Putin and Erdogan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday morning, a Russian SU-24 bomber was shot down near the Turkish border. A video of it crashing inside Syria was quickly circulated online. Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday this serious escalation led to a war of words between Moscow and Ankara, and increased the tension in the region.
Turkish President Reccip Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that “everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders.” Turkish media reported that the Russian plane had flown inside Turkish airspace for 10 minutes and been warned 10 times to leave. When it didn’t, it was intercepted by two Turkish F-16s and shot down. Initially both countries were cagey about the story, with Russia denying its plane was shot down and the Turks claiming they had hit a jet of “unknown nationality.”
Russian General Staff official Sergey Rudskoy told Russia Today that the Russian jet was hit by a missile and that no attempt was made to contact the crew beforehand.
It crashed some four kilometers inside Syria, he said. Russia upped the ante Tuesday afternoon, announcing it would deploy the large guided-missile cruiser Moskva from its Black Sea fleet to the coast off Syria’s Latakia province near where the jet was hit. The cruiser is equipped with an air-defense system and Rudskoy warned “every target posting a potential threat” would be hit – a reference to Turkish aircraft. Russian President Vladmir Putin called the attack a “stab in the back” and claimed there would be consequences and that the Turks were “accomplices with terrorists.” Russia intimated that it would suspend military contacts with Ankara.
Issues were made more complex by the fact that two Russian pilots ejected from their aircraft. The co-pilot was killed by small arms fire from Syrian Turkmen rebels on the ground. The Turkmen are an ethnic Turkish minority in Syria that has been fighting Assad and which the Ankara government is seen keen on protecting.
The pilot was rescued by a Russian special forces operation during which a Russian marine was killed.
This serious development seems to be about far more than just the violation of Turkish airspace. Whether the jet was over Turkey for five minutes, as a radar image released by Turkey seems to indicate, or not, and whether it was warned or not, is only a detail in a larger drama. Turkey is a NATO member and this is the first downing of a Russian plane since the 1950s by the alliance.
NATO is keen on keeping all eyes on Islamic State, which it views as a common enemy.
“I think I’ve expressed very clearly that we are calling for calm and deescalation,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. Even though the alliance supports Turkey’s “territorial integrity”, US Pentagon officials have stressed that this is primarily an issue between Turkey and Russia, not NATO and Putin.
The larger context is that, ever since Russia intervened in the Syrian war in October it has carved out an imposing stature in the region. This has had an affect on sovereign airspace in the region as well. On November 20, Russian defense officials faxed a request to Lebanon’s Directorate of Civil Aviation requesting part of Lebanon’s air space be shut to aircraft due to Russian naval maneuvers. Lebanon refused the request and it seems the issue blew over. On November 23, Iraq closed its northern airspace to all domestic and international flights due to Russia’s air campaign. Russia was launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea over Iraq to hit Syria and flights from numerous countries scheduled to land in Iraqi Kurdistan were canceled for 48 hours.
This all comes after an incident reported in foreign media in mid-October in which Israeli jets were warned against flying over parts of Lebanon. The very sensitive story claimed that, despite Israeli efforts to coordinate air force issues with Moscow, tension and dangerous incidents could still take place.
Turkey has consistently upbraided Israel over the last decade and there is no reason to see Russia’s intervention as at cross-purposes with Israel’s interests. Tension in the region relating to Russia’s air campaign in Syria must be addressed so that more escalations do not occur. NATO must see to it that the airspace of countries like Iraq are not constantly violated, so that the Kurdish areas, which are a key ally in the war against IS, can function normally.