Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar personally congratulated pilot who downed Russian Su-24 jet

Hulusi Akar, Turkey's defense minister, is seen posing in front of an F-16 fighter jet after a flight on September 22, 2018.

Abdullah Bozkurt

 

Hulusi Akar, the then-chief of general staff and current defense minister, personally met and congratulated the combat pilot of an F-16 fighter jet who shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M jet on November 24, 2015, his chief of staff revealed in a court statement.

Testifying in an Ankara court on April 10, 2019, Staff Col. Ramazan Gözel, chief of staff for Gen. Akar, who was chief of general staff at the time of the jet downing, told a panel of judges how the top commander was pleased with the performance of the fighter jet pilot.

“We [Akar and his entourage] went to Konya. … He talked to each and every staff member there. They said, ‘Commander, this is the pilot who shot down the Russian plane.’ If I recall correctly, the pilot had just had a new baby. Akar congratulated him and wished him luck. His congratulation were not only for the new baby but also for [shooting down the Russian jet] because back then everybody was supportive of the downing of the jet,” Gözel said.

The 48-year-old colonel had worked with Akar for three years since 2013, when Akar was the Land Forces commander. He became his chief of staff when Akar was promoted to chief of the Turkish armed forces in 2015.

His recollection relates to Akar’s visit to the 3rd Main Jet Base Command in the central province of Konya on April 13, 2016 after the top commander’s scheduled visit to bases in the border provinces near Syria.

 

The part of the court transcript from Col. Ramazan Gözel’s testimony that revealed how the then-chief of general staff was pleased with a pilot who downed the Russian jet:

Ramazan_Gozel_defense_akar_pilot

 

Gözel’s testimony confirmed a previous report published by Nordic Monitor on February 25, 2020. In the article, which was based on the classified minutes of a military consultation meeting held on June 3, 2016 in Ankara, it was reported that Akar emphasized the possibility of the Turkish armed forces downing another Russian aircraft in the event of another airspace violation based on the rules of engagement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had defied Russia on November 26, 2015, saying that if a similar violation were to be committed, the response would be the same. Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency quoted Turkish presidential sources as saying that the Russian SU24 was targeted within the framework of Turkey’s rules of engagement in Syria’s Bayır-Bucak area, a home to Turkmens. Russian airplanes had been pounding northern Latakia in Syria before the incident, and Turkmens living in the area had flocked to the Turkish border. Moscow said it was conducting airstrikes against “terrorists.”

Then-Prime Minister Ahmet 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.

Briefing notes used by Maj. Erkan Ağın, legal counsellor at General Staff headquarters, in a NATO meeting to inform participants of the legal aspect of the case revealed Erdoğan’s key role in the incident. According to the notes Erdoğan declared that “every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border and representing a security risk and danger would be assessed as a military threat and treated as a military target.”

 

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar seen in a flight simulator at the 3rd Main Jet Base Command in the central province of Konya on April 13, 2016.

 

Turkey said the plane was shot down because it had violated Turkish airspace, while Russia denied a violation had occurred and vowed serious consequences as a result. 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 regret it more than once,” he said without elaborating on what other measures Russia planned to take.

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.

After mending fences with Russia, the Erdoğan government continued to change its rhetoric, putting the blame on the Gülen movement, his foremost critic on a range of issues from corruption in the government to Turkey’s arming of radical jihadists. The government media and Erdoğan’s ally, a neo-nationalist group led by Doğu Perinçek, started spreading rumors that that the pilot was a Gülenist.

However in January 2017, in a 71-page report submitted to parliament, former Prime Minister Davutoğlu rejected the allegation that the pilot who shot down Russian jet was a Gülenist.

 

Col. Ramazan Gözel, former chief of staff for Gen. Hulusi Akar.

 

“I told him [Akar] that if this pilot or any other TSK [Turkish Armed Forces] members who served during this process has any connection to any organization, it should be investigated immediately. As a matter of fact, our chief of general staff informed me at our next meeting that they had investigated the pilot’s past and all his connections and that no solid information was found suggesting that he had any such connections,” Davutoğlu wrote.

The F-16 pilot, whose identity was not revealed, is reported to still be working for the Turkish Air Force. Air Force General Abidin Ünal, who gave the verbal order to shoot down the Russian jet after clearing it with the political authorities, retired from the service. He was not subject to any investigation. Ünal played a key role in a false flag coup in July 2016, working closely with the Turkish intelligence agency in orchestrating events to make it appear that a real coup was underway.

Gözel, who had been with Akar on almost all occasions as his chief of staff, 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. Gözel denied any role in the July 15 events, which many believed to be a false flag orchestrated by President Erdoğan to consolidate more 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 11 consecutive life sentences plus 441 years in prison by panel of three judges who received their orders from the Erdoğan government.

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