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.

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