West Asia

Turkey: The Proverbial Spanner in the Works

27 Nov, 2015    ·   4936

Gp Capt (Retd) PI Muralidharan explains why Turkey's shoot-down of the Russian SU-24 was not a stray incident


The shooting down of the Russian SU-24 by the Turkish F-16 could well be a defining event in the ongoing imbroglio in Syria. The tactical aspects of the publicised aerial engagement leave many a doubt in the minds of aviation analysts alright, but the timing of the incident and upping of the ante by the Turks is another matter altogether. Also to be noted is Turkey’s prompt recourse to an emergency meeting of NATO, its recourse to invoking Article 5 of its Treaty and its diplomatic efforts to further confuse the goings on in Syria.

Tactical Aspects of the SU-24 Shoot-down 
From the track chart that has been shared with the media by Turkish Foreign Ministry it is clear that the engagement by the F-16 was premeditated. The Russian SU-24 hardly transgressed about 10 kilometres of Turkish airspace in a linear fashion. At the combat speeds that fighters fly, this would have given at the most 20-25 seconds (at 6 kilometres, which is the reported altitude of the SU-24). This would be far too short a time for the entire intercept drill to be executed. Furthermore, if missile flight time is included, this timeframe would shrink further to just approximately 15 seconds. Can an ideal air defence intercept take place in this compressed timeframe? No, it cannot. Even if the entire identification process preceded the missile launch, clearly the Turkish F-16 pilot must have been pre-positioned by his controlling radar or Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) in a vantageous position relative to the SU-24, shooting it as soon as it crossed the border, theoretically that is.

Of course after the missile hit the SU-24, the debris has fallen in a steep trajectory into Syrian territory (as the reports and media footage show). Another intriguing question that emerges is the Russians’ tactical awareness/sense. Launching a ground attack mission, as the SU-24 was apparently doing, in close proximity of a “hostile” border, without AWACS/AEW cover or even an airborne air defence cover, is tactically unthinkable. This means Russia is now bound to have this wherewithal built-in the next time they attempt this. This means brighter chances of protracted aerial engagements between the two air forces, with detriment to the overall operational successes against the IS.

Flawed Policies on Terror 
Turkey’s penchant for standing up for the Sunni cause has often found this country at loggerheads with Israel, Iran and even the US, especially in its anti-Kurd stance. Ankara has been an inconspicuous state sponsor of terrorism along with other Arab states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Hence, its close ties during the Cold War era with countries like Pakistan that unabashedly sponsor terrorist entities. The neo-Ottoman aspirations of incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), given its recent improved showing in the presidential polls, have been the guiding force in Ankara’s foreign policy. Whilst kowtowing to the Western powers such as the US and UK, it found it convenient to spar with countries such as Greece, Israel and now even Russia, hiding behind the cloak of NATO security clauses. 

It is not widely known that Turkey has practiced some convoluted policies on terror, more so during the AKP reign, which is entering its second decade. Most glaring is its definition of a terrorist act itself. Turkey defines a terrorist act as one where its national interests are compromised, not otherwise. Though other Western nations may be following such an ultra-nationalist policy in practice, Turkey has declared this as a state policy. This has been exacerbated by Turkey’s visa-free regimes with up to seven countries in West Asia, including Syria, Libya and Iraq. Such a policy in the days prior to the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) led to several jihadi elements migrating from Syria, even from Africa, via Turkish territory into theatres such as Afghanistan, Chechnya, Xinjiang and Europe. Turkey was happy as long as these elements did not create any problems on their territory. Such skewed policies also led to a fair degree of radicalisation in Turkey. Even otherwise moderate Sufi Muslims from Konya, the land of Rumi, were found fighting with the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The anti-Kurd state policies of course fed the terror juggernaut.

Militants of Uighur origin have long had a free run in Turkey and the recent attack on Chinese interests in Istanbul are linked to this. Some other elements were apprehended attempting to design a ground-based jammer to be used against hard kill drones, clearly meant to target the US’ covert programme in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. It is conceivable that some jihadis from Turkey did contribute to Pakistan’s terror campaign in India. Indeed, a luxury bus with hidden compartments, a couple of years ago, proceeded from Istanbul to Lahore, picked up counterfeit Indian currency there, went across to Bangladesh and fortunately got apprehended whilst re-entering India on the way back.

Third World War? 
The Pope has warned about the anti-IS war becoming a Third World War. US President Barack Obama has echoed this thought. There is no doubt that we are heading towards a protracted engagement against the IS, whether via an arrangement limited to a US-Europe coalition or a broader UN mandate. But what is certain is that actions such as the Turkish aerial misadventure are bound to trigger unexpected sets of dynamics, more so in the confused volatile scenario with multiple vested interests. History tells us how indeed such apparently unrelated and small episodes have had out of proportion impacts on geopolitical situations. The US and other NATO allies need to call Turkey’s bluff now to prevent an untoward wider conflagration in West Asia.

One also wonders whether Turkey has an ulterior motive in spawning terrorism in Europe. Given its long cherished yearning to become a part of EU (and which clearly would not materialise in the foreseeable future) there could just be that lurking desire to see misfortune fall on an entity who you could not join. The numbers of French and British nationals who transited through Turkey into Syria have been alarming. Whatever its motive, the Turkish government needs to stop playing games in the anti-terror campaign. Even its changing stand against the Kurds speaks volumes about its devious state policies on terrorism, something the terrorist world is bound to capitalise on.

Russia-Turkey: Potential Economic Fallouts
Russia-Turkey relations have been thriving in the years post the Cold War, during which era they were obviously on opposing sides. Oil and gas are an important sector in their bilateral trade – Turkey is Russia’s second-largest gas importer after Germany. Russia is Turkey’s fourth largest oil products supplier, accounting for the supply of 28-30 BCM of Turkey’s annual gas requirement of 50 BCM. Russia’s TurkStream gas pipeline project – whose capacity Gazprom halved to 32 BCM annually – would also be further impacted. Turkey and Russia are also engaged in another important project: Ankara has commissioned Moscow’s state-owned Rosatom to build four 1200 MW reactors worth USD 20 Billion for Turkey’s first nuclear power plant – the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant – which was officially launched in April 2015. Turkey’s exports to Russia, hitherto unaffected by the existing Russian ban on imports from Europe, mainly comprise textiles and food items, totalling USD 6 billion annually. Turkey also imports finished steel products from Russia. Between January-June 2015, its wheat import from Russia stood at 4.1 billion metric tonnes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan are both strong autocratic rulers and thus likely to take strong positions when riled. Putin has already warned of serious repercussions, calling the shooting-down a “stab in the back.” He has accused Turkey of supporting terrorists and stated that its Islamisation had been a worry for the rest of the world for several years now. He has also directly accused Turkey of promoting the commercial oil interests of the IS.

Already, between January-September 2015, Turkish exports to Russia have fallen by 40 per cent to USD 2.7 billion. Furthermore, the Mediterranean coastal resorts in Turkey cater mainly to Russian tourists, with visa-free regimes and attractive holiday packages. Saying that terror-wise, Turkey is equally dangerous as Egypt, the Russian reaction would seriously impact the former’s tourism industry. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has cancelled a scheduled visit to Ankara and his ministry has cautioned Russians not to travel to Turkey. Turkey would feel the pinch, given how in 2014 alone, approximately 4.4 million tourists and others from Russia visited the country. Thus this economic dimension could trigger disproportionate reactions by either party.

Turkey would be the loser in the long term if its relations with Russia are in a deep freeze.