Turkey's Downing of a Russian Jet
November 25, 2015
Q1: What happened?
A1: On Tuesday Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 ground attack aircraft that Turkish officials said had crossed into Turkish airspace. The Russian plane crashed to the ground in an area of northern Syria held by Turkmen rebels affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, who had come under attack from Russian and Syrian government forces in recent weeks. The crew of the Su-24 ejected. From the evidence now available, it seems that the pilot was killed, likely by ground fire as he parachuted down; the navigator survived and was rescued by Syrian government troops and Russian special forces. Meanwhile, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter on a rescue mission was forced to land after taking fire. One Russian marine died, and the helicopter was later destroyed by rebel artillery.
Ankara said that Turkish air defense had warned the Su-24’s crew ten times over a five minute period to avoid Turkish airspace, and that when the plane crossed the border into Turkey’s Hatay province, it was shot down in accordance with Turkey’s long-standing and well-publicized rules of engagement, an account that U.S. officials confirmed. The Turkish military released a radar map of the plane’s flight path showing that it crossed into Turkish airspace for several seconds. Moscow meanwhile insisted that the Su-24 had remained in Syrian airspace the entire time and condemned the Turks for what President Vladimir Putin called a “stab in the back” and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov termed a “planned provocation.” An emergency NATO ambassadors’ meeting supported Turkey’s right to defend itself, but called for “calm and de-escalation” from both sides.
In response, the Russian defense ministry announced that future bombing raids would be conducted with fighter escorts, and that advanced air defense systems would be deployed to Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in the Syrian city of Latakia. Lavrov cancelled a planned meeting with his Turkish counterpart, and Moscow also suspended military contacts with Ankara. Russian officials have also discussed taking other possible steps, including a ban on Turkish airlines flying to Russia or cancelling the planned Turkish Stream gas pipeline.
Turkish President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan tried to minimize the fallout of the incident, noting that Ankara did not realize the Su-24 was Russian until seeing Russian government statements about the incident. Erdoğan emphasized that while Turkey does not seek to escalate tensions, it would not tolerate violations of its borders or airspace. Turkey has also said that there were two aircraft violating its airspace, and points out that it only shot down one of them.
Q2: Aren’t Russia and Turkey partners in the fight against Da’esh (ISIS) in Syria?
A2: While the United States has sought to focus efforts specifically on attacking Da’esh (ISIS) and its affiliates, both Turkey and Russia seem to have slightly different, and competing, priorities. Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict began on September 30, 2015. Its operational aim is to support the government and armed forces of Bashar al-Assad, which it does in coordination with Iran. Russia’s military action has focused on bombing opposition targets. Prior to the Paris attacks of November 13, these were most often rebel groups backed by the West and Turkey. Since the attacks and the Russian government announcement that Da’esh was behind the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Sinai earlier that month, Russia has struck more Da’esh targets. Turkey meanwhile has long insisted on Assad’s departure, and has openly supported a range of rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad’s government. It has been accused of complicity in enabling Da’esh-affiliated insurgents from around the world to travel to Syria and has recently frustrated the United States by focusing many of its own attacks on Kurdish groups, which the U.S. backs. Russian officials, including President Putin, have charged Turkey with facilitating Da’esh oil sales, which the group relies upon for much of its financing.
The competing Syrian ambitions of Ankara and Moscow have dramatically worsened relations between the two countries over the past year, reversing what had been a historic rapprochement that included cooperation on energy, trade, and rejection of other states’ efforts at democracy promotion.
Q3: What was Russia’s plane doing in Turkey’s airspace?
A3: Russian planes have repeatedly violated Turkish airspace since the initial deployment of Russian forces to Syria in September. Russia’s air base at Latakia is about 30 miles from the Turkish border, and Russia has actively bombed targets in the Jabal al-Turkman area adjacent to Turkey’s Hatay province. While Turkey is backing several anti-Assad rebel groups, it has paid particular attention to the Turkmen in Latakia province, whom it regards as ethnic kin that President Erdoğan has claimed Turkey has a right to defend. Ankara has on multiple occasions summoned Russian diplomats to protest attacks on the Turkmen community, including once this past weekend. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has characterized the mission of the downed Su-24 as targeting areas where fighters who had come to Syria from Russia itself were known to be active.
Q4: Was Turkey right to shoot down the Russian plane?
A4: Russian violations of Turkish airspace come at a time when Russia has often and increasingly overflown NATO allies without advance warning. Turkey and its NATO allies allege these violations to be deliberate provocations, and Ankara warned on multiple occasions that it would act to defend its airspace. Following the intercept of Russian planes over Hatay province in early October, the Turkish Foreign Ministry warned that Russia “will be responsible for any undesired incident that may occur” in the event of another violation. This very public marker increased the pressure on Ankara to respond militarily.
Turkey, like all nations, reserves the right to act to defend its airspace. This said, the more common response is a fighter escort out of sovereign airspace, which Turkey had done on previous occasions when Russian aircraft violated its airspace. Moreover, since Turkish fighters had to have shot down the Su-24 during the very brief period (in a letter to the UN Security Council, Turkey’s UN ambassador said the Russian aircraft was in Turkish airspace for a total of 17 seconds) that it was in Turkish airspace, they almost certainly must have planned to do so in advance. Given the repercussions of such an action, it also seems plausible to suspect that it had some sort of high-level pre-approval.
Q5: What are the strategic implications of this incident?
A5: The downing of the Russian aircraft threatens to complicate the international community’s effort to broker an agreement to end the conflict in Syria. It will also further worsen Russo-Turkish relations, though neither Ankara nor Moscow is eager for a dramatic escalation of tensions. The fact that Russia’s first confirmed combat casualty in Syria was killed, at least in part, by Turkish fire will not be easily forgotten.
Since the Paris attacks and the Russian acknowledgment that Da’esh was behind the bombing of the Russian airliner over Sinai, Moscow has stepped up its attacks on Da’esh targets, including a large scale bombing campaign against the de facto Da’esh capital of Raqqa this week. French President François Hollande sought to enlist Russia in a grand coalition against Da’esh, despite continued disagreement over the future over Assad. Such a coalition, which would require some mutual compromise on the fate of Assad (something Russia hinted at in a peace plan it circulated to the UN Security Council in mid-November), would represent a major step forward in the effort to impose a solution in Syria.
Turkey’s downing of the Russian Su-24 makes this prospect more remote. Ankara was never fully on board with the idea of an agreement that left Assad in place even temporarily, and criticized France’s efforts to create a grand coalition with Russia. Whether intentionally on Turkey’s part or not, this first downing of a Russian/Soviet aircraft by a NATO power since the Korean war means that France and Turkey’s other NATO allies will find it harder to work with Moscow. In a press conference following his meeting with President Obama on Tuesday, Hollande downplayed his call for a grand coalition and said that France can work with Russia only if Moscow “concentrates its military action on Da’esh.” Hollande is scheduled to meet with Putin tomorrow and is expected to reinforce that message.
At the bilateral level, both Ankara and Moscow are pledging to avoid escalation, but find it difficult to back down for political reasons. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called the downing of the Su-24 a “stab in the back,” but acknowledged that Russia was not going to go to war with Turkey. Turkish President Erdoğan, meanwhile, said that Ankara does not want any further escalation, and Prime Minister Davutoğlu said that it seeks to maintain good ties with its “friend and neighbor.”
Russian officials have discussed economic responses, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev threatening that Turkish firms could be frozen out of the Russian market and Russian investment in joint projects could dry up. While commentators on both sides have suggested existing energy ties could be affected by the crisis, here, Ankara and Moscow are locked in a mutually dependent relationship: Turkey gets the majority of its natural gas from Russia, and is the second largest market for Russian gas monopoly Gazprom. That said, the Turkish Stream pipeline could be one casualty of an escalating Russo-Turkish conflict, as could nuclear power reactors that Russia is building in Turkey. Over the past day, Russia has also reportedly stepped up its bombing of rebel groups in the vicinity of Latakia, including the Turkmen over whom Ankara claims a protectorate.