Russia Feels Turkey's Wrath Over Incursions

The dogfight did not come out of the blue. For days, Russian jets had been roaring along the Turkish border, bombing the hills on the Syrian side in support of an Assad regime attack on rebel forces.

Published: 25th November 2015 07:42 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th November 2015 07:42 AM   |  A+A-

The dogfight did not come out of the blue. For days, Russian jets had been roaring along the Turkish border, bombing the hills on the Syrian side in support of an Assad regime attack on rebel forces.

Around 9am local time yesterday (Tuesday), the Turks decided they had had enough. As two Sukhoi-24 fighter bombers flew over a spit of Turkish territory that juts into Syria, they scrambled two of their own fighters and issued warnings.

The Turkish jets, F-16s sold to Ankara by their close Nato allies the United States, engaged and shot down one of the SU-24s. The time was 9.24am.

The downed plane had already, according to one account, released its payload of air-to-ground missiles on the rebels beneath.

The reality of a dirty war, one that is filmed and broadcast online in real-time, was quickly brought home to a Russian audience that had cheered on Moscow's latest intervention in the Middle East's battles.

Within minutes, two videos had been posted on YouTube: one of the Turkmen rebels the Russians had been bombing firing machine guns at the solitary figure of a pilot dangling under an orange parachute, jerking slowly towards the ground. The other showed the rebels gathered around a body, the eyes of the pilot staring open, but  lifeless. "Allahu akbar," the rebels shouted.

The key to understanding the events lies in the sides Turkey and Russia have taken in Syria's civil war. This has little to do with Islamic State of Iraq (Isil) and the Levant, whatever Russian and Syrian regime media may be saying.

The land battle on this patch of border in Syria's far north-west was between rebels and Syrian regime troops defending Latakia province. To the west, around the city of that name, is the heartland of Syria's Alawite minority, among whom are numbered the Assads, the country's rulers of four decades. In the east, in the hills where the Russian jet came down 2.5 miles south-west of the border, are villages occupied by ethnic Turkmen, members of the Turkish-speaking people of northern Syria and Iraq.

The Turkmen are historically hostile to the Assad regime, and formed their own militias to fight it in Syria's civil war. They are motivated by politics rather than religion - although most are Sunni Muslim - but have fought alongside a variety of moderate and Islamist rebel groups. The war here has been tough. The front line has moved back and forth in recent weeks, and Russian bombing in support of the regime has become more intense.

Only last week, the Turkish government complained about the effect on Turkmen civilians to the United Nations Security Council.

"The ongoing intense aerial bombardment which reportedly included use of cluster bombs by the Russian air forces and the land offensive by the Syrian regime forces have caused heavy civilian casualties," the letter, sent on Saturday, said. "These deplorable actions targeting civilians can in no way be justified under the pretext of combating terrorism."

Over the weekend, more than 1,500 civilians from the region flooded across the border into Turkey seeking refuge. Another 5,000, according to reports, headed to a refugee camp nearby, but inside Syria.

The statement by President Vladimir Putin in response to yesterday's incident claimed that these particular Russian jets had been in combat against "Isil" terrorists who included "a concentration of militants largely from the Russian Federation". "They were fulfilling their direct duty of preventing attacks by terrorists who might at any moment return to Russia," he said.

Independent analysis of the Syrian war confirms that there are up to three separate groups of fighters in the area with Chechen leaders - militants from the Muslim autonomous republic in the Russian Federation, which has a long history of Islamist violence.

They are, however, allied to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's local affiliate, not Isil. It is not clear how far they were from the scene of yesterday's clash.

What the bombers were intending to do after dropping their bombs is unclear. When Russian jets strayed into Turkish airspace before, in an incident last month which both sides were keen to play down, the explanation was that they came under fire from a surface-to-air missile and mistakenly crossed the border as they took evasive action in fog.

On this occasion, the flight route released by the Turkish ministry of defence made it appear as if they simply took a short cut across Turkish airspace as they headed back to one of the two military bases being used by the Russians near Latakia city. However, what mattered to the Turks was that they were flying over their airspace, while engaged in military operations against ethnic Turks.

The Turkish military say that as the jets approached their airspace they issued warnings; 10 in total, over a period of five minutes. "The data we have are very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close," one official said.

"We warned them to avoid entering Turkish airspace before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish airspace was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly."

When the Russians failed to respond, the F-16s engaged. At this stage, according to the Russian authorities, they were one kilometre into Syrian territory. No one has said so far how high up the chain of command the order went to open fire, but it may be that the intent was not to blow the jets up. In the video, the plane initially falls slowly, with only a small fire in one engine. That suggests it was hit by cannon fire, not an air-to-air missile, which would have destroyed the plane instantly.

The damage was light enough to allow the two pilots to eject. One video shows them both descending.

Accounts of whether both were shot dead from the ground were disputed last night, with some Turkish authorities saying that both men were alive. That would certainly seem to be contradicted by the video, released by a Turkmen militia called Alwiya al-Ashar.

As armed men surround the body - taking photos with phones, the leader says: "The 10th Division has captured a Russian pilot, God is greatest." The chant of God is greatest - Allahu akbar - is then repeated. "They both arrived dead," said Abu Haroun, a media officer for the group told The Telegraph.

Khalil, a refugee in a camp at Yayladagi on the Turkish side of the border, said he was walking with friends when the plane was shot down. "I saw the aircraft before it was shot, then I saw what looked like a rocket go out," he said. "It started to smoke and then I saw the two pilots with their parachutes. I saw the plane just fall out of the sky.

"I was very happy, of course. These are the same aircraft that hit my family's house before."

Since Russia announced its military intervention in Syria in September, rebels have said they would turn the experience into a repeat of the Soviet Union's disastrous imbroglio in Afghanistan in the Eighties. Yesterday's clash did not amount to that. But one final event yesterday will have revived painful memories of images from that decade of Afghan Mujahideen bringing down Soviet helicopters with US-supplied Stinger missiles.

As a helicopters arrived to search for the Su-24's pilots, rebels brandishing a US-made TOW anti-tank missile fired a lucky shot. Again, in the video, the explosion can be seen. This time it took longer for the Russians to confirm the loss, and announce another man down: a marine rescuer killed.

Mr Putin has suggested he will not retaliate against Turkey. But nor can he now pull out of Syria without losing face. This may just be the start of Russian losses, not the end.

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