ISTANBUL, Turkey — One of the world’s most volatile regions was roiled further Tuesday when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey said it hit the plane after it repeatedly violated Turkey’s airspace and ignored 10 warnings.
Turkey and Russia exchanged bellicose language after the downing of the plane, raising fears in the international community that the brutal Syrian conflict could spiral into something much wider.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the downing of the Russian plane would have “serious consequences for Russia’s relationship with Turkey.”
The shooting down of the plane, Putin said, “represents a stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices. I can’t describe what has happened today in any other way. Our plane was downed over Syrian territory by an air-to-air missile from a Turkish F-16 jet.
“The plane fell on Syrian territory 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the Turkish border. It was flying 1 kilometer away from the Turkish border when it was attacked. In any case, neither our pilots nor our jet posed any threat to Turkey. That is obvious. They were carrying out an operation fighting against ISIL in Northern Latakia.” (ISIL is another acronym for ISIS.)
Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Serdar Kilic, was equally aggressive in his comments, tweeting: “Understand this: Turkey is a country whose warnings should be taken seriously and listened to. Don’t test Turkey’s patience. Try to win its friendship.”
NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, said it would hold an emergency meeting in Brussels at 5 p.m. (11 a.m. ET) on Tuesday. The council is made up of the NATO ambassadors of the 28 countries that are members of the alliance and is NATO’s highest decision-making body.
Turkey is a member of NATO, which considers an attack on one of its members to be an attack on them all.
Not long after the plane was shot down Tuesday morning, spitting fire and diving nose-first toward the ground, Turkey claimed responsibility. Turkey’s semiofficial outlet, the Anadolu Agency, quoted Turkish presidential sources as saying the Russian Su-24 was “hit within the framework of engagement rules” in Syria’s Bayirbucak area, near the border with Turkey.
Russian officials denied the plane had violated Turkish airspace.
Both pilots ejected from the plane, but their fate is unknown, Sputnik reported. The terrorist group ISIS does not operate in the area where the plane went down. But other rebel groups do, including al Nusra Front — al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — along with more moderate U.S.-backed groups.
Abu Ibrahim al-Sheghri, the military leader in the 10th coastal brigade and part of the Turkmen Mountain Military Operation Room, told CNN that the body of one of the pilots had been found in the Nibh Almur area of Syria.The brigade is searching for the other pilot in the same area, he said.
And Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, Turkey’s national public broadcaster, aired footage of what it said were Russian helicopters searching for the pilots.
Early this year, Moath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot whose plane crashed in Syria the previous December, was burned alive by ISIS while he was trapped in a cage.
A brutal civil war
Turkey released a purported image of the flight path of the plane showing it had violated Turkish airspace. Turkey said it had issued 10 warnings to the aircraft before two F-16s responded “within engagement rules” near the Turkish-Syrian border.
But the Russian Defense Ministry said “objective monitoring confirmed” the plane was not in Turkish airspace.
“The Su-24 bomber jet was in Syrian airspace at the altitude 6,000 meters, the Russian Defense Ministry said,” according to Sputnik. “The pilots were reportedly able to parachute out of the jet before it crashed.”
A U.S. defense official told CNN that Turkey informed Washington that it had shot down a Russian military aircraft near the Syrian border after an airspace violation. U.S. forces were not involved in the incident, the official added.
Syria has been embroiled for more than four years in a brutal civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, sent millions of families fleeing and laid waste to entire cities.
Turkey vehemently opposes the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Russia is propping up the Assad regime.
Skirmishes between Turks and Syrians have taken place in the past, with Turkish officials accusing Syrian planes of violating Turkish air space.
A ‘significant escalation’
“The moment of the plane falling into Bayirbucak region across from Hatay’s Yayladagi was captured on camera,” the Anadolu Agency reported. “The pilot’s evacuation via parachute was also captured. Heavy smoke has been seen in the area where the plane fell.”
Sajjan Gohel, international security director for the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a think tank, described the downing of the plane as “a very significant escalation.”
“It’s very much the last thing that’s needed right now, especially in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, when there was hope that Russia could form an alliance with France and with the United States against ISIS,” Gohel said. “This is going to complicate things. This is going to add unnecessary tensions that really weren’t required at this critical juncture.”
He said the downing of the Russian plane would hamper efforts to form a united front against the terrorist group ISIS.
“This is a situation that unfortunately was almost inevitable at some point, because Turkey has long been accusing Russia of interfering in their airspace,” Gohel said. “They’ve threatened them in the past. And even though economic relations between the two countries are strong — politically, there have been tensions recently.”
NATO ‘in contact with Turkish authorities’
A NATO official told CNN that NATO was monitoring the events closely.
“We are in contact with Turkish authorities and will have to wait to see how it develops,” the official said.
The official noted that “when Russian jets violated Turkish airspace a few weeks ago, the Council did meet in an extraordinary session, which resulted in a condemnation of the incursion.”
The official would not comment on whether the alliance was in contact with Russian authorities over the incident.
A massive proxy war
Syria’s internal conflict has become a massive proxy war for numerous international powers, both in the region and outside it — a situation that has added to the perception that incidents such as Tuesday’s plane downing were inevitable.
Currently, the United States, Russia, France, Australia, the Gulf states, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Jordan and Hezbollah are involved, one way or another, in military activity in Syria.
“Russia has a slight get-out-of-jail-for-free card, in that it hasn’t lost any actual lives here, but it is insisting that its plane didn’t cross into Turkish airspace,” said CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh
“They have tried in the past to have meetings in Ankara and Istanbul between Turkish and Russian officials to make sure misunderstandings didn’t happen, and it’s clearly failed,” Walsh said.
This incident has the potential to be extraordinarily damaging, but Russia is unlikely to want to start a major conflict with Turkey, a NATO member, over an incident like this — that could technically be blamed on this jet straying, according to Turkish officials, into the wrong territory — Paton Walsh said.
Turkey shot down Syrian fighter previously
In March 2014, Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet after the warplane strayed into its airspace, according to then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is now the country’s president.
“Our F-16s went up in the air and shot that plane down. Why? Because if you violate my airspace, then from now on, our slap will be hard,” Erdogan told supporters at a campaign rally in 2014.
But state-run media in Syria called it an act of “blatant aggression” and said the downed plane was over northern Syria at the time.