27 February 2016

Why No One Wants to Stop ISIS?

This is not a rhetorical question. I am genuinely curious.

My fascination with ISIS began when I discovered their branding and marketing prowess.

This was a supposedly Salafist organization aiming to strictly emulate early Muslims and yet it had movie studios churning out feature-length high production value films and video clips.

It had software development units that enabled their black-clad goons to tweet hundreds of thousands times a day.

It had an extraordinary marketing department that successfully branded their organization (ISIS) and re-branded it again (IS), making it very attractive in the process to all kinds of people from around the globe.

I posted about that aspect extensively. I also tried to explain their attraction and the adherents' deep problem with identity.

These turn out to be some of the most popular posts of this humble soapbox.

My fascination turned into a healthy obsession when I realized that that these black-clad thugs were actually there for a mission and they were extremely well-funded. The moment they showed up they had roughly $4 billion, courtesy of Qatari royal family.

When I did some digging, I discovered that their entire organization was created from scratch by Saddam's intelligence officers like Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, who recruited al-Baghdadi to give religious cover to that mission.

I also found out that the highly successful ISIS brigades executing complex tactics  and invading large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria were not a bunch of disaffected Arab kids from European suburbs like Molenbeek or Saint Denis, as corporate media outlets kept telling us, but they were the Naqshibandi Army (JRTN), a highly sophisticated military force established by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, Saddam's Vice President and Deputy Chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council.

You know, the infamous "King of Clubs."

And it is not just the military as most of the municipal structures in the ISIS Empire are run by former Baath officials.

After al-Khlifawi was accidentally killed by some rival Salafist thugs, Der Spiegel purchased his notes and the plans he used to set up ISIS. They reported in detail how a small group of ISIS militants would move to a town, keep a low profile, collect information about leading figures, blackmail them or take them out systematically and try to win over the residents through propaganda.

They would also try to win hearts and minds by providing municipal services and reduce or eliminate taxation.

Interestingly, my pieces about the involvement of intelligence agencies and non-Islamic elements in ISIS were some of the least popular posts in the history of this blog. I encounter a similar disinterest when I discussed my findings with friends and acquaintances.

It was as if people did not want to understand why ISIS was doing what it was doing. Making their actions intelligible through a rational causal framework bothered people. They seemed to prefer the emotional simplicity of the barbaric and demonic "other." Maybe they thought "understanding" ISIS would make them less evil.

I don't know.

All of this to tell you that recently, I came across two news items about both the marketing efforts of ISIS and its methodical organization in a new territory. They corroborated my initial take on these issues and they made me wonder if we really want to stop ISIS.

An alleged defector from ISIS appeared in a video (produced by a rival Jihadist group) claiming that many of the clips produced by ISIS were actually fake.
The video begins with the defector describing how he was asked to attack mosques by IS commanders. But the section of the video that really captured the imagination of Twitter users outlines alleged IS trickery in filming fake battle scenes which the group falsely claimed as genuine military victories.

The defector describes how he was enlisted to fake fights and raids in front of the camera. In some scenes, he says, IS fighters pretended to be dead Houthi rebels and were daubed with fake blood in the form of the soft drink Vimto.
Incidentally, Vimto is a spicy fruit flavored drink highly popular in the Middle East and its undiluted color is fairly close to human blood.

The reformed Jihadi's allegation did not make me think that the previous atrocities ISIS filmed were mostly bogus. I am sure ISIS is a ruthless and barbaric terrorist outfit. What the allegations did was to reinforce my belief that ISIS is, above all, a cynical and effective marketing machine. They kill when they can, they fake when they can't, but either way they market, brand and market some more.

This is why you cannot fight them on religious grounds as some people advocated.

The second news item was about ISIS' adventures in Afghanistan. It was written by a local BBC journalist. Da'esh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
I first heard talk of Da'esh early in 2014. To be honest, at first I didn't think it was anything special, just another international jihadi movement. There have been a few of those around here, including al-Qaeda.

But soon it became clear that Da'esh was different.

Da'esh was built up by a small group of fighters, maybe 60 or 70 in total. Most of them came from over the border in Pakistan and it was obvious that they were being funded from abroad.

Right from the start Da'esh had lots of money and weapons. It was also very well organised, better organised than the Taliban ever was.
As they had the means, they followed their original script and avoided taxation.
They did not try to "tax" local people, something the Taliban and other jihadis do. That made them popular.
The local ISIS guy was duly interested in publicity,
In July 2014 I met one of the organisers of Da'esh in Afghanistan. He called me up out of the blue and asked if I would like to interview him. He knew I was a journalist and it was clear he wanted publicity.

The man told me he was printing Da'esh magazines and propaganda in Pashto, the local language. 
But he also wanted to keep a low profile.
He said the plan was they would keep a low profile, quietly building strength and support locally. An FM radio station was set up to broadcast propaganda in the region. 
Ultimately, the plan did not work out because the HQ could not control the rank and file zealots who killed the wrong people and alienated too many local players.

But the fact remains that their foray into Afghanistan shows that ISIS still follows al-Khlifawi's original blueprint.

Arrive in small numbers flush with money, check.

Organize rapidly while keeping a low profile, check.

Engage in Islamist propaganda to win people over, check.

Use your money to eliminate taxation and win people over, check.

My question is this: why is everyone continue to maintain that ISIS could be defeated with what Atrios calls freedom bombs when it is clear that, unless you confront their marketing and organizational blueprint, for every ISIS goon killed, there are going to be fifty more ready to take his place.

Why the US has not been putting any real pressure on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to cut off ISIS' funding? They do make some money off oil sales but that revenue stream is negligible compared to their expenditures and with recent Russian targeted strikes it has become even less lucrative.

Similarly, why hasn't Europe forced Turkey to stop providing arms and logistic support to ISIS and al Nusra Front, not to mention a very porous border? EU is Turkey's biggest trading partner, surely they have the means to exert some pressure.

I would have thought that preventing Islamist groups to perpetuate the Syrian civil war would be a more effective solution to the refugee crisis than trying to accommodate the mercurial Turkish President?

Also, why the US did not make its alleged displeasure with Turkey's Syria policy and support for ISIS the cornerstone of its relations with Ankara?

Syrian civil war is a war of proxy but the way Sunni-Shia divide is deteriorating and the Kurdish, Russian, Turkish chess game is evolving, there is a great likelihood for it to turn into an actual war.

A war that could engulf NATO.

So why is no one lifting a finger to reduce that risk?

Do we actually want to have a war there?

09 February 2016

Putin Is Pulling Erdogan into a Trap

In a recent post, I suggested that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin might be pulling his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan into a well-designed trap.

It now looks like my suggestion was prescient. Putin seems to have put together a comprehensive plan to draw Erdogan into a fight he cannot win. Or worse, to turn him into an impotent spectator.

Let me start with the Turkmens.

Everyone knows that a war of proxy is being fought in Syria. Turkey's avatar, if you will, has been the Turkmen minority. They are ethnic cousins, they dislike Kurds and they sympathize with ISIS and al Nusra front.

Check, check and check.

Since November, Russian jets have been attacking them relentlessly.
Following the downing of its jet, Russia intensified its air campaign, particularly against the Turkmens, but also against radical Islamic groups supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that are fighting the Syrian army.

Russia has a particular ax to grind with the Turkmens because it was their fighters who killed the Russian pilot in his parachute after he ejected from the Su-24. 
As a result,  the group seen as Turkey's most reliable ally in Syria began to leave its region and seek shelter in Turkey.

Then there is ISIS and al Nusra Front.

Russia has been pounding ISIS and other Islamist groups around the clock in the last three months. In mid-December, CNN reported that in one 24 hour cycle there were "fifty-nine combat missions. Two hundred and twelve targets struck. Three hundred and twenty ISIS militants killed. And more than 100 oil facilities destroyed."

Largely as a result of this campaign, the number of ISIS fighters has dwindled considerably, according to the White House.
The latest assessment about the number of fighters who are fighting on behalf of ISIL in Iraq and in Syria was -- based on an earlier assessment -- was up to 31,500 fighters in that region of the world.  There’s a new assessment from our intelligence community that indicates that that number is now up to about 25,000 fighters. 
As I wrote many times before, Turkey has been spearheading the Sunni coalition promoting radical Sunni groups in Syria to establish what I termed Pipelineistan, a conservative Sunni state that would allow Qatari natural gas to reach Europe through Turkey to the great consternation of Russia, the sole current supplier.

Putin's third move was to provide support to Syrian Kurds. As you might know, PYD, the political organization of Syrian Kurds, is an offshoot of Turkey's PKK. They also happened to have the only ground force in Syria capable of fighting ISIS, which is called YPG or People's Protection Units.
Meanwhile, the Turkish media is reporting that Russia had started to provide air support to the PYD’s military wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), west of the Euphrates River. This is bound to further fuel tensions between Ankara and Moscow.

Worried that the Syrian Kurds will gain an autonomous region along its border with Syria, Ankara has declared a PYD/YPG presence west of the Euphrates to be a red line. But what can Turkey do to stop this and the Syrian advances in northern Syria with Russian help? 
In fact, both the US and Russia have been courting PYD and its armed wing for some time now. But Putin tried to show off a bit more.
Escalating tension between Russia and Turkey will reach a new high when the Democratic Union party (PYD), the leading Kurdish political organisation in north-eastern Syria, which Ankara regards as a terrorist group, opens a representative office in Moscow on Wednesday at Vladimir Putin’s personal invitation.
Having removed Turkey's proxy from the Syrian theater, dealt a significant blow to its Islamist allies and bolstered its bĂȘte-noir what did Putin do?

Well, he deployed the most sophisticated Russian fighter jets and asked them to patrol the Turkish border all day long.

You know, in case Erdogan feels like challenging him.

The planes in question are Su-34 and Su-35.

By the way, this is the Su-34's first combat mission outside Russia and it is a very capable fighter jet.
Unlike the Fencer, the Su-34—taking full advantage of its Flanker lineage—is provisioned with a formidable air-to-air self-defense capability. In addition to short-range R-73 high off-boresight dogfighting missiles, the Su-34 carries the long-range radar-guided R-77 air-to-air missile. That means like its nearest Western equivalent, the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle, the Fullback able to conduct “self-escorted” strike missions.
Notice the dogfighting arsenal and air-to-air combat missiles.

Then there is the ultra-maneuverable and sophisticated Su-35 Flanker, which was just shown to the world a few months ago.

According to a Turkish military analyst, Ret. Brig. Gen. Naim Barburoglu, these jets "are far more advanced than Turkey’s F-16s.”
“Unlike the Su-24, which only has air-to-ground capabilities, these jets have air-to-ground as well as air-to-air capabilities and are supported by the most advanced radar technology,” he added.
“Since the downing of the Russian jet, Turkish F-16s are unable to fly in Syrian airspace. The US doesn’t want them there either in case they confront Russian jets,” Baburoglu said. He pointed out that the Russian Su-35 Flanker-E type jets deployed in the region, which are far more advanced than anything Turkey has, is of concern to Washington.
There is more.

When Putin realized that Ankara was reticent to challenge Russian Air Force, he ordered them to violate Turkish air space. They did it twice so far and drew only loud protests from Turkey.The Russian ambassador was summoned and a formal protest was lodged.

Tellingly, the Turkish claim was carefully worded to ask Russia to respect NATO airspace, clearly hinting that it intends to get NATO involved in case of an escalation. But the Russian Ministry of Defense shrugged it off, calling the Turkish claim "pure propaganda."

That is because they are aware that NATO decisions are taken unanimously and it is extremely unlikely that Greece or France would vote to go to war over Erdogan's hostile acts like downing a plane over a 17 second airspace violation.

Let me make a safe prediction.

This will not end well.

05 February 2016

What Is Donald Trump Doing?

The Donald is doing something very interesting.

He is exposing the main electoral strategy GOP has been using since the beginning of the 20th century.

You see, GOP is no longer the party of Lincoln, as they like to boast. It is the party of racist and angry white men. As such, they specialize in race-baiting.

Everything they do is centered around an "other."

And the culmination of that was Nixon's Southern Strategy.  Perlstein's Nixonland should be required reading.

This is how it works.

The party elite forms the pool of candidates. They also predetermine the likely winners of primaries. They raise huge sums of money from the usual suspects, that is, wealthy donors like hedge fund managers and Koch brothers who are interested in having the President's/Senator's/Representative's ear.

Also known as Pay for Play.

Candidates are given a list of iron clad principles to which they are to adhere if they wish to get elected (or re-elected) and have access to those funds. These include, starving the beast, reducing taxes for the wealthy, eliminating safety net for the poor and increasing national security state and military spending.

Since these are not very attractive positions for the general electorate, the candidates are given talking points for each principle to make them palatable.

For instance, starving the beast is translated as "taxes are job killers." Tax cuts for the wealthy are important incentives for the Ayn Rand producers. Eliminating the safety net for the poor is a necessity because of the deficit. And spending more money on fighting terrorism is needed because of America's various enemies, the latest of which being "them crazy Muslims."

The critical element that unifies all these principles is the race-baiting subtext.

Starving the beast is also cutting off funding to parasitic minorities, you know, the mythical Cadillac driving black welfare queens.

Tax cuts for the wealthy underlines the belief system that there are two categories of people in the world: on one side you have white Shrugging Atlases, you know, the producers, and on the other lazy minorities who live off their efforts.

The poor? Why, they are lazy people of various shades of dark who refuse to lift themselves out of poverty and wait for handouts.

And enemies like Muslims, well you already know their color. In fact, they are the only other minority to have their own N word.

All of these Orwellian phrases might not give you a clear idea how good the GOP is at creating a whole new bogus narrative and establish it as an axiomatic truth by repeating it ad nauseam and browbeating a largely compliant corporate media.

Let me give you a surprising illustration.

Evangelicals and Abortion

You know that the evangelical Christians are the most active and important primary voters for GOP, right? And three quarters of them vote Republican, in every election cycle.

Their single most important issue? Abortion.

Now, if you are like most people, you probably believe that evangelicals have always been this fixated on abortion, but the reality is that before 1979, they couldn't care less about it. In fact, to most evangelicals, it was a Catholic issue which left them completely indifferent.

Until, that is, some GOP strategists turned it into the perfect wedge issue.

The starting point was Pat Buchanan writing a memo to Nixon in 1972 suggesting that abortion could be used to sway some Democratic leaning Catholic voters and force Ed Muskie, a Democratic presidential candidate, to make a choice between his Catholic and liberal supporters.

Even though Nixon was pro-choice (like George H.W. Bush and most Republican leaders at the time), upon Buchanan's urging, he gave a speech about the "sanctity of life." That, along with the Canuck letter and a number of other dirty tricks, proved very effective in derailing Muskie's campaign.

But the real impetus was provided by something that happened in a local race Iowa in 1978. The Democratic incumbent Dick Clark was widely expected to have an easy victory against his Republican rival Roger Jepsen. However, during the last weekend before the election, a predominantly Catholic pro-life group leafleted evangelical church parking lots. The following week, despite all the polls showing Clark as the winner, Roger Jepsen pulled an upset and won the race with a tiny margin.

That, in turn, convinced Republican strategists Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich to add abortion to the GOP's Southern Strategy. As you can imagine, it was very easy to convince the Southern evangelical leaders.
When Jerry Falwell founded the pro-life Moral Majority in 1979, Paul Brown, the founder of the American Life League, scoffed, “Jerry Falwell couldn’t spell ‘abortion’ five years ago.”  But Falwell knew an opportunity when he saw one.
The rest is GOP history.

Drugs and Minorities

Besides abortion, which is a relatively recent addition to GOP's arsenal, drugs and being tough on crime have long been perfect fear issues with a solid dog whistle component.

The whole thing goes back to 1920s and 30s when cannabis was renamed "marijuana" to highlight its Latin American roots. In fact, they spelled it Marihuana to mimic the pronunciation and make their point.

You see, cannabis was a drug of choice for black jazz musicians and Latino workers. The politicians of the day seized that opportunity to insinuate that blacks and Hispanics could do terrible things to white women under the influence of that drug. They even financed a hilariously over the top movie called Reefer Madness, which portrayed a middle class white couple being driven to attempted rape, murder, suicide and insanity by marijuana.

The underlying message was, if marijuana pushes middle class white people to do these terrible things, imagine what could black people high on marijuana do to your wife.

Marijuana was promptly banned as a dangerous substance. Unsurprisingly, in 1972, the Nixon Administration classified it as a Schedule I drug, a category occupied by heroin and LSD, largely on the basis of race perceptions.

In case you are wondering, cocaine was a Schedule II drug, a lower category.

With Reagan things got worse. Long mandatory sentences were imposed on most drug offenses. Race was still key: Crack got life, cocaine probation. Nancy crowed "Just say no" and prisons began to be filled to the brim with black and poor people.

The GOP combined this with a "Tough on Crime" campaign which led to the incarceration of millions of blacks, minorities and poor people through "Three Strikes" laws and new sentencing guidelines. As judges are elected in the US, they began to campaign on the basis of their sentencing records: in that climate of fear, judges who imprisoned more people for the longest time got re-elected.

And if you even hinted that this was wrong, you were quickly Willie Hortoned.

It wasn't all blacks of course. Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic segment n the US provided another excellent outlet for GOP's race-baiting fear campaigns.

Since most drugs originated from Latin America, their image quickly became that of Scarface: Violent drug traffickers who will kill white Americans with impunity and rape their blond women.

When they were not violent offenders, they were presented as shady foreigners who steal American jobs. To this day, most Americans are unaware that the 11 million irregular Hispanics in the US are doing the most thankless jobs for much less than minimum wage. In fact, in places like Texas and California, agriculture would come to a halt if they did not have access to illegal aliens, a term that perfectly connotes their less than human status.

Others and Muslims

Besides blacks and Hispanics, the GOP has also been obsessed with women and gays. The subtext for the former is sluttiness and cultural decay and deviance for the latter.

If it wasn't for the massive Will and Grace effect and a very successful media campaign by gay groups, GOP would still be on message about gay marriage which won them a couple of midterm elections in the 1990s.

But the mother of all "others" is, of course, Muslims.

A character in a Barry Eisler novel once said "9/11 was not an inside job, though the way it's been exploited, it might as well have been."

What that means is that 9/11 provided the perfect opportunity to put together all Republican issues in one neat package. From fear to border security to increasing military spending while starving the beast, you can now use Muslims to justify any GOP position.

To put it in another way, Muslims and Global War on Terror (GWOT) has become the most effective topic changer.

Topic changer is the right word.

In that sense, you could say that, millions of women lost control of their bodies and got treated like sluts, millions of blacks spent their lives behind bars, millions of Latinos were harassed daily and lived in fear of deportation for doing jobs nobody wanted and hundreds of millions of Muslims died or were injured or displaced so that GOP could change the subject on their primary mission of reverse income distribution.

That is very cynical but it is also very effective when the electorate has the attention span of fruit fly and no knowledge of the issues.

Enter Donald Trump

Since the party establishment predetermines the outcome of most races, the majority of candidates are in it not to win it but to make a name for themselves and turn it into something that brings money.

And we call this branding and brand management ever since Neil McElroy of Proctor and Gamble came up with that amazing insight.

The formula for this brand management is simple: you participate in TV debates, people learn your name, the media mentions you many times. You write a book and you join the lecture circuit. Next thing you know, your annual income has many zeroes in front of it.

That is exactly what Ben Carson is doing. Or Carly Fiorina.

Huckabee and Santorum are old hands, they have been living off of this for some time now.

Trump was in it for that purpose. He already had a very solid brand. You go to Google and type Donald and the first selection is Trump. Previously he was in the top 10. He just wanted to elevate it to a new level and to ensure that he was perceived as a political entity as well. That's important in his line of business: it protects you from regulatory oversight and IRS snooping.

He must have known that Cruz was the true nominee. Even I knew it after I read the Time's article entitled "right turns only" which is emblazoned on his campaign bus .  But Trump was fine with it.  He was in it for Trump brand.

Since he is a practical guy he figured out the GOP strategy of race baiting and began using it without sugar coating it.

Mexicans were rapists. Muslims were terrorists.

You are afraid and you need a tough guy and a wall.

And I can negotiate any deal. I am the guy who wrote the Art of a Deal.

Then he realized that he actually had a real shot: The GOP electorate loved his "plain truth" discourse. These were things Republicans always believed in but because of that terrible "political correctness" they couldn't voice them.

The Donald became their voice.

At that point, Donald Trump decided that he had nothing to lose if he simply made a serious run at it. If he loses, his brand will be sky high. No future President would dare to come after his deals and tax shenanigans.

And if he wins, well, he will be a hands off President like W and let the pros do the work while he enjoys the prestige of the office.

But thanks to him,  we now know that the majority of GOP primary voters hate women, blacks, Hispanic and Muslims.

In that sense, the Donald stripped GOP discourse bare and exposed the real agenda.

And I find this hilarious and exhilarating.

Will Donald Trump get the party's nomination?

Despite Iowa setback, he has a serious shot but it depends whether he really wants it. I don't think that in his heart he really want to be a President. He must love his life too much to give it up.

Also, after months of efforts to derail him, it is possible that the GOP elite will find a way to push him out.

The irony is that Ted Cruz, the likely nominee, would make a terrible and dogmatic President because, unlike Trump, he actually believes in all the GOP talking points.

But the GOP thinks that they can negotiate with him because he will need their money and backing for this and the next election.

And this is why angry white men and evangelicals and obtuse conservatives support Donald J Trump.


Speaking of disrupting GOP electoral blueprints, this is about the prodigal son JEB Bush's lackluster performance.
In a "normal" election cycle he might have actually flourished. But Donald Trump has seemingly ended all that.

The charge that he is low-energy seems to have stuck. The whole Trump tactic of treating Bush more as an object to be pitied than feared seems to have struck a chord.

It was no coincidence that Bush's finest hour in this campaign came at the latest TV Republican debate, which Trump boycotted.

With Trump not there to bully and belittle, Jeb seemed to find his voice. But it might be too little, too late.

04 February 2016

Why Did Turkey Down Russian Jet? A Contrarian Hypothesis

I have been scratching my head over the Turkish decision to shoot down a Russian aircraft last year on 24 November.

It made no sense at all. And the more I read about various explanations the more I felt confused.

The first explanation was the mainstream view in Turkey and it was more of a narrative than an explanatory framework. Essentially, both the government and the opposition were united behind a nationalistic position to argue that Turkey had the legal right to shoot down any foreign aircraft that entered into its airspace.

I didn't get this ex post facto justification for two reasons. One, as I discussed recently, the downing was not a knee-jerk reaction to an incursion. It was a carefully planned action and the shooting occurred not during the 17 second the Russian plane was in Turkish airspace but 10 minutes later when it was 4 km inside Syria.

Secondly, after Syria downed a Turkish jet in 2012 under similar circumstances, Erdogan himself said that “a short-term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.”

The second explanation was the one proposed by Russia. They claimed that the decision to shoot down their plane was made by the President and its aim was to protect the illegal oil trade with ISIS.

They presented elaborate maps and pictures alleging that Erdogan and his family were the operators and main beneficiaries of the ISIS oil trade. Accordingly, the immediate objective was to prevent Russian aircraft from bombing their tankers.

To me, that was a simplistic conspiracy theory that did not explain anything. Why would Erdogan and family get involved in oil smuggling with ISIS?

They are already rich beyond their dreams, as they get a percentage of any business arrangement that require regulatory adjustments or government decision. And this is not an allegation on my part: a 10 percent commission is clearly discussed in the infamous 17 December tapes.
The conversations among the construction magnates, transcribed with dates, times and the mobile-phone numbers of the speakers, show a frantic search by the businessmen to raise the pool of money. They call Erdogan Beyefendi, or The Gentleman, and refer to a 10 percent commission to be paid to Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim. He was in charge of the infrastructure contracts.
Consequently, why bother with such risky business?

More importantly, even if he was involved in smuggling and wanted to protect this operation, downing a Russian plane is hardly a way to achieve this goal. It would have been crystal clear to anyone with half a brain that the Russians would react badly to such an attack and would start to protect their aircraft with their S-400 missiles.

The third explanation centered on the strategic necessities of the war of proxy in Syria.

Knowledgeable analysts pointed to a complicated picture. Turkey, they said, had been supporting various Sunni Islamist groups in the region and lately it had been training and supplying arms to the Turkmen minority to use them as their representative in a war of proxy.

Turkmen are sympathetic to al Nusra front and ISIS and they are willing to fight the Kurds as well as government troops.

Lately, Russia had began bombing their positions and also the supply convoys Turkey was sending to them. It is well known that these actions made Turkey furious. According to these analysts, Turkey had no choice but show to Russia that there is a cost associated with attacking their allies in Syria.

This was probably the most plausible narrative of the three. But I have the same problem with it. How would downing a Russian plane help Turkey achieve its objective of dissuading Russian attacks on Turkmen fighters?

It is impossible that they did not foresee the obvious outcome: Russia interdicting Syrian air space to Turkish fighter jets. Previously they were able to go in an out as they pleased. Now, it is over. They cannot even get close to the border.

Then I remembered Arthur Conan Doyle's dictum: "once you eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

What remains is this: What if the actual goal of the downing was to lock Turkey out of the Syrian airspace?

I know it sounds supremely ludicrous but bear with me.

If you were following the events in Turkey, you probably know that there are two leaders at the top of the Executive Branch.

On one side, there is Erdogan who got himself elected President as a way to get out of self-imposed term limits he faced as Prime Minister. As he was elected through direct popular vote, he now claims that his post is no longer that of a ceremonial figurehead. He is convinced he is an actual President.

Or a Sultan. Maybe even a Caliph.

On the other side, there is the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a charisma-challenged academic with immense political ambitions. In a parliamentary system, which Turkey still is, he should be the Decider, to borrow a phrase from W, not Erdogan.

Given this background, the order could have been given by three actors. The first one is Erdogan, the other is the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the third is the Prime Minister play.

As I have just explained, Erdogan ordering the shooting makes absolutely no sense. There is no scenario under which this benefits him personally or his future plans for the country. And believe me he may be many things but stupid is not one of them.

The army is a good candidate, especially if the aim was to lock Turkey out of Syrian airspace and eliminate all future incursion possibilities. For one thing, the planning behind the downing suggests significant military involvement.

Also, it is well known that the army intensely dislikes the idea of going into Syria for any purpose. Indeed, the generals seriously dragged their feet when ordered to draw up contingency plans to go into Syria to establish a security zone.
According to reports in Ankara, TSK’s response to the government instructions was total surprise when the Chief of General Staff Necdet Ozel asked for a written order from the government. When Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reminded the TSK that there is already parliamentary authority for such a cross-border operation, the military command asked for “a written order specifically about this case.” Davutoglu is reported to have penned a specific order even while discussions were going on. It is, however, understood that to activate a plan that would require intervention in a hot combat zone, a simple signature won’t be enough.
It is also true that shooting down the Russian jet using rules of engagement and previous orders would have given them cover if they were behind the move.

However, there are two problems with that scenario. One is the blatantly intricate planning that preceded the downing. Whatever cover they were hoping to get would be blown once the facts became known. And both Erdogan and Davutoglu would ask for heads to roll. Nothing of the sort happened.

The second thing is the fact that the General Staff had no clue about what happened in the first 30 minutes after the incident. The Anatolian News Agency reported that a Russian plane was shot down 11 minutes after the downing citing government sources, whereas the General Staff issued a communique 30 minutes later stating that the nationality of the plane was unknown.

One additional fact: As I noted before, SIGNIT unit, called GES, was taken from the General Staff three years ago and was given to the National Intelligence Agency. Strangely enough, it is no longer the army but the spy agency that monitors all border and missile activities.

That leaves us with the Prime Minister.

Could it be him who gave the order to shoot down the plane?

Right after the incident, he owned up to it completely and he categorically stated "I gave the order myself."

Uncharacteristically, Erdogan was more hesitant and less bellicose. The day after he said "Had we known it was a Russian plane we may have acted differently."

There is another indication that it might have been Davutoglu's play.

Davutoglu was the architect of the "Zero problems with neighbors" policy when he was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was also the driving force behind the neo-Ottoman vision of this government whereby Turkey is supposed to become the most important regional superpower and the leader of Sunni Islam.

Given this background, he is one of the very few people within AKP leadership circle to understand that Turkey's current strategy (largely determined by Erdogan) is doomed. Both the Americans and Russians are behind the Kurds (for different reasons) and Turkey's traditional Sunni allies are in a rough patch.

Perhaps more importantly for a man with much higher ambitions, Davutoglu knows that Erdogan would be willing push Turkey into the Syrian quagmire to to fulfill his presidential dreams.

Finally, as the PM, he was in a unique position to ask the Air Force to plan and execute the downing.

Curiously, lately Davutoglu has been backtracking and pointing the finger to Turkish Air Force Commander Abidin Unal. The implicit suggesting is that the rues of engagement order was established by Davutoglu but trigger-happy guy was the Commander.

We may never know the actual purpose of this incident but given the extreme unlikeliness of current explanatory frameworks I wanted to add my own contrarian hypothesis.