A Russian fighter jet was shot down today by Turkey. The downed plane was a Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer. I don’t know much about military aircraft, but there’s more info on the Su-24 here, and (with videos) here.
Both pilots reportedly ejected and parachuted from the damaged aircraft. The Washington Post reports that at least one of the pilots was captured by local Turkmen tribesmen who live in that part of Syria. However, The Aviationist reports that both pilots are dead.
The Turks claim the jet violated Turkish airspace, and overflew Turkish territory. The Russians insist their fighter remained over Syrian territory during the entire sortie. However, if the radar track below is accurate, the Su-24 does seem to have flown over an appendix of Turkish territory that pokes out into Syria near the Mediterranean.
Below are excerpts from the report in The Washington Post:
Turkey Downs Russian Military Aircraft Near Syria’s Border
BEIRUT — Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian jet Tuesday after NATO-member Turkey says the plane violated its airspace on the border with Syria, a major escalation in the Syrian conflict that could further strain relations between Russia and the West.
Russian officials confirmed that a Russian Su-24 fighter had been shot down, but insisted it had not violated Turkish airspace.
“A stab in the back,” complained Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Turkey’s military, however, said that the Russian jet was warned multiple times before it was shot down by two F-16 fighter jets in the border zone in western Syria in mountains not far from the Mediterranean coast.
The downing brings renewed attention to a scenario feared for months by the Pentagon and its partners: a potential conflict arising from overlapping air missions over Syria — with Russia backing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes the Islamic State.
NATO and Russia have been at odds over a series of flash points since the Cold War — including the NATO-led bombings in Bosnia in the 1990s and NATO support for Ukraine last year against pro-Moscow separatists — but the Syrian conflict has now put the two powers in possibly dangerous proximity.
It also could complicate a diplomatic push to bring greater international coordination to the fight against the Islamic State.
“Today’s tragic cases will have significant consequences for the relations between Russia and Turkey,” Putin told reporters after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose nation is part of the U.S.-led coalition.
Putin claimed Turkey “immediately turned to its partners from NATO to discuss this incident as though it was us who downed the Turkish jet and not the other way around.”
“Do they want to put NATO at ISIS’s service?” he said, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State.
In further signs of the increasing fallout, NATO called an emergency meeting for later Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said American forces were not involved in the plane incident, although commanders “closely monitor activity in the region.” In early November, the United States deployed additional fighter aircraft to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base to help the country protect its airspace.
Putin’s spokesman called the warplane’s downing a “very serious incident,” but the Kremlin has not outlined any specific actions in response. Some Russian lawmakers, however, have called for retaliation against Turkey by evacuating Russian tourists from popular vacation destinations.
The relationship between Turkey and Russia has soured over the Russian intervention. Turkey, which backs rebels seeking Assad’s ouster, has at least twice warned Russia about incursions into Turkish airspace.
Video footage of the incident showed a warplane on fire before crashing on a hill and two crew members apparently parachuting. But a video purported posted by Syrian rebels appeared to show the body of Russian pilot.
Turkey’s Dogan news agency said two Russian helicopters, flying low over the Turkmen Bayirbucak region, searched for the two pilots.
Friction between Ankara and Moscow has also intensified over alleged Russian airstrikes on Turkmen villages in areas of northwestern Syria, near where Tuesday’s downing occurred.
CNN Turk reported that at least one of the pilots who apparently parachuted from the downed aircraft had been captured by the area’s Turkmen inhabitants, who are Syrians of Turkish origin.
Could this be the triggering incident that sets off the global military conflict that everyone seems to be expecting?
At this point, it’s hard to say. There are elements within the U.S. defense establishment who are itching for a fight with Russia. But President Obama seems disinclined to take any decisive military initiative for any reason — he only takes such action reluctantly, when pushed (or when others take the action for him, as in the killing of Osama bin Laden). And Russia is unlikely to seek a head-to-head confrontation with the United States.
It all depends on whether Turkey invokes the clause of the NATO treaty that requires member states to go to war to defend an ally when attacked. The Turks are the troublemakers in this case, and if they’re eager for a casus belli, this may be just what they’re looking for.
In the long run, Turkey will not tolerate the existence of the Islamic State, which is a rival Caliphate and a usurper set up in opposition to the new Sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Islam-minded Turks view as the rightful Caliph. However, for the moment ISIS is useful to Turkey’s regional interests, and Russian has lately been interfering with that usefulness.
What happens if Turkey insists that it has been attacked, and formally requests the military assistance of its NATO allies?
In June of 1914, in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A cascading series of events followed, with Austria and Germany making demands and ultimatums to Serbia. Regional alliances kicked in, and over the next few weeks all the dominoes fell, one by one. By August the great powers of Europe were lined up against each other preparing for war. Each participant was certain that the war would be over quickly, and that the troops would be home by Christmas.
We all know how that turned out.
Not everyone was so sanguine, however. On August 3, 1914 the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” More than a hundred years have passed, and some of us are of the opinion that those lamps have yet to be rekindled.
Is this our Sarajevo moment?
It’s too early to tell, but the dominoes are definitely lined up, and wobbling.