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“We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today”
– Russian President Vladamir Putin
Tuesday the 24th of November marked a dangerous escalation of the already complex conflict in Syria. It has now been confirmed that a Russian SU-24 fighter jet was shot down. The jet was hit by an air-to-air missile fired by Turkish F-16 Interceptors, after an alleged breach of Turkish airspace.
Of the two pilots who ejected, only one has survived after a failed rescue operation left a Russian marine and the co-pilot killed by Syrian Rebels.
“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.
Russia has recently increased its military campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the civil-war. Its forces operate in the same combat-zones that NATO and the US-led coalition are operating in their bombing campaign against Islamic State. While Russia claims it too is focussed upon destroying Islamic State, its forces have bombed rebels supported by the US and its allies, and do not co-ordinate with them, often putting the two forces at odds. Since the downing of its aircraft, Russia’s defence ministry has been adamant that the fighter jet never entered Turkish territory.
In a recent letter to the U.N. Security Council, Turkey stated that it had shot down the Russian fighter jet after it had flown more than a mile into Turkish territory for about 17 seconds. The Turkish government is adamant that its air-traffic controllers warned the Russian jet more than 10 times in five minutes to change direction and that it was well within its rights to self defence.
Speaking to Reuters, senior Turkish officials stated that “The data [Turkish forces] have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close” while another added that “Our findings show clearly that Turkish air space was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly”.
Turkey – Friend and Foe:
Turkey’s role in the Syrian civil-war has in many ways been as controversial as Russia’s. It’s government has been widely accused of turning a blind-eye to the conflict, and whilst it has allowed NATO to launch strikes from its air-bases, Mr. Edrogan’s government has been accused of launching attacks against the Kurdish minority in Syria. Further criticism can be found in accusations that Turkey has allowed for pro-Islamic State fighters to cross its border, and for the transfer of weapons and purchase of black-market oil that the group uses to fund its activities.
So far, Turkey has been unrepentant for its actions. The President, Mr. Edrogan, has stated that it his forces had warned Russia many times over the previous months during which its air-space was similarly violated. In Mr. Edrogan’s eyes, such an incident was only a matter of course due to Russia’s repeated incursions and that prior to this incident, only Turkey’s “cool headedness” such reprisals from occurring.
The targets of Russia’s bombing further complicates Turkeys commitment to the conflict. “Turkmen” are Syrians of Turkish descent whose forces have claimed to have killed the pilots as they parachuted to the ground. Recently, Turkey called a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the attacks on Turkmen by Russian forces and has condemned Russian strikes in the region.
Putin’s high-wire act:
With a key naval base on Syria’s coast at Latakia, and Mr. al-Assad representing Russia’s most important ally in the region, Mr. Putin has chosen to commit to stabilizing and protecting the Syrian regime. After government forces looked on the verge of collapse after a string of rebel victories in January, Russia has amped up its provision of military aid and now direct tactical support.
Over the past few months, Russia has expanded its presence at its base in Latakia and launched waves of attacks in support of Syrian troops, often putting them in direct opposition to the US-led coalition. Where the two sides clash centres around what they define as “terrorists” – Russia has been repeatedly accused of simply bombing all forces who threaten Assad’s regime rather than just Islamic State militants or Islmist radicals such as al-Nusra front.
In response to Russian attacks, a Metrojet passenger airliner was bombed killing 223 Russians in early November. Rather than undermining Russia’s commitment, it has instead rallied the country’s nationalism and support for the Syrian regime.
(Article continued below)
- As the war in Syria rages on, the catalyst and biggest contributor to civilian deaths has largely been ignored. Read more in: Syria: Assad’s forgotten reign of terror
The conflict becomes muddier:
The clash between Turkey and Russia represents a serious escalation of a relationship that has been tense and fraught at the best of times. In response to the attack, Russia’s state-run media outlets have so far rallied the populace into fierce condemnation and demands for reprisals. On the Turkish side, Mr. Edrogan’s hard-line has gained him more popular support at a time when his government finds itself waging an unpopular war against the Kurdish minority in the country’s South-East. Neither side seems set to back down, though neither side wants to see further escalation either.
So far, the international community has urged de-escalation and watched the incident with wariness. The skies over Syria are crowded as they are and further animosity will do little to help resolve the conflict.
In a statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the miltary alliance stood in solidarity with Turkey which is a member. Theoretically, Turkey could invoke the alliance’s self-defence clause should it enter a full-blown war with Russia, though such an eventuality seems far-fetched at present and not something desired by either side.
This incident has been a set back for those who believed that tensions between the West and Russia were thawing following the tense stand-off over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Whilst at odds over what exactly constitutes a terrorist, it had been hoped that their shared goals of degrading and destroying Islamic State in particular could thaw the relationship.
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