Turkish Jets Shoot Down Russian Warplane Above the World’s Most Dangerous Frontier
On Nov. 24, Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber near their border with Syria. Combined with a rebel attack on the rescue team, the incident highlights existing dangers and could inflame tensions across the board.
Turkish officials said the F-16s attacked the Kremlin’s warplane after it strayed over their territory and ignored warnings to leave. With more than two dozen planes flying missions from bases inside Syria, the Russian government disagreed, saying the jet never left Syrian airspace.
“The Defense Ministry considers actions of the Turkish Air Force as an unfriendly act,” Moscow’s top military headquarters said in a statement. “Combat missions against terrorists in Syria will be continued.”
The Kremlin initially suggested rebel anti-aircraft fire had brought down the Su-24. Eventually, both Ankara and Moscow acknowledged the aerial tussle. To counter Russian claims, the Turkish Ministry of Defense released a radar map showing the jet briefly passing through the country’s southernmost province of Hatay.
“The entire world should be aware and sure that we’ll do whatever necessary in order to ensure our country’s peace and security within all this ring of fire, in order to maintain peace in Turkey and around,” Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said. Another unnamed official said the F-16s “took necessary steps to defend Turkey’s sovereign territory.”
Only Turkish and Russian forces were involved in the engagement. While NATO also has a number of Patriot missile batteries in Turkey to defend against Syrian missiles and aircraft, the units have not yet fired any shots in anger.
“We can confirm that U.S. forces were NOT involved in this incident,” the Pentagon stated in a press release. “While we have a robust U.S. presence in Turkey and we closely monitor activity in the region, any questions about this incident should be directed to the Governments of Russia and Turkey.”
And though worrisome and surprising, the skirmish itself is not necessarily shocking. The skies near Turkey’s southern border have already proven dangerous and Ankara runs one of the most elaborate and active air defense arrangements in the region.
Since civil war erupted in Syria four years ago, the Turkish air force has shot down several Syrian jets and helicopters encroaching on the border. After Syrian forces knocked out a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance jet in 2012, then Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — now the country’s president — warned Damascus against sending combat aircraft near the shared boundary.
On Sept. 30, Russian warplanes started bombing various targets in Syria. On Oct. 3, Turkish jets intercepted one of Moscow’s advanced Su-34 fighter-bombers after it zoomed into their airspace.
While both parties tried to play down the violation, Davutoğlu went on television to say the Kremlin had assured him these sorts of mistakes wouldn’t happen again in the future. In response to Moscow’s activities in Syria, NATO held its own snap meeting to discuss the overall situation.
“Allies strongly protest these violations of Turkish sovereign airspace, and condemn these incursions into and violations of NATO airspace,” the alliance said in a statement after the gathering. “Allies also note the extreme danger of such irresponsible behavior.”
Turkey and NATO were hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. And while the threat of all out war between Russia and the alliance’s members is still low, Moscow will no doubt seek to retaliate.
“The president clearly stated that this could not but affect Russian-Turkish relations,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in announcing his decision to cancel a scheduled visit to Ankara. “Terrorist threats are growing in Turkey.”
Lavrov appears to have been trying to get a jab in at Turkish support for rebels fighting the Russian-allied regime in Damascus. While Washington, Ankara and others have been working with many of these groups, the Kremlin considers those militants terrorists, just like Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Turkey and the United States have butted heads themselves over whether these groups should be focusing on battling Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad or Sunni extremists.
Ankara’s support for the Free Syrian Army and affiliated militias may turn out to be a bigger point of contention than the aerial fight.
After the Turkish jets knocked out the Su-24, rebels apparently fired at and might have killed the Russian crew as they parachuted down. Unconfirmed photographs suggest the militants could have executed them after they hit the ground, as well.
When a Russian rescue chopper swooped in to try and rescue the pilots, forces from the Free Syrian Army-affiliated 1st Coastal Division blew it up. Western officials have vetted this unit and supplied it with training and heavy weapons, including the popular and devastating TOW anti-tank missile.
“[This shoot down] represents a stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices,” Russian Pres. Vladmir Putin declared. “I can’t describe what has happened today in any other way.”
On top of everything else, rebels reportedly attacked an RT news crew in Latakia province in an unrelated incident, injuring three reporters. “The attack on the RT team is a new crime committed by terror groups and the states which are sponsoring and equipping militants — primarily, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” Syrian Minister of Information Omran Al Zoubi said.
If either Moscow or Damascus decided to strike back in a tit-for-tat blow, these governments could target Turkish jets with surface-to-air missiles. In addition, the Kremlin has Su-30SM fighter jets in Syria that are best suited to aerial combat.
“The immediate implication of the shooting down of the aircraft is likely to remain limited to a diplomatic crisis,” Ege Seckin and Firas Abi Ali of IHS Country Risk wrote. “However, future such incidents between Russia and Turkey are highly likely, as neither side is willing or able to back down.”
“Further shoot-downs and occasional exchanges of artillery fire between Syrian and Turkish troops are increasingly likely. Putin’s decision to carry the topic to the U.N. Security Council indicates his effort to contain the escalation for now.”
Any additional brawls could threaten to bring other members of the Western-backed coalition into the fray. In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack in Paris on Nov. 13, both American and French jets are hammering Islamic State-controlled regions in northern Syria. Politicians in Washington who have been calling for a no-fly zone in the region, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, will no doubt be looking very closely at what happens in the coming weeks.
“I look forward to further contacts between Ankara and Moscow and I call for calm and de-escalation,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after a special meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s main decision-making body. “Diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation.”
More likely, Russia will look to diplomatic or economic options to express its displeasure with Turkey and its partners. To hit back at policies it disagrees with, Moscow regularly curbs natural gas shipments and bans imports of certain goods.
In the end, with all these elements taken together, the downing of a Russian Su-24 clearly underscore the obvious dangers of having so many parties with differing agendas packed into the region. The need for Washington and its allies to agree on a uniform and coherent strategy has never been more apparent.