World | Middle East

November 25, 2015

Erdogan: Downed Russian Plane Violated Turkish Sovereignty

Russia will deploy surface-to-air missiles to Syria, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said, according to the ministry's Twitter feed. Russia will deploy S-400 defense missile systems to its Hmeymim airbase near Latakia, Syria, on the Mediterranean coast, the ministry says.

Turkish Presidepnt Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned in harsh terms Wednesday what he said was the violation of Turkish airspace a day earlier by Russian warplanes, calling the incident an infringement of his country's sovereignty.

He charged Russia with being deceitful and with propping up the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which he said was inflicting terrorism on its own people.

But he said Turkey had no intention of escalating the situation.

Still, speaking Wednesday morning at an economic forum in Istanbul, his rhetoric was aggressive.

Russia claims to be fighting Daesh, he said, using another name for the ISIS terrorist group.

But in the area where the Russian planes were flying, "There is no Daesh!" Erdogan said. "Do not deceive us! We know the locations of Daesh."

His fiery words highlighted the fact that the conflict in Syria, a years-long maelstrom of death and misery, has now churned up a new and alarming wave of international turbulence after a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian bomber in a border area.

The midair clash Tuesday prompted angry words from both sides and underscored the high stakes at play in Syria where the United States, Russia and a swarm of other global, regional and local forces are entangled in the messy civil war.

Turkey, a NATO member, said it had repeatedly warned the Russian warplane, shooting it down after it violated its airspace. Russia rejected that version of events, saying the Sukhoi Su-24 bomber posed no threat to Turkey and was attacked 1 kilometer inside Syrian territory.

But Erdogan said Tuesday that parts of the downed plane had fallen inside Turkey, injuring two people.

Amid global worries over the incident's repercussions, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday called the downing of the plan "a stab in the back by the terrorists' accomplices," predicting "serious consequences" for relations between the two countries.

Adding to the tensions were the fates of the two Russian pilots aboard the bomber. Turkmen rebels operating in the area of Syria where the plane went down appeared to claim in a video that they shot both pilots to death as they parachuted toward the ground. CNN couldn't independently confirm the claim.

The Russian military said it believed one of the pilots was dead. Wednesday morning, though, the Russian Defense ministry said the second pilot had been rescued. The ministry said the pilot was safe at he Hmeymim airbase, a Russian air base near Latakia, Syria.

The Russian military also said a Russian marine was killed after a helicopter came under attack during the search-and-rescue efforts.

Russia's first acknowledged casualties in Syria

The reported deaths are Russia's first acknowledged casualties in Syria since it waded into the bitter, complex conflict less than two months ago.

They highlight the risks in Putin's decision to enter the fray in support of Syria's divisive President, Bashar al-Assad, coming less than a month after another key player in the war, the Islamic militant group ISIS, claimed responsibility for the deadly bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt.

In his comments Tuesday, Putin made the improbable claim that the Russian warplane was conducting an operation against ISIS, even though the Sunni militant group isn't present in Northern Latakia, the area where it was shot down.

"None of the targets that ... the Russians were going after had anything to do with ISIS. Those were all those Turkmen groups," said CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.

The Turkmen minority in that part of northern Syria has strong ties to the Turkish government, which wants to afford them a degree of protection.

Anyone who bombs that area attacks "our brothers and sisters -- Turkmen," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Recent heavy bombing in the area around where the Turkmen are located has prompted the Turkish government to consider taking a complaint about it to the U.N. Security Council. Turkey has also protested Russian infringement of its airspace in the past.

'The importance of deescalating the situation'

Moscow has sought to portray its intervention in Syria as an effort to combat terrorist groups like ISIS. But U.S. officials say Russia's airstrikes are more focused on rebel groups directly opposed to Assad, including ones supported by Washington.

"Russia's strikes against the moderate opposition only bolster the Assad regime, whose brutality has helped to fuel the rise of ISIL," U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday during a joint news conference with his French counterpart. "We agree that Russia could play a more constructive role if it were to shift the focus of its strike to defeating ISIL."

Obama later spoke to Erdogan by phone and "expressed U.S. and NATO support for Turkey's right to defend its sovereignty," the White House said.

"The leaders agreed on the importance of deescalating the situation and pursuing arrangements to ensure that such incidents do not happen again," it said.

But removing all risk of potentially escalatory clashes in the crowded Syrian battlefield appears tricky, with bitterly opposed regional foes like Iran and Saudi Arabia involved. Syria's grinding civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and sent millions of refugees spilling into neighboring countries and beyond.

Expert: Putin is 'a bully' but also 'rational'

It's still unclear how the dispute over the downing of the Russian bomber will play out.

Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, a senior official in the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, said military-level contacts with Turkey would be terminated -- hardly a move likely to help avoid future skirmishes.

Putin could also seek to hurt Turkey economically, analysts said.

"Turkey receives about 60 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia," said Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. Ambassador to NATO. "So there are things the Russians could do to make their displeasure felt."

But he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that he would be surprised if Moscow escalated the situation militarily.

"President Putin may be cynical and he is certainly a bully," Burns said. "But he's also rational and he understands that Turkey is a core member of the NATO alliance and that what NATO is all about, of course, is the defense of the borders of each of the member states. So no one wants to see this escalate."

In the near term, the clash appears likely to have derailed French President Francois Hollande's hopes of forming a broader coalition against ISIS -- including the United States, Russia and others -- in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris. Hollande is due to visit Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

What really happened?

What exactly happened around the Turkey-Syria border Tuesday remains contentious, especially the question of precisely where the Russian bomber was when it was shot down by at least one Turkish F-16 fighter jet.

U.S. officials say they're still gathering and sifting information on the incident, but one told CNN that a calculation shows the Russian warplane was in Turkish airspace for 30 seconds or less.

The Turkish government has said that it issued 10 warnings over five minutes but did not say all of those warnings occurred while the jet was in its airspace.

The Russian plane took off from a Syrian airfield in Latakia, heading north. The United States was monitoring the situation the entire time, using radars and radios.

"We were able to hear everything that was going on," said Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman. "Obviously, you know, these are on open channels."

The Russian Defense Ministry's statement differed starkly from the Turkish account. It said "objective monitoring data confirmed" that the Turkish jet didn't make attempt to communicate with the Russian bomber, which it said didn't enter Turkish airspace.

Clarity and consensus appear a long way off.

 

Text by CNN
 

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