Turkey said it had shot down a Russian jetfighter after it entered Turkish airspace, an incident that realizes one of the major concerns raised over Russia's military intervention in Syria's civil war.
Details of the incident are still murky, though both Turkish and Russian officials agree that a Russian Su-24 fighter was indeed shot down over the Turkmen mountains in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. The New York Times reports that two Turkish television channels broadcast video showing "a warplane exploding in the air and tumbling down in flames in a wooded area" in Syria.
Turkey's army said the Russian fighter entered Turkish airspace several times over a 5 minute period, ignoring multiple warnings, writes Agence France-Presse. In response, Turkish F-16s shot down the fighter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said there would be serious consequences for Russia-Turkish relations. He called it a "stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists."
Earlier, Russia's Ministry of Defense said in a statement that the Su-24 was shot down by forces on the ground in Syria. The ministry claimed that the warplane was flying only within Syrian airspace.
Regardless of the cause, video of the incident indicates that both pilots parachuted from the jet. Early reports say that one of the two pilots was killed, and his body likely in the hands of anti-Assad rebels, according to the Guardian's live blog on the incident. The status and location of the second pilot remains unclear.
NATO has called an extraordinary council meeting at Turkey's request to discuss the incident. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to make a statement later today.
The downing of the plane opens a political can of worms that could have major implications for Russia and NATO, of which Turkey is a member. As BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Marcus writes:
This is exactly the kind of incident that many have feared since Russia launched its air operations in Syria. The dangers of operating near to the Turkish border have been all too apparent. Turkish planes have already shot down at least one Syrian air force jet and possibly a helicopter as well.
Russia insists that its warplane did not violate Turkish air space. So, was the Russian pilot's navigation wrong? Questions will also be asked about the readiness of the Turks to open fire.
The New York Times notes that Turkey last week summoned the Russian ambassador to complain about Russia's alleged bombardment of Turkmen villages in the region of Syria where the fighter was shot down. “It was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages and this could lead to serious consequences,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said.
Russia also may have miscalculated, Turkey researcher Aaron Stein told the Guardian. "This is the fourth Russian violation of Turkish airspace since they began airstrikes. Turkey’s rules of engagement are clear and well known. Moscow miscalculated. This is obviously a very serious incident."
On the other hand, notes former British ambassador Craig Murray on his blog, the alleged "violations" of Turkish airspace were only seconds long and inconsequential. Referring to a CNNTurk tweet of a screenshot of Turkish radar that allegedly shows the flight of the Russian jet over Turkish territory, Mr. Murray writes that:
[The Russian jet] briefly transited a tiny neck of Turkish land – less than two miles across where the Russian jet passed – twice. I calculate that each “incursion” over Turkish territory would have lasted about 10 seconds, assuming the plane was flying slowly at 600mph. That Turkey shot down the plane for this is madness, and absolutely indefensible. It is fairly obvious from the track that the plane was operating against Turkish sponsored Turkmen rebels inside Syria, and that is why the Turks shot it down.