Retired USAF general says Turkey really shouldn’t have shot that plane down

There have been a lot of developments in the case of that Russian Sukhoi Su-24 interdictor that was shot down in Syria yesterday by Turkish F-16s, and although I’m on semi-vacation I figured I should at least mention some of them.

  • First, in a bit of good news, one of the pilots apparently survived being shot down and then being shot at by those Syrian Turkmen fighters while he was parachuting to the ground. He was rescued by Russian special forces and was taken to a Russian base in Syria. The pilot, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, insists that they were given no warning before the Turkish fighters fired on them.
  • Unfortunately, one of the Russian marines sent in to try to rescue the pilot(s) was killed, presumably by the Syrian Turkmen in the area.
  • Turkey, meanwhile, produced what it says is an audio recording of the warnings it gave the Russians before firing on them. The recording seems pretty light on context, but it’s not nothing. Who to believe? Maybe both; without additional evidence, there’s no reason to assume that the Turks were broadcasting on the same frequency that the Russians were using. They could have warned the Russians without the Russians ever hearing it.
  • As far as I can tell, Russia doesn’t appear to be disputing that the plane entered Turkish airspace anymore (they were definitely disputing it yesterday). But the thing is, even according to the radar tracking map released by the Turks yesterday, that plane was in Turkish airspace for a matter of seconds, and was shot down in Syria (meaning that those Turkish fighter jets likely violated Syrian airspace while they were ostensibly defending their own).
  • Assuming the Su-24 did stray into Turkish airspace, it may have been a legitimate mistake caused either by the relatively weak coverage of the satellites feeding Russia’s version of GPS (called GLONASS) or by the fact that Russian planes are using the equivalent of your Garmin dashboard GPS device to get their GLONASS data.
  • Russia has made some shifts in its tactical posture in order to deter any potential Turkish action in the future. It’s now going to have fighter escorts accompanying its bombers, and it’s moving long-range S-400 air defense batteries to its airbase in Latakia. It’s also moving a guided missile cruiser into the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian coast.
  • Russia is considering some economic retaliation against Ankara, perhaps in the areas of food and tourism, but it’s unlikely to cut off energy exports, which are by far the biggest economic tie between the two countries. Cutting off those energy exports would certainly hurt Turkey, but it would hurt Russia as well. I do wonder if this is the last you’ll be hearing about the Eurasian Development Bank expanding to Turkey for the foreseeable future, but that’s just me speculating.
  • A new bill was submitted to the Russian parliament today that would criminalize denial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. France had a similar law on the books before its Constitutional Council ruled it unconstitutional in 2012, so this isn’t a totally unprecedented law. It does get points for trolling Ankara in an unexpected way, while simultaneously trivializing the state-sanctioned murder of up to 1.5 million people by subordinating it to a dispute over a plane that got shot down.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, presumably in happier times ( | Wikimedia)

Retired USAF Major General Charles Dunlap wrote in The Hill today that Russia “may have a strong case” that Turkey violated international law by shooting the Su-24 down. Turkey has a right to self-defense under international law as defined by the UN Charter, but absent an actual Russian strike on Turkish soil or some hard evidence that the Russians were planning a strike on Turkish soil, the simple fact that a Russian plane briefly crossed into Turkish airspace isn’t enough to trigger a claim of self-defense. Here’s General Dunlap:

The problem here is that the Turks are not asserting that any armed attack took place or, for that matter, that any armed attack was even being contemplated by the Russians. Instead, in a letter to the U.N., the Turks only claimed that the Russians had “violated their national airspace to a depth of 1.36 to 1.15 miles in length for 17 seconds.” They also say that the Russians were warned “10 times” (something the Russians dispute) and that the Turkish jets fired upon them in accordance with the Turks’ “rules of engagement.” Of course, national rules of engagement cannot trump the requirements of international law. Moreover, international law also requires any force in self-defense be proportional to the threat addressed.

Thus, the legal question is this: Is a mere 17-second border incursion of such significance and scale as to justify as “proportional” the use of deadly force as the only recourse — particularly where there is no indication that the Russians were going to actually attack anything on Turkish soil?

The same standard applies to Article 5 of the NATO charter, the collective defense provision, so even if Turkey were to attempt to invoke Article 5 (they haven’t and probably won’t unless things escalate), it’s not clear that this case qualifies. So far, the US and NATO seem to be staying out of it, except to encourage both Ankara and Moscow to stay calm and try to de-escalate things.

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