This isn’t exactly the kind of Turkey shoot NATO was seeking just before Thanksgiving.
But with a civil war raging inside neighboring Syria—and with 11 air forces flying over it—Tuesday’s shoot down of a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber by a pair of U.S.-built Turkish F-16s was all but inevitable. Ankara said it downed the Russian plane after it flew into Turkish air space and ignored repeated warnings; Moscow maintained the aircraft was shot down, likely by shelling from the ground, while flying over Syria.
NATO ministers scheduled an emergency meeting Tuesday to deal with the shoot down. It marked the first time NATO downed one of Moscow’s aircraft since the 1950s, immediately sparked echoes of the Cold War, and chilled talk of a broader coalition, including Russia, to battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.
“The aircraft entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yaylidag, in the southeastern Hatay province,” said a statement from the Turkish government, which did not identify the nationality of the target airplane. “The plane was warned 10 times in the space of five minutes before it was taken down.” The fate of the plane’s two pilots was not immediately clear, although eyewitnesses said they saw two parachutes. A Syrian rebel told NBC that they shot and killed one of the pilots, despite their efforts to take him alive.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the shootdown was a “stab in the back that will have serious consequences for Russia’s relationship with Turkey.” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Su-24 was “certainly” in Syrian airspace when it was shot down. The Su-24 shot down was one of 12 deployed by Russia to the Syrian air base at Latakia in September. The airplane—dubbed Fencer by NATO—is a twin-engine, variable-sweep winged warplane whose two pilots sit side-by-side.
Syria has become an intractable problem for the international community because various states have lined up behind the government of President Bashar Assad, while others back different rebel groups trying to topple him. Layered atop the underlying civil war is the rise of ISIS, whose terror strikes around the globe have drawn world powers, including Russia and the United States, into the conflict. The net effect, after more than four years of civil war, is a stalemate.
The shoot down will only make things worse: following the ISIS attacks in Paris Nov. 13 that killed 130, there was a sense that outside nations might finally create an alliance to take on ISIS. The downing led to the cancellation of a Wednesday visit to Turkey by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, signaling increased tensions between two key players in Syria. Russia backs Assad, while Turkey wants him toppled.
The downing represents the biggest blow to the Russian military since it began bombing Syrian rebels two months ago. The Russians “have added a huge additional level of complexity to the whole affair,” David Petraeus, retired Army general and ex-CIA chief, told Charlie Rose on PBS Monday night. Turkey has twice warned Russia about its warplanes straying into Turkish air space, and shot down a drone—believed to be Russian—last week.
The skies over Syria have becoming increasingly crowded. In addition to Syrian, Russian, Turkish and U.S. aircraft, other nations flying combat missions over the country have included Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Unlike the U.S. and its allies, who have been using primarily precision-guided munitions to attack targets inside Syria, Russia has been using dumb bombs. That’s led to civilian Russia has been bombing rebels with “dumb bombs,” generating more civilian casualties. That may have played a role in the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian commercial airliner over Egypt last month that killed all 224 aboard.
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