Weekly Letter to President Obama
Copyright © 2010
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
December 12, 2015
So Why Did Turkey Shoot Down That Russian Plane?
Powerful forces are maneuvering to torpedo any Syrian peace process that could
leave room for Bashar al-Assad.
By Conn Hallinan
Source: Common Dreams
Why did Turkey shoot down that Russian warplane?
It was certainly not because the SU-24 posed any threat. The plane is old and slow,
and the Russians were careful not to arm it with anti-aircraft missiles. And it wasn’t
because the Turks are quick on the trigger, either. Three years ago, Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphatically declared that a “short-term violation of
airspace can never be a pretext for an attack.” There are even some doubts about
whether the Russian plane ever crossed into Turkey’s airspace at all.
Indeed, the whole November 24 incident looks increasingly suspicious, and one doesn’
t have to be a paranoid Russian to think the takedown might have been an ambush.
As retired Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney, former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, told Fox News,
“This airplane was not making any maneuvers to attack the [Turkish] territory.” He
called the Turkish action “overly aggressive” and concluded that the incident “had to
"Would a dustup between Turkish and Russian planes bring NATO — and four
nuclear armed nations — into a confrontation? That possibility ought to keep people
up at night."
It certainly puzzled the Israeli military, not known for taking a casual approach to
military intrusions. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told the press on November
29 that a Russian warplane had violated the Israeli border over the Golan Heights.
“Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically
react and shoot them down when an error occurs.”
So why was the plane downed?
Perhaps because, for the first time in four years, some major players are tentatively
inching toward a settlement of the catastrophic Syrian civil war, and powerful forces
are maneuvering to torpedo that process. If the Russians hadn’t kept their cool,
several nuclear-armed powers could well have found themselves in a scary faceoff,
and any thoughts of ending the war would have gone a-glimmering.
A Short Score Card
There are multiple actors on the Syrian stage — and a bewildering number of
crosscurrents and competing agendas that, paradoxically, make it both easier and
harder to find common ground. Easier, because there is no unified position among
the antagonists; harder, because trying to herd heavily armed cats is a tricky
A short score card on the players:
The Russians and the Iranians are supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and
fighting a host of extremist organizations ranging from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State,
or ISIS. But each country has a different view of what a post-civil war Syria might look
like. The Russians want a centralized and secular state with a big army. The Iranians
don’t think much of “secular,” and they favor militias, not armies.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and most the other Gulf monarchies are trying to
overthrow the Assad regime, and are the major supporters of the groups Russia, Iran,
and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are fighting. But while Turkey and Qatar want to replace
Assad with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia might just hate the
Brotherhood more than it does Assad. And while the monarchies are not overly
concerned with the Kurds, Turkey is bombing them, and they’re a major reason why
Ankara is so deeply enmeshed in Syria.
The U.S., France, and the United Kingdom are also trying to overthrow Assad, but are
currently focused on fighting ISIS using the Kurds as their major allies — specifically
the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party, an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Workers
Party that the U.S. officially designates as “terrorist.” These are the same Kurds that
the Turks are bombing and who have a friendly alliance with the Russians.
Indeed, Turkey may discover that one of the price tags for shooting down that SU-24
is the sudden appearance of new Russian weapons for the Kurds, some of which will
be aimed at the Turks.
A Suspension of Rational Thought
The Syrian war requires a certain suspension of rational thought.
For instance, the Americans are unhappy with the Russians for bombing the anti-
Assad Army of Conquest, a rebel alliance dominated by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s
franchise in Syria. That would be the same al-Qaeda that brought down the World
Trade Center towers and that the U.S. is currently bombing in Yemen, Somalia, and
Suspension of rational thought is not limited to Syria.
A number of Arab countries initially joined the U.S. air war against the Islamic State
and al-Qaeda, because both organizations are pledged to overthrow the Gulf
monarchies. But Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have now
dropped out to concentrate their air power on bombing the Houthis in Yemen.
The Houthis, however, are by far the most effective force fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda
in Yemen. Both extremist organizations have made major gains in the last few weeks
because the Houthis are too busy defending themselves to take them on.
Moves Toward a Settlement
In spite of all this political derangement, however, there are several developments
that are pushing the sides toward some kind of peaceful settlement that doesn’t
involve regime change in Syria. That is exactly what the Turks and the Gulf monarchs
are worried about, and a major reason why Ankara shot down that Russian plane.
The first of these developments has been building throughout the summer: a growing
flood of Syrians fleeing the war. There are already almost 2 million in Turkey, over a
million each in Jordan and Lebanon, and as many as 900,000 in Europe. Out of 23
million Syrians, some 11 million have been displaced by the war, and the Europeans
are worried that many of those 11 million people will end up camping out on the banks
of the Seine and the Ruhr. If the war continues into next year, that’s an entirely
Hence, the Europeans have quietly shelved their demand that Assad resign as a
prerequisite for a ceasefire and are leaning on the Americans to follow suit. The issue
is hardly resolved, but there seems to be general agreement that Assad will at least
be part of a transition government. At this point, the Russians and Iranians are
insisting on an election in which Assad would be a candidate because both are wary
of anything that looks like “regime change.” The role Assad might play will be a
sticking point, but probably not an insurmountable one.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are adamant that Assad must go, but neither of them is in
the driver’s seat these days. While NATO supported Turkey in the Russian plane
incident, according to some of the Turkish press, many of its leading officials consider
Erdogan a loose cannon. And Saudi Arabia — whose economy has been hard hit by
the worldwide fall in oil prices — is preoccupied by its Yemen war, which is turning into
a very expensive quagmire.
The second development is the Russian intervention, which appears to have changed
things on the ground, at least in the north, where Assad’s forces were being hard
pressed by the Army of Conquest. New weapons and airpower have dented a rebel
offensive and resulted in some gains in the government’s battle for Syria’s largest
Russian bombing also took a heavy toll on the Turkmen insurgents in the Bayir-Bucak
region, the border area that Turkey has used to infiltrate arms, supplies, and
insurgents into Syria.
"If the problems are great, failure will be catastrophic."
The appearance of the Russians essentially killed Turkey’s efforts to create a “no fly
zone” on its border with Syria, a proposal that the U.S. has never been enthusiastic
about. Washington’s major allies, the Kurds, are strongly opposed to a no fly zone
because they see it as part of Ankara’s efforts to keep the Kurds from forming an
autonomous region in Syria.
The Bayir-Bucak area and the city of Jarabulus are also the exit point for Turkey’s
lucrative oil smuggling operation, apparently overseen by one of Erdogan’s sons,
Bilal. The Russians have embarrassed the Turks by publishing satellite photos
showing miles of tanker trucks picking up oil from ISIS-controlled wells and shipping it
through Turkey’s southern border with Syria.
“The oil controlled by the Islamic State militants enters Turkish territory on an
industrial scale,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said November 30. “We have every
reason to believe that the decision to down our plane was guided by a desire to
ensure the security of this oil’s delivery routes to ports.”
Erdogan and NATO
Erdogan didn’t get quite the response he wanted from NATO following the shooting
down of the SU-24. While the military alliance backed Turkey’s defense of its
“sovereignty,” NATO then called for a peaceful resolution and de-escalation of the
At a time when Europe needs a solution to the refugee crisis — and wants to focus its
firepower on the organization that killed 130 people in Paris — NATO cannot be
happy that the Turks are dragging them into a confrontation with the Russians,
making the whole situation a lot more dangerous than it was before the November 24
The Russians have now deployed their more modern SU-34 bombers and armed
them with air-to-air missiles. The bombers will now also be escorted by SU-35 fighters.
The Russians have also fielded S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, the latter with
a range of 250 miles. The Russians say they’re not looking for trouble, but they’re
loaded for bear should it happen.
Would a dustup between Turkish and Russian planes bring NATO — and four nuclear
armed nations — into a confrontation? That possibility ought to keep people up at
Coming to the Table
Sometime around the New Year, the countries involved in the Syrian civil war will
come together in Geneva. A number of those will do their level best to derail the talks,
but one hopes there are enough sane — and desperate — parties on hand to map
out a political solution.
It won’t be easy, and who gets to sit at the table has yet to be decided. The Turks will
object to the Kurds; the Russians, Iranians, and Kurds will object to the Army of
Conquest; and the Saudis will object to Assad. In the end it could all come apart. It’s
not hard to torpedo a peace plan in the Middle East.
But if the problems are great, failure will be catastrophic. That may be the glue that
keeps the parties together long enough to hammer out a ceasefire, an arms
embargo, a new constitution, and internationally supervised elections.