Today may turn out to be a critical day for the course of the Syria Civil War. While the exact details are still far from clear, for the first time in 50 years a NATO country has shot down a Russian jet in air-to-air combat. Turkey, in shooting down a Russian jet has ratcheted up the tension over Syria to its greatest level in the four and a half year long war. But what is confirmed so far about what happened?
At around 09:00 local time this morning, Turkish F-16 fighter jets intercepted a Russian Su-24 ‘Flanker’ jet. Turkey claims this jet had breached its airspace, while Russia claims that it was 4km within Syrian airspace. According to radar tracking information released by Turkey, even in their version of the story, the jet only was in Turkish airspace for a matter of seconds.
Following a number of (alleged) warnings, an F-16 jet fired an air-to-air missile at the Russian Su-24, destroying it and forcing its two pilots to eject. While this ejection was successful, the pilots fell towards rebel-controlled territory in Latakia Governorate in Syria. Video footage from a rebel group on the ground then showed fighters firing at the descending pilots, before another video showed at least one pilot dead on the ground with wounds consistent from small-arms fire. The second pilot was also reported dead by these rebels, however this has yet to be confirmed via photographs or other means.
Following the shoot-down, the Russian Air Force deployed a number of rescue helicopters to retrieve the downed pilots. These attempts were unsuccessful, and one Mi-8 helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing for an unknown reason. While on the ground, this helicopter was targeted by Abu Hamza of the FSA 1st Coastal Division, who destroyed it with a US supplied TOW missile. The Russian Ministry of Defence later confirmed that one Russian marine was killed in this incident. The fate of the rest of the crew is currently unclear.
Aftermath and Political Fallout
This event marked the first time a NATO member has ever shot down a Russian jet. The initial response by Russia was rather muted, likely due to their leadership trying to ascertain the specifics of what happened. Several hours later, Putin responded to the shoot-down, calling it a “stab in the back" committed by "accomplices of terrorists". The Russian Ministry of Defence also characterised the shoot-down as an “unfriendly act”, and promised a series of measures in response.
Later in the evening, the MoD also announced a significant tightening of its air support in Syria. All operations would now reportedly fly with a fighter escort and “dangers” to Russian aircraft would be "destroyed” with support from ship-based anti-aircraft systems.
For its part, Turkey has defended its actions, with President Erdogan claiming that “we did our best to prevent this outcome”. As well, Erdogan claimed that Turkey’s actions were in some part driven by the desire to protect ethnic Turkmen in Syria from Russian bombing saying: “Russia is bombing Bayirbucak Turkmens and claiming they are targeting ISIS.” As well, in a leaked letter to NATO his government referred to repeated breaches of its airspace over the last few years as a further pretext for its actions.
No WWIII, But More Room for Escalation
While there will likely be no further escalation or direct reprisals from either party following this incident, there is now a much greater risk of escalation. With both sides taking aggressive postures to defend their aircraft and strategic interests, mistakes and miscalculations are possible, if not probable. As has become the norm over the previous years, Syria is becoming an even more dangerous flashpoint.