There’s been a tremendous amount written on the startling news of Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter. Just as surprising is the superficial analysis and stunning lack of discussion of the background events leading to this event. Numerous media analysts and pundits have characterized Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter as an overreaction or reckless. It seems they would like the reader to believe nothing has been happening in the world and Turkey just decided to shoot a Russian fighter down.
The facts reported by numerous media sources are that a Russian SU-24 penetrated Turkish airspace and was shot down by a Turkish F16 with a close range air to air missile. The crew ejected out of the stricken aircraft and the Russian plane crashed about 1.5 miles in Syrian territory. Russia denies the plane was in Turkish airspace or that it was warned before being engaged. American and Turkish radar tracks show the SU-24 did indeed cross over Turkish territory for 17 seconds. The Turks have released tapes supporting their claim that they warned the Russian plane 10 times over a period of five minutes. US officials confirm monitoring the repeated warnings. One Russian crewmember was shot at while still in his parachute and later shown dead by rebel forces. The crewmember was rescued in a joint Russian Syrian operation losing a Russian helicopter and Russian marine in the process.
The overwhelming majority of media reporting ends with the above analysis ignoring a tremendous amount of extremely pertinent information. Premature and incomplete analysis paints Turkey as over reacting. The Syrian civil war escalated already existing tensions between Syria and Turkey. Those relations took a decidedly down turn on November 21, 2011 when Syrian soldiers fired on busses carrying Turkish pilgrims returning through a Syrian checkpoint. Two pilgrims were wounded. Five months later Syria fired across the Turkish border killing two and wounding more. On 3 October 2012 a Syrian mortar round landed in Turkey and killed five civilians. At that point the Turkish parliament authorized cross border operations. The Turkish army retaliated with an artillery strike.
Most pertinent to the current crisis though and largely unreported is the eerily similar Syrian shoot down of a Turkish F-4 on 22 June 2012. The F-4 was shot down over international waters after it had intruded on Syrian coastal waters and was warned away. A warning the aircraft heeded. Both Turkish crewmen were killed in the shoot down. At that point, three years ago Turkey announced that its ROE had changed and aircraft heading towards Turkey would be considered hostile and shot down if they crossed the border. Since that seminal event, tensions and incidents have greatly increased on the border especially after the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. This includes the Turkish shoot down of a Syrian helicopter and a Syrian Mig-23 violating Turkish airspace.
Since Russia has deployed combat forces into Syria a drone violating Turkish airspace was shot down and Russian combat aircraft have repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. Most disturbing incident though was in early October where a Russian SU-30 maintained radar lock on Turkish F-16’s for over five minutes. Radar lock is a required step to launch some missiles and is considered an aggressive action similar to aiming at someone. The litany of events described above clearly demonstrate all was not quiet on the Syrian front.
The recent events in Syria did not occur in a vacuum of world events either. Before Russia’s intervention into Syria Russia occupied a prominent position on the front pages of the world’s newspapers for months with its very successful campaign of provocative behavior. Provocative behavior that has largely left Russia with a free hand in Eastern Europe. Pertinent to the tensions on the Turkey-Syria border are the widespread and an increasingly common practice of Russian combat aircraft violating its neighbor’s airspace with the goal of intimidating them. Russia has repeatedly and continuously violated the airspace of other NATO allies: the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Couple this with the demonstrated lack of American leadership in the region and Turkish behavior can be characterized quite differently than the “provocative” and “over reacting” analysis the media has been presenting. Turkey can see itself in the same light as the Baltic states are presently in because of the lack of NATO spine and US leadership as demonstrated in Europe. That same lack of spine could be a contributory factor to continued Russian provocations and actions against Ukraine. Russia may consider restraint as weakness.
The common wisdom (which isn’t wisdom at all) may be that Turkey over reacted. Considering the preceding events in the region and recent history surrounding Russia, Turkey’s actions may actually cause a pause in the region. Unlike the loose nuclear talk following Russia’s actions in Europe, Russia’s characterization of the downing of their fighter as a stab in the back is relatively tame. Neither Turkey nor Russia wants to go to war with each other. Besides Turkey being a NATO member and the implications of a major war, Turkey can relatively easily close the Black Sea. This would all but strangle Russia’s ability to conduct sustained operations in Syria. Countering that capability would require Russia to wage major amphibious operations and seize Turkish territory. It’s questionable the Russians have that capability or want to risk another Gallipoli.