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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].

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 [7] 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 [8], 862 [9], 863 [10], 878 [11], 879 [12], 880 [13].

Pro­gram High­lights Include:

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. [7]

“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?

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. [14]

. . . . 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” [22] unless the Rus­sians end­ed their oper­a­tions imme­di­ate­ly.

Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Ahmet Davu­to­glu was even more explic­it [23], 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. . . .