Turkish defense radar locked on Russian fighter as it bombed Syrian town

An anti-Russian demonstrator in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday held up a caricature of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest against Russian military operations in Syria. The picture reads in Turkish and Russian: “Murderer Putin.”
An anti-Russian demonstrator in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday held up a caricature of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest against Russian military operations in Syria. The picture reads in Turkish and Russian: “Murderer Putin.” AP

A Russian warplane on a bombing run in Syria flew within five miles of the Turkish border and may have crossed into Turkey’s air space, Turkish and U.S. officials said Sunday.

The incident raises new concerns that Russia’s armed intervention in Syria could spill over to neighboring countries, lead to an unintended military confrontation and trigger an even bigger regional conflict.

A Turkish security official said Turkish radar locked onto the Russian aircraft as it was bombing early Friday in al Yamdiyyah, a Syrian village directly on the Turkish border. He said Turkish fighter jets would have attacked had it crossed into Turkish airspace.

But a U.S. military official suggested the incident had come close to sparking an armed confrontation. Reading from a report, he said the Russian aircraft had violated Turkish air space by five miles and that Turkish jets had scrambled, but that the Russian aircraft had returned to Syrian airspace before they could respond.

The Turkish security official said he could not confirm that account. Both officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.

(UPDATE: The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced Monday that the Russian aircraft had entered Turkish air space and had been intercepted by Turkish fighters. It said it had summoned the Russian ambassador to protest. The announcement said that the incident had occurred Saturday.)

A NATO spokesman referred all questions to the Turkish government, which had no immediate comment. The U.S. Central command, which oversees military operations in Syria, said it was working on a response to questions from McClatchy.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped up his rhetoric. In his strongest comment to date, he called Russia’s intervention unacceptable and a “grave mistake” that would isolate Moscow. Russia’s intervention and its bombing campaign in Syria “have no acceptable side,” he told reporters on the eve of a state visit to Belgium.

Turkey has maintained a buffer zone five miles inside Syria since June 2012, when a Syrian air defense missile shot down a Turkish fighter plane that had strayed into Syrian airspace. Under revised rules of engagement put in effect then, the Turkish air force would evaluate any target coming within five miles of the Turkish border as an enemy and act accordingly.

Al Yamdiyyah hosts a tent camp for internally displaced Syrians and a hospital, run by the French-based Doctors Without Borders. The bomb struck in the village just a few hundred yards from the actual border, wounding several townspeople, local residents said. The Doctors Without Borders hospital, which is about 50 yards from where the bomb landed, was damaged and evacuated.

The town, in a mountainous region of northern Latakia province, has been a prime route for smuggling people and goods between Turkey and Syria and reportedly has functioned as a key entry for weapons shipped to Syrian rebels by the U.S.-led Friends of Syria group of Western and Middle Eastern countries.

Dr. Jawad Abu Hatab, a heart surgeon at the Al Yamdiyyah hospital, claimed in a statement distributed by the Syrian Opposition Coalition, an opposition group recognized by the United States, that he believed the hospital had been the target of the airstrike. In the statement, he said the hospital at Al Yamdiyyah and another one in Latamneh, in northern Hama province, served only civilians in their respective areas, and not rebel fighters.

He said several medical staff had been wounded on Thursday in raids on Latamneh, which had been bombed on three successive days.

Russian aircraft also have bombed a medical facility run by a Western-supported aid group, the “White Helmets” at Ihsim in Idlib province. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news television network, said a team of its reporters narrowly escaped harm during the bombing Saturday.

Russian aircraft on Sunday also bombed Rastan and Telbiseh, rebel-held cities in northern Homs province along the highway to Hama province. Residents of both locations reported on social media that they feared a ground offensive might soon be launched by the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

Russian aircraft also bombed close to the national hospital in the town of Jisr al Shughur in northern Idlib province; military strategists have suggested that recapturing the town, which fell to a coalition of rebel groups in August, is a primary goal of the Russian intervention.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government have repeatedly claimed that the intervention is aimed at destroying the Islamic State extremist group, which controls large swaths of Syrian territory. But most of the Russian bombing so far has targeted other rebel groups in the country’s west, amid speculation that Russia hopes to help the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad reestablish control over a stretch of central Syria now in rebel hands.

Michael Fallon, Great Britain’s secretary of defense, was quoted Saturday as saying that only 5 percent of Russian airstrikes so far have hit Islamic State targets. The bulk have killed civilians and fighters from other anti-Assad groups, he told the Sun newspaper.

“We’re analyzing where the strikes are going every morning. The vast majority are not against ISIS at all,” he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.

UPDATE: This story has been revised to reflect new information from the Turkish Foreign Ministry about the details of the Russian aircraft’s entry into Syrian airspace and to provide additional details about damaged to the hospital at Al Yamdiyyah.

James Rosen contributed from Washington. Special correspondents Duygu Guvenc in Ankara and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed.

Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc