A team of advisors who counselled Turkey’s then-chief of general staff and now Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar failed to convince the top general to resist the government’s demand to shoot down Russian jets that violated Turkish airspace near border area with Syria.
The revelations of the private, internal debate about what to do with Russian aircraft that violate Turkish airspace were made by Col. Orhan Yıkılkan, who served as chief advisor to Akar and had been with him for years.
“For two months [before the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by a Turkish F-16 on November 24, 2015], we had said: ‘Look, sir, that [downing a Russian jet] would be a problematic and strategic mistake. Don’t dare strike; don’t ever shoot.’ Russian aircraft have violated NATO [member countries’] airspace some 4,000 times. It’s normal. A Greek plane violated our airspace [on the Aegean] , which is normal,” Yıkılkan said on April 12, 2019 at the Ankara 17th High Criminal Court, where he was tried on coup charges based on what appears to be dubious evidence.
It was clear that the demand for a change in the rules of engagement that allowed pilots to shoot down a Russian jet on a split second verbal order from a commanding officer came from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Akar’s aides were trying to prepare the chief of general staff to resist the political pressure. Yıkılkan said opposition politicians could manipulate the situation and asked why Turkey would not down jets that violate Turkish airspace but said the president and prime minister, who were in positions of responsibility, couldn’t say such things openly.
“Commander, as a soldier, you should tell the president from a common sense point of view that there have been 4,000 such incidents. It would not be logical to shoot down a Russian plane that enters and exits Turkish airspace,” Yıkılkan said he and other advisors told Chief of General Staff Gen. Akar at the time.
“Every week for two months, the advisor from the air force and I continued to tell [Akar] about the risks of shooting down a Russian jet if the current situation were to continue,” he added. Advisors also warned the top commander about the far-reaching implications of such an incident, if it were to occur, that could very well lead to pushing Turkey out of Syria and possible demands for changes in the terms of the Montreux Convention, which regulates the passage of foreign warships through the Turkish straits of Gallipoli and the Bosporus.
Despite the warnings from his advisors, the chief of general staff went along with President Erdoğan’s demands and revised the rules of engagement, which eventually led to the downing incident in November 2015.
Court transcript that shows Col. Orhan Yıkılkan’s testimony on the downing of the Russian jet:Orhan_Yikilkan_russian_jet_incident
Yıkılkan also described in court the tense environment at General Staff headquarters in the first hour after the downing of the Russian jet and how his team of advisors tried to run damage control and contain the fallout. The president’s office was briefed immediately.
While they were trying to control the narrative, people from Erdoğan’s office told the press anonymously that it was a Russian jet that had been shot down, dealing a huge blow to the efforts of the military advisors in the initial hours after the incident. Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency quoted Turkish presidential sources as saying that the Russian SU-24 was targeted within the framework of Turkey’s rules of engagement in Syria’s Bayır-Bucak area, a home to Turkmens. Russian aircraft had been pounding northern Latakia in Syria before the incident, and Turkmens living in the area had fled to the Turkish border. Moscow said it was conducting airstrikes against what it described as terrorists.
“It [the news from presidential office] was a vital mistake. Then we had it corrected,” Yıkılkan added, referring to a second statement from Erdoğan’s office that changed Anadolu’s earlier news story. The second statement attributed the identification of the downed plane to stories already published in the Turkish media rather than to a source in the president’s office.
The action plan for damage control, according to Yıkılkan, went like this: “First: Save the pilot, if he’s killed, if lynched in front of everyone, it’ll lead to automatic retaliation, Russia can hit Turkey directly. Two, never say it was a Russian jet. We didn’t know, we shot down a plane. Revise your statement [from the presidential office]. … Three, tell all naval vessels that every ship in the Mediterranean can be hit and retaliated against. This is Russia we are talking about,” the chief advisor to Akar said, recollecting the hours after the incident.
In the initial hours it appeared that the government and top brass followed the reasonable guidelines developed by the team of advisors led by Col. Yıkılkan. However, it did not take long before a hawkish tone emerged in the public remarks issued by both President Erdoğan and then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Erdoğan had defied Russia on November 26, 2015, saying that if a similar violation were to be committed, the response would be the same. Davutoğlu stated that same month that he gave the order to shoot down the jet. He defended Turkey’s actions, saying that Turkey’s “message is clear to whoever fires at Syrian Turkmens or Arabs in Aleppo.” Davutoğlu also said Turkey would not hesitate to take all steps to protect the country’s security, calling it Turkey’s “national duty.”
Nordic Monitor previously disclosed classified Turkish military documents which confirmed that President Erdoğan instructed the Turkish Air Force to shoot down a military aircraft that was approaching the Turkish-Syrian border. Chief of General Staff Gen. Akar went along with the political leadership as well in defiance of his own counsel. Akar even made a trip to an airbase to personally congratulate the F-16 combat pilot.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described the downing of the Su-24 as “a stab in the back.” Calling Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet a “war crime,” Putin said, “We will remind them not just once about what they have done, and they will feel sorry about it more than once,” without elaborating on what other measures Russia planned to take.
NATO stood by Turkey when the Turkish air force shot down the Russian warplane but urged de-escalation and calm to avoid a large, inadvertent confrontation between the two sides.
However, after Russia imposed sweeping sanctions on Turkey and began to submit intelligence reports to the United Nations Security Council showing that Turkey was arming and funding jihadist groups and smuggling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) oil from Syria, the rhetoric of the Turkish government began to change.
In May 2016 Erdoğan said the downing of the Russian jet by a Turkish F-16 on the grounds that it had violated Turkish airspace was actually the Russian pilot’s mistake. A month later the Turkish president apologized to Russia in a letter and went to Moscow to meet with Putin.
In the meantime, Yıkılkan, who had been with Akar almost constantly as his advisor, was charged with involvement in a July 15, 2016 attempted coup based on what appears to be dubious evidence. Akar never appeared in court despite repeated motions filed by defense lawyers for an opportunity to cross-examine him. Yıkılkan denied any role in the July 15 events, which many believed to be a false flag orchestrated by President Erdoğan to consolidate power in his hands. At the end of court proceedings that were marred by massive violations of due process, he was convicted on June 20, 2019 and ordered to serve 141 consecutive aggravated life sentences by a panel of three judges who took their orders from the Erdoğan government.