Three important events influenced the course of the Syrian war in the course of last month: the Metrojet flight 9268 crash in Sinai October 31, the Paris attacks on Friday November 13 and the downing of a Sukhoi 24 on November 24, 2015.
The Metrojet crash was not deemed an act of terror to start with. First accounts concentrated on the poor state of the charter plane, on the lack of proper maintenance, on its previously troubled record (a tail strike it had suffered some years earlier), on a possible engine failure. The reports were confusingly contradictory. The pilots had asked permission for emergency landing, – no, they hadn’t. The airliner violently steered off the course, rapidly changed its altitude a few times, – no, it did not. There were no traces of explosives – there were traces of explosives all over place.
In a course of a few days, the whole body of conspiracy and anti-conspiracy versions grew around the crash, both in Russia and elsewhere, for instance an explosion of hydrogen-filled diving cylinder of a sort regularly used by Sharm el Sheikh divers.
I noticed an interesting coincidence: there was the Blue Flag air exercise of Israeli and American air forces in the vicinity of the crash area. The crash occurred within 30 miles of the Israeli border, and Israel happens to use its drones to kill its enemies in Sinai. The exercise included “firing simulated weapons against fictional enemy missile launchers, convoys and aircraft”, according to the official report. What if some of these weapons weren’t “simulated”? I would not suggest intentional destruction of a civilian Russian liner, but friendly fire is not unheard of. A missile could go astray. The Blue Flag was supposed to last until November, 3. However, after the Metrojet crash, it was claimed that the exercise was over October, 29.
An Israeli news site asked the Army spokesman when the exercise was finished, and received the answer: November, 3. The site asked again, while referring to the Russian liner crash. This time, the answer was: October, 29. This discrepancy is not a proof of anything; and anyway, this version gained little currency. However, it was expanded by an American site and later by a hard-core radical Russian site (they accused me of “cover-up” for balking at considering Israeli ill intent). I do not think this is the true explanation; just another version in absence of the truth established.
For a long while the Russians denied the crash was caused by enemy action and looked for a technical failure, though the UK and the US suggested a terror attack. Daesh (ISIS) claimed they downed the airliner by a missile and they published a video of this alleged feat. This claim was met with scorn, as MANPAD missiles can’t reach the airliner altitude. It was said that soon Daesh will claim the Sinking of the Titanic.
The Russians mourned their dead, and their campaign in Syria continued with some successes on the ground, while the West continued to condemn it for going against ‘moderate opposition’ and paying lip service to the war on Daesh. The Russians insisted they were fighting Daesh “or other similar groups”.
The Paris attacks changed the game. 130 persons were killed, and the attack was claimed by Daesh. This was not a sophisticated action; the total outlay was around €7,000 (\$7,500) while the damage was in billions and budget allocations to security industries were in trillions. Daesh claimed the responsibility, while al Qaeda never claimed 9/11 for itself. This time there was a great surge of empathy and mourning all over the world, and nowhere was it stronger than in Russia.
The Russian people feel so much about France and about Paris – probably as much as the Americans of Scott Fitzgerald’s generation. Paris is the place good Russians – like good Americans – go to when they die, rephrasing Oscar Wilde. Mayakovski, the great Russian poet of 1920s, famously said: I’d love to live and die in Paris, and quickly added: if there weren’t Moscow. This love of Paris and France has been a trademark of a Russian nobleman since 18th century: Pushkin’s generation learned French before mastering their own tongue. Russians love to feel European, and France is the only country in Europe they really care for.
In France, there were calls for vengeance, and the Russians seconded them. They would love to go to war in a coalition with the French, as they did in the WWI and WWII. Paris attacks fitted Putin’s Destroy Daesh campaign like a glove. At that time, 18 days after the crash and 4 days after the Paris attacks, the Russians declared their air liner was downed by the Daesh. Many previous claims regarding the crash were disowned, reports reinterpreted and made to suit the new version. Instead of the West versus Russia, a new formation began to form, that of Russia and France versus all the rest.
Daesh behaved like a good sport and accepted the responsibility for the Russian crash on the next day. They also adapted their version: previously they said they downed the liner with a missile, now they agreed with the Russians and said they did it with a Schweppes can. Nobody queried how did they manage to squeeze three pounds of TNT equivalent into a soft drink can. The Russian-French coalition against Daesh began to take form.
Russian TV broadcast the French Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle rendezvousing with the Russian Missile Cruiser Moskva off Syrian shore, a poignant symbol of two great European nations doing their joint work against the barbarians.
For a short while the Russians forgot that they had come by the Syrian government’s invitation to fight for Syria, while the French considered President Assad a worse plague than Daesh. They poured bombs on the Daesh-held territory, and the Russians penned “For Paris!” on their bombs.
Nowadays many pro-Western Russians feel “white”, as they became infected by the racist rhetoric of the West after the Soviet collapse and were subjected to an influx of Central Asian migrants. They also imported European Nationalist discourse bewailing Europe and France deluged by coloured migrants. In their minds, the Arab refugee wave and the Paris terror attacks merged into one battle in the clash of civilisations.
The Israeli connection of influential Jews amidst Russians added some anti-Arab prejudice. A top Russian blogger and a citizen of Israel, Mr Anton Nosik, flaunting his Israeli connection, called to kill the women and children of Syria. He also accused the very moderate Russian Muslim Mufti of financing the bombing of the Metrojet liner. Mr Michael Weller, a best-selling writer, published a racist screed against the dark-skinned Arabs who swamp and engulf Europe. Both genocidal calls were published by the most pro-Western, ultra-liberal and anti-Putin Echo Moskvy site. The head of Mossad called to bomb Syria like Dresden was bombed. In Dresden, perhaps up to half a million civilians were killed in a bombing attack by the British and American air forces, well described by Kurt Vonnegut. To be on the safe side and not to miss a piece of action, Israel bombed the Russian allies in Syria: the Syrian army and their ally Hezbollah.
At that time, President Hollande of France went to the US trying to build the grand coalition against Daesh.
The spirit of Russia’s cooperation with the West was at its peak when a well-aimed air-to-air missile from a Turkish F-16 fighter downed the Russian Su-24M tactical bomber. According to the Turks, the bomber had lingered for some 17 seconds in Turkish airspace and was been downed one mile inside the Syrian territory. According to the Russians, the bomber didn’t cross the Turkish border at all. In any case, this was a deadly planned ambush.
This was an illusion-shattering event of great magnitude, the end of a brief season that began with destruction of the Russian airliner, continued with the Paris attacks and ended with the pilots of the Russian bomber parachuting into the hills of North-West Syria. During this silly season, the Russians tried to convince the world and definitely convinced themselves that the grand coalition of 1941-1945 came back to life, and they are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the French and the Americans against their joint enemy. Just one missile, and the sweet dream scattered, like the unfortunate Sukhoi bomber.
The downing was not a surprise for me, nor should it be for you: I actually warned you, my reader, it was coming a full month before it occurred. On October 19, 2015 I had been warned by my Turkish correspondents of the Shamireaders group. I passed this warning on October, 22: “Erdogan plans to pull Turkey to the brink of war with Russia. Erdogan has given orders to shoot down Russian planes operating in Syria while claiming they have intruded into Turkish air space.” I published this warning in a leading Russian newspaper, too, a few days earlier.
The downing was a terrible shock for the Russians as they did not expect an attack from the Turkish side. They were carried away by their own rhetoric. They spoke endlessly about the need to fight terrorists, and convinced themselves everybody was on the same page they were. The Turks disabused them. Naturally, the Turks and their NATO allies stood up against the Russians. The Russian claim that “we all should fight Daesh” had propaganda value but not an operational one, and they learned it this painful way.
The Arab newspapers say that President Erdogan obtained President Obama’s blessing for the operation when they met at G20 summit in Turkey. They also say the timing was chosen to derail Mr Hollande’s mission. We do not know whether this is true, but the US and other NATO members expressed their limited support for the Turkish attack. France did not demur, yet. The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “expressed solidarity with Turkey and support of Turkey’s territorial integrity”. The US decision to sanction a Russian businessman for dealing with Bashar Assad reminded everyone that for the US the main enemy in Syria has been, and is the legitimate government of Syria, while the Islamic State (Daesh) is an unruly ally.
The Turks carried out their premeditated attack on the Russian bomber because they are protecting Daesh. They are Daesh’s regional minder. Last week, Daesh authorities in Raqqa discontinued usage of the Syrian lira as a legal tender on their territory. From now on, it is Turkish lira that will be used in the new Caliphate. The Turks buy the bulk of the oil produced by Daesh, though some quantity of this oil apparently finds its way to Damascus as well. It is difficult to blame Bashar Assad’s government for its attempts to recover some of its oil from the Daesh thieves, even paying ransom for it. However, such an excuse can’t be made regarding the Turks. It is said that Erdogan’s son is personally involved in buying the stolen oil, but whether it is true or not, oil is transported to Turkey.
We should recount the reasons for the Syrian war so that the present events to make sense. It is not that the people of Syria decided to rise against the tyrant. The Syrian war has been initiated by the West in 2011 in order to overthrow Bashar Assad and his regime in a mopping-up campaign against the states that sided with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. We know that much from the Wikileaks cables of the US Embassy in Damascus. France supported the move from its own neo-colonial reasons as Syria was its former protectorate. Syria’s neighbours had their own reasons to support the US-led campaign.
Israel wanted to Somalise Syria, to cause its defragmentation in full agreement with its Yinon Plan. It wanted to place a Sunni entity between its enemies Iran and Hezbollah, as well. Qatar wanted to build a gas pipeline to Turkey via Syria, and Bashar Assad did not agree. The Saudis wanted to eliminate Bashar, as he was friendly to Iran. They did not want an Alawite like Assad to rule an Arab Muslim country. Turkey’s Erdogan wanted to place a moderate Islamist in Damascus in his endeavour to recreate the Ottoman Empire. Together with Qatar, he intended to build the gas pipeline. Together with Saudis, he wanted Muslim Brotherhood to unite the Arabs. Besides, Erdogan wanted to back a winner, and he was convinced that the fall of Assad was just a matter of weeks.
Four years have passed, and their reasons are still valid for them, even more so. These countries had spent a lot of money. They felt they were close to their goal. Enter Russia, and Assad’s regime got a new lease of life. Turkey was more annoyed than the rest as it carried the brunt of military effort: it housed the refugees, supplied fighters with weapons. The Turks were upset that the Russians had cut the lifeline to Daesh by bombing transports; they wanted to protect various Islamist groups, some of them their ethnic kith and kin, while others their ideological and religious allies. The furious Turks attacked the Russian plane in order to express their anger. They hoped that NATO would prevent Russia’s violent response, and ideally would carry out military operations against Russia thus relieving Syrian rebels.
The US approved of this action for an additional reason. They wanted to test Russian resolve and its military preparedness. It is impossible to assess correctly an enemy’s strength except in battle. This is especially true regarding Russia. There were various reports alleging the military weakness of Russia. We remember that in 1930s, Imperial Japan had made a few armed incursions into Soviet Russia. These incursions were beaten off quite convincingly, and Japan preferred to sign a non-aggression treaty with the USSR. In the west, the Soviets weren’t successful in their Finland war, and Hitler concluded Russia would be easy prey. In 2008, Georgia tried to attack Russian forces. The then Georgian president Mr Saakashvili boasted his army would reach Moscow without meeting strong resistance. His forces were thrashed in a few days. Turkey is much stronger than Georgia, and a limited Russian-Turkish war would provide a much better assessment of Russian military might.
The Russians are well aware of this reason, and this is why they used their cruise missiles and strategic long range bombers in Syria. They wanted to impress the US generals so they wouldn’t provoke a battle.
The Russians were quite upset by NATO supporting Turkey. They hoped the Europeans would be grateful that the Russians were fighting for Europe against Daesh. This did not happen, though the Russians actually bombed Daesh in a furious campaign of revenge “for Paris”. Still they decided to postpone their response for the bomber. Putin does not want to fight Turkey, if it can be avoided; even less he wants to fight NATO. Probably a limited response should be expected. Delivery of S-400 to Syria provided the means. A Turkish plane on a mission to bomb Kurds in Syria or Iraq is likely to bear the brunt of the Russian response.
Israel Shamir can be reached at [email protected]
This article has been published first at the Unz Review.