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[OPINION] Erdoğan plotted RF-4E jet incident to push NATO into a war with Syria

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by Abdullah Bozkurt

The shooting down of a Turkish RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance jet on June 22, 2012 by Syria after it had violated Syrian airspace near Latakia was a secret false flag operation planned by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to push Turkey into a military incursion into its southern neighbor at the outset of the civil war in the Arab country while dragging NATO along with it.

Abdullah Bozkurt

I have recently been provided with a cache of confidential data by well-placed sources that reveal how this clandestine operation was planned by MİT and executed by a few associates in the Air Forces. The intelligence agency thought it had swept the incident under the rug by having the government keep reshuffling the case between civilian and military courts under the shroud of secrecy, with sealed case files and closed hearings in the courts. Well, they were wrong, and the truth proved once again that it has a habit of coming out eventually. This incident was nothing but a false flag operation that was designed to create a pretext for Turkey to wage war against Syria and pull NATO allies into the Syrian swamp to make a regime change.

It all started when Turkey’s spy agency MİT managed to take over the country’s largest military eavesdropping facilities, the General Staff Electronic Systems Command (GES), located 20 kilometers south of Ankara in Gölbaşı, on Jan. 1, 2012. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, pushed for the transfer of this crucial facility from the military to MİT, which is run by his confidante Hakan Fidan. MİT incorporated this military base under its new name, the Signal Intelligence Directorate (SİB). Six month later, under the guise of testing a new system as part of an electronic intercept and intelligence (ELINT) program developed by Turkish defense contractor ASELSAN, MİT drew up a plan to run reconnaissance flights over Syria, ostensibly to test the program.

The plan was jointly prepared by Lt. Col. Atınç Özkaya, who was working at MİT’s Signal Intelligence, and Çağatay Daldaban, a major who worked in the Air Forces as a flight controller. The plane took off with two pilots from Malatya Erhaç military air base. The plane had a flight path with five legs marked for turns, which clearly showed a deliberate route that crossed through Syrian airspace in the last leg of the flight from point 4 to point 5. The radar readout that tracked the RF-4E jet’s altitude at starting point 1, which was located in international airspace in the north of Cyprus, shows the plane was at an altitude of 21,400 feet. When it started to make a turn at point 4 in the northeast of Cyprus towards Syrian airspace, it had descended to 2,000 feet. It went down as low as 200 feet while it was over Syrian territorial waters. Unlike the original claims by the Turkish government that the jet strayed into Syrian airspace unintentionally, the flight route that was drafted in advance reveals it was a deliberate move. That is why the Air Forces erased the last leg of the flight path between points 4 and 5 before releasing the map to the public after the incident took place.

The radar snapshots released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) that showed the RF-4E violating Syrian airspace before being shot down approximately one kilometer offshore appear more reliable under these revelations. That raises serious questions as to why the Turkish pilots were ordered to fly the jet at 200 feet, exposing themselves to artillery fire from the ground, or why they took a second run on the flight path that violated Syrian airspace after knowing that they had been spotted and identified by Syrian radar.

MİT had the Air Forces run a test flight by two F-16 fighter jets from the 182nd Squadron a day before the RF-4E ran the mission on June 22. The main motivation for the run by the F-16 jets on June 21 was to provoke the Syrian side and agitate the commanders who man the Syrian ground air defenses. When the RF-4E pilots embarked on their secret mission, the Syrian air defense systems were already on high alert from the previous day’s buzzing by the Turkish F-16s, which left their footprint in Syrian radar. Although the Turkish government claimed the flights were test drills as part of routine runs just outside the territorial waters of neighboring states, the Syrian side was never informed about these flights, either on June 21 or 22. The investigation by the Air Forces concluded that there was no explanation offered for why the RF-4E was instructed to fly on the same path that the F-16s took the day before. It was as if the two Turkish pilots were sent to almost certain death without any escort on an already discovered path of incursion.

According to a statement by Air Forces Lt. Col. Mehmet Ünel, who coordinated the flight of the F-16s on June 21, MİT’s point man on these flights, Özkaya, was insistent that the pilots should fly at a dangerously low altitude. “We were flying at 40 feet, but the man [Özkaya] was insisting that we should go lower.” According to Air Forces regulations, part of the rules of engagement book MY 228-3 (A) that was in effect at the time, pilots were banned from flying under 100 feet. Yet, the Turkish intelligence officer was bypassing the air forces command structure and instructing the pilots to violate the rulebook on flight altitude. Özkaya also avoided written notice of the mission, preventing a thorough examination and assessment of the risky flight by the Air Forces that could have been discovered during the processing of paperwork. Instead he opted for verbal instructions and conversations to circumvent the measures that were designed to prevent such incidents in the first place.

Let’s remember that in 2012 the Syrian conflict was still in its early stages, and Damascus by and large had control of its own territory, although it was under great pressure from growing domestic unrest as part of the Arab revolutions. It had no intention of provoking Turkey to pick a fight as Bashar al-Assad clearly said the Syrian government was sorry to have had the jet downed and would not have fired at it if they had known it was a Turkish jet. In July 2012 Assad told Turkish reporter Utku Çakırözer, who is now a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), that he regretted that Syria had hit the Turkish jet unintentionally and without an order given centrally to a missile battery. It was instead the spontaneous response of an anti-aircraft battery reacting to a foreign military plane violating Syrian airspace, he added.

It is clear that the Americans knew that the downing of the plane was a plot by the Turkish government to drag NATO into the Syrian war. That is probably why a US official told Turkish reporter Tolga Tanış in Washington, D.C., on July 2012 that the US knew every detail of the incident but was not considering revealing the information. Well, they actually leaked the data to The Wall Street Journal, which reported on July 2, 2012 that the Turkish RF-4E was hit inside Syrian airspace. The leak was a message to Erdoğan that they would not allow Turkey to drag NATO into a war in Syria to oust Assad over a false flag orchestrated by him and his intelligence agency. But the US officials did not come out publicly with the naked truth because they did not want to undermine NATO’s credibility and break the spirit of the alliance by publicly embarrassing Turkey, an important ally.

The important information shared by the US officials with the WSJ also pointed out that there was no evidence of a SAM being fired, suggesting that the Turkish jet was hit by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Given the limited range of Syrian anti-aircraft guns, the RF-4E must have definitely been over Syrian airspace, flying at a low altitude and close to the shore when it was hit. The fact that NATO gave a cold shoulder to the Erdoğan government when it invoked article IV of the NATO Charter to consult the allies also indicated that NATO intelligence picked up on the plot by Erdoğan’s people. Therefore, the request by Turkey to set up safe zones in Syria with protective air cover was rejected.

It is worth noting that this special make RF-4E was designed to fly missions at home, not abroad. The software installed in RF-4E for its radar warning receiver (RWR) system did not include features that would detect threats that originated from Syria’s air defense systems. The mission database that was examined by the 173rd Squadron Command revealed that the RWR was defined against threats for domestic flights when an overseas mission for four jets was originally planned. The rulebook required that RF-4E’s software be upgraded with new threat identifications emanating from Syria, especially against surface to air missiles (SAM) SA-2 SA-4 and SA-5. Yet in a mysterious move, this was not done.

The flight was classified as a “special mission” and a “test flight” although the top brass in the military should have been alerted to the fact that the flight plan included a deliberate incursion into Syrian airspace. The Air Forces Command was not informed about the details of the flight, and the plot appears to have been concocted by the top political and military echelon, bypassing force commanders and staff generals. MİT’s Özkaya gave direct orders to the pilots such as flying on the same path on the last leg of the flight from point 4 to 5 twice that made the incursion into Syrian airspace. He also insisted on giving some details of the mission directly to the pilots, creating the impression at the Air Force Command that the mission was top secret and approved by the government and the Office of the Chief of General Staff.

Erdoğan was fully aware of the plot and in fact it was he who approved it in the first place. Rule H-150 in the Air Forces’ engagement playbook makes it clear that only the prime minister (Erdoğan) was authorized to make a decision in the case of incursion into another country’s airspace. The corroborating evidence to this information was found in the leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, energy minister and the son-in-law of President Erdoğan. The top secret document confirming that the Air Forces distorted the radar map after the downing of the RF-4E was obtained by a reporter named Mutlu Çölgeçen, who was working for the Sabah daily, a media outlet owned by Erdoğan’s family and run by Berat’s brother, Serhat. On Aug. 8, 2012 the reporter sent the document and details of the incident to Serhat, who then forwarded the documents to his brother Berat. The story was quickly buried and hushed up. That shows Erdoğan was in, knew the details and did not want to expose his government and create an embarrassment. Çölgeçen has been in pretrial detention on trumped-up charges for almost a year.

Considering the sensitivity of the flight as well as the vulnerability of the mission under possible threats, more qualified personal should have been included in drafting plans, assessing risks and outfitting the jet with upgrades. The Air Forces was already under pressure from keeping up with patrolling the airspace in the north against Russia, in the south against Greek Cyprus and in the west against Greece. It was overstretched when MİT ordered a secret mission to fly into Syrian airspace.

Mehmet Katar, a lawyer representing the family of Hasan Hüseyin Aksoy, one of the pilots killed in this incident, filed a criminal complaint on Dec. 21, 2012 against Turkish officials who were negligent in this botched mission. The family of Gökhan Erta later joined the complaint. The investigation was launched by the chief prosecutor in Malatya, where the airbase for RF-4 jets is located, but the case was later transferred to military prosecutors. In February 2014 an indictment was filed against officials, including intelligence chief Fidan, who were found to be negligent or have had complicity in the downing of the plane. The first hearing was held on Feb. 10, but a secrecy order was issued to keep the case from public scrutiny.

The case was hushed up and the families were not provided with closure on losing their loves ones. Even the autopsy reports of the pilots were not given to the families, suggesting that the government was doing everything to hide the details of the investigation from the public. The bodies of pilots were recovered on July 5, 2012 from the seabed 8.6 nautical miles off the Syrian coast after US ocean explorer Robert Ballard helped locate them using deep-sea exploration vessel the R/V Nautilus. At least they were able to bury their loved ones but were not given satisfactory information on what really happened in this incident or who sent them to certain death with poor planning, inadequate protection and illogical orders such as flying at a dangerously low altitude in Syrian airspace.

Perhaps we should be surprised at Erdoğan’s attempt to drag Turkey into a war with Syria. A leaked audio recording of a high-level security meeting at the Turkish Foreign Ministry about possible military action in Syria via a false flag operation in March 2014, acknowledged by Erdoğan as authentic, also revealed how far Turkish intelligence was willing to go to risk dragging NATO into an unwanted war in Syria. In the recording, senior officials including then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and MİT head Fidan discussed how Turkey could start a war with Syria, what the legal grounds would be to do so and if it would be possible to create a pretext to deliberately drag Turkey, and by extension NATO, into a war with Syria. They also discussed a false flag operation by having mortars fired into Turkey from Syria to ostensibly create the legal grounds for a war. There was no investigation launched into the allegations, but rather a probe was conducted into who leaked the recording.

Likewise, another false flag showed how the neo-nationalists in the Turkish military plotted to bring Turkey to the brink of war with Greece over the Aegean back in 2003. The plot, uncovered at the Naval Intelligence Department located at the Gölcük Naval Command, saw an escalation of the crisis with Greece by provoking conflict in the air, at sea and on land borders. The Oraj plan, dated February 2003, specifically asked for increased flights over the Aegean and ordered commanding officers to instruct pilots to engage in harassment maneuvers with Greek fighter jets. It wanted Turkish pilots to be more aggressive and even issued new rules of engagement allowing pilots to take shots at Greek fighters, albeit unofficially. The plan suggested reorganizing the special squadron with the specific objective of having a Turkish pilot shoot down a Turkish jet in his own squadron in the event all other efforts to provoke a Greek fighter to destroy a Turkish jet failed. Fabricated stories would then be planted in the media, saying that Greece intentionally shot down a Turkish jet.

The RF-4E incident follows previous examples of plots in Turkey. There is certainly a pattern of false flags that were concocted by elements attached to the Turkish intelligence, military and security services. Turkish President Erdoğan behaves like a non-state actor who loves playing dirty and bloodying his hands with these plots as long as he can keep advancing his political goals. He has become a major liability to the security of the NATO alliance.

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