Russian warplanes on bombing runs over Syria twice entered Turkish airspace over the weekend, causing “extreme danger” through “irresponsible behavior,” NATO said Monday.
Turkish fighter planes scrambled both times and identified the intruding aircraft, which then returned to Syria.
The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision-making body, said the Russian aircraft entered Turkish airspace in the southern Hatay province, despite “clear, timely and repeated warnings.” Turkish warplanes, in accord with NATO practice, responded to the incursions by closing in on them to identify the intruders, it said.
NATO’s condemnation after an emergency meeting pointed to the growing risk that Russia’s armed intervention in Syria will spill over into neighboring countries and ignite a regional war. Turkey is a member of the treaty organization, which pledges each member to come to the defense of fellow members.
The NATO council did not announce any steps to prevent further such incursions, however, apparently taking the signal from the Obama administration, which appeared eager to dampen public concern about the rapidly evolving situation.
At his daily briefing for reporters, White House spokesman Josh Earnest had no prepared statement about the two incursions, and it was only in response to questions that he said the United States is “quite concerned by that provocation.”
NATO, the U.S. and Turkey all offered relatively muted responses to the incursions, apparently not wanting to ramp up tension.
Turkey also played down the significance of the incursions. Foreign Ministry officials had no comment Sunday afternoon and evening when queried about the first incident by a McClatchy reporter, and it was nine hours after McClatchy published a report about one of the incidents that the ministry confirmed it.
Even NATO used measured language, opening its statement on the “recent dangerous military actions of the Russian Federation in and around Syria” with an expression of “deep concern” about the Russian military build-up in Syria and the attacks in the central and northern provinces far from areas held by the Islamic State.
As for the incursions, NATO said Russian military actions “have reached a more dangerous level” and that Turkey’s NATO allies “strongly protest these violations of Turkish sovereign airspace and condemn these incursions into and violations of NATO airspace.”
But instead of threatening action, the NATO council called on Russia to “cease and desist and immediately explain these actions.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, traveling in Madrid, declined to comment publicly about the incursion, but a senior official traveling with him said the U.S. did not believe the incursions were an accident.
A Defense Department spokeswoman, Eileen M. Lainez, said that U.S. commitments to defend NATO allies are “steadfast,” but that the United States was “in the process of executing previously announced plans to withdraw U.S. Patriot air defense missiles from Turkey.
She noted that the U.S. has increased the number of aircraft based in Turkey and that U.S. ships in the Mediterranean “offer a range of capabilities to support the defense of Turkey and NATO missions.”
The first Russian incursion occurred shortly after noon Saturday in the town of Al Yamdiyyah in Syria’s northern Latakia province, near the Syrian-Turkish border. Local residents said they saw the Russian warplane – which NATO identified as an SU-30 attack jet, known in NATO parlance as a Flanker – first fly into Turkish territory and then return to drop a gravity bomb near a hospital close to the border.
That day the Foreign Ministry called in Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov and warned him that if the violation were repeated, the Russian Federation “will be responsible for any undesired incident that may occur.”
The Russian Defense Ministry later told the Turkish embassy in Moscow that the plane entered Turkish airspace due to a “navigational error,” a Russian embassy aide told reporters in Ankara. On Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said the warplane’s incursion had only lasted “for a few seconds,” though a U.S. military report that was shared with McClatchy said the Russian plane had traveled five nautical miles inside Turkey.
Turkey’s warning had no apparent impact, because on Sunday a Russian aircraft, this time a swept-wing SU-24 intercepter known by NATO as a Fencer, violated Turkish airspace again, according to the NATO statement. The Turkish Foreign Ministry called in Karlov for a second protest Monday night, after the NATO statement was released.
The Russian Defense Ministry, whose reports until now have been viewed with deep skepticism for imprecise or erroneous reports, said Monday that Russian aircraft had carried out 15 combat sorties and attacked 10 “terrorist facilities.” Syrian opposition activists confirmed one set of targets against – in the area of Palmyra, the ancient city that is now under the control of the Islamic State.
According to the ministry, the airstrikes targeted an Islamic State command center, about 20 T-55 tanks that the extremists had seized from the Syrian army, artillery positions and ammunition depots.
Opposition activists said airstrikes hit the towns of Rastan and Telbiseh in the northern Homs countryside and that warplanes dropped leaflets warning civilians to flee, as military operations will start soon.
Rastan, with a population of 150,000, and Telbiseh, with about 60,000, are both filled with internally displaced persons who’ve already fled their homes and have nowhere else to go. Many fear a bloodbath if allies of the Syria government, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, advance to seize the area.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the Western-recognized opposition umbrella group, said that its tally of airstrikes over the first five days of the Russian operation found that of 36 attacks, only two were directed at the Islamic State. Twelve were directed against rebel forces – most of them U.S.-backed forces – and the rest against civilian targets.
On Sunday, for example, the group said attacks struck the headquarters of the First Coastal Division in Turkman Mountain and another attack on Regiment 46, in Orom Alkubra, near Aleppo. The opposition coalition said an attack on the town of Aqirbat in Hama province targeted civilians at a local sheep market. The group said three cluster bomb attacks had taken placed in Qanater and Kafr Halap, near Aleppo, and that more than 10 attacks had struck residential areas in the vicinity of Telbiseh. All were “far from combat fronts,” the group said.
James Rosen in Washington and McClatchy special correspondents Duygu Guvenc and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc