Lost Helicopter: Turkey’s War Against the Kurds Will Soon Have a Different Target
[ Editor’s Note: Seth Ferris takes us into the Byzantine geopolitics of Turkey’s current situation, with backdrop on the Iraqi Kurds shooting down Turkey’s Cobra helicopter. It is a bit hard to follow, but it is the never ending fur ball combat of the Mideast.
The common thread to conflict is the large flow of weapons, a lot of them from Western and Easter suppliers. This included the TOWS, which could be coming from Gulf State or Turkish purchases and finding their way into terrorist hands.
I have been surprised at Syria never publishing the serial numbers of captured weapons, including damaged ones, to trace them to the stockpiles they came from.
Eastern block weapons, especially small arms, are more complicated, as you have a lot of old Soviet block weapons in various hands. They are often sold out the back door by those looking to insure their retirement fund is collected in advance, or purchased by the CIA when they want to plant Russian-made weapons into a conflict to create a false link.
Middle men play a key role in deniability by all parties on the small arms, but for the bigger items like the TOWS, middle men don’t carry them in their inventory.
We can look back now on Obama’s admission that he should have given more consideration about what would happen to Libya after Gaddafi was gone — a little late for that.
The weapons already there turned into the warehouse for supplying the Syrian insurgents, with Qatar jumping in fast through its support for al-Qaeda there, and having the cash to buy it all up. It was able to supply its own Syrian insurgents, plus pass some on for US or Saudi use.
Russia and Syria have lost a number of planes now to MANPADS during the ceasefire without making much of a fuss about it. I had expected more than just a mention from Lavrov, but that is all that we heard publicly.
This self-serving attitude about uncontrolled arms flow is one of the mother’s milk flavors that keeps the terrorists in constant supply. None of those in government ever pay a price for this, only the innocent victims… Jim W. Dean ]
– First published … May 27, 2016 –
Imagine you are working as press officer for the Turkish Ministry of Defence or Foreign Affairs. How do you deal with the recent shooting down of the helicopter? According to Russian information sources Ankara has acknowledged conducting airstrikes on alleged PKK targets in Iraq.
The Turkish military has also continued targeting Kurds inside the country and is shelling Kurdish militias in northern Syria. It is one such sortie which led to a Turkish Cobra assault helicopter apparently being shot down by the Iraqi Kurdish militia, or so the official story goes at the moment.
Turkey is supposed to be involved in Iraq as part of an international war on terrorism. However all it will admit to doing is attacking the Kurds, inside the country as well as outside. It refuses to treat Daesh as a terrorist organisation, and the flow of arms and personnel to that organisation through Turkey means it is most probably sponsoring it.
So Turkey’s actions in Iraq have everything to do with Turkey’s internal policy and nothing to do with a global war on terrorism. If you were the press officer, this would become clearer every time you issued a release, no matter what you said.
So it would suit Turkey and its press officer if the shooting down of the helicopter could be divorced from its conflict with the Kurds. However that creates another problem. According to sources in Turkey, it may have been meant as a warning.
The United States is standing with the Kurds in their fight against Daesh, meaning that US policymakers on the highest level might have approved the shoot down in order to send a message to the Turkish leadership. Unless Turkey renounces its Kurdish policy overnight, it is not going to admit this either.
So either the Kurds were simply responding to Turkish provocation or the whole world is against Turkey. However the Erdogan government tries to spin it now, it is more likely to be the Turkish state, rather than one helicopter, that will crash and burn as a result of this action. Unless it can suddenly find a way out – and it is probable that it has found itself one without even realising it, though this way may have grave consequences for everyone else.
Acceptable face of terrorism
Some sources inside Turkey, perhaps encouraged by the press officers, are saying that the Russians most probably shot down the helicopter. They are saying that Russian technology was used – specifically Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS), surface-to-air missiles which can be fired by an individual or a small team of people.
However the Turks are well aware that the US has a track record of using third party technology to achieve its military goals. It did the same in Afghanistan in the 1980s, around the time it inserted and armed the Taliban, al-Qaeda and all the other groups it now claims to be fighting against.
The Washington Post has provided some interesting insight to this, comparing what happened in Afghanistan to what can now turn into a full scale shooting war in Iraq.
The shooting down of the helicopter has made Turkey aware that, what the US did to the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Kurds and Americans are doing to it in Northern Iraq and Syria. We won’t hear a lot more about Russian involvement because the Turkish state isn’t going to demonise Russia on the one hand and then provoke it on the other. But tacitly accusing Russia now, despite what might happen, shows how desperate the Turks have become to avoid the consequences of this action.
Alleged evidence of the shooting down has been released, in the form of a video entitled Revolutionary Operations – Çukurca Boundary Line – 13 May 2016, posted on May 14 by Gerilla TV, which is associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Around four minutes into the video, a fighter can be seen firing a shoulder-held MANPADS. Its missile appears to hit the tail of a helicopter, which goes into a spin and then crashes behind a hill. A voice can then be heard yelling “Cobra down! Well done!“
The questions this video raises are – does the PKK possess any MANPADS, and are its soldiers capable of firing them? It has long been rumoured that it might have them, but there has been no evidence as yet. Nor has there ever been evidence that PKK combatants can shoot down planes with them.
If such evidence existed, Turkey would have broadcast it long ago to highlight the threat the PKK posed and gain international approval for increased attacks on it as part of the war on terror. So is Turkish intelligence, which has a sophisticated operation throughout the region, lacking? Or are the PKK being trained by the Americans, whose sponsored fighters already use such weapons in Ukraine?
We do know that hand-held surface-to-air hand missiles, of the type depicted in this video, are readily available from Libya. These conveniently disappeared under NATO’s watch, as a lot of weapons seem to do. Theoretically the PKK can’t get hold of them because no one is legally allowed to sell weapons to them, but when something disappears you can give it away to whoever you want.
The big picture in the fine detail
So with any possible explanation of the loss of the helicopter making Turkey look criminal, weak or facing disaster, the Turkish press officers have found another excuse for the loss of the helicopter. They are saying that if Russia didn’t shoot it down, it can only have been technical failure which caused it to crash.
For a number of years Turkey has expressed its longstanding loyalty to the US by buying US helicopters. When American policemen are asked how often they use their guns, by people from countries which don’t arm their police, they say that they rarely fire them because it involves too much paperwork. Americans and American-sponsored terrorists don’t often shoot down American helicopters, for the same reason.
But when the buyer changes suppliers then it is open season. Turkey is now buying them from Italy, which may also be a US ally but whose helicopters are much less protected from a possible US sanctioned attack. BTW, the Kurds brought down brought down a Chinook the same month
So the US might have a few tricks in the bag, and it was not only the Kurds that were behind the apparent shooting down. Such a claim would provoke The White House just as much as accusing the Russians of shooting the helicopter down would provoke The Kremlin. But Turkey has actually stopped buying US-made helicopters. Once they started buying them from Italians, Americans decided it was okay to fight the former client
It would have been much more convenient all round to blame the Italians for a failure of a military nature, at least in terms of vulnerable technology. The interesting thing will be what happens to deliveries of Italian helicopters that Turkey is buying. There is a bigger story here. Turkey is wishful the whole thing goes away before either the Kurds or the US take the shooting down to its logical conclusion?
Adapt or die
Turkey is supposed to be a trusted US ally and member of NATO. But it fails to support US causes and its military industrial complex. Instead it has tried to use event in Syria for local policy gain, and prolong that conflict to suit its own purposes.
The US is very fond of taking advantage of local unrest, even if it doesn’t actually foment it, to further its own ambitions. The various Arab Spring revolts provided several examples of this.
But it won’t let anyone else try the same, precisely because it does it itself. To cleanse its own actions, the US has to make sure its allies are acting according to some higher purpose, or in a way which can be presented as such.
Turkey’s actions in Syria might have been tolerated if the US had achieved its objectives there. But it is increasingly losing ground in that war, and is now effectively arming both sides due to its own incompetence.
Failure in Syria would mean a failure in the alleged “war on terror” and the campaign to justify anything by reference to the US national interest. This will have serious repercussions throughout the region, and leave room for a new protector to come along and secure the energy routes for their own use, or even worse, local exploitation.
So Turkey has to get with the programme. It is overtly supporting and supplying ISIL to attack the PKK, while the US is only doing it covertly, to create a Greater Kurdistan under US control. Both sides know too much about what the other is doing, and the US is not going to run the risk of losing another standoff. Turkey is being threatened with destruction by its own US allies, regardless of the hands used, if it doesn’t start supporting US objectives rather than its own, and now has to explain this away.
If Turkey says Russia did it, it will have to attack Russia to stop it happening again. The US won’t do that for it. Turkey won’t do that, so it can either admit the PKK is shooting down its helicopters in response to its own actions against the Kurdish population outside and inside its borders, thus weakening it, or admit the US is happy to destroy it for not following orders.
Unless of course it can prove the technical failure it is talking about, and everyone can blame the Kurds, and by extension the EU and NATO, and deflect attention from everything the conflict which led to the shooting down is actually about.
Way out that ruins everything
We might recall one of the key scenes in the film Charlie Wilson’s War, where three Soviet Helicopter gunships make a run on unarmed civilians and unprotected civilians during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
“All you have to do is shoot down a helicopter and you will see how things fall into place,” one of the characters says. However, both expected and unexpected consequences result.
This shooting down was not designed to be a one-off incident. Turkey has been backed into a corner it must extricate itself from quickly before the whole house is set on fire.
To avoid compromising itself, perhaps fatally, in both diplomatic and military terms it will have to come up with a common enemy that those who don’t like Turkey can also pile in on.
What Turkey may do next may have very serious consequences for Europe with a flood of Kurdish and other refugees.
Already Europe is being attacked from all sides and unable to keep its own house in order. Even the EU may prove too much a pipedream to be maintained in its present form.
Crashing and burning
As in Afghanistan, a shot has been fired in Iraq and things have “fallen into place,” for an increasingly belligerent government which has held its own press hostage and designated sections of its own population, including the Kurds, as terrorists, whilst not declaring Daesh to be such. The wagons are circling around Turkey and Ahmet Davutoğlu might have got out just in time—an American asset.
By using a bigger picture as cover for its own policy Turkey has put itself in a lose-lose situation, embattled on all sides. But though it may not have intended to at the time, Turkey has now found a convenient scapegoat to unite all those who don’t like it behind it in a common cause.
Everyone wants to believe in EU incompetence to cover their own crimes. Turkey can abuse its own people all it wants if the greater strategic goal of isolating the EU is given precedence.It may even put up with losing some of its territory to the new US-sponsored Kurdish state, as long as it is part of a greater coalition which supplants the EU which won’t let Turkey in.
Turkey’s only way out of this situation is to claim it was let down by EU and NATO incompetence, as that is the only way it can stop all the threats to it from the PKK, the US and everyone else. Any other explanation of what happened makes it seem weak and endangered. The shoot down is important because when Turkey is looking weak with the blackmail of the EU, threatening increase the flow of refugees, and it is possible that Turkey could also start playing the victim card.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.