Turkey Downs Russian Jet
A potentially big complication in an already complicated situation.
The big news of the morning, with potentially huge implications for the already tense situation already unfolding in Syria is the news that Turkish jets have shot down a Russian jet that it claims crossed into Turkish air space and ignored warnings to depart:
ISTANBUL — Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border after it violated Turkish airspace on Tuesday, officials said.
The Russian jet was warned 10 times in five minutes before being shot down, according to the Turkish air force.
Syrian fighters on the ground and Turkish sources told NBC News that the Russian jet’s pilots ejected and landed in an area north of Latakia, Syria, that is controlled by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. Russia has an air base in Latakia which is used to launch bombing raids targeting Assad’s foes — including ISIS.
Footage from Turkish Haberturk TV showed a warplane going down in flames in a woodland area with a long plume of smoke trailing behind it.
Citing the Kremlin’s Defense Ministry, Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency also reported that a Su-24 had been downed in Turkey near the border with Syria, but said it had been shot down by ground fire. The plane was flying above Syrian territory and not Turkey, according to that report.
The head of the Turkish military briefed President Tayyip Erdogan on the incident, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu ordered consultations with NATO, the United Nations and related countries, Reuters reported citing their respective offices.
Russia’s Defense Ministry was not immediately available for comment.
According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, there are 69 warplanes based in Latakia. Russian planes have run thousands of bombing raids in Syria since Sept. 30 when the Kremlin announced it would start targeting ISIS.
However, U.S. officials say many of the strikes appear to be hitting areas where ISIS doesn’t have a presence.
More from The Washington Post:
BEIRUT — Turkish military aircraft shot down a Russian jet Tuesday after Turkey says it violated its airspace near the border with Syria, a major escalation in the Syrian conflict that could further strain relations between Russia and the West.
Russian officials confirmed that a Russian warplane had been shot down but claimed it had been flying over Syria and had not violated Turkish airspace.
The plane was likely shot down “due to shelling from the ground,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the plane was one of more than three-dozen fixed-wing aircraft flying sorties in Syria as part of Russia’s two-month old bombing campaign there. It is the first Russian plane to crash in that time.
The incident highlights heightened friction in Syria’s increasingly crowded airspace, which now includes Russian warplanes that are targeting the armed opposition of President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled forces.It will almost certainly further strain relations between Russia and the West since Turkey is a member of NATO.
The Russian jet was warned several times before it was hit, Turkey’s military said, according to several news agencies.
The plane was flying at an altitude of 6,000 meters,” the Defense ministry added. “The fate of the pilots is being found out. According to preliminary information, the pilots ejected from the aircraft.”
Citing unnamed military sources, Turkey’s Dogan News agency reported the aircraft was downed because of a “border breach.” The news outlet said local witnesses observed pilots parachuting from the attacked warplane.
Relations between Turkey and Russia have soured over the Russian intervention. Turkey, which backs rebels seeking Assad’s ouster, has at least twice warned Russia about incursions into Turkish airspace.
In addition to Russia, Syrian warplanes and aircraft from a U.S.-led coalition are mounting separate air bombardments across the war-torn country.
Last month, Turkey’s military downed an unmanned aerial vehicle near the border with Syria that military analysts said appeared to be of a Russian make. Officials in Moscow denied connection to that downed aircraft and sent a delegation to Turkey to smooth over concerns.
Russia issued a formal apology to Turkey in early October when a jet violated Turkish airspace and Turkish F-16s were scrambled to intercept the plane. The Russians called the mistake “a navigational error.”
Russia has carried out more than 4,000 airstrikes since it began its intervention in the Syrian civil war on Sep. 30, using a force of modern and modified Soviet-era aircraft. Russia has at least 32 fixed wing aircraft and 16 helicopters at the Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia, Syria, an Assad stronghold on the Mediterranean Sea just 30 miles from the Turkish border.
The Russian deployment includes 12 Soviet-era Su-24 and 12 Su-25 ground support aircraft, as well as four cutting-edge Su-34 strike fighters. The Russians have also deployed four Su-30 fighter jets, which are used for air-to-air combat.
The New York Times reports Russian officials as claiming that the jet was on the Syrian side of the border when it was hit:
ISTANBUL — Turkish fighter jets shot down a military plane close to the border with Syria on Tuesday after it violated Turkey’s airspace, the military said.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that one of its jets, a Sukhoi SU-24, had crashed in Syria but said it had been downed “presumably as a result of shelling from the ground,” according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
The discrepancy between the two accounts could not immediately be explained.
Interfax cited the Russian ministry as saying that early information indicated that the pilots had ejected.
“The plane stayed exclusively above the territory of Syria throughout the entire flight,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to Interfax.
The Turkish military said that a plane had been shot down by its own fighters.
“Two Turkish F-16 jets on patrol duty along the border were involved in the downing of the warplane, whose origin was unknown,” the Turkish military said in a statement.
Television footage shown on the privately owned Turkish channel Haberturk showed a warplane exploding in the air and tumbling down in flames in a wooded area, identified by the broadcaster as a region known to Turks as the Turkmen Mountains in northern Syria.
Another video published by the semiofficial news service Anadolu Agency showed two figures parachuting out of the aircraft.
Right off the top, it’s worth discounting the idea that there was something deliberate going on in here in the sense of the Russians willfully defying Turkish airspace in an aggressive or confrontational manner, or the Turks seeking to provoke the Russians. There’s simply no incentive on either side of the equation to add that kind of complication to an already complicated situation in Syria. The most likely explanation lies in the area of some kind of mistake, mechanical failure, or miscommunication on the part of either the Russians or the Turks that led to the incident. Of course, the possibility of such an incident was something that should have been on everyone’s mind from the minute the Russians started flying jets and making bombing runs in Syria, and especially near the Syrian border. Indeed, it was with the possibility of miscommunication and mistake in mind that American and Russian commanders in the region reached an agreement on how their forces would operate in Syrian airspace as well as an agreement to keep lines of communications open to avoid the possibility of mistaken confrontations as much as possible. This agreement apparently did not include the Turks, however, even though the possibility of a Russian jet straying across the Turkish border, the Turks mistakenly believing that had happened, or some combination of mechanical or communications failure and human fallibility leading to precisely this kind of situation.
Regardless of the reasons why this happened, though, it’s hard to discount the potential implications of a Turkish NATO jet shooting down a Russian warplane given everything else going on. The fact that this happened on the same day that French President Francois Hollande is arriving in the United States for a meeting with President Obama over the situation in Syria that will be followed up by a meeting on Thursday in Moscow between Hollande and Russian President Putin, and follows by a day a meeting between Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron on the same subjects. The French seem to clearly be hoping, of course, that some kind of agreement about a united front among the various powers now engaged in fighting ISIS in various and largely uncoordinated degrees can be reached, and an crucial part of that would be closer cooperation between Washington and Moscow, which to at least some extent includes cooperation with the Turks. Early reports from Washington, meanwhile, suggest that President Obama will be most concerned about pressing Hollande to keep sanctions against Russia related to last year’s events in Ukraine in place notwithstanding what’s happening in Syria. These events are likely to make that already difficult task even more difficult. At the very least, one hopes that the Russian pilots are found and relatively safe. Otherwise the situation will just become more complication.
Update: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial response on this incident takes an angry tone:
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey will have “tragic consequences” for ties between the two countries.
Turkey said Tuesday that it shot down a Russian warplane after it ventured into Turkish airspace but Russia’s defense ministry said the aircraft remained within Syria.
Putin called the attack “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorist accomplices” and said it will not be tolerated, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
He said the plane, a Su-24 attack aircraft, was downed by an air-to-air missile launched from a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. The Russian aircraft posed not threat to Turkey, Putin said.
Here’s how Putin’s remarks are summarized by the Russian news agency TASS:
SOCHI, November 24. /TASS/. Russia will not tolerate crimes like the attack on the Russian Su-24 fighter jet shot down by Turkish AA-forces in Syrian skies, President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday at a meeting with King of Jordan Abdullah II.
“I understand each country has its own regional interests, and we have always respected that. But we shall never tolerate crimes like today’s one,” the President said.
He expressed hope “the international community will find the forces to unite in the face of this common evil (terrorism).”
The Russian leader stressed that the Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber was posing no threat to Turkey.
“Anyway, our pilots and jet posed no threat to the Turkish Republic. This is obvious. They were conducting an operation against ISIL,” Putin said at the meeting with King Abdallah II of Jordan.
He said the plane was flying above northern Lattakia where militants coming from Russia are concentrated.
“They [the pilots] were fulfilling their task,” the president stressed adding that they were delivering preventive air strikes on terrorists who can come back to Russia at any moment.
Putin called the attack a crime and stressed that Russia would not tolerate it. According to the president, the Su-24 plane crash in Syria goes beyond normal struggle against terrorism, and it is “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorist accomplices.”
“Today’s loss is linked with a stab in our back delivered by terrorism accomplices. I can’t characterize otherwise what has happened today,” the Russian leader said.
“The Russian bomber was shot down over Syria by an air-to-air surface fired from a Turkish F-16 plane when the bomber was at an altitude of 6,000 meters at a distance of 1 km from the Turkish bomber.” Putin said.
Putin noted that Turkey’s contacts with NATO member states after the attack against the Russian aircraft look like an attempt to make the alliance serve terrorists.
The Russian leader said that instead of immediately establishing contacts with Russia after the bomber incident, “the Turkish side applied to its NATO partners to discuss this issue, as far as we know.”
“It seems as if we have shot down a Turkish plane and not vice versa,” the Russian president said.
“So, does this mean that they want NATO to serve the Islamic State?” Putin noted.
These remarks are obviously as much for domestic Russian ears as much as anything else, but they demonstrate how sensitive this incident is and how important it will be to cool tensions down sooner rather than later.
Update #2: There are additional reports about the fate of at least one of the two pilots of the Russian jet that have the potential to seriously complicate this situation:
Beirut (AFP) – One Russian pilot of a warplane downed by Turkey in Syria on Tuesday was killed by rebels and the second is missing after they both parachuted, rebel and opposition sources said.
A Russian helicopter was also blown up by rebels following an emergency landing in the Syrian government-held territory after it was damaged by rebel fire, but its crew was able to escape, a monitor said.
The sources told AFP that the first pilot of the downed warplane was killed by opposition forces who shot at him as he landed after ejecting.
Several videos circulating online and shared on opposition social media sites purported to show the dead pilot surrounded by rebels from different factions.
Fadi Ahmed, a spokesman for the First Coastal Front rebel group, said “the Russian pilot was killed by gunfire as he fell with his parachute” in the Jabal Turkman area of Latakia province on the coast.
“The 10th Brigade (rebel group) transferred the body of the dead Russian to the local rebel joint operations room,” added Omar Jablawi, a media activist working with rebels in the area.
He declined to specify exactly where the joint operations room was located.
The sources said rebels were still searching for the second Russian pilot of the Su-24 aircraft, which Ankara said was downed by Turkish forces after violating its territory.
If rebel groups have indeed killed one or both of the SU-24 pilots, that is only likely to anger the Russians even more, obviously.