Today, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that Russia has violated Turkish airspace for a second time. On Saturday, a Russian plane crossed into Turkish airspace near the Syrian border, and in response the Turks scrambled two F-16s. In a subsequent incident, Ankara said that a MiG-29—flown either by Russia or its client Syria—locked its radar on to two more Turkish F-16s Sunday as they patrolled the border.
Russia’s actions against NATO member Turkey, says the Obama administration, are worrisome. "We're very concerned about it,” said John Kerry, “and it is precisely the kind of thing we warned about.” The Russians say it’s a mistake, but that’s nonsense. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is simply telling everyone he’s the new sheriff in town.
The weekend’s stand-off is the latest episode in the international air war over Syria, starring a large cast that includes Turkey, Russia, Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces, the Syrian opposition, and the United States, with an arsenal including drones, fighter jets, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, helicopters, missiles, and perhaps someday—given that there are already 2 nuclear powers and one-soon-to-be nuclear state with a vital interest in the outcome—nuclear weapons.
The relevant prior confrontation occurred in June 2012 when the Syrian army was believed to have brought down a Turkish reconnaissance jet killing both pilots. A Turkish official claimed that the plane was downed not by anti-aircraft fire, as the Syrians said, but rather by a missile fired from a Russian warship off the Syrian coast. In fact, leaked Syrian intelligence documents later showed that the Turkish “jet was shot down in coordination with the Russian naval base in (the Syrian city of) Tartus.” The pilots were captured by Syrian Air Force intelligence and then executed “based on … guidance from the Russian leadership.”
At the time the jet was downed, the White House was eager to contain the damage, and therefore backed the Syrian version of events, perhaps for several likely reasons. First, the Obama administration was eager to show that Syrian anti-air defenses would make it dangerous to set up the no-fly zone that some administration officials and Republican opponents argued for. Second, no one in NATO, and certainly not the Obama administration, had any stomach for joint military action in support of Turkey, especially not if it meant going up against Russia. Finally, the White House wanted to prevent Ankara from taking too strong a position against Assad, so it was happy someone, anyone, bloodied the nose of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
None of these factors have changed over the last three years.
Obama will cite Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace as exhibit A of why establishing a no-fly zone is an even worse idea now than it was three years ago. A possible confrontation with Russian fighter jets that may bring the United States into a shooting war with Putin in Syria? Obama will say. That idea isn’t even worthy of Hillary Clinton’s half-baked cookbook.
Putin’s war with Ukraine and his unanswered threats against the Baltic states have simply underscored that NATO is a paper tiger that will never come to the defense of Turkey, or any other of its members. Perhaps the Russian strongman is thinking that his Soviet ancestors were fools to let themselves get hemmed in by a make-believe military coalition.
And Obama still wants to block Erdogan’s support of the anti-Assad rebels.
The administration has worked with the Syrian Kurdish militia PYD against ISIS only in part because it is an effective fighting unit—in Kobani, for instance, the PYD would’ve had very little success without U.S. air support. The PYD is useful because it is the Syrian branch of PKK, which has waged war on Ankara for three decades. In other words, the White House extorted a NATO member by collaborating with a Stalinist terrorist group until it agreed to direct its resources to attacking ISIS rather than Assad.