A Phantom Wrapped in an Enigma Wrapped in a Riddle

Why we should worry about Turkey’s missing jet

August 11, 2012

It is apparently lore at the Economist that foreign correspondents have a shelf life of three years. After this, they know too much. They become too involved in the minutiae of local politics to explain a story to their domestic audience. Then, of course, there is the famous State Department “clientitis” problem—diplomats, it is said, need to be rotated out in roughly the same amount of time lest they begin to understand the host country’s point of view a bit too well.

Having lived in Turkey for seven years, I can confirm the folklore. It seems impossible to me that the whole world isn’t following the drama of escalating Turkish-Syrian tensions with the same avidity as I am, waking early to parse the statement of every concerned minister and official, studying maps, attempting to read between the lines of the Turkish press, weighing what these omens might portend. But to judge from the commentary emanating from the United State, it’s not.

Nor can I blame people who find this conflict far-away and abstract: I would be just as hard-pressed to describe in detail recent events in Liberia.

Turks and Syrians are very real to me, however, people as three-dimensional as your neighbors are to you. I’ve not been to Syria, but I’ve interviewed refugees from the conflict; I’ve seen scars from the torture they’ve endured and heard what the people who beat them in Assad’s dungeons said to them; I’ve been spooked by their affectless voices that don’t match their rolling and darting eyes. The people who would die in a war with Syria are the people I speak to or pass on the street every day; they might well be my friends, or—given that Assad has the largest stockpile of chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East and the Scud missiles to deliver them—they might be me.

One event, in particular, troubles me greatly.

On June 22, Syria shot down a Turkish RF4 Phantom jet over the Mediterranean. Not long thereafter, the USNautilus found the bodies of the two crewmen at the bottom of the sea. Photos of pilots’ faces were published in the press. They look too young to be involved in a bad business like this. Captain Gökhan Ertan’s face is EveryTurk, the earnest, slightly shy, formal young man I see here a hundred times a day. To look at the face of Lieutenant Hasan Hüseyin Aksoy, with his innocently goofy jug ears, is particularly sad. In the aftermath of his disappearance, his father told the press, with immense dignity, that it would not be right for his country to go to war to avenge his son. “It is not appropriate for a country to go to war over a pilot, an airplane or 50 airplanes,” he said. “What matters is that my son serves his country. I am a man of faith and do not believe martyrs ever die.”

Ankara maintains the jet was on a routine training exercise, shot down without warning in international airspace. It acknowledges that the plane dipped briefly into Syrian airspace, but insists it was destroyed 13 nautical miles away from the Syrian coast. Damascus claims the plane was destroyed in its airspace and shot down with an antiaircraft gun with a range of about 1.5 miles. Adding insult to injury (literally), Syrians then—reportedly—fired on a rescue plane sent to search for the missing pilots. Syrian authorities defended themselves by saying they were forced to react immediately: In their account, the Turkish jet was flying low—100 meters, very low—in “a clear breach of Syrian sovereignty.”

Ankara promptly requested an emergency meeting under Article IV of NATO’s charter, which calls on the alliance to consult when any member deems its “territorial integrity, political independence or security” to be threatened. This is a step short of invoking the sphincter-puckering Article V— “one for all and all for one,” invoked only once, after September 11—but only a step. The invocation of Article IV is a rare and serious thing.

On June 26, NATO convened. The alliance condemned Syria while suggesting that military retaliation was not in the cards. Michael Weiss of the Telegraph reported that according to an (unnamed) US government source present at the meeting. Ankara asked the alliance to draw up contingency plans for a no-fly zone to protect Turkish territory.

On the same day, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an addressed the Turkish Parliament. It is superfluous to note that his tone was furious because his tone is always furious; suffice to say these events did not becalm him. He said that the nation’s wrath was strong and devastating. Syria had become a military threat to Turkey, and the military’s rules of engagement had been adjusted accordingly. He did not say how the rules of engagement had been changed, save to say that “every military element from Syria at the Turkish border that forms a security risk and danger will be assessed as a threat and be treated as a military target,” which is more than a bit imprecise. Some observers claimed that this announcement heralded the creation of a de facto buffer zone, but they were wrong: The statement was meaningless without specific information about the new rules of engagement.

The Turkish military began moving missile batteries, tanks, heavy weapons and troops to the Syrian border. State-run TRT television showed footage of convoy upon convoy of military vehicles, border-bound, escorted by police cars, anti-aircraft artillery, military ambulances and grim-faced generals. Erdo?an was photographed in a turboprop trainer that looked a bit like a fighter jet, wearing dark sunglasses. The local press was full of locutions such as “Red alert,” and “License to kill,” but it is important to understand that most of the Turkish press on a good day observes the reporting standards of the National Enquirer on a bad one, so nothing meaningful may be inferred from this.

Erdo?an began making speeches on television featuring typical Erdo?an rhetoric such as, “We will not hesitate to teach a lesson to those who aim heavy weapons at their own people and at neighboring countries.” Then again, if it’s true, as recently reported, that the Ayatollah Khamenei emerged from his mother’s womb barking “Ya Ali!” it is surely also true that Erdo?an emerged from the womb threatening to teach someone a lesson. I don’t believe I recall a day here during which he hasn’t threatened to teach someone a lesson; I’ve always assumed the prime minister’s daily schedule involves bathing, praying, swearing at journalists, praying, making someone an offer he couldn’t refuse, praying, calling Obama to chuckle over the challenges of raising teenage girls, praying, threatening to teach someone a lesson, then praying again.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, called the attack “brazen and unacceptable” and said Washington would cooperate closely with Ankara to promote a transition in Syria. Those are words from which something significant might be inferred—but what, I’m not sure.

Then the Wall Street Journal ran a devastating article: Apparently, anonymous but high-level American “senior defense officials” failed to disconfirm the Syrian version of events. “We see no indication that [the plane] was shot down by a surface-to-air missile,” said one official, although he declined to say how he knew this. Now, this may seem a pedantic point, but he did not say, “We do see indication that it was not shot down by a surface-to-air missile.” In other words, his statement means—literally, at least—”We don’t actually know.” Other unsourced “current and former” defense officials suggested that Ankara had been testing Syria’s air defenses. A “former senior US official who worked closely with Turkey” said “You think that the airplane was there by mistake?” (I could make an educated guess about this official’s identity—there are only a limited number of possibilities—but it would add to the hysteria, so I won’t.) NATO officials—also unsourced—said that diplomats had not closely questioned the Turks about their version of events at the emergency meeting. The ever-leaking US officials said that the US had pushed NATO to issue a statement sharply condemning Syria.

Tangentially, let me just say that it is high time for the White House to hire a plumber.

The article caused a scandal here. Turks generally will not admit it, but they often trust the Wall Street Journalmore than their own press, and for good reason: By long tradition, the Turkish press is generally careless with the facts, highly politicized, subservient to those in power, or in jail. This is one reason there is less clamor here than one might expect about the imprisonment of Turkish journalists. Turkey ranked 148 on the World Press Freedom index last year, plunging below the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I reckon most Turks figure they had it coming. As a friend once memorably said to me, “We value the streetwalkers more—at least they do honest work and perform a useful service.”

When the Wall Street Journal reports something, though, people take it more seriously. Erdo?an was again enraged, and again, I run out of adjectives to describe his emotional state; if you are enraged by everything it is not that notable when you are enraged by something. What was notable was the target of his rage—Joe Parkinson of the Wall Street Journal. He called upon him to reveal his sources, accused him of cowardice, and decried his reporting as a stealth attack on President Obama. He railed against Turkish journalists for accepting the story as truth, and for good measure threw in an insult to the main opposition CHP leader, Kemal Kl?l?çdaro?lu: “Unfortunately [K?l?çdaro?lu] is not hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder with this country’s values. [He stands] shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s values, and the Baath regime.” Yes, yes, of course—those notorious Zionists, the Baath regime. (I’ve stopped rubbing my eyes in wonderment at what comes out of that man’s mouth. I’m used to it now.)

Joe, bless his phlegmatic Britishness, replied on Twitter: “To those asking if WSJ reporters will make statements about PM Erdo?an’s remarks, the answer is no. We don’t make statements, we report the news.” The columnist Can Dundar of Milliyet honored him with the title “Namert Joe”—”Craven Joe.” The piece was headlined, “You’re dead, Craven Joe!” It was a compliment. It meant, “Congratulations and welcome to the club.” Oddly, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen then deplored the Wall Street Journal “in the strongest terms,” leaving one to wonder what terms he planned to keep in reserve for Assad. Secretary of State spokesman Victoria Nuland joined the chorus of deploring, agreeing, in more diplomatic language, that it was high time for the White House to hire a plumber.

I did not personally find the Wall Street Journal piece remotely shocking: I assumed from moment one that the plane had been on a reconnaissance mission; initial reports said the plane was an RF4, and that “R” stands for “Reconnaissance,” not “Routine training.” Frankly, if I were a Turk I would fire my government (if that were the way Turks thought) were it not performing reconnaissance missions to test Syria’s air defenses. The streets of Syria are rivers of blood; refugees are streaming over the Turkish border—there are now 50,000 of them in Turkey, obviously with more to come; the crisis in Syria is indeed a national security emergency for Turkey, not least because if Syria fragments, among the constituent parts into which it will fragment is a Kurdish one. Air defenses are tested this way all the time: Ask any Alaskan. But shooting a jet out of the sky—that doesn’t happen all the time.

So what the hell happened? And what does it mean? The very strange thing is that although it has been reported here that Turkey was only minutes away from retaliatory action, we still have no clue.

The Wall Street Journal article prompted responses in Turkey along predictable lines: there were those who were scandalized and outraged that anyone would dare cast doubt upon Turkey and its honor; there were those who distrust every word that comes out of their government’s mouth and were thrilled to have their suspicions confirmed. Sometimes the same people held both beliefs. This is not quite so strange, when you think about it: Therapists who have worked with victims of child abuse will grasp how this can happen.

Many Turks weren’t quite sure where to locate the leak in their schema of conspiracy theories: Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist at the Gülen-inspired Today’s Zaman—and often a good journalist, I might add, despite some of his quirkier views—immediately deplored it as the work of neocon warmongers. When I pointed out to him the unlikelihood of neocon warmongers taking up the standard for Bashar al-Assad, he rejoined that the point of the article was to suggest that Syria’s air defenses were weak, and that therefore an invasion would be a cakewalk. I suggested he think that through: After all, I said, no casus belli means you don’t have to invade. He conceded it could be read this way. There is still some ways to go before I persuade him that “neocon warmongers” is a phrase that sheds more heat than light, but I’ll keep trying.

Meanwhile, the American press dredged out equal and opposite conspiracy theories: Doug Bandow, at theSpectator, warned against “dragging America into Turkey’s war.” This view seems to be common in the US. Many Turks are every bit as convinced that the situation is quite the reverse: They are being dragged into America’s war. Countless times in the past few weeks I’ve been told by Turks that they believe the United States is pushing them to fight with Syria; that the US doesn’t want to do it itself because of the upcoming elections and the economy, that Americans worry about their losses, but Turkish losses would be fine with them. It is difficult for me to look at them with a straight face and tell them that they are entirely wrong. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO; that, and its proximity to Syria, have led far too many American pundits casually to propose that Turkey “take care” of the Syria problem. (If I hear another American policy maker declare that our approach to the Syrian crisis “depends on Turkey’s willingness to keep the pressure on Assad,” my wrath will be strong and devastating and I will not hesitate to teach them a lesson. This is their idea of a policy? Turkey “puts pressure”—whatever that means—on Assad? Please, gentlemen, might we have some details about how this will work? I would say “ladies,” but the lady in question has with great public fanfare retired to spend more time with her family.)

I don’t know what American policy really is or if we have one. But of one thing I’m sure: The overwhelming majority of Turks don’t want a conflict with Syria. Before the downing of the jet, the Turkish think tank EDAM polled Turkish citizens and found only 11 percent in favor of any kind of military intervention. What’s more, 40 percent didn’t even think Turkey should be involved diplomatically. Only 15.9 percent approved of the government’s diplomatic and political initiatives in Syria. Fewer than eight percent supported arming the FSA. This conforms completely to my anecdotal observations. The war-weariness of the Turkish population, I’ve noticed, is generally underestimated by foreign observers. The Kurdish conflict has claimed 40,000 lives. Turks are exhausted with war. No matter what the prime minister says about Syrians being brothers of the Turks, the public isn’t buying it. Türk’ün Türk’ten ba?ka dostu yoktur, as the famous saying goes—a Turk has no friend but a Turk—and most Turks I speak to feel veryabstractly sorry for the Syrians, but would much prefer to have a new car, a plasma TV and a bit of peace than to send their sons to die in Syria and lead the new Ottoman Empire. Nor did it help when Russia sent a a fleet of warships through the Bosphorus en route to the Mediterranean. The sight of that left even me—a Cold Warrior to the depths of my soul—feeling rather deterred.

The Turkish military emphatically denied the Wall Street Journal’s claims with a formal statement on their website. Meanwhile, in a detail astonishingly unnoticed by the foreign press, a Turkish court upheld Erdo?an’s authority to censor TV and radio broadcasting on “national security grounds.” The prime minister suggested in a party speech that Turkish journalists who questioned the government’s account of the story were traitors. Ironically, the next dayForeign Affairs ran an article titled The Turkish Paradox. Widely circulated, it argued that “Since the AKP era began, the world has watched closely to see if Turkey would embrace, or abuse, democracy. What is becoming clear is that Erdo?an’s strategy is to do both, simultaneously.” To be kind to the authors, I will congratulate them for getting it half right.

In the days that followed, Turkey began scrambling F-16 jets on the Syrian border several times a day in response to the approach of Syrian helicopters. This is not an everyday occurrence—it is highly unusual for Turks to scramble jets on any border save the Greek border (and the Cypriot border, from time to time). But it was not clear why they were doing this. From the way it was being reported, you would conclude they were preparing to annihilate the first Syrian mosquito to traverse Turkish airspace. Yet footage posted on YouTube suggested that Syrian troops were shooting over the border at the Kilis refugee camp, and as far as I know, no one was shooting back. I’m fairly convinced the video was contemporaneous and certainly convinced that it depicted Kilis—unless the Free Syria Army is creating mock-ups to scale for their propaganda, which seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, the FSA claimed that Syrian government forces had amassed some 170 tanks north of Aleppo, near the Turkish border. General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council—an association of senior officers who have defected from the Assad regime—said the tanks were a mere 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. But he would say that, wouldn’t he, and no one confirmed it—so who knows. Reports of the shelling of Aleppo and Azaz, the latter so close to the Turkish border that it can be seen from Kilis, flooded Twitter andYouTube, but no one can be sure when these videos were filmed; or at least I can’t be sure.

The story then becomes murkier still. A Syrian pilot who defected to Jordan claimed that the Syrian regime mistook the Turkish jet for a Syrian plane trying to defect. The Syrians (of course) claimed that they mistook the Turkish plane for an Israeli one. The Sunday Times, sourcing “Middle East diplomatic sources,” reported that Russian technicians had pulled the trigger on the Turkish jet. They did it, these sources said, as a warning to NATO to stay out of the conflict. “We would not be surprised if these Russian experts, if they didn’t push the button, at least were beside the Syrian officers who did it,” said an anonymous “Israeli air force source.” One of the reporters was Gareth Jenkins, who’s no fool. Now this claim is significant. Perhaps it’s even a clue.

Assad then gave a masterful interview to the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. He apologized with a great show of pathos to his Turkish brothers for the loss of life—”If only we had not shot it down!”—while intimating that it was such a shame they had not hit a more worthy target: “Of course, I might have been happy if this had been an Israeli plane.” Assad shrewdly assessed the fault lines of Turkish political life: The apology was a masterstroke, playing to the Turkish sentimental side in a way so effective that you’d think he knows something about Turks, and sowing exactly the right seeds of division in Turkey’s political ranks. (Israelis, take note: It is not that hard to apologize in this region, even for a crime one may not have not committed. Nor is it that meaningful. And often it is quite effective.)

It has now been more than six weeks since the jet was downed. The Mediterranean is surely one of the most surveilled areas of the world. It seems hard to imagine that the entire incident was not captured by even one of the military satellites operated by any of the 28 member states of NATO—not to mention by radar—yet we still have no idea what happened. The Turkish press has moved on, as the Turkish press is wont to do: Last week’s leading story involved insane speculation that by means of fondling a Louisville Slugger, Obama was sending covert signals to Erdo?an over the telephone. Alas, the poor Turkish press: Unable to report on the ongoing hot conflict in the Southeast, this is what they’re reduced to. Russia, meanwhile, claims to have “objective” data about the incident—supporting the Syrian version of events—that it is willing to share. No one seems eager to take them up on the offer.

On June 28, in another small detail unnoticed by the foreign press, an explosion on the Turkey-Iran natural gas pipeline cut the gas flow to Turkey. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz attributed it to “terrorist sabotage,” meaning the PKK—which could be true, and could well be connected to Syria, from which the PKK also operates, and with which Assad has more than once threatened Turkey. The following day, in another item ignored abroad, Gazprom issued a brief, minatory statement. It would send more gas to Turkey if it needed it, but after 2018, Turkey could ask for help from Azerbaijan. To decrypt: Gazprom is competing against the Trans-Anatolian pipeline TANAP, which would carry Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe. The deal was signed on June 26 by Erdo?an and Aliyev. It would rival to the South Stream trunk, backed by Moscow. Considering Russia’s record of using Gazprom to blackmail Ukraine, the statement—in conjunction with its helpful offer to release “objective data” about the jet downing—should most likely be interpreted thus: Russia is telling Turkey that Russia is still Russia and Turkey is still Turkey, and Russia has what Russia always seeks: Turkey’s balls in a vice. Ours, too, if we’re really planning to outsource our Middle East policy to Turkey.

So what can Turkey do? Not much, I suspect. It scrambled a lot of F-16s to save face. Not cheap to do that, by the way. Erdo?an can threaten to retaliate against Syria to his heart’s content, but if the theory that Russia pulled the trigger is correct, I reckon even Erdo?an knows that threatening retaliation against a state armed with 4,650 active nuclear weapons would make him sound ridiculous. Given Syria’s backing from Iran and Russia—not to mention Syria’s own deterrent power, which is, sadly, the best argument I’ve ever seen for acquiring chem-bio capability—Turkey can’t even retaliate against Syria without risking the Apocalypse.

No one seems to be asking whether the Turkish military is genuinely prepared for further escalation from the Syrian side, given that is now facing a domestic insurgency that has resulted in a complete lockdown—not to mention a complete news blackout—in much of the Southeast. And no one is asking whether it is prepared for this, in particular, given that twenty percent of its serving admirals and generals are in jail. It But I’ll ask. Let me interject my own unsourced comment from someone “familiar with the Turkish military,” who told me that the head of the Turkish Air Force, General Mehmet Erten, “couldn’t herd a sheep.” I have no idea if my source is spinning me for his own reasons—probably, almost certainly, he is—but he is definitely familiar with the situation. (Connected to this, probably, is the news that Second Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Mehmet Veysi A?ar, who last year led the operation that resulted in the death of 34 locals in Uludere, was recently forcibly retired by Turkey’s Supreme Military Council.) Erten was hastily appointed last year after the Chief of General Staff and the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force resigned in protest against the arrests of their colleagues. Other high-ranking sources in the Turkish military have told me that morale is so low that they doubt the army would be willing to fight—although again, they might be spinning me; I don’t really trust anyone here who talks to journalists, to be frank.

A question keeps coming back to me. I assume that of course the Turkish jet was on a reconnaissance flight, and a perfectly justified one at that. It was a calculated risk gone bad. NATO may even have put them up to it, for all I know. But why didn’t the Turks try to cover up the downing of the plane? Suppressing the story would have been child’s play for Erdo?an. It’s what I would have done in his position. Making an issue of it obviously carries a huge risk of escalation—and a certainty of losing face.

What are the possible answers to this question? Hypothesis one: Erdo?an actually does want a war with Syria. There are quite a few here who believe that this is part of his master plan for the centennial of the Republic in 2023—retaking territory ceded to France in the Treaty of Lausanne. Many here believe this, but it doesn’t seem all that plausible to me. Assad hasn’t much to lose, except his life. The Syrian economy is already in tatters. Erdo?an stands to lose everything—millions of Western tourists, foreign investment, a strong but vulnerable economy, public support, power, and perhaps even his country. Everyone knows that Syria isn’t Libya, and in fact that Libya wasn’t even Libya—the humanitarian intervention has become a different kind of humanitarian nightmare, not least for Mali. Erdo?an is not irrational; indeed, he’s one of the shrewdest, most rational politicians I’ve seen. I am not saying this makes him good, but I am saying that where he’s concerned, game-theoretic models of international relations are relevant. Surely even he isn’t megalomaniacal enough to imagine that the Syrians, after all this, would welcome the Turks as their new colonial overlords.

Hypothesis two: The government didn’t believe they could cover it up. They decided that if they tried, it would leak anyway, and gossip from abroad would do them substantial damage, this owing to the essential Turkish conviction that the reality is probably far worse than the gossip. So they decided preemptively and aggressively to form public opinion. Yet it seems to me the circle of people who would have known about it is limited: The Syrians would have known, obviously, but no one believes anything they say. Who else would have known? The staff at Malatya, many in the Turkish Air Force, the upper levels of the general staff. This leads me to wonder: Is it possible that Erdo?an doesn’t trust them? Perhaps his control over the military is not yet as complete as people seem to think? Perhaps, in fact, it’s not anywhere near as complete as people seem to think? There are rumors here that the military leaked the news of the downing of the jet while Erdo?an was in flight, returning from Brazil, presumably to embarrass him. This, it is said, was their revenge. Perhaps.

Hypothesis three: The government thought they could use the incident for their benefit. Their pro-intervention constituency would understand that Turkey isn’t sitting idly on its hands—for which Erdo?an is increasingly being mocked, and if there is one thing we know about Erdo?an, it is that he does not care to be mocked. The anti-intervention crowd would finally grasp it: Assad is so mad and so evil that he would shoot down a Turkish plane. Unfortunately, since the AKP can never tell a story straight, they got tangled up.

But how could they have thought that once in the open, as they decided to make it, the foreign media wouldn’t be all over this story? This is what makes me wonder, again, if the theory that Russia pulled the trigger might be correct—that, surely, would be a good enough reason to go screaming to NATO, whatever the consequences in embarrassment. I wouldn’t entirely put thinking about retaliation against Russia past Erdo?an and his crowd—but I’d surely want NATO on my side before trying.

Anonymous “foreign diplomats and Syrian activists,” according to the Financial Times, say “Turkey is operating several policies on Syria at the same time, some concealed within others, like Russian dolls.” According to another one of my anonymous sources— who happens in this case to be some Turkish guy (I assume) who follows me on Twitter and seems pretty smart— “God works in mysterious ways, Turkey even more so. And we add some outright baffling behavior just to make a difference.” So it seems I’m not the only one who can’t really figure this out.

Yesterday, the story grew more bewildering still. The Turkish columnist Yusuf Kanl? brought up the issue again:

How Turkey lost its F-4 reconnaissance plane on June 22 is of course important. Was it shot down by Syria’s Russian-made advance air defense missile systems? Was it shot down by anti-aircraft fire by Syrians? Did a loyal Syrian woman miss her spoiled son and hit the Turkish jet with a slipper she threw at the boy? Or did a spoiled kid shoot down the Turkish fighter with a slingshot?

How the Turkish military reconnaissance plane was lost and where it was lost are important questions the answers of which the state will never, ever provide, very much like how indeed the Turkish state bombarded its own civilian citizens the night of Dec. 28, killing 34 people, many of them children, assuming that they were terrorists.

He noted that the journalist Leyla Kemal had the day before written an article about the subject in the daily Taraf. “I do not like the Taraf newspaper,” Kanl? began. (And I must say that neither do I. I agreed with Kanl? when once he described Taraf as “the center for excellence in plot reporting.”) But, he added magnanimously,

…. everyone should salute good journalism irrespective of where the story appeared. In her story Leyla wrote about emerging details that Turkey’s allies had gathered through their bases on Cyprus, satellites and other means that underline the high probability that the Turkish jet was downed or fell “INSIDE” Syrian territory – unlike Turkish assertions that it was downed in international airspace.

Well, what difference would it make where the plane was downed (or fell) as long as we lost a plane and the two young officers piloting it?

For an answer to the question let us return to the headline: Freedom of press! What’s the connection between what happened and how it happened to the reconnaissance jet and the freedom of media?

Leyla’s story was to appear in daily Sabah… The paper of “our Çal?k,” who also owns ATV and the A Haber channels–lately the prime minister appears on only those two channels to answer the questions of a select group of breast-fed journalists.

I should explain here that Ahmet Çal?k and the prime minister are very close. In 2007, Çal?k Holding beat the Luxembourg-based RTL Group in the bidding for Turkey’s second-biggest media company. To help Çal?k fund the deal, two government-controlled banks swam in with $375 million each in loans.

“This week,” Kanl? continued, “Sabah had announced that it would report an earth-shattering story on the reconnaissance plane … According to “rumors” after it was censored – pardon, ordered not to run such stories – and probably considering the many lucrative deals between the government and its boss, the paper forgot to publish its “earth-shattering report.”

Well done Leyla … We still don’t have a reliable report on what in fact happened to the jet. We don’t know how it fell, or whether it was downed by Syrians. Now, we know, however, that the Turkish government lied to the Turkish public and the world when it categorically asserted that the jet was downed in international airspace. The latest evidence apparently showed it was in Syrian airspace when it encountered its fate …

And of course, Sabah lost, along with masters of censorship.

The Turkish Armed Forces swiftly denied Taraf’s allegations, stating on its website that “the General Staff always provides correct and timely information to both the government and the public.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish daily Radikal claimed to have obtained a report indicating that there was no evidence that the plane was shot down at all, either by a missile or anti-aircraft fire. The Gendarmerie Criminal Department, they alleged, which conducted physical and chemical analyses on the salvaged wreckage, apparently found no evidence of an armed assault on the plane. The report raised the possibility that the plane may have crashed due to other factors—among them, presumably, the factor that sometimes planes just crash. In fact, according to the report, the only evidence that Syria had shot down the jet was Syria’s claim to have done so.

And that is all we know.

It seems to me it would behoove Americans to pay a bit more attention to this story, as well as to the questions it raises about press freedom in Turkey. As this timeline suggests, there is more riding on the issue than might seem at first blush—matters of regional war and peace, in fact; and matters that surely affect Americans, whether or not they realize it. Remember, after all: We are still signatory to NATO’s Clause V.

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