports, the Su-24 did intrude into Turkish airspace but only for a period of about 30 seconds. Moreover, according to U.S. intelligence reports, the plane was shot down after it had already vacated Turkish airspace. Despite Obama’s public support for his Islamist friends in Turkey, U.S. officials believe that Turkey needlessly overreacted to a minor transgression. Whichever version is accurate; neither party can claim to hold the moral high ground.

Both Russia and Turkey claim vital interests in Syria and both claim to be opposed to ISIS. But in the murky realm of geo-politics, nothing is that clear-cut. Russia claims that it is fighting in Syria to battle ISIS terrorists, who pose a threat to world peace. That position strikes the right chord with international public opinion but is disingenuous. Russia’s true intention in Syria is to prop up its puppet Assad and maintain its strategic positions in Latakia and Tartous. 

Assad has lost eastern Syria to ISIS and an assortment of rebel groups. Defections, desertions, attrition and rampant draft evasion have taken their toll on the SAA, reducing it to a mere shell of its former self. Russia is cognizant of Assad’s precarious strategic position. The Russian aim now is to preserve Assad’s enclave, which encompasses roughly 20% of the country and is consolidated in western Syria along a north-south axis. 

Consistent with that aim, the Russians have been bombing all rebel groups, including those of the Free Syrian Army, the group that poses the greatest danger to Assad’s tenuous hold on Aleppo and the northwestern region. If Assad loses this area, his fall is near certain. Indeed, the bomber that was shot down yesterday was operating in an area devoid of any ISIS presence betraying President Putin’s claim of focusing military efforts on ISIS terrorists.

Russia has recently intensified its bombing campaign against ISIS but that effort came in response to the downing of a Russian commercial airliner over Sinai on October 31. Israeli intelligence was able to definitively link ISIS to that bombing which killed all 224 people aboard.

For the Turks, the downing of the Russian plane was sweet revenge. On June 22, 2012 A Turkish RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance jet was shot down – possibly with the help of Russian advisers – by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile. Both pilots were killed and some reports allege that they were executed by Syrian security officials after successfully bailing out of their aircraft. The Syrians claimed that the Turks had violated Syrian airspace while the Turks claimed that it was an inadvertence and that no warning was provided. Some Turkish officials expressed the belief that the Russians had a hand in downing the aircraft.

For their part, the Turks are far from innocent bystanders. After the Su-24’s downing, Putin asserted that the Turkish action was “stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists.” That is an accurate assessment. 

Turkey, under the rule of the Islamist Erdogan, is an accomplice to terrorists. Turkey has turned a blind eye toward ISIS’ smuggling activities along the Syrian-Turkish border and in many instances; Turkish military officials aided and abetted the terror group providing it with financing, military and logistical support. In addition, there have been allegations that Turkey has been purchasing oil from ISIS thus further fueling the terror group’s war effort. Concerned Turks who have tried to expose their government’s nefarious connections to ISIS, have been imprisoned.  

Moreover, while the Kurdish enclave of Kobani was in danger of being overrun by ISIS, the Turks prevented supplies from reaching the valiant Kurds who were attempting to fend off the onslaught. In addition, while the Kurds have proven to be an effective bulwark against ISIS expansion, Turkey has conducted bombing raids against Kurdish positions in Syria which serves ISIS’ interests.

Turkey has three objectives in Syria. The first is to ensure that the Kurds do not secure independence. Turkey views any form of Kurdish sovereignty in Syria (and Iraq for that matter) as a threat due to its own restive and oppressed Kurdish minority. Second, Turkey wants to secure its influence over the Syrian Turkmen who are ethnically Turks despite their Syrian domicile. Third, Turkey desires a Sunni dominated Syria. The last objective is in line with Erdogan’s desire to expand the influence of the Sunni-inspired Muslim Brotherhood, a neo-fascist, Islamist organization with imperialistic designs.

Regardless of the competing interests of the two powers, one thing remains clear. Despite their declarations to the contrary, both Russia and Turkey do not have Syria’s best interests in mind. Moreover, the aerial clash has the potential to substantially widen the conflict. Russia warned of “dire consequences” for Turkey’s action and may seek retaliation. Indeed, as a direct consequence of the clash, the Russians have ordered the deployment of S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries to their forward operating base at Latakia, which is a mere 30 miles from the Turkish border. The advanced missile, with a range of 250 miles, poses a direct threat to Turkey.

If Russia chooses to retaliate by say, shooting down a Turkish aircraft, Turkey will likely invoke Article Five of NATO’s charter which addresses NATO’s military options in the event of an attack on a NATO member. The irony is that Turkey, an Islamist nation that maintains none of the moral values shared by its NATO partners, may trigger further NATO military involvement in a quagmire it desperately wishes to avoid.