NATO faces new Mideast crisis after downing of Russian jet by Turkey

By Hugh Naylor and Andrew Roth November 24 at 5:27 PM

BEIRUT — NATO faced being thrust into a new Middle Eastern crisis on Tuesday after warplanes from member state Turkey shot down a Russian jet that Turkish officials said had violated their country’s airspace on the border with Syria.

The incident marked a serious escalation that is likely to further strain relations between Russia and the NATO alliance.

Russian officials confirmed that a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft was shot down Tuesday morning but insisted it had not violated Turkey’s airspace.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said one of at least two pilots probably died during the incident, and a marine also was killed by apparent Syrian insurgent fire during a helicopter rescue operation to retrieve the downed airmen.

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 against the Islamic State.

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Turkish officials have accused Russia of repeated airspace violations since it launched airstrikes against Assad’s armed opposition in late September.

[Obama says Turkey has the right to defend its airspace]

Russian President Vladimir Putin had strong words for Turkey, calling the incident a “stab in the back.”

In Washington, President Obama called for de-escalation but said Turkey had the right to defend its airspace.

Turkey’s military said the Russian jet was warned multiple times before it was targeted by two F-16 fighter jets in the border zone in western Syria in mountains not far from the Mediterranean coast.

Turkey called for an emergency NATO session to discuss the incident but has not invoked alliance provisions that would involve other members in its defense.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after the meeting that NATO allies with intelligence assets near where Turkey shot down the Russian warplane had confirmed Turkey’s version of events and rejected Russia’s claim that its aircraft was flying over Syria and had not crossed into Turkish airspace.
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Nov. 24, 2015 A still image from video footage shows the burning trail of a Russian fighter jet after being shot down near the Turkish-Syrian border. The jet was reportedly downed by Turkish forces, Turkish state news agency Anadolu reported, citing sources in the presidency. Haberturk TV Channel/via European Pressphoto Agency

“The information we have from other allies is consistent with what we have got from Turkey,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

“This is a serious situation” that calls for prudence and de-escalation, Stoltenberg said. “We have to avoid that situations, incidents, accidents spiral out of control.”

[This is the Russian plane that Turkey just shot down]

A U.S. military spokesman confirmed that Turkish pilots issued 10 notifications to their Russian counterparts warning that they were in Turkish airspace and that the Russians did not respond.

“On the radio . . . we were able to hear everything that was going on,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman at the Baghdad headquarters for U.S. forces operating in Iraq and Syria.

Last month, NATO decried a “troubling escalation” by Russian forces in Syria and raised concerns about attack missions within sight of the Western alliance’s borders.

Although Turkey and the United States oppose Assad, their warplanes have avoided the Syrian leader’s military and are instead bombarding the Islamic State militant group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq. Russian aircraft have primarily hit non-Islamic State rebels, including some groups that are backed by the United States and Turkey.

The fallout could complicate a diplomatic push to bring greater international coordination to the fight against the Islamic State. The radical group has claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed at least 130, as well as the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that killed all 224 aboard.

French President François Hollande met with Obama in Washington on Tuesday to discuss strategies against the Islamic State and parallel efforts to seek a negotiated end to Syria’s nearly five-year civil war. Hollande is expected to meet later in the week with Putin and other world leaders.

In the Russian resort city of Sochi, Putin said the plane “did not threaten the territory of Turkey” and that it was “pursuing operations” against the Islamic State in mountainous areas north of the Syrian port of Latakia.

“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.

Some Russian lawmakers have called for retaliation against Turkey by evacuating Russian tourists from popular vacation destinations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a scheduled trip to Turkey.

The Su-24 is one of dozens of fixed-wing aircraft flying sorties in Syria as part of Russia’s two-month-old bombing campaign.

Video footage of the incident showed a warplane on fire before crashing on a hill and two crew members apparently parachuting down. But a video purportedly posted by Syrian rebels appeared to show the body of a Russian pilot.

Sergei Rudskoi, an officer in the Russian army’s General Staff, said a rescue helicopter sent to retrieve the pilots came under heavy fire. “During the operation, one of the helicopters due to gunfire was damaged and forced to make an emergency landing on neutral territory,” Rudskoi said in a briefing with Russian journalists. “One marine was killed.”

Rebel forces released video footage showing an anti-government fighter using a surface-to-surface missile to destroy what appears to be a Russian helicopter. The authenticity of the video could not be confirmed.

Some rebels have been using U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles as part of a covert program coordinated between the United States and its allies.

[How Russian-Turkish rivalries shaped the world]

In early November, the United States deployed additional fighter aircraft to Turkey’s Incirlik air base to help the country protect its airspace.

Friction between Ankara and Moscow has also intensified over alleged Russian airstrikes on Syrian villages dominated by Turkmen, an ethnic minority with cultural ties to Turkey.

Last month, Turkey’s military downed an unmanned aerial vehicle near the border with Syria that military analysts said appeared to be Russian-made. Officials in Moscow denied connection to that downed aircraft and sent a delegation to Turkey to smooth over concerns.

Russia issued a formal apology to Turkey in early October when a jet violated Turkish airspace and Turkish F-16s were scrambled to intercept the plane. The Russians called the mistake “a navigational error.”

Russia has carried out more than 4,000 airstrikes since the beginning of its intervention in Syria, using a force of modern and modified Soviet-era aircraft. Russia has at least 32 fixed-wing aircraft and 16 helicopters at the Khmeimim air base near Latakia, an Assad stronghold on the Mediterranean Sea just 30 miles from the Turkish border.

Roth reported from Moscow. Liz Sly in Beirut and Brian Murphy, William Branigin, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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