Syria has shot down a Turkish Phantom aircraft, just inside Syrian territorial waters. A report in the Boston Globe says the Turkish aircraft was about a half a mile inside Syrian airspace. A bit quick on the trigger you might think. According to all the reports I’ve read, the aircraft had not been identified before it Syrian air defences shot it down.
Turkish sources have reportedly stated that the aircraft was on a reconnaissance mission. This is possible, but perhaps unlikely. All sources report the aircraft as flying fast and low and I feel that it is unlikely that this is the profile of a recon mission. Syria has, self-evidently, good Russian anti-aircraft defences and this is something that Turkey would have known. I would have thought that a high-level mission would have firstly seen more and secondly had more chance of getting away with it. A fast low-level approach has all the hallmarks of an attack of some sort, hence the Syrian quick reaction. Reportedly Turkish ships and helicopters are searching for the downed crew, presumably in Syrian waters so there is some sort of co-operation going on. Is this all a dreadful mistake?
A Cunning Plan?
Given that some reports are saying that Syrian Government forces have suffered setbacks in the last few days, is there more to this than meets the eye?
Turkey is a NATO member, and the NATO charter allows for other NATO members to come to the military assistance of a member who has been attacked. It does not allow a NATO member to start a war on its own then demand NATO help. I think we can rule out Turkey trying to get NATO action on Syria by provoking an armed confrontation, although they might argue that as Syrian artillery fire has hit some targets just across the Turkish/Syrian border, either by design or accident, that they are merely responding to aggression and are already under attack.
I think it’s more devious than this and I think it’s a Syrian plan. One which probably won’t work but hey, anything’s worth a try, right?
I believe that Bashar Al-Assad has come to the conclusion that he’s not going to win this without outside help and the only outside help he’s likely to get is from Russia. Iran will not risk a confrontation with NATO/America. If the civil war staggers on, the chances increase that Russia will agree some sort of compromise UN mandate for action. The chances of Assad losing also increase. On the other hand, if Assad can somehow provoke an attack by a NATO member without a UN mandate, then he might justifiably call on Russian assistance.
The likely Russian response to a call for help?
It might cause some gnashing of teeth in the Kremlin, but truthfully if Russia wants to maintain any credibility among its dwindling number of client states it would have to respond. The key to avoid escalating the conflict would be to respond quickly, saying they are there to defend Syrian sovereignty and not to help Assad defeat the rebels. beefing-up Syrian air defences with Russian personnel and Russian – controlled equipment would deter NATO from any sort of aerial bombardment campaign. this in effect would be guarding Assad’s back, which is probably what he’s got in mind.
Of course, Russia might decide not to play, in which case Assad might find himself at war with Turkey. Well he wouldn’t be the first politician to try to unite the country behind him by becoming involved in an ‘overseas’ war. One might accuse Margaret Thatcher of doing it thirty years ago although the Falklands war was more likely a result of political incompetence rather than political intrigue, and certainly one could accuse Kirchner of Argentina of possibly thinking of doing it now. Certainly she’s been ‘grandstanding’ in the UN recently, her entourage was larger than the UN committee she’d gone to address.
Of course Assad might have concluded that he’s as good as lost the civil war, and is implementing Plan B, namely the ethnic cleansing of as much of Syria that he can get away with and the establishment of an Alawite State. In that case, it would be handy to have Russian back-up already on-site, to deter anybody else trying to prevent the break-up of Syria. His revenge for losing Syria would be the increased agitation for an independent Kurdish State and most likely the continuation of the civil-war in Syria, as the have-nots go after the haves and anybody else who isn’t a Sunni.
Never mind old Chinese curses, we do live in interesting times