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Tuesday, November 24, 2015 

Our NATO allies, everybody.

There are, as you'd expect, a whole load of ways of interpreting why Turkey decided it was a fabulous idea to shoot down a Russian jet that may or may not have invaded their airspace, and most of them will have some measure of truth to them.

You could for instance start by saying that Putin's tears and rage at the action are both hysterical and hypocritical.  Maybe, just maybe if you could keep your raging war boner somewhat under control Vlad, things like this wouldn't happen.  You are after all the one apparently bombing the Turkmen, and the Turks are notoriously defensive about anyone sitting near their border, whether they be friend or foe.  Going into Turkish airspace, no matter for how brief a period is probably not a wise thing to do, especially when they made clear previously their feelings on such invasions.  Besides, there is also the little matter of MH17: the Russians might not have been personally responsible for downing the Malaysian Airlines flight, but giving Buk anti-aircraft missiles to halfwitted militants who don't or can't know the difference between a commercial flight and a Ukrainian military jet was an accident waiting to happen.  Instead of owning up and apologising, Russia has of course since denied it was their tame separatists and obstructed the investigation in every way possible.  Feel your pain we don't.

Then there's a more sympathetic to the Russians interpretation.  The Americans have said any breach of Turkish airspace was limited to seconds; the radar released by the Turks in an effort to justify their actions suggests precisely that.  If every country shot down every plane that went into their airspace without explicit permission for as much as a matter of seconds, no one would ever fly again.  The Turkish account that they supposedly repeatedly radioed the Russian plane telling it to stay out therefore doesn't tally with the evidence of the radar.  The reaction of NATO, which has essentially been to distance itself as much as it can from whichever trigger happy commander ordered the shooting down, has been to say this is a matter between the Turks and the Russians.  In other words, they're on their own on this one, even if in public they're saying Turkey has the right to defend itself from 16 second incursions.  When you bear in mind that the reaction of ourselves and most other European nations is to scramble jets to escort Russian planes if and when they decide to venture into airspace they've not received permission to and then complain about it later for the reason it's not worth the repercussions of doing otherwise, the Turks deciding to shoot one down for a breach of a matter of seconds is not going to win them many new friends.

Next there's a slightly more conspiratorial interpretation.  It is as Lindsey Hilsum has tweeted somewhat odd there just happened to be a TV crew in place to film the shot down jet hitting the ground.  It might have been sheer luck, but there are certainly good reasons to believe the rebels in the area have a hotline to their friends over the border.  They could well have informed the Turks, who apparently now believe that back in power with a majority they have little to lose, especially when they can rely on NATO to back them up.  Using the excuse of the slight breach of their airspace, making clear to Russia and Putin precisely what they think of their intervention on the side of Assad might have made something approaching sense in theory.  In practice, not so much.

Lastly, to keep this somewhat brief, there's the full on conspiratorial interpretation.  Turkey has a lot to lose if as looked possible there was an accommodation or deal between the various powers, whether it comes at the Vienna talks or more informally between the American-led coalition and Russia.  The Paris attacks have finally concentrated minds, making clear that the Western policy of letting the Sunni Gulf states + Turks fund whichever rebel groups they felt like while hoping it's not enough to actually defeat Assad cannot go on.  We can't of course lose face by admitting as much, but thankfully the Russians had already intervened to ensure Assad wouldn't fall.  Dealing directly with Assad is off the table, but the Russians with a little persuading can do that for us.  The Syrian Arab Army can then be the ground force we lack against IS, only they'll be liasing with the Russians instead.  Bearing in mind the only other ground force we can rely on, the Kurds, are also in direct conflict with the Turks, there are a myriad of reasons as to why the Turks would want this alliance of convenience to fall apart before it can so much as come together. 

That's without getting on to the relationship between Islamic State and Turkey.  Evidence has been mounting for some time on the links, but there really isn't any better than the Turkish reaction to the siege of Kobani.  It was only thanks to the Americans realising letting the border city fall as the Turks advised them to would be a propaganda victory too far and send a terrible message to about the only genuinely moderate forces in Syria that they started co-ordinating with the YPG.  Add on how the Islamic State attacks in Ankara just before the election undoubtedly helped the AKP to their majority, and not that much more needs to be added.

As said, there's something to all these interpretations.  Yes, Putin's reaction has been absurdly over-the-top, but then it's a fair bet ours wouldn't be much different if say the Iranians shot down one of our jets if it strayed into their airspace while carrying out sorties in Iraq.  His remarks on the links between Turkey and Islamic State are fairly sound also, as Erdogan has without doubt been playing the same double game in Syria as the Saudis and Qataris  have.  Indeed, if I wasn't a subscriber to the cock-up rather than conspiracy school of history until there is overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise, then the full on conspiratorial interpretation would make the most sense.  You can't though seriously believe the Turks would do something so unbelievably stupid, not knowing whether or not NATO would back them when they know full well the game they've been playing all along.  They might well be trying their best to sabotage the Vienna talks and will be making clear the risks their allies are playing by working with the Russians, but the best explanation for this is a trigger happy commander going out on a limb in an area where nationalist passions run hot.  Turkey has way too much to lose and far too little to gain.

The other obvious conclusion from today is there are already too many nations operating in Syria or at the margins, all with competing agendas and all with grudges against each other.  There is incredibly little to be gained and much to be lost by as David Cameron heroically put it "getting to grips with the Isil menace".  Still, come Thursday the prime minister's explanation as to what distinct and unique role the British military can provide in Syria as demanded by the foreign affairs select committee should be worth a laugh.

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