Hours after a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was shot down by a Turkish F-16 over Syria after Turkey claimed the jet invaded its airspace, killing two pilots, tensions remain high between both nations as the U.S. and France urged caution and de-escalation. In addition, a Russian soldier was apparently killed today by Free Syrian Army fighters who attacked a helicopter.
Here is a roundup of new developments since our report from earlier today. Make sure to read it to get up to date and to benefit from full context of what is going.
After a video of surfaced of what appeared to be Free Syrian Army “TOW Hunters” attacking a downed Russian Mi-8 helicopter, Russia has confirmed that one of their helicopters was struck by a weapon while on the ground, with one of their soldiers being killed in the attack.
The helicopter in question was part of the search and rescue response to the downed Su-24. Russia says it landed due to a mechanical issue.
Russian media is running with the story that their helicopter was destroyed and their soldier killed by militants (Free Syrian Army) using U.S. supplied weapons. They are referring to the TOW anti-tank missile systems provided to the FSA via the CIA and allied Arab countries. Other Russian new outlet headlines state that the shooting down of the Su-24 was an act of war.
“We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today,” Putin said, as Russian and Turkish shares fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies.
Putin claimed the jet was shot down when it was just one kilometer inside Syria’s borders.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan asserted the country’s right to defend its own borders, though he seemed to express regret over the incident. From that same story:
“Nobody should doubt that we made our best efforts to avoid this latest incident. But everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
But like anything in the world, the situation may be a lot more complicated than a Russian fighter jet taking a short stroll across someone’s lawn, and getting knocked down in the process.
Turkey has repeatedly complained of Russian Air Force incursion into its territory, and just yesterday it called for a United Nations Security Council meeting and summoned the Russian ambassador over Russian bombing of ethnic Turkmen villages just across the Syrian border.
And in a joint speech today, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande said they would expand their respective countries attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, in addition to their calls for Turkey and Russia to de-escalate. The Russian Ministry of Defense has since severed all military ties with Turkey.
This radar map, released by the Turkish military (via the New York Times), purports to show the flight path of the Russian Su-24 Fencer shot down earlier today:
The flight path is the lower red line, and the points at which it entered and exited Turkish airspace are denoted by the two purple markers. The “nub” of Turkish airspace, where Turkey claims Russia had violated its airspace is under two miles wide.
In fast-jet terms, crossing this area would have taken a matter of seconds, not minutes. As such, it appears that the shoot-down came after warnings were made to the Russian aircraft while it was near the border, but the engagement only happened after the Su-24 had violated the border, although in a shallow and most likely brief manner.
As for the type of aircraft involved, the Su-24 is a strike platform; it likely posed no threat to Turkish F-16s. Complicating matters further, Russia now claims that its radar data shows the F-16s entered Syrian airspace during the engagement. You can hear what is supposedly one of the warnings issued to the Russian Su-24 here.
As for the two pilots, Turkmen fighters are said to have shot them dead as they fell to the ground in their parachutes, a claim that this video, showing fighters firing on the two parachutes in the mountainous region of Latakia province, is said to substantiate.
Many have asked who exactly these Turkmen fighters are and how they fit into Syria’s crazy mosaic of competing factions. You can read about all about them in this piece posted by the Time.com.
As for what comes next, that remains unclear. Russia had the worst day in Syria since their air campaign began two months ago. The imagery of Russia’s battered pilot in the hands of rebel forces was very graphic and is likely to provoke the Russian people.
Putin needs to keep public support for the Syrian campaign, which has been portrayed as a more impressive spectacle than it deserves. This could mean the Kremlin moves on militarily from the loss and uses soft power tools at its disposal to punish and shame Turkey for the action. On the other hand, Putin, who above all else wants to look strong, may make a military move to avenge the loss of their aircraft and personnel.
This does not mean Russia attacks Turkey directly in any way, as that would lead to the execution of NATO’s Article Five and possibly major war. Instead, Russia could build up its fighter aircraft presence in Syria, sending constant patrols along the Turkish border, and if given the opportunity, fire upon a Turkish jet that is skirting that border.
Currently there are only four Russian aircraft providing counter-air capabilities in Syria, the SU-30SMs, although the handful of Su-34 Fullbacks also in the country are also capable of air-to-air missions.
Russia could also deploy advanced versions of the S-300 or even the S-400 air defense system to Syria. This act would put any aircraft in danger of Russian attack within 250 miles of the battery’s location (or around 85 miles in the S300’s case). This capability would allow Russia to retaliate against the downing of its aircraft in real time, and it would also leave any aircraft operating in the region under constant threat.
Many other options exist, including threatening Turkey by moving short and medium range ballistic missiles within range of the country’s northern border, or moving parts of its Black Sea Fleet to do the same.
One thing is for certain, Russia’s relationship with Turkey, and with NATO for that matter, has now chilled even more. Additionally, in some ways the shooting down of the Russian Su-24 plays right into Putin’s rhetoric regarding NATO, which feeds right back into anti-Western nationalist sentiment among Russia’s populace.
In the end, yes, Turkey has every right to defend its airspace, but it is unclear how today’s decision to down the Russian attack jet can be seen as advantageous to Turkey, especially considering the radar data we can see. It would be fascinating to hear the radio recordings of the encounter and how the decision was made to fire, and if a mistake was made. If not, it would be good to know exactly when Turkey’s policy went from frustration with Russian airspace incursions to shooting down anything that crosses its border, no matter how momentary.
Contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org and tyler@Jalopnik.com
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