November 24, 2015


[In Washington, President Obama said Turkey had the right to defend its territory, but he urged both sides to talk to make sure they know what happened and to “discourage any kind of escalation.” At a news conference with President Fran├žois Hollande of France, Mr. Obama said the episode underscored the risks of the Russian military venture in Syria.]


ISTANBUL Turkish fighter jets on patrol near the Syrian border on Tuesday shot down a Russian warplane that Turkey said had ignored numerous warnings and violated its airspace, in a long-feared escalation that will further strain relations between the NATO member country and Russia.

NATO announced that it would hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday in Brussels to discuss the episode, as credible reports were emerging from Latakia Province, where the Russian jet went down, that rebels possibly wielding TOW antitank missiles and other weapons had hit a Russian helicopter sent to the scene of the crash to look for survivors.

In his first remarks on the episode, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia confirmed that an F-16 Turkish fighter jet had shot down the Russian plane, a Sukhoi Su-24, with an air-to-air missile. But he insisted that the Russian jet had been in Syrian airspace at the time.

Mr. Putin, speaking slowly and clearly angry before a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Sochi, Russia, called the incident a “stab in the back” by those who “abet” terrorism and warned that it would have “serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.”

Mr. Putin did not specify what those consequences might be, but hours later his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, canceled a Wednesday visit to Turkey, and a large Russian tour operator, Natalie Tours, announced that it was suspending trips to Turkey, where Russians accounted for about 12 percent of all tourists last year.

“Russia-Turkey relations will drop below zero,” Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trends Studies, said on the state-run Rossiya 24 cable news channel. The two countries are also significant trade partners.

In Washington, President Obama said Turkey had the right to defend its territory, but he urged both sides to talk to make sure they know what happened and to “discourage any kind of escalation.” At a news conference with President Fran├žois Hollande of France, Mr. Obama said the episode underscored the risks of the Russian military venture in Syria.

“I do think that this 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,” Mr. Obama said.

The episode occurred as Russia and the West were slowly edging toward some manner of understanding to unite forces to confront the Islamic State in the wake of the terroristattacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian charter flight over Egypt that killed a total of 354 people.

Mr. Hollande was in Washington to begin a world tour to try to build consensus on the issue. But Tuesday’s events seem likely to undercut efforts to convince Mr. Putin to shift his strategy from building up Turkey’s enemy, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to fighting the Islamic State, which he today accused Turkey of quietly supporting.

The warplane episode also underscores the uneasy relations between Turkey and other members of the NATO alliance, who fear being dragged into a larger conflict through an impetuous act by the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

So cautious are the NATO countries about Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which calls for mutual defense, that when Mr. Hollande declared war on the Islamic State after the Paris attacks, he invoked the Lisbon Treaty and sidestepped NATO.

Russia’s entry into the heavily trafficked skies around Syria in September had raised immediate concerns about encounters, inadvertent or otherwise, that could lead to confrontations involving Turkey and the United States. Turkey has warned Russia about intrusions in its airspace at least two times since it began its bombing campaign in September, and last month it shot down an unmanned aerial device that analysts said was likely of Russian origin.

On Tuesday, television footage shown on the privately owned Turkish channel Haberturk showed a warplane exploding in the air and tumbling down in flames in a wooded area, identified by the broadcaster as a region of northern Syria known to Turks as the Turkmen Mountains.

The Russian military said that the plane’s two pilots had ejected, and another video published by Anadolu Agency, a semiofficial news agency, showed two figures parachuting from the aircraft. Video footage emerged soon after showing one bloody pilot on the ground surrounded by Syrians exulting at his death.

Shadi al-Ouwayni, an activist in rural Latakia Province, where the pilot’s body was recovered, said one pilot was shot as he drifted to the ground in his parachute while the other was captured by a local militia called the 10th Brigade. He said the pilots landed in different rebel-controlled locations. His account could not be independently verified.

“One of the Russian pilots was shot as he was trying to land,” he said. “The other was injured and captured.”

A tape of one bloodied pilot lying on the ground began circulating on the Internet, with an activist saying that, “This is a Russian pilot and killer of men, women and children who was killed today after his plane was shot down in Syria.”

Despite those reports, a Turkish official said late Wednesday that both pilots were alive and in the hands of opposition groups.

Soon after the pilots landed and the helicopter was shot down, Russian bombers from the air base outside Latakia began pummeling the area, the activist said.

Tensions had been building recently over Russian bombing in the area along the border. Last week, Turkey summoned the Russian ambassador, Andrey G. Karlov, to discuss Ankara’s concerns over the bombing of Turkmen villages in northern Syria and called for an immediate end to the Russian military operation close to the Turkish border, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement.

“It was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages and this could lead to serious consequences,” the statement said.

Ankara has long called for the protection of Turkmens, who are of Turkish descent, in Syria.

The downing of the jet on Tuesday was the first time that anything negative had dominated Russian news coverage of the military campaign, although the fate of the pilots was not discussed.
Coverage in the state-controlled news media has been heavily sanitized, consisting mostly of cockpit videos of bombs striking targets or of generals talking in briefing rooms. The first publicly acknowledged casualty, the death of a young soldier last month, was quickly dismissed officially as a suicide. Russian officials vehemently deny that their bombing campaign has killed any civilians in Syria.
The Kremlin is highly sensitive to comparisons with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan 35 years ago, which slowly soured much of the public on foreign intervention, despite Soviet censorship.
In Ankara, Mr. Davutoglu made a brief comment likely to further alienate Russia, telling reporters, “Everyone must know that it is our international right and national duty to take any measure against whoever violates our air or land borders.”
Ceylan Yeginsu reported from Istanbul, and Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow. Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow, and Peter Baker from Washington.