By Jennifer Cafarella with Christopher Kozak, Hugo Spaulding, and Genevieve Casagrande
Two Turkish F-16 planes shot down a Russian SU-24 jet on November 24 that Turkey claimed was in Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings. Two Russian pilots ejected from the plane, which reportedly crashed in the Turkmen village of Yamadi in Syria near the Turkish border. A minor Syrian rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army named Brigade 10 released footage alleging to show a deceased Russian pilot. One additional pilot survived and is in hands of Turkmen forces in Syria according to unconfirmed reports. Turkish President Recep Erdogan called an emergency security meeting. NATO is also expected to hold an immediate meeting.
Russia condemned the downing of the jet and warned of future consequences. The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed the downing of the jet, but denied it had violated Turkish airspace. Russian President Vladmir Putin called the downing of the plane a "stab in the back" and promised “serious consequences...for Russian-Turkish relations.” Putin called the Turkish military the "accomplices of terrorists." He said at the end of his statement: “Do they want to make NATO serve ISIS? I understand that every state has its own regional interests and we’ve always respected that, but we will never allow the kind of crime that happened to today to take place.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled his scheduled to visit Turkey for bilateral talks on November 25.
The downing of the Russian jet followed Turkish warnings about its willingness to intervene to halt a renewed pro-regime offensive against a majority Turkmen area in Northeastern Latakia Province. Pro-regime forces supported by Hezbollah, Iranian-backed militias, and Russian airstrikes, and Russian artillery attacked rebel positions in the Mount Turkman region of Northeastern Latakia Province near the Turkish border on November 19. Fifteen hundred Turkmen refugees fled to the Turkish border by November 23, according to the governor of Turkey’s Hatay province, Ercan Topaca, who also claimed that the regime attack targeted 15 villages populated by a total of 35,000 civilians. Local activists immediately decried the attack, calling it the “Mount Turkman Massacre,” and the main Syrian political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, called for immediate rebel reinforcements to the area.
Pro-regime forces have seized at least five villages and a number of hilltops in the Mount Turkman area amidst these ongoing clashes. Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is supporting Syrian rebel groups, including Syrian Turkmen, to defend against the regime’s attack. The complex mix of anti-regime groups in the Mount Turkman area helps legitimize Russia’s claim to be assisting pro-regime forces eliminate “terrorists” in Syria despite the fact that Russia and pro-regime forces are intentionally targeting civilian areas. The commander of a new Turkmen rebel group named the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade, established in January 2015, denied the scale of the regime’s advance, claiming that rebel forces continue to control major strategic positions throughout the area.
Turkey formally protested these developments and stated that it would not tolerate a worsening situation in the Mount Turkman area. Turkey summoned the Russian Ambassador on November 20 to demand an end to the military operation, warning that Russian airstrikes against civilian Syrian Turkmen villages “could lead to serious consequences.” Turkish political and security officials met two days later in a security summit to discuss the regime’s offensive. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced Turkey will "not hesitate" to take necessary action to protect Turkmen populations on Syrian soil, and added that Turkish security forces “have been instructed to retaliate against any development that would threaten Turkey’s border security.” Davutoglu added that “If there is an attack that would lead to an intense influx of refugees to Turkey, required measures would be taken both inside Syria and Turkey.” Turkish Foreign Minister Sinirlioglu contacted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and sent a letter to Britain, which holds the UNSC presidency, calling for a U.N. Security Council meeting to address the issue.
Turkey has longstanding relations with Syrian Turkmen communities and provides military support to at least one Syrian Turkmen rebel brigade. Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu nonetheless downplayed Turkey’s special treatment of Turkmen in Syria, stating, “We have reacted to all the attacks aimed at civilians close to our border without making any discrimination in regards to whether they have been Turkmen, Arab or Kurdish, not only because they have been Turkmen.”
Turkey’s reaction could constrain Russia near the Syrian-Turkish border, but Russia is unlikely to downgrade its operations in Syria. Russia continues to prioritize projecting power onto NATO’s southern flank, and will likely escalate its air campaign in Syria on other fronts in a show of force. The Russian Ministry of Defense summoned the Turkish defense attaché in Moscow to discuss the incident, and stated that it is “designing a complex of measures directed to respond such incidents.” The participation of al-Qaeda in the clashes near the Syrian-Turkish border will continue to provide Russia with the ability to justify its airstrikes in the guise of a counter-terror mission. NATO is unlikely to pursue further escalation, but could take a more aggressive stance against Russia’s intervention in Syria.|
The incident could affect prospects for a successful negotiated settlement in Syria, at minimum. Turkey is a major supporter of Syrian armed opposition groups to include both Turkmen and Arab groups. Turkey continues to call for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, which Russia is maneuvering to prevent through the framework of the Vienna negotiations. Continued Russian support to pro-regime offensives targeting Syrian territory of concern to Turkey may disincentivize Turkey from agreeing to halt the violence in Syria.