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FTR #881 Turkey Shoot: Sleepwalking into World War III

Dave Emory’s entire life­time of work is avail­able on a flash drive that can be obtained here. [1] The new drive is a 32-gigabyte drive that is current as of the programs and articles posted by late spring of 2015. The new drive (available for a tax-deductible contribution of $65.00 or more) contains FTR #850 [1].  

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This program was recorded in one, 60-minute segment [6].

[7]

F-16 of the Turkish Air Force

Introduction: Analyzing the shootdown of a Russian Su-24 aircraft by a Turkish F-16, this program details disturbing information that the attack was not only a deliberate ambush, but that the air forces of that NATO country have been providing air cover for the al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked combatants fighting inside Syria. (“Air cover” refers to combat aircraft neutralizing enemy air threats to ground forces. This should not be confused with “air support,” which refers to combat aircraft acting in support of ground forces against their opponents–serving, in effect, as “airborne artillery.”)

Interviewed by Andrew Cockburn, Pierre Sprey (who helped develop the F-16) opined: ” . . . Look­ing at the detailed Russ­ian time­line of what happened—as well as the much less detailed Turk­ish radar maps—I’d say the evi­dence looks pretty strong that the Turks were set­ting up an ambush. They cer­tainly weren’t doing any­thing that would point to a rou­tine air patrol along the bor­der. . . .”

A very important article from Harper’s [8] sets forth key points of analysis of the attack:

After analyzing the attack itself, the broadcast reviews information about the area targeted by the Russian jets.

Listeners are emphatically encouraged to use previous programs and descriptions to flesh out their understanding. We recommend: FTR #’s 737 [11], 862 [12], 863 [13], 878 [14], 879 [15], 880 [16].

Program Highlights Include:

[7]

F-16 of the Turkish Air Force

1a. Here’s an analy­sis of the jet shoot­down time­line in Harpers that’s based on the data pro­vided by Rus­sia and Turk­ish radar maps. It will be inter­est­ing to hear if the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment responds to the analy­sis because it comes to the con­clu­sion that the shoot­down was an ambush:

“Moun­tain Ambush” by Andrew Cockburn; Harper’s; 12/4/2015. [8]

“Look­ing at the detailed Russ­ian time­line of what hap­pened,” says defense ana­lyst Pierre Sprey, “I’d say the evi­dence looks pretty strong that the Turks were set­ting up an ambush.”

By Andrew Cockburn

On Novem­ber 24, a Turk­ish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russ­ian Su-24 bomber near the bor­der of Turkey and Syria. In the imme­di­ate after­math, offi­cials from the two coun­tries offered con­tra­dic­tory ver­sions of what tran­spired: Russ­ian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin claimed that the plane was fly­ing over Syr­ian ter­ri­tory when it was downed; Turk­ish pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan coun­tered that it was inside Turkey’s bor­der and had been warned ten times to alter its course. Hours later, Pres­i­dent Obama threw his sup­port behind Erdo­gan. “Turkey,” he said, “has a right to defend its ter­ri­tory and its airspace.”

I asked Pierre Sprey, a long­time defense ana­lyst and mem­ber of the team that devel­oped the F-16, to exam­ine what we know about the down­ing and deter­mine what actu­ally occurred that morning.

The Rus­sians have claimed the Novem­ber 24 down­ing of their bomber was a delib­er­ate pre-planned ambush by the Turks. Is there any merit in that argument?

[9]

The Russian Su-24 on its way down.

Look­ing at the detailed Russ­ian time­line of what happened—as well as the much less detailed Turk­ish radar maps—I’d say the evi­dence looks pretty strong that the Turks were set­ting up an ambush. They cer­tainly weren’t doing any­thing that would point to a rou­tine air patrol along the bor­der. Their actions in no way rep­re­sented a rou­tine, all day long type of patrol.

How can we tell that?

Well, let’s set up the sit­u­a­tion and it’ll be a lit­tle eas­ier to under­stand. The Russ­ian pilots were assigned a tar­get very close to the Turk­ish bor­der, about ten miles in from the Mediter­ranean coast and about five miles south of an impor­tant bor­der cross­ing at a lit­tle place called Yay­ladagi. That’s a bor­der cross­ing that the Turks have used to slip jihadists into Syria, or to allow them to slip in. It’s also a place where there’s quite a bit of truck traf­fic, a fair amount of it prob­a­bly oil tankers. It’s the only cross­ing for many, many miles around. This is a pretty sparsely pop­u­lated, well forested and hilly area occu­pied by Turkmen—Turkish speak­ing Syr­ian tribes­men who are sym­pa­thetic to al-Nusra and the Islamic State, who har­bor Chechen ter­ror­ists and who we know have been sup­ported by the Turks.

The tar­get area the Rus­sians were inter­ested in was about five miles south, along the road lead­ing to this cross­ing. That was the tar­get area that they assigned to these two Su-24s on the day of the shoot-down. The crews were assigned the mis­sion at about nine-fifteen in the morn­ing, Moscow time. They took off about a half hour later, headed for an area about thirty miles inland from the Mediter­ranean coast—in other words well east of this tar­get area—to loi­ter until they got fur­ther instruc­tions on hit­ting a tar­get in the tar­get area. At this point they’re just cruis­ing and loi­ter­ing at eigh­teen thou­sand, nine­teen thou­sand feet, try­ing to con­serve gas while they’re wait­ing to be assigned a spe­cific target.

The flight to their hold­ing area was very short, because they were fly­ing out of a Russ­ian base south of Latakia. It was like a ten-minute flight. They were only about thirty miles away or so. After they reached their loi­ter area—at roughly a quar­ter to ten—they were well in view of Turk­ish radar cov­er­age because they were up high and not far from the bor­der, roughly six­teen miles south.

They got assigned their tar­get, which was the road south of this impor­tant bor­der cross­ing, and exe­cuted a first strike, each of them attack­ing sep­a­rate tar­gets at about a quar­ter after ten. They then made a U-turn, so to speak, to fol­low a race­track pat­tern back toward where they had been loi­ter­ing to get ready for a sec­ond attack. They in fact exe­cuted the sec­ond attack about seven or eight min­utes later. One of the two Su-24s hit its tar­get right at about ten twenty-four and was almost imme­di­ately shot down as he was pulling off the target.

What about the Turk­ish air force, what were they doing meanwhile?

The Turks had launched two F-16s quite a bit ear­lier than the time we’re talk­ing about, from Diyarbakir, a major base for the Turk­ish Air Force about two hun­dred and fifty miles away, to loi­ter just in from the Mediter­ranean over a moun­tain­ous area that was about twenty-five miles north of this bor­der cross­ing. Inter­est­ingly, they arrived in that area to loi­ter just about the time that the Russ­ian pilots were being assigned their tar­gets, and the F-16s loi­tered over that moun­tain­ous area for about an hour and fif­teen minutes.

Here’s the cru­cial thing. They were not loi­ter­ing up at high altitude—say twenty to thirty thou­sand feet—to con­serve fuel, which is where you would nor­mally be loi­ter­ing if you were sim­ply doing a rou­tine bor­der patrol. They were loi­ter­ing quite low, at about seven thou­sand five hun­dred to eight thou­sand feet, which, first of all, is below the cov­er­age of the Syr­ian and Russ­ian radars that were down around Latakia, and which is a very fuel-inefficient alti­tude to loi­ter. You suck up a lot of gas down at those low altitudes.

That tells you right away, if they hung out there for seventy-five min­utes, they must’ve been tanked on the way in to that mis­sion, because they were quite far from their home base—two hun­dred and fifty miles—so they must’ve topped up on fuel to have enough to even last for an hour and a quar­ter at this inef­fi­cient low alti­tude. The Turk­ish Air Force does have a num­ber of Amer­i­can tankers that they own, so they cer­tainly could’ve and almost beyond a shadow of a doubt did tank these F-16s before this whole engagement.

They’re hang­ing out at low alti­tude over this moun­tain­ous area north of the bor­der, and it’s now about a quar­ter after ten. The Russ­ian fight­ers, the Su-24s, are just fin­ish­ing their race­track pat­tern after their first strike and are about to re-attack from this hold­ing posi­tion well east of the tar­get. At that point, the two F-16s break out of their loi­ter pat­terns to fly in a straight line south, quite cer­tainly under Turk­ish ground con­trol because they clearly are not hunt­ing for the Su-24s and fol­low­ing a curved path, they’re head­ing straight for an inter­cept point that appar­ently ground con­trol has pro­vided them—a point that’s very close to the tar­get that the Su-24s have just bombed. That’s clearly the point they’re com­ing back to bomb again.

The F-16s arrive quite nicely and pre­cisely timed to a missile-shooting posi­tion very near the bor­der and three to four miles from the sec­ond Su-24—who has just fin­ished bomb­ing his sec­ond target—at about ten twenty-four. One of the F-16s locks onto him, launches a missile—an infrared mis­sile accord­ing to the Russians—and imme­di­ately dives down to get back under the Syr­ian radar coverage. The F-16 makes a hard div­ing right turn and is back down under eight thou­sand feet in no time at all and head­ing north away from the scene of the engage­ment. In that turn he actu­ally is pen­e­trat­ing Syr­ian air­space before he heads north to go home to Diyarbakir, prob­a­bly at that point out of fuel and hook­ing up with a tanker again in order to make it home.

Would he have been in Syr­ian air­space when they fired the missile?

Not nec­es­sar­ily. It’s hard to tell at this point. All this action is pretty close to the bor­der, and there’s no rea­son to believe either the Turks or the Rus­sians about dis­tances of half a mile or a mile north or south of the bor­der, but there’s no ques­tion that the Turk­ish F-16 pen­e­trated Syr­ian air­space in exe­cut­ing his div­ing turn to get out of the area. He was head­ing due south to attack the east-west track of the Su-24 that had just fin­ished bomb­ing the tar­get. That Su-24 augured in almost imme­di­ately, about a mile and a half south of the border.

The bone of con­tention here is not the tar­get area. The tar­get area is roughly four or five miles south of that famous bor­der cross­ing we were just talk­ing about. The bone of con­tention is a nar­row fin­ger of Turk­ish land about five miles long, stick­ing straight down into Syria, about a mile and a half at its widest at the north­ern end and taper­ing down to a half mile at the south­ern tip. That fin­ger is a good six miles east of the tar­get area. So when head­ing west on their way to attack their tar­gets, the Su-24s nec­es­sar­ily had to pass very close to the south­ern tip of the fin­ger. In other words, the whole con­tro­versy about whether this shoot-down was legit­i­mate or not is whether the Su-24s on the way to the tar­get hap­pened to cross that fin­ger for a few seconds.

Remem­ber again the setup. You’ve got a tar­get that’s like ten miles in from the Mediter­ranean to the east. Another six miles or so east of there is this fin­ger of land. It’s well east of the tar­get area. The loi­ter area that the Sukhois were com­ing from is another six­teen miles to the east of that. They’re fly­ing from their loi­ter area, which is well south of the bor­der. They’re fly­ing past the fin­ger, maybe they crossed it, maybe they were just below it, and head­ing for the target.

But if the Rus­sians were in Turk­ish air­space, as the Turks claim, wouldn’t it be rea­son­able for the Turks to inter­cept them?

There’s a lit­tle detail that’s very telling. The alleged border-crossing took place on the first bomb­ing run from the loi­ter area to the tar­get, and accord­ing to the Turks the Rus­sians were roughly half a mile north of the tip of the fin­ger and so they were in Turk­ish air­space for about sev­en­teen seconds—a tiny, short, brief time—on their way to hit­ting the first tar­get. The Rus­sians, of course, say they were south of the fin­ger by about a mile. God knows who’s right. I’m sure if we had access to the radar records we could tell very promptly who’s lying and who’s not, but nobody is going to give us access to the exact radar plot.

Here’s the very inter­est­ing thing. This border-violating incur­sion was on the first run to the tar­get at around quar­ter after ten a.m. On the sec­ond run to the tar­get the Russ­ian planes were clearly fur­ther to the south. This is accord­ing to the plots and maps released in the Russ­ian brief­ing, which are very, very detailed with exact time marks every minute. The seventeen-second cross­ing of the bor­der alleged by the Turks hap­pened at about a quar­ter after ten, but the Turks waited. They didn’t come in and attack the air­plane that had crossed the bor­der at that point. They sim­ply sat and waited until the plane flew a long re-attack pat­tern and came back on a sec­ond run seven or eight min­utes later, and that’s when they attacked and shot him down.

Between the fuel-guzzling low alti­tude of the hold­ing pat­tern of the F-16s, which mirac­u­lously coin­cided with the flight times of the Russ­ian air­planes, and the fact that they didn’t even chase the air­plane imme­di­ately upon its alleged bor­der incur­sion, all that smells very much like a pretty pre-planned oper­a­tion. The Turks allowed the Russ­ian plane to hit a tar­get and make a long seven or eight minute re-attack pass and then came in from their hid­den low alti­tude posi­tion. They came up a lit­tle higher to gain a good fir­ing alti­tude, came whistling south, hit the Su-24, dove under the radar cov­er­age at the same time that they entered Syr­ian air­space and headed north out of radar cov­er­age to head back to Diyarbakir.

Such an ambush wouldn’t have been hard to pull off, because the Rus­sians, in their detailed account of this, state very clearly that they had coor­di­nated with NATO, with the Amer­i­cans, announc­ing this attack well in advance, and had fol­lowed the pro­to­col of lis­ten­ing on the NATO-agreed fre­quency for any warn­ings or alerts from NATO or from the Turks. There was plenty of time for the Amer­i­cans to inform the Turks that this mis­sion was tak­ing place. They might’ve even been informed by the Rus­sians the day before it was going to take place. All the pre­req­ui­sites for a setup were there.

The Turks made a big deal about the ten warn­ings they said they issued to the Russ­ian planes. What do we make of that?

Again, that’s one of those things where it’s hard to tell and hard to know which side to believe. The Rus­sians in their brief­ing, in their detailed brief­ing, are very clear and very adamant that the F-16s them­selves, the attack­ing F-16s never trans­mit­ted any warn­ing. Nor are the Turks or the Amer­i­cans claim­ing that the F-16s warned the Russ­ian fight­ers. But of course the inter­na­tional pro­to­cols for defend­ing against incur­sions of your air­space require the attack­ing fight­ers them­selves to inform the target—visually or by radio—whether it’s an air­liner or a fighter or what­ever, that they are now vio­lat­ing air­space and need to turn away.

The Turks do say they trans­mit­ted their warn­ings from a ground-control sta­tion. They also claim they trans­mit­ted those radio calls on both the civil­ian inter­na­tional emer­gency “guard” UHF-band fre­quency and on the mil­i­tary VHF-band fre­quency pre­vi­ously agreed to by NATO and the Rus­sians. The Amer­i­cans were quick to con­firm that their mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment picked up the Turk­ish ground-station radio warn­ing calls, but they’ve been care­ful not to say what fre­quency they heard. Now it so hap­pens that Su-24s have no radios onboard for receiv­ing UHF-frequency sig­nals, a fact which is well known to Amer­i­can, NATO, and Turk­ish intelligence.

There’s a lot of outs to this that could be the fault of either sider. It’s quite likely true that the Turks radioed warn­ings, but those warn­ings may have been delib­er­ately trans­mit­ted only on the inter­na­tional civil­ian fre­quency so that the Su-24s would never hear them. Or it may be that the Su-24’s mil­i­tary fre­quency radios were on the fritz, which is easy to believe given the well-known unre­li­a­bil­ity of Russ­ian electronics.

I do believe that the F-16s never issued any warn­ings, because it would be aston­ish­ing if they did. Here they went to all the trou­ble of tank­ing up and fly­ing at a very low alti­tude, stretch­ing their fuel endurance just to stay out of radar cov­er­age of the Rus­sians and the Syr­i­ans, and then why would they sud­denly announce that they were there by warn­ing the fight­ers when they had so obvi­ously set up a sit­u­a­tion where they were hid­ing? The ground-control sta­tion in Turkey prob­a­bly did issue warn­ings, but they may have been warn­ings that were intended not to be received. . . .

Would the United States have had radar coverage from its Airborne Warning and Control System or from their facilities at Incirlik? Would they be able to watch what was going on?

It’s very likely that they had a good track on that area, probably just as good as the Turks had. The Turks of course have a fairly extensive border network of radars, and the Russians and the Syrians have well mapped those radars and know exactly where the coverage is, which is why the Russians can be so precise as to say that the Su-24s entered Turkish radar coverage at 9:52, because they know pretty exactly where that radar coverage is.

The Americans could very possibly have access to those radar results. I have no idea whether they had an AWACS in the air at the time, but if they did it would’ve been easy to cover that area, too. For sure the Americans had complete radio monitoring coverage of the area, certainly heard all the radio transmission involved.

Now the Russians say that they activated air defense missiles, the famous S-400 I guess, to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Does that indeed preclude the Turks interfering with the Russians carrying out strikes in that area?

The answer is no, but it’s a hell of a threat. The longest range version of the S-400 is good for two hundred and fifty miles. The Russians are installing it at their base just south of Latakia, within fifty miles of the border. So conceivably they could shoot two hundred miles into Turkey. They may or may not be able to prevent a hidden Turkish fighter from firing at another Russian attack in the border area, but they certainly have the possibility of catching him or his friends on the way home. This is a real sword poised over the heads of the Turks now that the Russians have the capability to shoot deep into Turkey and can do so any time they want.

1b. Next, we note that the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 appears to have been an instance of the Turkish air force providing air cover for the Turkmen militia and elements of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, who are part of the so-called “moderates” enjoying the support of the West and its allies in the region, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.(“Air cover” refers to combat aircraft neutralizing enemy air threats to ground forces. This should not be confused with “air support,” which refers to combat aircraft acting in support of ground forces against their opponents–serving, in effect, as “airborne artillery.”)

“Facts Back Russia on Turkish Attack” by Gareth Porter; Consortium News; 11/30/2015. [17]

. . . . The motive for the strike was directly related to the Turkish role in supporting the anti-Assad forces in the vicinity of the border. In fact, the Erdogan government made no effort to hide its aim in the days before the strike. In a meeting with the Russian ambassador on Nov. 20, the foreign minister accused the Russians of “intensive bombing” of “civilian Turkmen villages” and said there might be “serious consequences” [25] unless the Russians ended their operations immediately.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was even more explicit [26], declaring that Turkish security forces “have been instructed to retaliate against any development that would threaten Turkey’s border security.” Davutoglu further said: “If there is an attack that would lead to an intense influx of refugees to Turkey, required measures would be taken both inside Syria and Turkey.”

The Turkish threat to retaliate – not against Russian penetration of its airspace but in response to very broadly defined circumstances on the border – came amid the latest in a series of battles between the Syrian government and religious fighters.

The area where the plane was shot down is populated by the Turkmen minority. They have been far less important than foreign fighters and other forces who have carried out a series of offensives in the area since mid-2013 aimed at threatening President Bashar al-Assad’s main Alawite redoubt on the coast in Latakia province.

Charles Lister, the British specialist who was visiting Latakia province frequently in 2013, noted in an August 2013 interview, “Latakia, right up to the very northern tip [i.e. in the Turkmen Mountain area], has been a stronghold for foreign fighter-based groups for almost a year now.” He also observed that, after Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) had emerged in the north, al-Nusra Front and its allies in the area had “reached out” to ISIL and that one of the groups fighting in Latakia had “become a front group” for ISIL.

In March 2014, the religious rebels launched a major offensive with heavy Turkish logistical support to capture the Armenian town of Kessab on the Mediterranean coast of Latakia very close to the Turkish border. An Istanbul newspaper, Bagcilar, quoted a member of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee as reporting testimony from villagers living near the border that thousands of fighters had streamed across five different border points in cars with Syrian plates to participate in the offensive.

During that offensive, moreover, a Syrian jet responding to the offensive against Kessab was shot down by the Turkish air force in a remarkable parallel to the downing of the Russian jet. Turkey claimed that the jet had violated its airspace but made no pretence about having given any prior warning. The purpose of trying to deter Syria from using its airpower in defense of the town was obvious.

Now the battle in Latakia province has shifted to the Bayirbucak area, where the Syrian air force and ground forces have been trying to cut the supply lines between villages controlled by Nusra Front and its allies and the Turkish border for several months. The key village in the Nusra Front area of control is Salma, which has been in jihadist hands ever since 2012. The intervention of the Russian Air Force in the battle has given a new advantage to the Syrian army.

The Turkish shoot-down was thus in essence an effort to dissuade the Russians from continuing their operations in the area against al-Nusra Front and its allies, using not one but two distinct pretexts: on one hand a very dubious charge of a Russian border penetration for NATO allies, and on the other, a charge of bombing Turkmen civilians for the Turkish domestic audience. . . .