A few hours ago, Turkey decided that it would be a good idea to shoot down a Russian Su-24 near the Syrian border. It was the first time in nearly 60 years that a NATO member has shot down a Russian warplane.
There are competing accounts as to what led to the “incident”:
- Russia: “So far, we have not heard the reason for the crash of our attack aircraft from the Defense Ministry. We know for sure that the aircraft was in Syrian airspace, over the territory of Syria,"
- Turkey: "We warned them to avoid entering Turkish airspace before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish airspace was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly.”
Here's the official statement from the Russian Defense Ministry (note they say it was shot down from the ground):
Today an aircraft from the Russian air group in the Syrian Arab Republic crashed on the territory of Syria supposedly shot down from the ground.
The aircraft was flying at the altitude of 6 000 metres. The status of the Russian pilots is being defined.
According to the preliminary data, the pilots managed to eject from the warplane.
The circumstances of the crash are being defined.
During all the flight time, the aircraft was flying only within the borders of the Syrian territory. That was registered by objective monitoring data.
So, as The Kremlin contemplates how best to respond to what is quite clearly the most serious escalation to date in Syria’s multi-sided, five-year civil war, the search is on for the two Russian pilots who ejected as the plane went down. Needless to say, just about the last place you want to be running around if you’re a fighter pilot is Syria.
But the search for the two men may be a lost cause. According to a video sent to Reuters, by “a Syrian rebel group”, at least one of the pilots is dead. Here's the official word from AFP:
AP says the pilot was dead before he hit the ground.
The footage “appears to show a Russian pilot immobile and badly wounded on the ground,” Reuters says, adding that the rebels can be heard saying “a Russian pilot”, and “God is great” in the background. Here's the clip:
ISIS is not known to operate in the region, which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army.
Now, both Moscow and Ankara are scrambling to figure out next steps. Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of Russia's upper house security and defense committee called the act “extremely agressive,” and says "NATO countries are trying to demonize Russia and discredit its actions against international terrorism." “This is a provocation," he added, but did say that direct confrontation with Turkey would be "absurd."
For his part, State Duma Deputy Speaker Nikolai Levichev says Russia should cut off air traffic to Turkey and evacuate Russian citizens.
Meanwhile, Turkey contends that it wouldn't have mattered whose jet it was, it would have been shot down regardless for violating the country's airspace. "Before the downing of the jet, Turkey repeatedly warned an unidentified aircraft that it was 15km (9.3 miles) or fewer away from the Turkish border. The aircraft didn’t heed the warnings and proceeded to fly over Turkey; Turkish Air Force responded by shooting it down. Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet was in line with clearly defined military rules of engagement and wasn’t an action against any specific country," an official told Bloomberg by text message.
So we suppose if that were say, a Saudi warplane, Turkey would have shot it down too.
Here's a second video released by the FSA:
That would of course be the same FSA that's backed by the US and the same FSA who is allied with al-Nusra with whom the group shares American and Saudi-supplied TOWs and other advanced weaponry (see here).
As The Telegraph notes, "Alwiya al-Ashar [who fight with the FSA] is one of around a dozen Turkmen groups fighting alongside Syria's rebels. It is linked to a Turkish and CIA-backed logistics supply programme that funnels a near-constant stream of small arms, ammunition, and cash for salaries to rebel groups across northern Syria.
So just to be clear on what's happened here in case the gravity of the situation is somehow lost on anyone, a NATO member from whose airbase the US is flying combat missions, just shot down a Russian fighter jet and the US-backed, al-Qaeda aligned FSA has released not one, but two videos depicting their fighters dancing over the body of a dead Russian pilot while shouting "Allahu Akbar" and holding up the "we're number one" hand signal.
Here's a tweet from Turkey's ambassador to the US:
Anlay?n art?k.Türkiye sözü de, uyar?lar? da dikkate al?nmas? gereken bir ülkedir. Sabr?n? test etmeyin, dostlu?unu kazanmaya çal???n.— Serdar Kilic (@serdarkilic9) November 24, 2015
Translation, "now understand, Turkey's words and warnings should be heeded. Do not test its patience, try to win its friendship."
NATO has called an emergency meeting to discuss.
Tensions between Putin and Erdogan were already going south quickly over the Assad issue (Russian Deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yanovsky declined to comment on prospects of Turkish Stream pipeline talks when asked over the phone by Bloomberg). We can't wait to see where things go from here...