Here Is Why Erdogan's Ambush of Russian Jet Was a Massive Blunder
Turkish president actually undermined his Western support
In shooting down the Russian SU24 Turkey’s President Erdogan has blundered badly.
He has caused the Russians to reinforce in Syria and is feeding Western doubts about him.
He has exposed himself to his Western allies as a dangerous and unpredictable ally.
There is a very small possibility the shoot down of the SU24 took place without Erdogan’s knowledge.
The SU24 was shot down very close to the Turkish border. The Turks claim it crossed the border. However if it did, then by the Turks’ own account it did so for just a few seconds.
The Turks claim they gave the SU24 10 warnings over a period of 5 minutes.
If true, this can only have been when the SU24 was in Syrian airspace. The Russians deny they received any warnings at all.
The US and NATO say they registered the Turkish warnings but they say it without much show of conviction.
Both sides anyway appear to agree that the SU24 was flying away from Turkey and back to its base in Syria when it was shot down. That argues against it posing any possible threat to Turkey when it was shot down.
The SU24 crashed well inside Syria. The Russians say the Turkish F16 that shot it down entered Syrian airspace to do it. Whilst there is no independent evidence to confirm that, the location of the crash site means it may be true.
The facts, though disputed in some places, overall do not justify the Turkish decision to shoot the SU24 down, even if it did violate Turkish airspace for a few seconds.
Embarrassingly a recording apparently exists, made in connection to the Syrian shoot-down of a Turkish F4 fighter back in 2012, in which no less a person than Erdogan himself apparently also says that an infringement of airspace of just a few seconds does not justify shooting an aircraft down.
If so then Erdogan would almost certainly have been involved. He might not have given a specific order to shoot down the particular SU24 that was shot down. However he almost certainly set the rules of engagement that led to the ambush that caused it to be shot down.
Why would he do such a thing?
Erdogan is someone who far more closely resembles the Western image of Putin than Putin himself does.
Where claims that Putin is corrupt and a billionaire are wholly unsubstantiated and almost certainly untrue, that Erdogan is a billionaire is an acknowledged fact, as is the involvement of some members of his family in shady business dealings.
Putin is highly calculating and always consults his chief advisers before making a decision.
Erdogan is impulsive and arbitrary, and is far more likely than Putin to make decisions on the hoof.
Unlike Putin, who puts up with everything, Erdogan is a notoriously prickly character who reacts badly to criticism.
He has jailed opposition activists and journalists and cracked down on the media in ways that Putin never has.
Firstly, the Russian intervention in Syria has reversed the tide of the war, which seemed to be going his way - or rather the way of the various jihadi groups he has been backing.
It also killed his project for a no-fly zone over Syria, which he was close to getting the US to back in the summer.
Erdogan must also have felt humiliated at the G20 summit in Antaliya in Turkey, of which he was nominally the host.
Putin produced evidence of the financial support the Islamic State is receiving from individuals in certain G20 countries. No one doubts Turkey is one of those G20 countries.
There are in fact widespread rumours of members of the Turkish establishment profiting from trade with the Islamic State. Some rumours even point the finger at members of Erdogan’s family, including his son.
To add to Erdogan’s sense of humiliation, in the last few days the Russians have begun bombing the fuel tankers, disrupting the oil trade between the Islamic State and its go-betweens in Turkey, whilst saying pointedly that they "have" to do it because "others" are failing to.
Lastly, the Russians have also been bombing the region close to Turkey where the SU24 was shot down.
Several villages in this area are inhabited by people who the news media calls “Turkmen”.
This is misleading. These people are not Turkmen from the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan. They are ethnic Turks who were left in Syria when the Ottoman empire broke up.
The Western media regularly accuses Putin of posing as the defender of ethnic Russians outside Russia and of using ethnic Russians to destabilise the governments of former Soviet states.
There is no evidence of this or that Putin has ever entertained the ambition to recreate the USSR that is commonly attributed to him - including by no less a person than Obama himself.
By contrast Erdogan definitely does pose as the defender of Turks outside Turkey.
He has also pursued a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy intended to reassert Turkish influence in neighbouring states like Syria that were once part of the Ottoman empire.
Given these ambitions, Russian bombing of an area of Syria inhabited by ethnic Turks - one previously marked out by Erdogan for one of his safe havens - would for Erdogan have been both infuriating and humiliating. It is easy to see how he might see it as a challenge.
In the light of all this, it is not difficult to see how someone like Erdogan, out of a mixture of anger, injured pride and miscalculation, might have ordered his air force to set an ambush to shoot down a Russian airplane when a good opportunity arose.
No doubt he calculated that when that happened the West would back him as a NATO ally threatened by Russian “aggression”.
That way he might have hoped to get his own back at the Russians and to wrest the political initiative back from them, whilst reassuring his allies in Syria and his supporters in Turkey that he is still a force to be reckoned with.
His officials over the last few days have been issuing warnings to the Russians to stop bombing ethnic Turkish areas.
In light of what has happened these warnings look like an attempt to set up an alibi to justify the shooting down of a Russian aircraft before it took place.
That the shoot-down was a planned rather than a spontaneous act, is also strongly suggested by how the Turks reacted after it took place.
Instead of complaining to the Russians or - better still - asking for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, which is the appropriate venue to discuss an event like that, the Turks turned to NATO instead.
The Russians have complained about this, and frankly it looks like an attempt to gain diplomatic cover from Turkey’s Western allies for a shoot-down that was planned in advance.
What has happened since however shows the extent of Erdogan’s miscalculation.
Firstly, the circumstances of the shoot-down were not prepared properly.
Instead of coming up with a convincing scenario that might justify the shoot-down, the Turks did the opposite. The best they could come up with was a claim the SU24 violated Turkish airspace for just a few seconds.
That makes the Turks rather than the Russians look aggressive and irresponsible.
The result is that judging from the comments appearing on Western media threads, the Western public is unconvinced and is swinging behind the Russians instead of the Turks.
The Russians for their part are refusing to follow Erdogan’s script.
Instead of warning and threatening the Turks in a way that might have given credence to Turkish claims of Russian “aggression”, they are stressing Turkey’s connections to the Islamic State and are taking steps to beef up their air defences.
They have moved the Moskva missile cruiser with its S300 missiles closer to the Syrian coast and have publicly given its captain orders to destroy aircraft that threaten their strike force.
They are also deploying the very powerful and sophisticated S400 anti aircraft missile system to their air base in Syria.
There is also a strong probability the Russians will reinforce their strike group in Syria with more air defence fighters.
They have publicly said their strike aircraft are henceforth forbidden from flying without air cover from Russian fighters.
Since there are only four Russian fighters in Syria - the four SU30s at Latakia - it is difficult to see how this can be done without sending more fighters there.
In other words what Erdogan has achieved is to give the Russians the reason or excuse to reinforce their air group in Syria beyond anything they had probably planned or intended.
With the deployment of S400 missiles in Syria, and the likely deployment of more sophisticated Russian fighters there, the balance of military power in the region is shifting even further away from Turkey, Israel and the US.
US and Israeli policy has been to do everything possible to prevent deployment of missile systems like the S400 to the region. The S400’s deployment to Syria has overturned that.
Combined with the deployment of sophisticated Russian fighters to Syria - now almost certainly on their way - events are moving in a way that must be filling Washington and Jerusalem with concern. They must be furious with Erdogan for bringing it about.
That however is only the start of it.
The biggest nightmare for the US and its European allies is not that the Turks will shoot down a Russian aircraft. It is that the Russians will shoot down a Turkish aircraft in circumstances where Western public opinion backs Russia.
The US and NATO do not want to be put in a position where they have to choose between upsetting the Turks by failing to give them the sort of backing the Turks feel they are entitled to as a NATO ally, and upsetting Western public opinion by siding publicly with Turkey and the jihadis groups it supports in a dispute with Russia in which Western public opinion backs Russia.
Erdogan has just brought that nightmare scenario for the West much closer.
The anger this is causing, and which Western leaders privately feel towards Erdogan, is shown by what they said after the SU24 was shot down.
If Erdogan was expecting a resounding show of support he must be disappointed.
Though the US and NATO made ritual comments of support, the main theme of their comments was not support for Turkey but a demand for restraint.
Some of the comments contained clear criticism of Turkey.
The harshest comments came from Germany. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was especially outspoken, saying
“This incident shows for the first time that we are to dealing with an actor who is unpredictable according to statements from various parties of the region – that is not Russia, that is Turkey.”
He was backed by his SPD colleague Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who said
“What we must hope for is that this occurrence will not deal a setback to the encouraging first talks, which offer a small hope of de-escalating the Syrian conflict.”
Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffan Siebert, simply said
“We call on Ankara and Moscow to do everything possible to avoid a further escalation.”
These words put Ankara - a German ally and NATO partner - on the same level as Moscow, Berlin's and NATO's supposed adversary.
Elsewhere words of support for Turkey have been lukewarm at best.
Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led Combined Joint Task Force, said
"This is an incident between the Russian and the Turkish governments. It is not an issue that involves the [US-led coalition operations]. Our combat operations against ISIL (IS, ISIS) continue as planned and we are striking in both Iraq and Syria.”
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron - usually a staunch critic of Russia’s - put it this way:
“The prime minister strongly encouraged (Turkish) Prime Minister Davutoglu to make sure that there was direct communication between the Turks and the Russians on this.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop - one of the most outspoken critics of Russia in connection with the MH17 tragedy - said:
“We are concerned about the incident where a Russian aircraft was shot down in the Syrian-Turkish border area, and we ask relevant parties to exercise restraint”.
Lastly, Obama himself, in a telephone conversation to Erdogan, mixed his support with a plain warning. According to a White House statement he said that
“(Whilst) US and NATO support Turkey's right to defend its sovereignty……The leaders (ie. Obama and Erdogan - AM) agreed on the importance of de-escalating the situation and pursuing arrangements to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.”
It is impossible to read in these comments anything other than an implied - and in the German case a not so implied - rebuke of Erdogan. If is he after all he who has failed to exercise “restraint” by authorising his air force to shoot the SU24 down.
The West has not yet quite brought itself to abandon him. However he is now under notice to behave himself. If he fails to do so he risks finding himself on his own.