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We may have missed the start of World War III last month thanks to remarkable restraint emanating from two diverse locations.

Turks Shoot Down Russian Bomber

Turkey, our NATO ally, shot down a Russian aircraft, claiming repeated violations of its airspace during Russian bombing runs over northern Syria while attacking various forces of Daesh (aka ISIS or ISIL). Turkey released film of the Russian airmen parachuting to Earth, landing in Syrian territory. The Turks first reported that both airmen were killed by shots from the ground by Syrian government opponents while parachuting. Later, it was learned that one crewmember survived.

The NATO high command and Russia both exercised cool-handed restraint. NATO could have invoked its mutual defense commitment by imposing a military response, such as a no-fly zone over northern Syria. Likewise, Russia could have retaliated with an attack on Turkish military bases. This would seriously disrupt relations between the international powers. At worst, this could have started World War III.

Most people probably do not realize just how close we came to the start of World War III

Testosterone-based machismo has a long history of short-term success in politics.

A no-fly zone military response by NATO would have been hailed by most of the Republican presidential candidates along with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Likewise, had Russia attacked bases in Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have enhanced his domestic appeal. Putin could have wrapped himself in international law, noting that shooting at a crew parachuting from an aircraft in distress violates Article XX of the Hague convention of 1923 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949. It is a war crime.

In the Aftermath

Since the incident, no third-party intelligence source has officially confirmed the Turkish side of the story. Russia claims that it did not violate Turkish airspace. The New York Times reports that Putin claims that the flight path of the Russian planes was made known in advance to the United States military command, prior to the Turkish attack. He added rhetorically, “What did we give this information to the Americans for?”

The Turks have continued walking back the story. The New York Times reported that in response to Russian economic sanctions, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, “We might have been able to prevent this violation of our airspace differently.” Turkey alleges the Russian incursions happened repeatedly. Russia claims that the flight paths of its warplanes bombing Daesh forces in Syria are passed to the Americans in advance, alluding to an informal rules-of-the-road understanding established between President Barack Obama and Putin.

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A Hidden Agenda?

Concurrent with the Turkish attack, French President François Hollande was in Washington meeting with Obama, advancing new proposals for the war against Daesh in Syria, along with proposals to be advanced at the climate change summit in Paris. The Financial Times of London reported that Hollande proposed that the United States modify its position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go as a condition for a unified war against Daesh. The Financial Times stated, “… Paris signaled a softening of its stance toward the Syrian president by suggestions that the [Assad] regime’s soldiers might fight alongside opposition groups against ISIS.”

Hollande’s proposal was counter to Turkish interests. The New York Times reported, “Turkey has been quietly seething ever since Russia began military operations against Syrian rebels two months ago, wrecking Ankara’s policy of ousting the government of President Bashar el-Assad. Turkey’s ally, Saudi Arabia, also had much to gain by precipitating a crisis. If the Paris climate talks foundered because of a Russo-Turkish military dispute that had included a NATO military response, the world’s dependence on Saudi oil could continue.”

Fortunately, neither Putin nor NATO took the bait. To compound Turkish ineptitude throughout the entire affair, The New York Times reported that Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed “… that Turkey was not aware that it was a Russian warplane when its air force fired.” Firing at an unknown aircraft that is not engaging in hostile activity is also a war crime.

Turks Shoot Down Russian Bomber

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)

The suggestion of a Saudi-Turkish rogue collaboration warrants further scrutiny by Congress. However, this is unlikely to happen. Most members of Congress march in lockstep behind provocative postures like no-fly zones. Republican presidential aspirant Chris Christie even suggested that US warplanes shoot directly at the Russians.

There remains a faint ray of hope in the Democratic Party’s back benches. Hawaii’s newest Democratic congressional representative, Tulsi Gabbard, has strongly advocated that the replacement of Assad be placed on the back burner. The New York Times reports that Gabbard has introduced legislation that would defund efforts to overthrow him. She supports a unified effort against Daesh that includes Assad’s forces. Gabbard also has advocated increasing the number of Democratic presidential debates in efforts to include greater scrutiny of foreign policy issues. Gabbard is an Iraq combat veteran, a Hindu, and the first American Samoan to be elected to Congress.

Democratic Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has relegated Gabbard to the extreme back benches of Congress for challenging Democratic Party orthodoxy.


Robert M. Nelson

Republished from Pasadena Weekly with permission