Back in the late seventies, when Saturday Night Live was actually hip and funny, they had Roseanne Roseannadanna – the scattered and rude reporter played by Gilda Radner. Her “Weekend Update” co-anchor Jane Curtin would stare in amazement as this Roseannadanna woman would jump from one unrelated comment to another, outraged and incoherent, and then Curtain, exasperated, would ask her what her comments had to do with the question at hand, or anything at all. Radner’s character would reply the same way each week. “Well, Jane, it just goes to show you, it’s always something – if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”
That always brought down the house, probably because that’s how everyone felt about the real news. In the morning this was the big story of the day – but wait – breaking news! Forget what you were just told. This other thing is really the big story if the day, now – but wait – breaking news! This third thing is really the big news story of the day, honest. Everyone wants to stay informed, but every day everyone felt as puzzled as Jan Curtain, and the words of Roseanne Roseannadanna seemed like an existential truth. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. It’s always something.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015, was another news day like that. The big story was the coming race war. There was the overnight shooting of five people during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis by three young white supremacists – it was startling. It was also inevitable. There had been more than a year of breathless coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement on Fox News – it was a “hate group” that’s “like the Ku Klux Klan” and all they ever do is chant Kill the Cops – because that’s exactly what they want to do – no more than that – and they must be stopped.
Someone decided to act on that, or on what Slate’s Jamelle Bouie documents as years and years of conservative race-baiting – or perhaps this has to do with Donald Trump turning the Republican Party into the White Nationalist Party. That was obvious. We have enemies. First it was Mexicans and now it seems to be Muslims, but Trump did have time to send out a graphic showing that among white homicide victims eighty-one percent are killed by blacks – a graphic from a neo-Nazi website citing data from a research firm that doesn’t exist.
All available data shows the opposite, but Trump is sticking to his guns, so to speak. He always does, so blacks are out to kill whites. Something has to be done about that. Something was done about that in Minneapolis, although the two guys they’ve caught so far haven’t mentioned Trump, yet.
That was an important story about race in America, but not the important one, as this was:
A white Chicago police officer was charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday in the death of a 17-year-old black man, just hours before city officials appealed for calm as they released a chilling video of the officer shooting the teenager as he lay crumpled on the ground.
The grainy, nighttime dashboard camera video, which a judge ordered released last week, shows the young man running and then walking past officers in the middle of the street and spinning when bullets suddenly strike him down. For a moment, lying on the ground, he moves but then is still after he appears to be shot several more times. An officer kicks an object away from his body. The video shows none of the officers on the scene offering assistance to the teenager, Laquan McDonald.
Everyone knew this was coming, and then it arrived, and there’s trouble ahead:
Standing with community leaders before releasing the video, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Garry McCarthy, the Chicago police superintendent, said they expected demonstrations in response to the graphic nature of the video, and urged people to avoid violence. “It’s fine to be passionate, but it is essential that it remain peaceful,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Good luck with that. The young black kid was shot sixteen times by that one white cop, while the other cops there stood around dumbfounded – they grabbed his gun and told him to stop when he paused to reload. The tape and the autopsy made clear that the kid was shot in the back – but those were the last twelve shots. The first four shots probably killed him, so the next twelve shots do not constitute murder, just enthusiasm. The kid, who someone said had been seen in the act of breaking into cars and stealing their radios, had a small knife. He was surrounded by big cops by big guns. None of them felt their life was in danger – the kid didn’t lunge at anyone or anything – but this one cop said he felt his life was in danger, or so he says now. The tape doesn’t show anything like that. If he eventually beats the rap on this one, given the circumstances here, with the other cops there doing nothing unusual, and with the disgusting video, there’s big trouble coming.
This was a big deal, but the timing was all wrong. The big story of the day, where the networks had deployed their resources, was supposed to be the President of France arriving in Washington to meet with Obama on ISIS of course. He was going to urge Obama to kiss and make up with Vladimir Putin. Putin was bombing those folks, more or less, France was bombing them too, and so was the United States. Maybe all three parties could coordinate that and do something on the ground too. That was the proposed plan and his next stop would be Moscow. He’d be the go-between – but if it ain’t one thing, it’s another. It’s always something, and this time the something was this:
Two big powers supporting different factions in the Syrian civil war clashed with each other on Tuesday when Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane that Turkey said had strayed into its airspace.
The tensions immediately took on Cold War overtones when Russia rejected Turkey’s claim and Ankara responded by asking for an emergency NATO meeting, eliciting more Russian anger and ridicule. After the meeting, the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, called for “calm and de-escalation” and said the allies “stand in solidarity with Turkey.”
It was thought to be the first time a NATO country has shot down a Russian plane in half a century. And while few expect a military escalation, with neither Russia nor NATO wanting to go to war, the incident highlighted the dangers of Russian and NATO combat aircraft operating in the same theater and has soured chances for a diplomatic breakthrough over Syria.
The chances for a diplomatic breakthrough over Syria are about zero now:
As President François Hollande of France met with President Obama in Washington to urge a closer and more aggressive alliance with Russia against the Islamic State, Turkey’s decision to fire on a Russian warplane attacking targets in Syria has raised tensions between Moscow and NATO and undercut efforts to persuade Russia to drop its support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Turkey wants Mr. Assad gone, and has allowed its border with Syria to be an easy crossing point for Syrian rebels, including those the West regards as terrorists or radical Islamists; Russia wants to prop up Mr. Assad and his government. While Moscow says it is attacking the Islamic State, for the most part Russian planes and troops have been attacking the Syrian rebels, some of whom are supported by the United States and the West, who most threaten Mr. Assad’s rule.
Mr. Obama said again Tuesday that Russian air attacks on moderate opponents of Mr. Assad had only helped him and that they should be directed at the Islamic State.
Mr. Hollande and Mr. Obama clearly hoped that the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, claimed by the Islamic State, would cause Moscow to make defeating the jihadists more of a priority than propping up Mr. Assad. But Tuesday’s events will make that a tougher sell, for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia wants to be seen as an equal player in the conflict, not beholden to Western policies.
Got that? Now try this:
Turkey, especially under the increasingly authoritarian rule of its nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been fierce in defending its airspace, shooting down Syrian jets that have strayed in the past. Turkey insisted that it issued 10 warnings over a five-minute period to the Russian pilot of the Sukhoi Su-24 to pull away.
But Mr. Putin, clearly angry, responded that the Russian jet had never violated Turkish airspace and was shot down over Syria. Speaking in Sochi, he called the downing of the plane a “stab in the back delivered by the accomplices of terrorists,” warning that it would have “serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.”
Mr. Putin said that instead of “immediately making the necessary contact with us, the Turkish side turned to their partners in NATO for talks on this incident. It’s as if we shot down the Turkish plane and not they, ours. Do they want to put NATO at the service of the Islamic State?”
A United States military spokesman, Col. Steven Warren, confirmed on Tuesday that Turkish pilots had warned the Russian pilot 10 times, but that the Russian jet ignored the warnings. Colonel Warren, speaking from Baghdad to reporters in Washington, also said American officials were analyzing radar track data to determine the precise location of the jet when it was shot down.
It only gets murkier:
Tensions between Russia and Turkey had increased lately over Russian bombing of Turkmen tribesmen in northern Syria, whom Turkey regards as under its protection and who are fighting to oust Mr. Assad. Just this week, Turkey summoned the Russian ambassador in Ankara to demand that Moscow stop targeting Turkmen tribesmen in Syria.
“It was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages, and this could lead to serious consequences,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
Now try this:
What may make matters worse is that those same tribesmen say they shot and killed both Russian pilots as they floated to earth in their parachutes, having apparently ejected safely after the plane was hit by air-to-air missiles. The tribesmen then reportedly destroyed a Russian helicopter with a TOW antitank missile as it tried to rescue the airmen.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said late Tuesday that one fighter pilot had been killed by ground fire and that a marine deployed on the search-and-rescue helicopter died but that the rest of the crew had escaped.
Well, if it ain’t one thing it’s another, and this time it’s Turkey:
NATO countries have been concerned about Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies for some time, and NATO officials acknowledge that Turkey’s agenda in Syria does not always match that of Washington, Britain or France – let alone Russia.
And while he has recently allowed American planes to use Incirlik air base for sorties into Syria, Mr. Erdogan’s own troops have largely turned their fire on the Syrian Kurds, whom Washington regards as its best local ally so far against the Islamic State.
Turkey has been in a struggle for decades with Kurdish separatists in Turkey, labeling them terrorists, and regards the Kurds in Syria and Iraq as sharing the same desire to break away and form a Kurdish state.
In a speech on Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan said there would have been more incidents like Tuesday’s if Turkey had not exercised such restraint.
“The reason why worse incidents have not taken place in the past regarding Syria is the coolheadedness of Turkey,” he said in speech in Ankara. “Nobody should doubt that we made our best efforts to avoid this latest incident. But everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders.”
But, but, but – it wasn’t supposed to work out like this, and that’s not the half of it:
While Mr. Hollande is pressing Mr. Obama for tougher action against the Islamic State and plans to travel to Moscow on Thursday to meet Mr. Putin, Washington-Moscow tensions, high over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, were highlighted again on Tuesday when Mr. Obama complained that Russian airstrikes against moderate opposition groups in Syria were bolstering the Assad government instead of trying to destroy the Islamic State.
But the United States and Russia have different interests in Syria, and Mr. Putin has been clear about the need to preserve the existing Syrian government, if not Mr. Assad himself as leader. Mr. Obama, like Mr. Hollande, is committed to the ouster of Mr. Assad and believes that the Syrian strongman is complicit with the Islamic State – from which his government buys considerable amounts of oil – as a means of dividing his own opposition.
This was never going to work, but at least we won’t have World War III just yet:
Russia’s retaliation so far has been largely symbolic. Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov canceled a Wednesday visit to Turkey, and a large Russian tour operator, Natalie Tours, announced it was suspending sales to Turkey. Russians accounted for 12 percent of all tourists to Turkey last year.
The two countries are also significant trade partners. But “Russia-Turkey relations will drop below zero,” Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trends Studies, said on the state-run Rossiya 24 cable news channel.
Okay, fine, that’s only trade stuff, so far. Everyone is being careful:
Washington is not interested in getting deeper into Syria with ground troops or having a conflict with Russia. So cautious are the NATO countries about Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which calls for mutual self-defense, that when Mr. Hollande declared “war” on the Islamic State after the Paris attacks, he invoked the European Union’s toothless Lisbon Treaty and sidestepped NATO. Mr. Hollande was also, French officials have said, eager not to offend Mr. Putin by making Syria a NATO issue.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan adds these details to that:
Russian planes have dropped many more bombs on “moderate” anti-Assad rebels than on ISIS fighters. Recently, they’ve been bombing Turkmen militias in northern Syria, very close to the Turkish border. Turkey had written a letter to the U.N. Security Council last week warning that Russia’s operations could trigger a border incident – and, finally, they did.
Another twist in this tale, according to a senior American official: The Syrians who shot down the Russian pilots as they parachuted to the ground were fighters with the same Turkmen militia that the Russians had been bombing for days, sometimes with horrific weapons which burn victims’ bodies and collapse their lungs.
Details are still fuzzy on whether, or how often, Russian planes have crossed into Turkish airspace or to what extent the Turkish air force has sent warning signals. The senior U.S. official says the plane that was shot down Tuesday had crossed the border “very briefly,” for a few minutes or even seconds.
A month ago, shortly after two Russian planes crossed into Turkish airspace – one of them engaging in what a Pentagon official called “provocative” behavior, forcing the Turks to scramble their own fighter planes into the air – I wrote a column calling the situation a “tinderbox” that could ignite the region into war.
But that may not happen:
Tuesday morning, at a press conference following their meeting in the White House, President Obama and French President François Hollande didn’t so much as mention the downing of the Russian fighter jet until a reporter asked about it. Even then, they made as little of the incident as possible, noting that the details were being investigated. Obama said he would ask Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about it “in the coming days;” Hollande said he would discuss it during his meeting this Thursday in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The point was clear: Neither president nor any other sane leader wants to go to war with Russia over this single, if unnerving, incident. Obama made the point explicitly: “My top priority,” he said, “is to ensure that this does not escalate.”
He has good reasons. First (though he didn’t say as much), a brief aerial border crossing is no cause of war. Second (and he did make this point), Russia’s role is crucial in the settlement of Syria: The question is whether Putin will impede or promote that goal. There is – as Obama said – “a potential convergence of interests” between Russia and the West to promote it, so it’s worth trying to make that so.
Kaplan isn’t so sure about that:
On Nov. 14, delegates from 20 countries – including Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – met in Vienna to discuss a political transition to a post-Assad Syria. Prodded by the ISIS-sponsored attack on Paris, which took place just hours before the conference, the group produced a formal statement calling for a transition process to begin on Jan. 1, followed by a cease-fire, with elections for a new Damascus government in 18 months.
There were holes in that diplomatic statement, not least this one: “The ceasefire would not apply to offensive or defensive actions against Da’esh [ISIS] or Nusra [an al-Qaida affiliate] or any other group the [conference of 20 nations at Vienna] agrees to deem ‘terrorist.'” Even at the time, Russia and Iran said they considered all groups fighting in Syria, except for the Assad-backed Syrian army, to be terrorists. Now that the Turkmen militia – which calls itself the 10th Brigade and is associated with the Free Syrian Army, one of the U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel groups – has shot at Russian pilots as they helplessly parachuted to earth, Putin will likely be more insistent on this point. If that’s true, there will be no real cease-fire and thus no prospects of a political transition and thus no end to the war.
So with one stray stroke of violence, the chances of peace in Syria are diminished, and the chances that this multiplicity of wars might trigger mistakes, miscalculations, or affronts that spiral out of control are heightened. In fact, we’ve now seen a demonstration of this sort of incident, which was merely a hypothetical just a few weeks ago.
The “stalemate of perpetual war” is what we’ll get now, if we’re lucky – but then No-Drama Obama is president. Yes, no sane leader wants to go to war with Russia over a single unnerving incident like this. He seems sane, but isn’t he leaving soon? Who’s next?
It may be time to worry, and that just goes to show you, it’s always something – if it ain’t one thing, it’s another – and the news moves fast, too fast. Roseanne Roseannadanna said so.