Moscow says Turkey stabbed it in back after Russian jet shot down
BEIRUT // President Vladimir Putin said Turkey had stabbed Russia in the back and acted as an accomplice to terrorists after it shot down a Russian fighter jet near its border with Syria on Tuesday.
Turkey said two of its F-16s shot down the Russian Su-24 jet after it breached Turkish airspace and ignored 10 warnings within five minutes. The Turkish military said the jet was warned as it approached the border and when it was inside Turkish airspace.
Its jets engaged the Su-24 at 9.24am Turkish time and it crashed soon after in north-western Syria.
Russia’s defence ministry denied that the jet had strayed into Turkish airspace, saying it was flying at 6,000 metres over Syrian territory when it was hit.The incident is likely to further stoke regional and international tensions over Moscow’s military involvement in Syria.
Video from Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency showed a fighter jet in flames plummeting to the ground, disappearing behind a ridge in a cloud of smoke. The video also showed the parachutes of two ejected pilots as they drifted towards the ground.
One of the pilots was killed by fire from the ground after he ejected from the craft, Russia’s military said, citing preliminary information. Earlier, Syrian rebels said they had killed one of the pilots.
The fate of the second pilot is unknown.
Russian military spokesman General Sergei Rudskoi said a Russian soldier had also been killed in a failed bid to rescue the pilots. Syrian rebels earlier claimed to have destroyed a grounded Russian helicopter near the site of the Su-24 crash by firing a US-made Tow missile at it.
Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said the warplane crashed in the Turkmen Mountains region in the coastal province of Latakia.
Rebel units in the area include fighters from Syria’s Turkmen minority, who have close ties with Turkey.
Ankara has recently protested against Russia’s military action on Turkmen areas of Syria.
And before Russia’s intervention, Turkey had been pushing a plan that would see its military guarantee a safe zone for Syrian rebels north of Aleppo, free of ISIL and government forces.
Syrian troops have been on the offensive in the area where the jet was shot down, which is controlled by several insurgent groups including Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra.
Mr Putin said the incident would have “serious consequences” for Moscow’s relationship with Ankara. “We understand that everyone has their own interests but we won’t allow such crimes to take place,” he said.
“We received a stab in the back from accomplices of terrorism.”
Mr Putin pressed Moscow’s version of the event, saying the jet was a kilometre away from the Turkish border when it was hit.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled a trip to Turkey planned for Wednesday.
Nato, of which Turkey is a member, planned an emergency meeting on Tuesday afternoon in Brussels to discuss the incident.
US president Barack Obama responded to the incident, saying that Turkey had a right to defend its airspace, but warning against any escalation. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, called for urgent action to ease tensions between Moscow and Ankara.
Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted his country had the right to take “all kinds of measures” against border breaches and called on the international community to work toward “extinguishing the fire that is burning in Syria”.
Moscow began an air campaign in Syria on September 30, striking against rebel and extremist targets in cooperation with the government of president Bashar Al Assad.
The air campaign has been criticised for focusing on rebel groups fighting the Syrian government instead of ISIL.
While Russia and Turkey have important economic ties and Mr Putin said relations had always been friendly, their relationship was strained by the war in Syria as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains a staunch opponent of the Assad regime, which Moscow backs. Suspicions of Moscow’s relationship with Kurdish militant organisations in Syria at a time when Ankara is at war with Kurdish militants at home has further deteriorated the relationship.
“It’s highly likely that the Turks were trigger-happy and wanted to send a message to Moscow,” said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst with Gulf State Analytics in the UAE.
“The atmosphere you see between Turkey and Russia is poor because of tensions about how Russia and Syria may be supporting the PKK and other Kurdish elements, and how that leaks over into Turkey. It’s a very busy area.”
The most powerful Syrian Kurdish faction has avoided open conflict with the government, focusing on governing territory it controls and on battling ISIL.
As a result of this, along with Kurdish groups’ previous warm relations with Moscow, some see them as a possible ally in Russia’s intervention in Syria.
Yury Barmin, an analyst in Moscow who focuses on Russia’s relationship with the Middle East, said that Russia could use the shooting down of the jet to refocus attacks on rebel groups including ones that are closest to Turkey, such as the Turkmen units.
After the Paris attacks and the ISIL-claimed bombing of a Russian charter flight over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, Mr Barmin said: “Russia was forced to attack ISIL more in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, but I think they will use this plane crash in order to intensify attacks on rebels in Latakia and Idlib and Aleppo.
“Definitely they will attack Turkmen and other local groups more.”
The incident comes at a time when the Kremlin has been looking to further project its power in the Middle East.
Last Friday, Russia asked Lebanon to shut down its airspace so its naval forces in the Mediterranean could conduct drills. That request was denied.
And on Monday, Iraq closed its northern airspace to civilian air traffic in anticipation of Russia stepping up its cruise missile strikes on Syria from its naval ships in the Caspian Sea.
Russia “is making these bold moves in the region to show that it’s one of the key actors there and you have to bear Russia in mind when you do your own stuff in the area”, said Mr Barmin.
“Frankly, it’s quite remarkable that in only two months Russia has become so big in the region that it can make such requests.”
While Russia has in the past voiced opposition to the US-led anti-ISIL coalition’s air strikes in Syria, calling them illegal, it has softened its tone in recent days.
Mr Putin ordered his forces in the Mediterranean Sea to coordinate strikes against ISIL with French forces after the November 13 attacks in Paris.
* With additional reporting from agencies