Since I published an article on the crisis in Syria little less than two weeks ago, events have unfolded with breath-taking rapidity. On November 17 the Russian government announced that its Airbus 321 was destroyed over Egypt by a terrorist bomb. President Putin pleaded for the creation of a broad coalition to destroy the Islamic State (IS). He seemed to gain a little traction in the West, especially after the terrorist attack in Paris.
Western media published favourable comments. Politicians, especially in France, supported Putin’s appeal, none more important than French President François Hollande. Until now, Hollande has acted more like a nervous vassal of the United States than the leader of a proud, independent people. Is the French president trying to break free from his US suzerain?
The question was soon put to the test because on Tuesday, 24 November, Hollande flew to Washington to discuss the Middle East crisis with his boss President Barack Obama. On that same day two Turkish F-16 fighter planes came up behind a Russian SU-24 fighter bomber on a mission in northern Syria and shot it down. The Turkish government claimed the Russian fighter had flown over Turkish territory for 17 seconds and that Turkish pilots had warned their Russian counterparts ten times before firing. The Turkish claim unravelled almost as quickly as it was made.
In Moscow, that same day during a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Putin expressed cold outrage at Turkish action. It’s a «stab in the back», Putin said, «by terrorists’ accomplices». While Putin spoke in Moscow, a drama was playing out in northern Syria. The Russian pilots of the Su-24 had time to bail out of their burning plane. «Turkmen» Jihadis, who were operating in Syria near the Turkish border, shot dead one of the pilots, Lt. Colonel Oleg A. Peshkov, as he descended in his parachute. Let’s call the assassins Turks, for that is who they are or who they are working for. They are not Syrians. These Turkish Jihadis defiled the dead Russian’s corpse and showed it like a trophy to newsmen on the scene who seemed to be present as if by prior arrangement. «Allahu akbar», the brave Turks shouted to celebrate their killing. A photograph of the pilot’s body, redolent of the iconic photograph of Zoia Kosmodemianskaia, the young partisan girl, hanged by the Nazis in 1941, must have enraged Russians. Smug US officials and so-called journalists seemed to gloat over the Russian dead. In Washington Obama declared that Turkey «had the right to defend itself». How preposterous.
Meantime in northern Syria the Turks claimed to have killed the second pilot, though they did not show his corpse to the assembled journalists. Where was it? Putin surely knew whilst he was speaking to the press in Moscow that the second pilot had made it safely to the ground and taken cover in a contested area apparently between Syrian forces and the Turks. He was eventually rescued by Syrian special forces and brought to safety at the loss of a Russian marine.
Journalists interviewed the surviving pilot navigator at the Russian air base in Syria. We were never in Turkish territory, he declared, and there was no warning. We were ambushed from behind. We had no time to react before we were hit. The Russian Ministry of Defence confirmed the pilot’s story. The Turks bushwhacked the Russian plane over Syrian territory.
Putin later indicated that Russian defence authorities had informed their US counterparts of Russian flight plans so as to avoid any accidental confrontations. An American journalist, John Batchelor, then reported that he had heard from unnamed informed sources that the US government had forwarded the Russian information to Ankara, that the ambush was planned, and that US F-16s were in the air to back the Turks in case Russia sent up fighters against them. It has also since come to light that Turkey has repeatedly violated Syrian airspace to protect its Jihadi forces. When Putin declared that Russia had been «stabbed in the back», he was not talking only about Turkey, though he never mentioned Obama’s name.
The Turkish ambush on the Russian fighter jet was a premeditated act of war. Knowing this, of course, the Turks, like a bully’s chicken-hearted shill, ran to hide in the skirts of their NATO allies to discourage Russia from taking reprisals and risking world war. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan must have thought that by shooting down the Russian plane he could stop the talk by Hollande and others of an anti-IS alliance with Russia and prevent any reprisals from Moscow.
Has he succeeded? It does not seem so. Russia is imposing sweeping economic sanctions against Turkey. It has ordered a missile cruiser Moskva to move closer to the Syrian coast to provide air cover and it has demonstrably shipped S-400 missile anti-aircraft batteries to its airbase in northern Syria. These are the most advanced anti-aircraft missiles in the world. Keep away, the Russians have warned the Turks, or we will shoot you down. Russian fighter bombers have multiplied their air attacks on «Turkmen» targets in the area where Colonel Peshkov was killed. There will be no Russian pity for the Turks or for the Jihadis in northern Syria. Roads leading to and from Turkey are being bombed relentlessly to stop arms supplies into and oil shipments out of Syria. As if to send a message, Russian bombers hit targets two kilometres from the Turkish border. While Erdogan makes belligerent statements and warns Russia against firing on Turkish jets in Syrian airspace, his generals have apparently ordered their F-16s to stay away from the Syrian border. The Russians, they must believe, are not just blowing smoke when they say they will shoot down any plane threatening their fighter jets in Syria. Erdogan seems to want to provoke a NATO-Russia war, prompting one retired US general to recomend that Turkey be kicked out of NATO.
Nor has Erdogan or Obama succeeded in stopping the momentum toward Franco-Russian cooperation. Much to US displeasure, Hollande went to Moscow two days after the Turkish ambush. Once out of Obama’s Washington spider web, Hollande appears to have manned up enough to agree with Putin on various measures to destroy the IS in Syria. Time will tell if Hollande means what he says. If he does, it will signal the end of French support for the Jihadist movement against the government of President Bashar al Assad, and an end also to French vassalage to the United States. It sounds too good to be true, but if a real Franco-Russian alliance develops, it may offer some hope for the future.
Success against IS obviously depends on much more than Franco-Russian cooperation. NATO is a big problem, amongst others. NATO is the bullwhip which the United States uses to keep Europe in line. Do Europeans want war with Russia, now the mainstay of the fight against IS in Syria, in order to support Turkey, a key IS ally? Do Europeans want to become IS allies in effect? Attacking Russia means weakening President Assad, now the main barrier against the IS in the Middle East. If IS takes Damascus, does anyone doubt that Lebanon or Jordan will not be the next to fall? And that would only be the beginning of the cauchemar. Will Europe wake up before it’s too late? A retired American general recommended expelling Turkey from NATO, where are the Europeans who recommend expelling the United States?
What is one to say about the behaviour of the US government? Obama is trying to hinder Russian intervention against IS in Syria. When Hollande was in Washington, Obama strong-armed him to stick to a hostile anti-Russian line. The US president appears to have backed the Turkish ambush of the Russian Su-24. If it is true that there were US F-16s in the air on 24 November to back up the Turks against possible Russian retaliation, it means that Obama is ready to go to the brink of war with Russia. Has he taken leave of his senses? Is his masculinity so much in doubt that he needs a war against Russia to prove he is a real man?
The United States is a de facto ally of the Jihadi movement in Syria, its year-long anti-IS bombing campaign to the contrary notwithstanding. Until the Russian intervention, the US bombing raids were a joke. American pilots apparently even now drop pamphlets to their Jihadi friends. Before the Russian intervention, the US never bombed the long lines of trucks carrying IS oil to Turkey, and never bombed the long columns of trucks crossing the open desert to attack Palmyra, still in IS hands. Will the American people ever wake up and understand what their government is doing in their name?
«Those who apply double standards when dealing with terrorists, using them to achieve their own political aims and engaging in unlawful business with them, are playing with fire», President Putin said on 26 November: «History shows that sooner or later such actions will backfire against those who abet criminals». President Assad likens them to scorpions who eventually sting the hands of their minders. In American parlance, it’s called «blowback».
Just how deep into evil’s pit is Obama willing to descend? Only the Europeans can discourage the apparent US will to war against Russia. They need to find the courage to say to Obama: «Mr President, you are out of your mind. Regain your sanity before it’s too late. IS is the enemy; Russia is our ally».