Nov 24, 2015 · 5 minutes

Turkey just shot down a Russian fighter jet along its border.

Both Russian pilots are reportedly dead, with one corpse already photographed by gloating Syrian jihadis and tweeted out through social media. Shortly afterwards, a Russian rescue helicopter went down in the area, according to reports.

The Pentagon is already distancing itself from Turkey, calling it a matter between Turkey and Russia. Putin’s initial reaction, calling Turkey’s action a “stab in the back” and promising a response, is about as angry and hot-headed as I’ve seen Putin since he first came to power in 1999 in the wake of a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and southern Russia, vowing “if we find them [Chechen rebels] on the shitter, we’ll whack them in the outhouse.”

Putin followed through on his threat—with a gruesome war, filtration camps, and years of death squads. (I wrote about those brutal wars in Chechnya and the messed up neocon oil geopolitics in the Caspian region for NSFWCORP  here, here, and here).

Wars have a funny way of taking on a life of their own. The protagonists tend to lose control over the plot lines, the narrative threads. Syria is that kind of war, an overlap of wars and agendas that has made it almost impossible for anyone—especially our media scolds—to make black and white, good guys/bad guys sense of.

But there are some things to keep in mind, as events get away from us, and our media hacks mangle and distort pretty much everything you’ll see and read over the next days and weeks:

  1. Turkey shot down the Russian plane on the border of Syria’s Latakia province—the coastal home base of Syria’s Alawites, the tribe that Syrian leader Bashar Assad comes from—and Turkey’s Hatay province. As the War Nerd explained a few years ago, Turks are extremely sensitive over any violation of Hatay province, which had belonged to Syria until 1940, when France handed it to Turkey as a gift to keep them from siding with Germany in another world war.  To quote the War Nerd on a minor incident a few years ago, when a few Syrian mortars landed in Turkey’s Hatay province: “So when a few Syrian mortar shells landed in Hatay Province, on the south coast of Turkey, foam started to form on the lips of every Turkish nationalist, which is to say, everybody in Turkey (minus the Kurds). And the fact that Hatay Province isn’t really ‘Turkish’ territory—well, that just makes the Turks more determined to hold onto it.”

  2. Russia has been bombing the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra in Latakia province, as well as the 1st Coastal Division of the FSA, which is backed by Qatar. Latakia is not only the home base for the ruling Alawites, it’s also the home to the main Russian airbase.

  3. There’s a serious dispute over whether or not Russia actually violated Turkey’s airspace, but even by Turkey’s version, the Russian SU-24 flew over a small little thumb of Turkish territory that extends into Syria. (See the radar map at the bottom of this Al Jazeera article.)

  4. Turkey is the main supporter of ISIS. See this comprehensive and damning report by Columbia University’s David Phillips, listing all the ways, financial and otherwise, that Turkey supports ISIS.

  5. There is much more to the Turkey-Russia rivalry than ISIS: The oil-rich Caucasus region and Central Asia. Turkey has been playing a careful double-game with and against Russia for influence in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Turkey also played a central role in the fight for control over Caspian Sea oil distribution. Whereas the Soviet/Russian empire used to control the flow of oil out of Azerbaijan to market, today, thanks to the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline backed by a consortium of western oil companies, oil from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan can circumvent Russian territory by traveling through Georgia and out through the Turkish port at Ceyhan. Turkey’s influence in the region is linguistic and cultural as well—Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan speak a Turkic language, as do other Central Asian countries Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan.

  6. As the War Nerd noted earlier, the Syrian regime decided to stock up almost exclusively on Russian air defense systems, many of which are very good. Now we’re starting to see why. With Hillary talking about setting up a “no fly zone” in Syria, and Turkey bombing Kurdish rebels, those surface-to-air systems could start wreaking havoc on Turkey and other non-Russian planes flying over the region.

  7. The range of possible responses Putin has at his disposal is so large, one wonders what the Hell Turkey was thinking. (See point #1...) Russia has long deep ties with Kurdish rebels, both inside Turkey and along Turkey’s borders. Russia is crucial to Turkey’s economy: Turkey gets 57% of its natural gas imports from Russia, Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner, and its second-largest source of tourists. (See this Bloomberg article.)

  8. Russia will just have to play and replay the shooting down of its jet, and the Syrian rebels gloating over the dead pilots, to see Putin’s already sky-high popularity ratings push even higher. Ukraine’s top political figures are gloating in support of Turkey, something that’s not going over well in Europe and France especially. Point being: this is working out wonderfully for Putin.

In fact, if there’s any conspiracy I can make sense of with what’s gone on over the past year  and a half, it’s that anti-Russia neocons and their pals have been doing everything possible to increase Putin’s popularity and power at home, in order to build him up as an even more plausible villain over here. Or maybe they’re straight-up Putin moles. But that of course gives everyone, especially these idiots, too much credit.

Today it looks like Russia is gaining the biggest advantage from the mess in Syria. But all that could change on a dime. Wars are funny that way.