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Showdown on the Syrian Border: Vijay Prashad on Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet

Web ExclusiveNovember 25, 2015
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We look at Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Turkey-Syria border on Tuesday—one of the most serious clashes between a NATO member country and Russia in half a century. Turkey says it repeatedly warned the Russian pilots they were violating Turkish airspace. Russia claims the plane never strayed from Syrian airspace. “There are some serious questions on the table about Turkey’s role in this conflict,” says journalist Vijay Prashad, in a web exclusive interview. He suggests Turkey may be providing support to both the Islamic State and various proxy forces fighting in the area where the Russian jet was shot down. He also argues there is no international backing for American and French retaliatory bombings in Raqqa, Syria. Prashad’s recent article is “Showdown on the Syrian border.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we turn now to look at Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Turkey-Syria border on Tuesday—one of the most serious clashes between a NATO member country and Russia in half a century. Turkey says it repeatedly warned the Russian pilots they were violating Turkish airspace. Russia claims the plane never strayed from Syrian airspace. Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted to the attack on Tuesday.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] This event goes beyond the frameworks of a regular fight against terrorism. Naturally, our military are pursuing a heroic battle against terrorism, sacrificing themselves and their lives. Today’s loss for us was like a stab in the back delivered by the accomplices of terrorists. I cannot qualify what happened today as anything else. Anyway, our pilots and our plane in no way threatened the Turkish republic. This is an obvious thing. They were carrying out their duty to fight the Islamic State.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the two crewmembers who ejected from the downed plane was reportedly killed by fire from the ground. The Russian military says the other pilot survived and is back in their hands. During a White House news conference with President Hollande of France, President Obama called on Russia and Turkey to take steps to discourage escalation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace. I think it’s very important right now for us to make sure that both the Russians and the Turks are talking to each other to find out exactly what happened and take measures to discourage any kind of escalation.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline. He’s the author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. His most recent piece, which we’ll link to, is headlined “Showdown on the Syrian Border.”

So, talk about the significance of what has taken place, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, first, to put some context to this, Amy, this is not the first downing of a plane at the Syrian-Turkish border during the conflict that opened up in 2011. In fact, a Turkish reconnaissance plane was shot down by the Syrians in 2012. A number of Syrian fighter planes have been shot down by the Turks previously. But this is the first time a Russian plane has been shot, not merely by the Turkish air force, but by the Turkish air force which is a part of NATO. So this is a major crisis in one sense, because it pits NATO directly against the Russians. There are lots of questions about what happened, but because the Turks took this incident to the NATO military council, this brings to bear the full weight of Europe and the United States into this conflict. In other words, it’s not merely, you know, a Syrian plane taking out a Turkish plane, but now it’s Russia versus NATO. And I think that’s the reason why the NATO secretary general and the U.S. president have both called for calm. “Calm” is a word that’s not very familiar in the Turkish capital of Ankara, but that’s what they’ve called for.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Turkey, the president, Erdogan, defended Turkey’s right to protect its borders after the Turkish fighter jet shot down the warplane.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] We are feeling distressed for encountering such an incident. But the actions were fully in line with Turkey’s rules of engagement that have been declared before. Turkey does not harbor enmity towards its neighbors. The reason worse incidents have not taken place in the past regarding Syria is the cool-headedness of Turkey. Nobody should doubt we made our best efforts to avoid this latest incident. But everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Vijay Prashad, can you respond to this and allegations that Turkey is actually supporting Daesh, or ISIS?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, the evidence is quite clear. Firstly, U.N. Resolution 2249 doesn’t actually permit foreign powers from coming in and, you know, joining in the struggle in Syria. There is no international backing, for instance, for the American bombing in Raqqa, the French bombing in Raqqa. Nor is there international backing for the Turkish backing of its various proxies, including the Sultan Hamid Brigade—Sultan Abdul Hamid Brigade, which has been fighting in the very part of the border where the Russian plane had been bombing and was then taken down by the Turkish government. Recently, the leader of—the head of Turkey’s intelligence bureau, the MIT, Hakan Fidan, said that Daesh, or ISIS, is merely just another organization. And I think he said that—he said, “I think the West and other powers should come to terms with it.”

There has been a number of reports about how Turkey has allowed a resupply in logistical material to cross the border into ISIS areas. There is also a new Human Rights Watch report, which says that Turkey has closed the border to Syrian refugees. So it’s porous one way. Refugees are not able to come into Turkey at this time, but Turkish material is going in to help not only its proxies, such as the Sultan Abdul Hamid Brigade, but also ISIS. So there are some serious questions, I think, on the table about Turkey’s role in this particular conflict. And when Putin said that there are accomplices of terrorism—he said this right after the downing of the Russian jet—there is something to that, I think, and it might bear further investigation to see what kind of direct support the Turkish government has been providing not only its proxies, for which there is really quite good evidence, but also to ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, President Obama and the French president, Hollande, are urging Russia to stop bombing the—what they call the moderate rebels and to attack ISIS. Talk about Russia’s target in Syria and where the Syrian president, his ally, Assad, fits into this picture.

VIJAY PRASHAD: This is a very important thing to look at. In recent weeks, as a result of the Russian bombing and close air support, the Syrian army, which had been thoroughly demoralized over the summer, has been making some important gains, both towards Palmyra—they’ve been moving towards the city, where ISIS has held for several months and blew up the Temple of Bel, and they’ve been moving to clear out the rural areas in Latakia, where the Sultan Abdul Hamid Brigade, for instance, has been operating. So, because of Russian air support, the Arab—Syrian Arab Army has been able to pressure some of these proxies. Some of them are proxies of Turkey, some are proxies of Qatar, and some are proxies of Saudi Arabia. But they’ve also been pushing against ISIS, particularly in the area around Palmyra. So, some people are suggesting that because of this new move by the Syrian Arab Army, by the government’s army, there has been, in a sense, a frustration from the proxies. And just a few days ago, the Sultan Abdul Hamid Brigade released a video where they were pleading with the Turkish government to assist them, because they were being pushed into this region bordering Hatay province in Turkey. And this is precisely the area which was being targeted by these Russian jets, where the Turkish fighter planes came in and took them out.

So there’s lots of questions to be asked. You know, is this merely about the violation of airspace? After all, the Russian fighter jets went into Turkish airspace for 17 seconds and were actually shot as they exited Turkish airspace. Is this merely about, you know, violations of airspace, or other things involved, perhaps? You know, the Swedish government has said that if they had had such a violation, they would have come in and warned the jets in the air and pressured them to leave; they wouldn’t have fired live fire directly at the jets. So, you know, there needs to be some kind of investigation about what has happened here. I think there’s a lot of rushing to judgment about the importance of or the sanctity of airspace and borders, when we very well know that in this particular civil war the borders of the countries have not been respected by anybody. As I said earlier, the U.N. Resolution 2249 doesn’t allow any country to come in and bomb in Syria, and yet that’s precisely what is happening. So the precedent that this sets is, what if now a French aircraft decides to enter Syrian airspace? Could the—excuse me. What if a French aircraft enters Syrian airspace? Could the Russians target that aircraft? You know, it’s a very dangerous precedent set if this is merely about violation of airspace.

AMY GOODMAN: And the news that the Turkmans—and explain who they are—with the Russian pilots parachuting out, actually shot one of them to death?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, there is a broader game here that needs to be, again, explored in some detail, which is that President Erdogan and his party, the AKP, has a kind of neo-Ottoman foreign policy, which includes being the so-called protector of the Turkmen people and the Tatar people, not only in northern Syria, but also in Crimea. You know, there’s a great deal to be said about Turkish statements about what’s been happening in Crimea, about the Tatar population, the Crimean Tatar population in that area. So, there have been longstanding tensions between the Russians and the Turks over the question of the Crimean Tatars and now about the question of the Syrian Turkmen. This Turkmen group of the Sultan Abdul Hamid Brigade has very close ties with the so-called Army of Conquest. They are linked to Jabhat al-Nusra. In fact, the term of art now on Turkish television is to call them “moderate jihadists.”

Well, you know, yes, they had been moved into this region near the Turkish border. When the pilots were parachuting down, they did—they actually have video of them firing at the pilots. They killed one of the pilots. This is, of course, a war crime. The 1977 protocol to the Geneva Conventions has a specific article which says that a parachuting person is to be protected. You cannot just fire at them. So, you know, these kind of questions of what is going to be taken up as a war crime, I mean, that’s something to consider. But the broader question here is about the Turkish government’s understanding, at least Erdogan’s understanding, of a kind—of being the protector of the Turks, which includes the Turkmen of Syria and the Crimean Tatars. And this puts them directly into a clash with the Russians.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Prashad, a recent piece on CNN’s website was headlined “Assad Only Winner After Russian Jet Downed.” Do you agree that President Assad has benefited from this?

VIJAY PRASHAD: No, I don’t think so. You know, I think that nobody is going to benefit if there’s any ratcheting up of tensions. Today in Moscow, the Turkish Embassy was attacked with eggs and people demonstrating and yelling for retaliation against Turkey. This is all very dangerous. You know, right now, there are Russian ships in the Caspian Sea, and they’ve been launching cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea. These missiles go over Turkey. I think there’s a lot of, you know, possibility for very serious error or confrontation. I think this is very dangerous. There is a suggestion that the Turks have been using these provocations, trying to, you know, create a situation where the West, or at least NATO, has to come in and bail out, you know, their perhaps miscalculation in Syria—a kind of Bay of Pigs situation for Turkey. I think this kind of thinking is very dangerous. You know, Turkey and—you know, Syria, certainly, doesn’t deserve escalation. You know, the population has lost 20 years of life expectancy. There is way too much—you know, way too much fighting going on. So I don’t see this as benefiting Assad in any way. Yes, it cements the importance of the Russian presence for him, but not if the Russians then are going to escalate this into a clash against Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama kept pushing this point. I think he said 64-member coalition attacking Syria and two on the other side—Iran and Russia. What’s the significance of this?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it depends how you count these things. I mean, you know, how do you count Iraq? Whose side is Iraq on? I think there’s some jockeying happening here between the West and Russia. The spillover of a previous conflict over Ukraine is continuing. Putin is demonized in the West. On the other side, the Russians continue to fear, along with the Chinese, that they are being encircled by NATO and the United States. You know, there is an increased tension that runs from the South China Sea all the way to Syria. I think this kind of language—”Whose team are you with?”—is not very helpful at all. The question is: Will there be some kind of, you know, not only deconfliction, which is to prevent errors of fighter planes being in the air, but more than that, what I think François Hollande was trying to do in his big tour around the world, which is to create some modus operandi between these various powers to dial down their tensions and make sure they collaborate properly to calm things down in Syria. So I think that this language of, you know, “Who’s leading?” is not as important as whether there’s a space for collaboration.

AMY GOODMAN: And overall, the Paris attacks, Professor Prashad, and then the response of France, of Russia, of the United States, to pummel Raqqa—hundreds of thousands of civilians live there—and the crackdown on refugees, the overall picture here?

VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, it’s a miserable reaction in terms of Raqqa, because there’s no strategy for that bombing. And as you said, there are over 200,000 people who live there. It’s not clear what the outcome is going to be. The political question of the refugees has been so badly handled in the West, where people have begun to demonize them. But the one silver lining has been Hollande’s attempt to bring the various sides, particularly the Russians and the Americans, to the table to create some unified approach towards ISIS. That’s been the only silver lining of this particular very poor reaction after the Paris attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Vijay Prashad, for joining us, professor of international studies at Trinity College, columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline, author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. We’ll link to your piece, “Showdown on the Syrian Border.” I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!

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