Written By: - Date published: 8:49 pm, November 27th, 2015 - 117 comments
Categories: colonialism, defence, International, iraq, military, Syria, uncategorized, war - Tags: Assad, international law, russia, syria, Turkey
A couple of days ago Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Air Force Su-24 bomber. The plane was returning to base from a ground attack mission against Islamic militants in Northern Syria.
The pilot and the navigator of the Su-24 bailed out in time. Unfortunately the pilot was killed by anti-Assad Turkmen militants who shot him dead in the air while he was parachuting to the ground.
The navigator of the plane did escape successfully (although it seems that one of the search and rescue helicopters was destroyed by ‘moderate’ militants using a US supplied anti-tank TOW missile, resulting in the death of a Russian Marine).
In a subsequent media interview the surviving RuAF navigator said that he was very familiar with the area after many combat missions and that there was no way his Su-24 had strayed into Turkish air space. He also said that the Turkish F-16s had provided no warnings, visual or radio, before the shoot down.
(F-16 interceptors are far faster and more agile than an Su-24 bomber. Pulling parallel with and behind the Su-24 would have visually warned the Russian plane in circumstances where warnings over a specific radio frequency might not be monitored).
It appears that the Su-24 crew didn’t even know they were under attack until their plane exploded around them. They did not conduct any evasive maneuvers. My view is that the Turkish F-16s were lying in ambush looking for an opportunity to take down a Russian jet: Turkey is supportive of many of the anti-Assad and anti-Kurdish militant groups that Russia has been bombing. Further, Russia has been providing the US coalition with full advance details of where, when and at what altitude Russian planes will be operating at.
At a new ambassadors to Russia credential receiving ceremony, Putin said this about the incident:
“I can’t help saying that we believe the traitor-like stabs in the back from those who we saw as partners and allies in the anti-terrorist fight are completely unexplainable…It seems that the Turkish government is deliberately pushing the Russian-Turkish relations to a standstill, we regret it,” he said.
USAF Maj Gen Charles Dunlap (ret.) is a former USAF deputy Judge Advocate General and now with the Duke law faculty. He has written about this incident, saying that the Russians may have a “strong case” in international law:
While President Obama is certainly correct in saying that “Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace,” exactly how it may do so is more complicated than the president implies. In fact, the Russians may have strong legal arguments that any such right under international law was wrongly asserted in this instance.
The reasons for this include the following:
The problem here is that the Turks are not asserting that any armed attack took place or, for that matter, that any armed attack was even being contemplated by the Russians. Instead, in a letter to the U.N., the Turks only claimed that the Russians had “violated their national airspace…for 17 seconds.” They also say that the Russians were warned “10 times” (something the Russians dispute) and that the Turkish jets fired upon them in accordance with the Turks’ “rules of engagement.” Of course, national rules of engagement cannot trump the requirements of international law.
The question boils down to: was deadly force justified as the only recourse when there was no indication that the Russian jet was targetting any Turkish targets?
Another important international law issue arose after the Russian aircraft was struck by the Turkish missiles. The two aviators ejected, but were attacked as they parachuted from their stricken aircraft — reportedly by elements of the Free Syrian Army. In the effort to rescue the downed aviators, one Russian marine was killed.
It is extraordinarily well-settled that the law of war prohibits making anyone parachuting from a distressed aircraft the object of attack, and that doing so is a war crime. There is no real dispute among experts as to this reading of the law.
Regarding the Russian marine killed on the rescue operation, the law is more complex. Generally, a rescue effort is a military operation subject to lawful attack…(however) given that shooting at parachuting aviators is itself a war crime, the effort to rescue them from patently illegal conduct may very well transform the incident into one where international law could find the marine’s death an unlawful killing.
Dunlap concludes his piece by saying that the US is relying on the strict interpretation of international law in various areas of the world, including the Spratleys in the South China Sea. And in a chaotic area like Syria, even more care has to be taken to correctly apply international law.
The Russians have concluded that both the Turkish F-16 and their Su-24 were inside Syrian air space when the attack occurred. The wingman of the Su-24 saw the Turkish missile launch and reported the event back to base. The Turkish F-16 then turned back towards Turkish airspace, rapidly dropped altitude to evade Russian radar and disappeared. The Russians now see the Turkish attack as being an unfriendly pre-planned military operation. My view is that the Turks probably had one of their best ‘top gun’ pilots execute this mission.
In response, Russia will now be suspending visa free travel between the countries. Restrictions on Turkish agricultural imports had already been announced. Expect to see a broad range of diplomatic and economic measures being utilised by Moscow as push back against Ankara.