December 10, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1208

The Sultan vs The Tsar: The 21st-Century Round – The Clash Of Imperial Ambitions For Regional Hegemony

December 10, 2015 | By R. Krespin*
Turkey | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1208


On November 24, Turkish aircraft shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter jet over its violation of Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, at its southern border with Syria, causing the death of one of the pilots and of a marine from the Russian helicopter that came to the downed plane's rescue.[1] The plane fell on the Syrian side, eight miles from the border.

Erdogan (Photo: Milliyet, November 28, 2015); Putin (Photo: Hurriyet, December 4, 2015)

Was There A Violation?

Turkey claimed that it had warned the Russian aircraft 10 times in the five minutes before it entered Turkish airspace, where, it said, it remained for 17 seconds. According to Turkish columnist Umit Kivanc of Radikal,[3] some foreign military experts and astrophysicists who examined the distance and duration of the Russian aircraft's violation - based on data such as its velocity, as provided by Turkey - concluded that it would have taken the plane about seven seconds to make its 1.2-mile incursion into Turkey, not 17 seconds as Turkey claimed. Alternately, the plane would have to have been traveling at half the velocity stated by Turkey to traverse this distance in 17 seconds. However, that would mean that it could not have fallen eight miles inside Syria - unless, as Russia claims, it was shot down inside Syrian airspace. Also, if the velocity data provided by Turkey was indeed accurate, the Turkish aircraft would not have been able to warn the Russian plane 10 times - unless its crew spoke extremely fast and repeated the warnings without stopping for breath.

The day of the incident, Reuters reported that "a Russian jet shot down by Turkey was hit inside Syrian airspace, after a brief incursion into Turkish airspace, a U.S. official told Reuters."[4] However, five days later, on November 29, the U.S. State Department backed Turkey's claims by stating that it had proof of the airspace violation.

Turkey-Russia Confrontation - Over Regional Hegemony

Turkey's downing of the Russian plane was not an isolated incident. An anti-Russia climate had been building in Turkey due to the following developments:

In his speech at the closing of the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, on November 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he had shared with member states intelligence including a list of 40 countries that finance ISIS, and that some of the countries that support ISIS were members of G20, an accusation which many in Turkey perceived as directed at Turkey. He also said that he had shared satellite and aerial photos of convoys of trucks and tankers stretching for hundreds of miles, forming a sort of pipeline used for illegal trading of ISIS oil, possibly hinting at Turkey again.[5]

In the following days, Russia and France carried out fierce and effective air raids against ISIS's de-facto capital Raqqa, Syria, and also destroyed 600 oil tankers carrying ISIS oil from Deir Al-Zor area to the Turkish border.

On November 22, 2015, Turkey's AKP government, angered by Russia's November 19 and 20 attacks in northwestern Syria against Turkish-controlled non-ISIS jihadi rebels, including Turkmens, held a nightlong security meeting. The Russian ambassador was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry at midnight, to be told of Turkey's sensitivities for certain areas and certain rebel groups in Syria.[6] At the meeting, AKP officials slammed Russia's air support and bombings, that had opened the way to forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad forces in the area that stretches from north of Latakia to the mountainous Bayirbucak area near the Turkish border, to regain land that Turkmen jihadis and other rebels had been holding with Turkish support.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu strongly condemned these "barbaric attacks on our Turkmen brothers with the pretext of fighting terrorism," and vowed that Turkey would not abandon its brothers and relatives on the other side of its border. "Russia should be fighting ISIS terrorists, and they are not where Russia is bombing," he said. He also added that Turkey would act if there were any threats to its border[7]

The AKP's nationalistic, anti-Russia statements brought Turkish protesters to Russia's consulate in Istanbul, where they threw stones and eggs.[8]  

Russia Is Spoiling Turkey's Game In Syria

The Turkey-Russia crisis clearly stems from AKP Turkey's neo-Ottoman ambitions and its desire to expand its influence over Syria and beyond.[9] The regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increasingly claims ownership of Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Crimea, which it considers Turkey's Ottoman inheritance. Turkey has played a major role in the Syrian civil war since its first days, supporting and protecting a large number of jihadi opposition groups with the aim of creating a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Syria in tune with Turkey's own Islamist rule. But for this to materialize, the secular Alawite Assad regime must be ousted.

Putin, on the other hand, intervened in the Syrian conflict to prop up his ally Assad and to maintain his air and naval bases in the eastern Mediterranean, in order to restore the old Soviet hegemony in the region.

Both Turkey and Russia claim that they are fighting terrorists, but with the exception of ISIS, which Turkey finally and after a long delay recognized as "terrorist," they differ on who the other terrorists are.

Turkey, along with the U.S. led coalition, is telling Putin to focus on fighting ISIS and stop bombing other anti-Assad, so-called "moderate" jihadi organizations which are controlled by Turkey. But ISIS is not Erdogan's main target either. Turkey is waging a fierce war against the Kurds, who constitute the most effective force on the ground that fights and wins battles against ISIS, and has the approval of both the U.S. and Russia. As far as Erdogan is concerned, however, not only are the Kurdish PKK, but the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) as well are as "terrorist" as ISIS. By putting pressure on the U.S. to not arm the Kurds, and by drawing red lines to stop a Kurdish advance to the west of the Euphrates into the Jarablus-Azez area that is held by ISIS, Turkey is tying the hands of the coalition forces in the fight against ISIS. In contrast, Russia believes that all radical jihadi Islamist organizations that are not distant ideologically from ISIS must be targeted.

Therefore, the Turks' downing of a Russian plane for a 17-second (or shorter) airspace violation is only a symptom of the two countries' larger conflict of interests and opposing agendas, as well as of Turkey's displeasure at Russia's emergence in the Syrian theater. Columnist Umit Kivanc of Radikal wrote that the downing of the plane appears to be part of a policy, and therefore an intentional move, by Turkey, rather than an isolated incident: "Russia's air attacks target the infrastructure of Al-Qaeda affiliated organizations, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham, Jaysh Al-Fath, and other jihadi organizations, all of which are closely affiliated with Turkey. He added, "A so-called 'Turkmen' commander turned out to be Alparslan Celik, from Elazig [in Turkey]."[10]

Following the downing of the Russian plane, a group of Turkish journalists visiting the Bayirbucak region in Syria interviewed Turkmens who had shot and killed the pilot of the plane as he parachuted down,[11] and spoke with the Turkmen commander Alparslan Celik, an ultra-nationalist Turk affiliated with the National Action Party [MHP] whose father was an MHP mayor in Elazig.[12]  

Who Are The Turkmens Whom Turkey Claims To Be Protecting?

Columnist Soner Yalcin of independent, anti-AKP Sozcu and OdaTV, in a column titled "Since When Have The Jihadis That Turkey Transferred Into Syria Become Turkmen?" attacked the manipulations and falsities that, he said, the AKP and its media are spreading to exploit public sentiment. He wrote: "The AKP claims that the Bayirbucak Turkmens at Mount Turkmen are victims [of Russian attacks]. Firstly, there is no Mount Turkmen on the map of Syria - only an Alawi Mountain and a Kurd Mountain. These so-called Turkmens are the jihadis that Turkey has been settling within Syria since 2012; they are the fanatics who raided the Turkmen villages and massacred the Alevi Turkmens for their support for Assad. The AKP claims that there will be a wave of migration from Bayirbucak [because of Russia's operations]. But the only ones who remain there are the jihadi Sunni Turks, who are fighting in the ranks of [Jabhat] Al-Nusra."[13]

In the days prior to the downing of the Russian plane, as nationalist pro-Turkmen sentiment in Turkey was rising, Huseyin Vodinali wrote for OdaTV about the "Turkmens whom the AKP has suddenly remembered." Vodinali wrote about how Turkey had not raised its voice when thousands of Turkmens were killed and the rest were forced to leave Tal Afar during the Iraq war. "But," he added, "they were Shia Turkmens," and stated that as far as the Islamist AKP and Prime Minister Davutoglu were concerned, "if you are not a Sunni Muslim, you have no more worth than an insect."

Vodinali added that the AKP had cared not at all when Turkmens were slaughtered this year in Jarablus and Azaz by ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra jihadis, and that the AKP's sectarian Islamism had guided its efforts to burn down the house of its neighbor Syria, to overthrow Syria's Nusayri government, and to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to rule. He claimed that the same obsession is behind Turkey's fixation with Egypt's deposed president Muhammad Morsi and the Rabi'a, the hand sign symbolizing the Muslim Brotherhood resistance in Egypt. According to Vodinali, the reason for Turkey's strong support for the jihadi organizations in the Bayirbucak area, and its desire to stop Syrian, and Russian, forces from regaining control of this critical area, is that if Syria holds it, the Sunnis' reach to the sea will be blocked.[14]

Putin: Turkey Supports Terrorism, Erdogan Family Profits From Illegal Trade In ISIS Oil; Erdogan: Prove It And I Will Resign

Putin has accused Erdogan of Islamizing Turkey, to move it closer to the worldview of the radical Islamists that he supports. He has called the Turks "accomplices of terrorists," and, most recently, accused Turkey of illegally trading in ISIS oil, and by doing so financing the organization's operations. Russia has alleged that Erdogan's son had engaged in trading in the oil, and pointed to the fact that Erdogan's son-in-law is now energy minister in the newly formed AKP government.

Erdogan vehemently rejected these accusations; while in Paris in late November 2015 for the UN Climate Change Conference, he called them "shameful lies and slander." He challenged Putin to back up his claims, and said that he would resign if any proof was presented. In response to Putin's remarks calling the downing of the Russian fighter plane "a treacherous stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists," Erdogan said, "The Turks have never stabbed anyone in the back. The Turks always confront their enemies chest to chest."[15]

On December 2, 2015, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that Russia had evidence that Erdogan and his family were benefitting from the illegal trade in ISIS oil. During a Moscow briefing of foreign diplomats and international journalists, satellite images were displayed which showed thousands of tanker trucks forming a pipeline of sorts taking on oil at ISIS facilities in Syria and then crossing the border into Turkey, via three routes. In one image from November 2015, 16,260 tankers, driven by masked men, were seen near the Turkish border, crossing it, and continuing on to their destination inside Turkey.

Antonov said: "Turkey is the main consumer of the oil stolen from its rightful owners, Syria and Iraq. Some of this oil is refined in Batman in southeastern Turkey, and consumed domestically, and some is exported through Iskenderun port to third-party countries. According to information we have, President Erdogan and his family are involved in this criminal business." He also said that Erdogan would not step down even if the stolen oil was smeared all over his face. The Russian Defense Ministry also accused Turkey of regularly supplying weapons, equipment, fighters, and training to ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. It claimed that in one week alone, Turkey had brought into Syria 2000 jihadi fighters, along with arms and ammunition.[16]

Putin repeated his accusations against Turkey in his December 3, 2015 State of the Nation address to some 1,000 Russian MPs. He said, "We know who in Turkey is filling their pockets, and giving the terrorists an opportunity to sell their stolen oil. We know that they are providing terrorist organizations with fighters. Turks are a good and hardworking people, and are our friends. We do not place them in the same scale as their government." He added that Allah had misguided them, and that Turkey would pay a big price for its government's actions.[17]

Erdogan responded again to the Russian allegations in Doha, Qatar, where he went after he left Paris, with the aim of securing alternative natural gas sources.[18] He said: "No one has the right to slander Turkey by accusing it of buying oil from a terrorist group. The countries that we buy our oil from are well known to all. The one known dealer of illegal oil is a Syrian who also has Russian nationality." He reiterated that he would resign if these slanderous statements were documented and proven true, and asked that Putin should do the same if he was unable to prove them.[19]

Iraqi government spokesman Nasser Nuri Mohammed said that if details and evidence related to these allegations against Turkey were obtained, the Iraqi government would immediately file a complaint with the UN Security Council.[20]

On December 3, 2015, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren strongly rejected Russia's allegation that the Turkish government is helping ISIS by means of illegal oil trade, reaffirming that Turkey was an important partner in the fight against ISIS. The same day, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that Turkey was able to, and should, do much more to close its border with Syria, in order to prevent the smuggling of oil as well as the passage of foreign fighters in and out of Syria.

Main Turkish Opposition MP Said Last Year What Putin Claims Today: ISIS Oil Enters Turkey, Fighters Join ISIS Through Turkey - And None Of This Can Happen Without The Knowledge Of Turkish Intelligence Agency

An MP from the Turkish main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) from Hatay province, Ali Ediboglu, revealed last year that illegal oil of ISIS was being sold to Turkey. In an interview with the anti-AKP Taraf daily, published June 13, 2014, Ediboglu shared his findings in his investigation of ISIS activities in Hatay. He claimed that in 2014, $800 million in oil that ISIS obtained from regions it occupied that year, such as the Rumeilan oil fields in northern Syria, was sold in Turkey. He said that pipes had been lain to villages near the border at Hatay, as well as to the other border provinces of Kilis, Urfa, and Gaziantep. The oil, he said, was refined by primitive means near the Turkish border, and then sold via Turkey.

Ediboglu also said that large numbers of fighters come from Europe, Russia, Asia, and Chechnya to join ISIS, and all of them pass through Turkey: "It is believed that at least 1,000 Turkish citizens assist these foreign fighters in crossing the border into Syria and Iraq. There are allegations that MIT [Turkey's National Intelligence Organization] is involved. None of this can happen without MIT's knowledge."[21]

Taraf had also reported, on August 20, 2013, that there were about 2,000 oil wells in the Rumeilan region, on the Syrian side of the border that stretches between the Turkish provinces of Sirnak and Mardin. The amount of smuggled diesel fuel had, it said, reached 1,500 tons per day - which corresponds to 3.5% of total Turkish consumption.[22] The Hurriyet daily also reported, based on statements by Ediboglu, that ISIS had come to rival the TUPRAS refineries in Batman, Turkey. Ediboglu told Hurriyet that this smuggled diesel oil was selling in Turkey for 1.5 Turkish Lira, instead of the market value of 4 TL, causing transportation companies and fleets of trucks to line up to buy the cheaper smuggled diesel.

Hurriyet also spoke with some representatives of the fuel sector in Turkey. One of them said that the diesel fuel entering Turkey from Syria totals some 400,000-500,000 tons annually. Another said that they had spoken to Turkey's deputy prime minister and finance minister, and had explained to them that ISIS was operating like the TUPRAS refinery, pumping fuel nonstop from the Syrian side, and that an extensive illegal network of supply stretched from Syria all the way to Ankara. ISIS's sales points and unnamed fuel stations, he said, are putting many legitimate stations, such as Shell, BP, and Total, out of business.[23]

According to these same fuel distribution representatives, the quantity of illegal ISIS oil that reaches the markets has recently declined, "possibly due to increased air raids of coalition forces on the ISIS oil infrastructure, trucks, and tankers, as well as more border controls."[24] Some representatives told Hurriyet that now there is a reversed trade, and some Islamist groups in western Syria that used to buy oil from ISIS are now asking Turkey for supplies: "They obtain documents that allow them to import oil from Turkey in the form of 'humanitarian aid.'"[25]

Russia Intensifies Attacks, Sanctions

Russia reacted harshly to the downing of its plane, with a long list of economic sanctions against Turkey, and by intensifying its attacks in Syria. Also, on November 25, 2015, it launched intensive air attacks against Turkey-supported Islamist fighters, and bombed 20 Syria-bound trucks and trailers belonging to the Turkish IHH[26] parked on the Syrian side of two border crossings.[27] The bombings sought to cut the rebels' supply line for arms, ammunition, food, and fighters, and increased its military assets in Syria.

An IHH truck bombed by Russia in Syria, near the Turkish border (Photo: Sozcu, November 26, 2015)

An IHH operative in Syria attempting to extinguish fires from the Russian bombing. The. IHH logo is clearly visible on his back. (Photo: Hurriyet, November 26, 2015)

As Russia escalates its economic sanctions against Turkey, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said that the Russian sanctions could cost the Turkish economy $9 billion.[28]

In an attempt to de-escalate the tensions, Turkey, in a goodwill gesture, handed over to the Russians the body of Oleg Peshkov, the pilot of the downed plane.[29] Peshkov's body was delivered by the Syrian militants to Turkey at the Syrian border, and then brought to Ankara, in military tradition.[30] On the morning of November 30, the pilot's casket, wrapped in the national flag of the Russian Federation and carried by Turkish soldiers, was flown to Moscow following a Turkish military ceremony at the airport in Ankara, attended by the Russian ambassador and the Russian Embassy's air and land attaches.[31]

Russia is demanding recognition by Turkey that the plane was shot down in Syrian airspace, and an apology, before any dialogue between the leaders to resolve the crisis.[32]


[1] No NATO member state had downed a Russian plane in over 60 years of the alliance's history, even through the Cold War.

[2] Radikal, November 26, 2015.

[3] OdaTV, November 28, 2015.

[4] Reuters, November 24, 2015. On the subject of the history of airspace violations that have not led to the downing of foreign planes, the anti-AKP dailies published data recently released by Greece's Thessaly University, which demonstrate that the Turkish Air Force planes violated Greece's airspace 2244 times in 2014, up from 636 violations in 2013 (Diken, November 25, 2015)

Numbers of violations of Greek airspace by Turkish planes show a sharp increase in 2014

During the EU Summit on November 29, PM of Greece Alexis Tsipras spoke to Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu and shared via Twitter the remarks he made to him in good humor:

Tsipras deleted the English version of his tweets after Davutoglu responded:[4]


[5] Diken, November 16, 2015.

[6] Hurriyet, November 20, 2015.

[7] Hurriyet, November 20, 2015.

[8] Hurriyet Daily News, November 21, 2015.

[9] See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1194, Russian Intervention Shatters Turkey's Neo-Ottomanist Dreams For Syria, October 19, 2015.

[10] Radikal, November 26, 2015.

[11] The second pilot of the downed plane was later rescued by Assad's special forces. The rebels had stripped and abused the body of the killed pilot. The Turkish news portal OdaTV provided footage of the rebels desecrating the body, chanting "Allahu Akbar," and wrote: "The body of the Russian pilot was tortured by jihadis whom Turkey calls 'Turkmens." OdaTV, November 25, 2015.

[12] Diken, November 28, 2015.

[13] OdaTV, Sozcu, November 27, 2015.

[14] OdaTV, November 23, 2015.

[15] Milliyet, November 28, 2015.

[16] Cumhuriyet, December 2, 2015.

[17] Cumhuriyet, Sozcu, December 3, 2015.

[18] Turkey depends on natural gas for electricity production and heating; it buys 60% of its natural gas from Russia, and most of the rest comes from Iran.

[19] TodaysZaman, December 2, 2015.

[20] Cumhuriyet, December 2, 2015.

[21] Taraf, June 13, 2014.

[22] Taraf, August 20, 2013.

[23] Hurriyet, June 13, 2014

[24] Columnists Mehves Emin of Diken (December 4, 2015), Mustafa Yalciner of Evrensel (December 7, 2015), and Ezgi Basaran of Radikal (December 4, 2015) have all written that Turkey has been the main buyer of ISIS oil, as revealed in important documents seized by the U.S. in its May 2015 raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, who was in charge of the organization's finances and oil trade. The matter has been extensively covered by foreign and domestic media. It is believed that the oil trade between Turkey and ISIS was conducted by businessmen, with the complicity of high-level officials. Hurriyet analyst Tolga Tanis told Cumhuriyet on December 8, 2015 that the Turkish government had granted the business of importing and exporting oil from Kurdish Northern Iraq, including ISIS oil, to a single company, in a non-transparent way. He said that at least since 2014, this company's international business has been run by executives of Calik Holding, the former CEO of which was Erdogan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak - who is now Turkey's energy minister.

[25] Hurriyet, November 20, 2015

[26] IHH, a radical Islamist organization whose activities are disguised as humanitarian relief, is active in Syria and has strong presence in the border provinces of Hatay and Kilis. It sends many trucks into Syria with "humanitarian aid." IHH organized the May 2010 Gaza flotilla, and owned the Mavi Marmara that sailed to Gaza with over 600 jihadis on board.

[27] Zaman, November 26, 2015.

[28] Cumhuriyet, December 7, 2015. Russia's economic sanctions against Turkey include: Cancellation of no-visa entry to Russia for Turkish citizens; cutting off imports of fruit, vegetables, poultry, and so on from Turkey; banning Turkish contractors' participation in Russian projects; stopping tourism into Turkey, and cancellation of winter camping for Russian sports teams in Antalya. Russia also froze joint projects, such as the Akkuyu nuclear project, and the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline that was to run from Russia to Europe via Turkey. The most feared sanction would be cutting off the sale of natural gas. So far, Russia has not taken that step.

[29] OdaTV, November 25, 2015.

[30] Hurriyet Daily News, November 29, 2015.

[31] Cumhuriyet, November 30, 2015.

[32] Diken, November 29, 2015.

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