By Michael Karadjis
One small victory for humanity
Naturally enough, when any warplane engaged in mass murder is brought down, humanity wins a small battle. The Russian invaders of Syria have already slaughtered hundreds of civilians (526 in first 45 days http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/1447972413#.Vlox_STA1sv), have bombed countless hospitals and medical facilities, schools, markets (like the 44 killed in the bombing of an open market in Ariha in Idlib several days ago http://eaworldview.com/2015/11/syria-daily-russia-kills-44-in-market-bombing/), refugee camps, aid convoys etc; have used cruise missiles (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/566255-russian-cruise-missiles-pummel-rebel-held-areas-of-syria), cluster bombs (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/middleeast/article4623770.ece), white phosphorus (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/is-russia-or-france-deploying-chemical-weapons-against-isis-in-raqqa-a6745171.html); on November 28, Russian airstrikes in Idlib “destroyed an aid dispensary containing a bakery that produced over 300,000 pounds of bread per month and a well providing safe-drinking water to an estimated 50,000 people” (http://syriadirect.org/news/50000-people-without-access-to-drinking-water-after-reported-russian-airstrike-hits-well); ten days earlier, they destroyed the bread oven in Atareb, in Aleppo province, which served some 120,000 people (https://syriafreedomforever.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/russian-bombs-against-civilians-القنابل-الروسية-ضد-المدنيين/).
The Russians have targeted the Free Syrian Army (FSA) nearly all the time, and have mostly bombed provinces with zero ISIS presence, except when slaughtering civilians in Raqqa; and all this to aid a fascist regime that has already been bombing its entire country into a moonscape for years; in just a three-week period in November, regime bombing killed 338 and injured 1607 people in an offensive in the sprawling Damascus outer suburbs of East Ghoutta alone (http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/11/20/syrian-regime-offensive-in-eastern-ghouta-has-killed-338), just one of many theatres of the war; an exterminationist regime.
As such there can be nothing but wild cheers from Syrians for the downing of a warplane that has been slaughtering their children. The fact that these weeks and weeks of the most grueling, the most overt, targeting of civilians by an invading army of a superpower has only resulted in a little chiding by Russia’s imperialist partners, and complete indifference (if not support) by the imperial left; yet when one of the warplanes engaged in this mass homicide comes down it is treated as a big deal; is testament to the sick morality of the imperialist world order, including some of those within it imagining they are not part of it.
But questions of celebration and hypocrisy aside, it is useful to look at some specifics here. And I do not mean the irrelevance of which side of the Syrian-Turkish border the Russian killer plane was technically flying in when shot down; that discussion assumes it had the right to be on the Syrian side of the border in the first place. “Anti-imperialists” who join in this imperialist discussion ought to take a look at a map, and notice that Syria in fact is not part of Russia; actually, it is a significant distance away. Therefore there’s little point in a discussion about who was technically right or wrong, since by any standard, Russia did not have the “right” to be flying around killing Syrian people in the first place.
If, for example, it were American warplanes flying around and carpet-bombing a country far from home – Iraq for example – and one got shot down right on the Iranian border, with a dispute over which set of square inches the plane was in, I imagine we would judge the American and the Iranian actions somewhat differently, and rightly so.
Russian slaughter of the Turkmen people
But more interesting are the specifics of the case. For weeks, Russia had been intensively bombing Turkmen communities in that region near the Syrian-Turkish border, in northern Latakia province (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Nov-20/323898-turkey-summons-russian-envoy-over-bombing-of-turkmens-in-syria-pm.ashx). Russia also fired cluster bombs around Yamadi nearby Aubain refugee camps near the border, housing thousands of refugees, several times in the weeks before (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/middleeast/article4623770.ece). Several days before the incident, the Turkish government summoned the Russian ambassador to protest this; “it was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages and this could lead to serious consequences,” the Turkish foreign ministry said describing the meeting (http://www.vox.com/2015/11/24/9792830/russia-plane-turkmen).
At least 1500 Turkmen had already fled the slaughter and taken refuge in Turkey:
https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/22413-turkey-provides-refuge-for-turkmen-fleeing-home-in-syria, while another 5,500 have fled to the Yamadi camp near the border: http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30192/Syrian_Turkmen_Flee_Regime_Attacks_Turkey.
Some estimates of the flight across the border are higher. According to Telegraph Middle East correspondents Louisa Loveluck and Richard Spencer, “In recent days, thousands of civilians have fled over the border, saying they feared Russian bombing raids in support of regime forces” (http://www.vox.com/2015/11/24/9792830/russia-plane-turkmen).
One Turkish official, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, declared that “Turkey won’t be indifferent to attacks targeting the life security of Turkmen” (http://www.vox.com/2015/11/24/9792830/russia-plane-turkmen) – indicating that the downing of the Russian plane may have had more to do with the context of this slaughter than with the boring “legal” formalities.
Most ethnic Turkmen brigades in Syria are affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), so it is not surprising that Russia has been bombing them, since the FSA has been Russia’s main target in its alleged intervention “against ISIS.” To state the obvious, the province the Russian plane was bombing, Latakia, has had no ISIS presence whatsoever since the FSA drove them out root and branch in early 2014 (when the FSA drove ISIS out of about half of Syria).
However, there are a couple of side issues raised by this incident. One was the shooting of one of the pilots who was parachuting to the ground after the plane was hit; the other was the fact that the fighter who shot him, Alparslan Çelik, was not an ethnic Turkman, but a Turkish fascist, the son of a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) mayor (http://anfenglish.com/news/turkmen-commander-turns-out-to-be-turkish-nationalist).
The latter detail is somewhat odd, given that the MHP supports the Assad regime, as we will see below; but first let’s examine the shooting issue, and the state of Turkmen militias in Syria.
Shooting pilots – and a little digression about Vietnam
Decades ago, US Republican leader John McCain was flying around in an American warplane bombing and killing Vietnamese peasants, that is, engaged in the same kind of activities as the Russian airforce is in Syria. Vietnamese revolutionaries shot him down, using anti-aircraft weapons supplied by the Soviet Union – ie the kind of weapons denied to the Syrian revolutionaries by the US even after years of aerial genocide – and took him prisoner.
McCain spent time in the famous “Hanoi Hilton,” as American POWs nicknamed the main POW prison. For years McCain complained that his Vietnamese captors had tortured him (and as a result McCain, to his credit, was one of the few semi-neocon Republicans who was critical of the Bush regime’s practice of torturing Islamist prisoners, if inconsistently, unlike Bashar Assad who actively participated in the US “rendition” program). I have no real information on whether this was true or not; obviously, if true, then, like all torture it should be condemned.
Yet for anyone whose sympathies were with the oppressed, the terrorised, McCain’s alleged plight could garner little sympathy; when I lived in Vietnam for some years, a common retort by anti-war Americans now living in Vietnam – often working to help Vietnam overcome the ongoing legacies of US genocide such as Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance – regarding McCain’s whinging decades later, was that “he should be happy he wasn’t shot as a terrorist” as soon as he was captured.
Of course, the Vietnamese army, despite the genocide being inflicted on them for years by the US, did not do this; it did the right thing and kept him alive till the war ended. While someone bombing people from the sky arguably is an aerial terrorist, at the end of the day the individual remains an employee in uniform of the political, economic and military regime who sent him there on behalf of a ruling class that doesn’t put their own children in that kind of danger. But it would surely not be difficult to imagine the terrorised people below – whether in Vietnam then or Syria today – wanting to take the aerial terrorist apart.
So while the shooting down of a warplane is something I consider to be a humanitarian action (in pretty much all circumstances), the shooting of a parachuting pilot is to be condemned, and is considered a war crime. Notably, it violates stated policy of the Free Syrian Army and of the Syrian Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (usually called “Syrian Coalition”, the exile-based political opposition leadership with which the FSA is vaguely associated with).
Therefore, it somewhat makes sense to find out that the action was carried out by a fascist from Turkey rather than a local Turkman FSA brigade. But that then raises the question of who are the Turkman brigades, and are they all, uniformly, a bunch of fascist ‘Grey Wolves’ as they are being slandered by various racists across the internet?
The Turkmen and their brigades
There were up to 200,000 Turkmen in Syria before the revolution, but the Assadist aerial slaughter has forced around 90 percent of them over the border into Turkey (a reasonable introduction to the Turkmen issue can be found at: http://www.vox.com/2015/11/24/9792830/russia-plane-turkmen). Turkmen have been involved in the revolution from the outset, in particular, their hostility to the fascistic “Arab” policy of the Baathist regime, which banned their language, being an important factor in addition to the fact that they are also Syrians rising against a dictatorship, like others.
There are many Turkmen brigades of various political shades. There are 8 Turkmen brigades listed as affiliated to the National Coalition (so in this sense we can broadly call them FSA): Sultan Mohamad Al Fatih Brigade, Sultan Suleiman Brigade, Seljuk Brigade, Sultan Selim Brigade, Anwar Al Haq Batallion, Sultan Murad Brigade, Ashab Al Yamin Brigade, Jabal Al Turkman Brigade (http://en.etilaf.org/coalition-components/national-blocks/turkman-component-of-the-syrian-national-coalition.html), along with various Turkmen political organisations which have seats in the Coalition’s parliament. They support the Coalition’s program of the unity of Syria with equal rights for all ethnic and religious minorities. These forces are also organised under the Turkish National Assembly (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Turkmen_Assembly), which has declared: “Regardless of any ethnic or religious identity, a future in which everybody can be able to live commonly under the identity of Syrian is targeted in the future of Syria” (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/Default.aspx?pageID=238&nid=36998).
A good resource about the formation of Turkmen political and military organisations in Syria can be found at http://www.orsam.org.tr/en/enUploads/Article/Files/2013320_150ing.pdf; though from 2013, it is still very useful.
Thus assertions that all Turkmen brigades are either ‘Grey Wolves” or creations of the Turkish regime’s MIT intelligence agency are irresponsible essentialist claims that deny that Turkmen are just as capable as anyone else of running their own organisations and having a variety of political views.
In contrast, the brigade that Alparslan Çelik is supposedly deputy leader of – the “Turkmen Coastal Division” (or “2nd Coastal Division”) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12015031/Turkmen-fighters-We-fired-in-the-air.-The-Russian-died-in-the-air.html), is not an affiliate of the Syrian Coalition. Notably, this collection of photos of this brigade at https://www.reddit.com/r/syriancivilwar/comments/3u6im0/the_turkmen_commander_alparslan_%C3%A7elik_who_shot_at/cxcblmd includes some with them displaying their own emblem or the Turkish flag, but none with the FSA flag, the flag of the Syrian revolution. It is also impossible to find the FSA on their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/T%C3%BCrkmen-Da%C4%9F%C4%B1-2-SAHiL-T%C3%9CMENi-947137371997615/.
It is hardly surprising that the MHP, the main ultra-rightist, opposition party in Turkey, associated with the infamous Grey Wolves fascistic militia, would try to get involved and spread their Turko-chauvinist poison where ethnic Turkmen exist; they probably see such areas – especially northern Latakia – as part of a ‘Greater Turkey’, a view sharply at odds with the Turkmen organisations that have been in National Coalition since the outset. Possibly the shooting of the parachuting pilot may have been a deliberate stunt to gain some nationalist/extremist credibility among the Turkmen communities being massacred from on high.
However, this particular brigade is not representative of Turkmen fighters and brigades in Syria, and still less does it invalidate their struggle against the regime and their struggle to survive under regime and Russian bombing.
The MHP in Turkey: Send the refugees back to Assad!
The irony of the nationalistic MHP seeming to be onside with forces fighting the Russian invasion in a place where ethnic Turkmen exist is that in the bigger picture, the MHP calls for the expulsion of the 2 million Syrian refugees from Turkey and has supported Assad, and condemned the AKP’s anti-Assad Syria policy, since the outset!
As long ago as 2012, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli condemned the AKP’s support for the Syrian uprising and claimed it “is being used as an instrument for ugly propaganda being carried out [regarding Syria]” (http://www.todayszaman.com/national_mhp-leader-slams-government-on-syria-policy_295521.html).
In May 2015, MHP Antalya deputy Mehmet Günal criticized Turkey’s support to the Syrian opposition and said that under MHP rule, Turkey would have an honorable policy based on mutual interests of both Turkey and Syria (http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_opposition-accuses-ak-party-of-dragging-turkey-into-syria-quagmire_381177.html).
Just before the mid-year Turkish elections, the MHP’s Gaziantep deputy candidate Ümit Özdağ tweeted regarding the Syrian refugees: “The 500,000 Syrians will go, 500,000 tourists will come to Gaziantep.” Talking to the Doğan Media Group right before the elections, the new MHP deputy said the MHP would start negotiations with Assad when they come to power in order to “cut the main logistics behind jihadists who are supported by the U.S.”
“Jihadists supported by the US undermining Assad!” Sounds like the views of a lot of the imperial left!
Unfortunately, the mainstream Kemalist CHP are hardly better:
“The chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, included an election promise in his campaign speeches, vowing that the CHP will send Syrians back to their homeland if his party comes to power. The CHP, which has supported the Assad regime and has not cut its relations with Damascus yet, has always accused the government of plotting against the Syrian regime. According to the CHP, Syrians were not actually refugees, but were brought to Turkey to destabilize the country.”
The MHP, in other words, not only supports Assad – except against the Turkmen – but has much ideologically in common with the Syrian Baath party. Just as German and French fascists might argue about Alsace-Lorraine, so Assad and the MHP might argue about Turkmen regions.
So while the AKP soft-Islamist regime has opportunistically moved closer to the MHP’s position on the Kurds over the last year (away from its own policy of the “peace process”), the essential difference between the contrasting rightist ideologies of nationalism/fascism and Islamism needs to be understood, to understand why the Islamist AKP can welcome 2 million Syrian Arabs as refugees, and be influenced enough by their catastrophe to want to oust Assad, whereas the ethno-chauvinist MHP wants to return the Arab untermenschen, who they denounce as either criminals or “jihadists”, to Assad’s tender mercies.
And of course none of that justifies the AKP’s own resumption of the Turkish state’s war against the Kurds, which seems at least in part to have been driven by the most narrowly opportunistic political concerns between the two Turkish elections. But beggars can’t be choosers – if Turkey, overwhelmed by 2 million refugees from the Syrian apocalypse, needs to get rid of Assad to help deal with this problem, so much the better for the Syrian rebels, as long as they don’t become mere tools for Turkish policy – something there is no evidence for.
Meanwhile, for Kurdish supporters finding a bad taste in their mouths if anything positive is said about any Turkish action, they might ponder how they would react if a Turkish warplane bombing Kurds in eastern Turkey were brought down by the PKK. Consistency has much to be said for it.
Of course this has been something of a digression from the issue here. Since the incident, Russia has taken revenge on the people of Syria by stepping up its terror, bombing intensively along the Turkish borders of Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo, all regions with zero ISIS presence, indeed it has launched an intensive bombing campaign against the Syrian rebels in the Azaz region of northern Aleppo, including bombing Turkish aid trucks (http://eaworldview.com/2015/11/syria-daily-russia-hits-back-with-bombing-of-turkish-aid-trucks/). Azaz is the one point in Aleppo where the Syrian rebels have a border crossing into Turkey, and where they are in confrontation with ISIS-held territory just to their east. In fact, while Russia has been bombing the rebels in Azaz in early December, ISIS has also been attacking them, and seized the town of Kafrah from the rebels, essentially under Russian air cover (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/566317-isis-advances-in-flashpoint-north-aleppo).
Let me just say that again for anyone *still* spouting nonsense about Russia “fighting ISIS” – Russia is bombing the anti-Assad, anti-ISIS rebels of northern Aleppo, those who have held the main confrontation line with ISIS in the region for two years, while ISIS is attacking those same rebels, with no Russian retaliation. Russia is bombing the rebels in concert with ISIS; but this should not be as surprising as it sounds, because the Assad regime has been doing precisely the same thing the last two years in that region.
Where this ends is unclear. The US is not making any noise about Russia’s Azaz campaign; several days ago, the US demanded that Turkey close its border, and some speculate that the aim now is to allow Russia to forcefully close the border, even if it means temporarily using ISIS, and choke off the rebels; then the US and Russia could join forces to remove ISIS from the border, without the complication of the FSA taking over, who would use it as a base to fight the regime (which ISIS in that region does not do). The picture should emerge more clearly in the next few days.
But to end where we began, with the issue of warplanes and civilian lives; there is a good argument that all air war is almost by definition a war crime. Even genuine concern for civilian life – something the Russian airforce clearly has none of – is almost never any guarantee. For years, Syrians have called for anti-aircraft weapons, to make their own DIY no-fly zone; for years well-known supplies of manpads, shoulder fired anti-aircrafts, have been blocked by the US, fearful that they may actually let the rebels win, which is against US policy, rather than merely hold a little ground. Even when rebels try to get manpads outside official channels, the US remains vigilant; “at least four major Syrian armed opposition groups have tried in recent years to independently purchase manpads on the black market,” according to conversations their leaders had with Charles Lister, yet “somehow, the Americans found out and our purchase was blocked” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-lister/russias-intervention-in-s_b_8350266.html?ir=Australia).
As one tweet put it concisely, “the only consistent, thorough, well-implemented US Syrian policy is tracking hunting and stopping MANPADS from reaching any opposition group since 2012” (https://twitter.com/THE_47th/status/659114328012931072).
And that’s why, just as when Vietnamese brought down American warplanes, when any Assadist or Russian warplane is shot down in Syria, it is one small victory for humanity.