Russia Readies Missile Systems in Syria But Does ‘Not Plan to Go to War With Turkey’

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Warplane crashes in Syria near Turkeys border
The plane went down in Bayirbucak, Syria, near Turkey's border.Photo: Anadolu Agency/2015 Anadolu Agency

Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border on Tuesday, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. The Turkish air force says it warned the warplane ten times before shooting it, while the only Russian pilot to survive the incident says he received no warnings at all. 

Russia confirmed that one of its Su-24 aircrafts was taken down in the region, but it denied that the jet was in Syrian airspace. According to The Guardian, the White House said the plane appeared to have only been in Turkish airspace for "seconds." Reuters reports Turkmen rebels in Syria shot at the pilots as they parachuted out of the plane.

Russian president Vladimir Putin called Turkey’s decision to shoot down the jet “a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists. I can’t describe it in any other way.” He added that the incident will have “consequences” for Russia’s relationship with Turkey. “After what happened yesterday, we cannot exclude some kind of other incidents,” he said. “And if they occur, we, in one way or another, will have to respond.”

On Wednesday, advanced missile defense systems were sent to a Russian air base in Syria — a clear sign that the country is prepared to retaliate if its jets are endangered again. Russia has also signaled that it might prevent tourists from traveling to Turkish resorts, according to Reuters. And, as the Associated Press pointed out on Wednesday, "If Russia shot down a Turkish plane, NATO would be required to intervene."

However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who canceled his trip to Turkey this week and said the incident looked like "planned provocation," says his country does “not plan to go to war with Turkey.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said something similar: “We have absolutely no intention of escalating this incident.” The fact that they need to clarify this is not exactly comforting.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded by Russia’s anger over the incident by noting that “the world needs to know that it is our international right and our national duty to take measures against anybody who violates our borders on the land and in the air, in spite of our many warnings.” Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S. added in a tweet, “Understand this: Turkey is a country whose warnings should be taken seriously and listened to. Don’t test Turkey’s patience. Try to win its friendship.”

Turkey said two of its F-16s took down the jet at 9:24 a.m. local time after it ignored ten warnings in five minutes. Russia reports the plane was taken down by artillery fire from the ground, and its two pilots parachuted from the plane. 

Footage from Turkey’s Habertürk TV shows a warplane catching fire and going down in the mountains along the Turkey-Syria border.

Russia dispatched two Mi-8 helicopters to search for the pilots, and Syrian rebels shot one chopper down during the rescue mission. The insurgent group reportedly received anti-tank missiles from the U.S.

The insurgent group hit the helicopter with an anti-tank missile while it was in the air, and released a video of the chopper being blown up by a second missile. “In the course of the operation, one of helicopters was damaged by small arms fire and performed an emergency landing in the neutral area,” Russian Armed Forces lieutenant general Sergei Rudskoy confirmed. It was then “destroyed by mortar fire conducted from the territory controlled by illegal armed groups.” One unnamed Russian Marine was killed.

Syrian rebels released a video that appeared to show the body of one of the warplane’s pilots, and Russian officials confirmed that the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, is dead.

Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said on Wednesday that Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, the Su-24 jet’s navigator, was rescued overnight by Russian forces. "The operation was concluded successfully. The pilot was taken to our base. He is alive and healthy," he said. Putin told reporters, "He and all those who participated in this operation, including the rescue mission, will receive state awards." Russian news agencies are reporting that Murakhtin has said his plane received no warnings from Turkey before it was shot down. 

Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June 2012, prompting Turkey to tighten its engagement rules. Since then Turkey has shot down a Syrian jet, at least one helicopter, and an unmarked drone, but this is the first time it’s downed a confirmed Russian aircraft. Russia recently ramped up its military support of al-Assad’s campaign against the Syrian rebels, though Moscow claims it’s targeting ISIS. Meanwhile, a U.S.-led coalition, including Turkey, has stepped up bombings of the terrorist group in Syria.

Russian jets allegedly violated Turkey’s airspace twice last month, in what NATO and Ankara say was a show of force. Moscow characterized the incidents as an accidental breach, but the North Atlantic Council condemned the violation of NATO airspace, noting “the extreme danger of such irresponsible behavior.”

A group of NATO ambassadors met in Brussels, which was still under lockdown, on Tuesday. They expressed solidarity with Turkey, which is part of NATO, but urged “calm and de-escalation.” The incident marks the “first time a Russian or Soviet military aircraft has been publicly acknowledged to have been shot down by a NATO member since the 1950s,” according to Reuters

EU president Donald Tusk hopes everyone involved can chill out a little. 

In Moscow, people have reportedly been throwing eggs at the Turkish embassy. 

In the last three days, Russia has been bombing the Turkmen Mountain region — which is home to many Syrians of Turkish descent — in support of the Assad regime, sending 1,700 people fleeing to the Turkish border. The area is controlled by insurgent groups, including the Nusra Front, but Turkey has demanded that Russia stop the operations, saying they amount to the bombing of civilians, not “a fight against terrorism.” Last week, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to discuss the issue, and on Monday it called for a U.N. Security Council meeting.

In a press conference at the White House with Hollande, President Obama said the incident “points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to the Turkish border and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported not only by Turkey but by a number of countries.” 

Obviously, Tuesday’s events are likely to complicate the ongoing crisis in Syria, as well as French president François Hollande’s effort to get Russia and the U.S. to fight ISIS “in a broad, single coalition.”

This is a developing story. This post will be updated as more information becomes available.