It seems like only yesterday we were just speculating that maybe Russian planes buzzing Turkish airspace wasn’t exactly good news for, you know, the human race. Welp, you’ll never guess what happened today:
Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, saying it had repeatedly violated its air space, one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plane had been attacked when it was 1 km (0.62 mile) inside Syria and warned of “serious consequences” for what he termed a “stab in the back”. Russian and Turkish shares fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies.
Each country summoned a diplomatic representative of the other and NATO called a meeting of its ambassadors for Tuesday afternoon.
The Turkish military has produced what it claims is a radar map showing that the Russian plane (reportedly a Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft) did cross into Turkish airspace:
And it claims it warned the plane to back off multiple times before giving its F-16s a green light to fire. The Russians appear to be sticking to the existential fact that the plane was brought down in Syria to make the case that the plane wasn’t in Turkish airspace (although Moscow has claimed that it can prove the plane never crossed into Turkey, they haven’t yet done so). Of course, that “radar map” could be anything, and on the other hand the fact that the plane was shot down over Syria doesn’t in any way indicate that it hadn’t already penetrated and then exited Turkish airspace, so neither side’s argument is exactly airtight. Given that Russian planes have already accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose) penetrated Turkish airspace on a few occasions, it’s not hard to imagine that this one did as well. Whether or not that warranted shooting the thing down and precipitating a huge international crisis…well, you be the judge.
There are conflicting reports on the status of the two Russian pilots. Unconfirmed (as far as I know) video of the crash shows two open parachutes in the sky, indicating that both ejected from the craft:
However, Turkmen rebels (who are allied with the Free Syrian Army, aka the “moderate” rebels) in north Syria, operating in the area where the plane was shot down, claim to have shot and killed both pilots as they were parachuting to the ground. This contradicts an earlier report that one of the pilots had been captured alive. There is some truly disturbing video (disturbing enough that you won’t see it here) circulating that appears to show a group of Turkmen fighters surrounding the apparently dead body of one of the Russian pilots. Just in the last hour or so, a new video has cropped up that appears to show maybe the same FSA-aligned Turkmen destroying a Russian rescue helicopter:
What is not conflicting is the fact that this incident could have very, very serious ramifications for operations in Syria and elsewhere. Russia has struck back verbally, though it hasn’t taken any tangible punitive actions yet. Vladimir Putin called the shoot down “a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists,” which isn’t the kind of thing you can take back so easily, and promised that there will be “serious consequences,” particularly for Russia-Turkey relations. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, cancelled his planned visit to Ankara on Wednesday and has advised all Russians to avoid travel to Turkey, citing concerns about “terrorism.” Russia may do something like halting all flights to and from Turkey or even cutting gas shipments to Turkey, but although there are some scattered Twitter reports that they’ve done those things, I’ve seen nothing concrete yet. Russia may also step up its covert activities inside Turkey. Whatever steps Russia does take, it’s pretty clear that the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries (who were just recently at loggerheads over Russia bombing those same Turkmen fighters who appear to have killed the pilots, which may help to explain why Turkey elected to shoot this plane down) is now probably irretrievable, at least in the short term.
NATO immediately called a special session of the North Atlantic Council, the organization’s governing body, which is scheduled to start in about 15 minutes as I write this. Needless to say, it’s exceedingly unlikely that this will snowball into World War III–nobody involved here is suicidal, or at least I don’t think they are. But apart from whatever actions Moscow might take to punish Ankara, you can probably kiss any post-Paris “Era of Good Feeling” with respect to Syria and ISIS goodbye. Which is probably just fine with the Turks, who were never on board with easing up on Assad and focusing on ISIS anyway. To be clear, I’m not saying that to accuse Ankara of downing this plane to deliberately scuttle the Syrian peace talks, but they’re probably not going to mind if that’s how things shake out, given that the European/American consensus on Assad seemed to be softening. That’s not to say that the peace process is dead, just that it’s probably gotten tougher to get everybody to a place of agreement. Much may depend on French President François Hollande’s visit to Moscow on Thursday, and what kind of reception he receives from Putin.
It’s also going to be harder to convince the Russians that they should distinguish between the FSA and the “moderate” opposition, on the one hand, and radical groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other. It wasn’t ISIS that (reportedly) shot Russia’s pilots out of the sky, and it wasn’t ISIS that (maybe) destroyed that Russian rescue copter. Expect Russian airstrikes to continue targeting any and all anti-Assad groups, and maybe for Russia to start coordinating strikes with the Kurds, who are, after all, Turkey’s biggest concern.
If you want to stay up to date on this story, I’d recommend following The Guardian’s live-blog. Or try Twitter, if you’re good at filtering out a lot of noise.
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