The Turkish military on Tuesday announced that it shot down a Russian military aircraft near the Syrian border after it ignored multiple warnings and entered Turkish airspace.
With tensions already high in the region, Moscow immediately denied the report and Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened “serious consequences,” over the incident.
The shooting down of the SU-24 strike fighter could not have come at a worse time for the complex relationship between Russia, Turkey and a U.S.-led coalition flying missions against the Islamic State as the Syrian civil war continues to draw in a series of outside actors with differing agendas.
With the West focused on the threat from the Islamic State, Russia protecting its ally in Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkey openly trying to overthrow Assad by supporting a wide range of rebel groups, all sides had feared a violent incident that could quickly escalate a situation that long ago exceeded the definition of volatile.
Tarik Sulo, deputy president of Syrian Turkmen National Movement Party, told McClatchy that one of the pilots was confirmed dead and that his body was being held by a rebel unit loyal to Ankara.
Gruesome images of the rebels inspecting the pilot’s body were widely circulated on social media. The other pilot remains missing and a search-and-rescue effort by the Russians was complicated by the damaging of a helicopter by rebel fire, which forced it to land in Syrian government-held territory.
It was eventually destroyed by a U.S. supplied anti-tank missile fired by nearby anti-government rebels. It’s unknown if the failed rescue mission resulted in any Russian casualties.
The incident could not come at a worse time in terms of Turkish-Russian relations.
At a joint press conference at the White House with French President Francois Hollande, President Barack Obama said the U.S. will try to determine through its own intelligence what happened and by talking with the Turks and Russians. He added, “My top priority is to ensure that this does not escalate. Hopefully this is moment where we can all step back.”
Hollande was meeting with Obama to discuss their joint resolve to attack the Islamic State following the terrorist group’s recent carnage in Paris.
In Turkey, presidential sources told McClatchy that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Obama to discuss the incident and that the U.S. supported Turkey's right to defend its national sovereignty.
Putin, speaking in Sochi before a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, denounced the downing as “a stab in the back carried out by the accomplices of terrorists.”
In the remarks, carried by Russian news agency RT, Putin said the aircraft was “downed over the territory of Syria, using air-to-air missile from a Turkish F-16.” He said it fell in Syrian territory, four kilometers ‑ over two miles ‑ from the Turkish border.
Putin insisted the pilots were targeting “terrorists” in the northern areas around Latakia, specifically militants with Russian origins, and posed no threat to Turkey.
“We have always treated Turkey as a friendly state. I don’t know who was interested in what happened today, certainly not us,” Putin said. “And instead of immediately getting in contact with us, as far as we know, the Turkish side immediately turned to their partners from NATO to discuss this incident, as if we shot down their plane and not they ours.”
The Russians have conducted more than 4,000 air strikes in the past two months in support of Assad. In his comments, Putin accused Turkey, which has long sought Assad’s ouster, of backing the Islamic State, and said that Turkey was protecting the Islamic State because of the group’s “huge resources of hundreds of millions and billions of dollars coming from illicit oil sales.”
Turkish government statements said that its F-16s intercepted two Russian planes as they approached Turkish airspace along the border and that one ignored 10 verbal warnings to turn back before the decision to shoot the plane down was approved.
In a statement the Turkish military said, “On Nov. 24, 2015 around 09:20 a.m. in Hatay Yayladagi region, a plane of unknown nationality violated Turkish air space, more than 10 times in five minutes and was repeatedly warned about the violation. The interception action was done in line with the engagement rules of Turkey at 09:24 by the two F-16s patrolling in the area.”
Turkish officials told McClatchy they were prepared to provide NATO with coordinates; radar and radio traffic to prove the incident took place in Turkish airspace.
At Ankara’s request, NATO held an extraordinary meeting of all 28 member nations where Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for “calm and de-escalation” after the meeting.
"As we have repeatedly made clear, we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally, Turkey," he said. “Diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation."
At the Pentagon, Press Secretary Peter Cook said: "While we are still gathering details, the United States and NATO support the right of Turkey to defend its airspace and sovereignty. We urge Turkey and Russia to de-escalate the situation and resolve this matter through discussion, diplomacy and de-confliction measures
Earlier, Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said from Baghdad that no U.S. warplanes, equipment or troops were in the air or on the ground in the vicinity of the shoot-down. He said it can be difficult for fighter jet pilots to know which country they are flying over.
“In some of these more remote regions and in a mountainous area, and at 30,000 feet or whatever the altitude is, it’s often difficult to know exactly where a border is,” Warren said.
According to the Russian defense ministry, they operate at least 32 fixed-wing aircraft from a base in western Syria, while long-range bombers and cruise missiles from outside the region have also participated in strikes. The use of the bombers, which must cross Iranian and Iraqi air space to reach Syria, led to the closure this week of Iraqi airspace to commercial flights.
While Russia has long contended its campaign is focused on the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, the vast majority of its air strikes have focused on more moderate rebel groups, or jihadists not aligned with the Islamic State.
That focus has led Turkey to complain, specifically this week, that Russian strikes were targeting Turkmen and other rebels groups along the border with close ties to Turkey. That at least one of the pilots parachutes landed in Syrian territory held by one of those same groups seemed to bolster that claim. But Putin immediately claimed that the planes were targeting “Russian-speaking jihadists,” and one such group does operate in the nearby hills of northern Latakia Province.
One Western diplomat based in Iraq, but with extensive experience in Syria and Turkey, called the incident “brazenly orchestrated and inevitable,” but asked that the identification of his country not be used in the statement.
When asked which side had orchestrated it, the diplomat replied, “both. They back opposing sides and now have escalated an incredibly dangerous game of one-up-manship.”
Hannah Allam and James Rosen in Washington, and McClatchy special correspondents Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Duygu Guvenc in Ankara contributed to this report.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. @mitchprothero