- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey raised the complex tensions around Syria’s multisided civil war to new heights Tuesday, putting more pressure on the Obama administration to take a more aggressive leadership role in the conflict to head off a further escalation between Moscow and Ankara.

An angry Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday afternoon called the shootdown “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorist accomplices,” and asserted that “we will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today.”

The Russian Defense Ministry denied that its aircraft had violated Turkish airspace and that Turkey refused to answer emergency communications trying to establish what had happened. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging Russians not to visit Turkey and canceled a planned meeting Wednesday between the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers.

“As [Mr. Putin] has said bluntly, this cannot but affect Russian-Turkish relations,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

Turkey defended its action, saying in a letter to the U.N. Security Council that it fired only after two Russian Su-24 “Fencer” multirole attack jets had flown into Turkish airspace along the border with Syria and ignored repeated warnings to change direction.

Two pilots who ejected from one of the Su-24s that was hit by Turkish F-16 fire were subsequently shot at by ethnic Turkmen rebels — allies of the Ankara government — on the Syrian side of the border as the pilots parachuted to the ground. Video of one, who reportedly died, quickly circulated on social media.

SEE ALSO: Pentagon backs Turkey’s version of events, blames ‘incursion’ of Russian jet

The Russian general staff confirmed that one of its pilots was killed by Syrian rebel fire from the ground as he parachuted to the ground. On Wednesday, Russia confirmed that the second pilot was rescued by the Syrian military and is safe.

One of two Russian helicopters sent to the crash site to search for survivors was also hit by rebel fire, killing one serviceman and forcing the chopper to make an emergency landing, the military said, according to The Associated Press.

The incident marked the first time since the 1950s that a NATO member-country has publicly acknowledged shooting down a Russia military aircraft — the last time being at the end of the Korean War — and it quickly sparked fears of a Cold War-style standoff.

NATO’s governing body convened an extraordinary meeting in Brussels on Tuesday afternoon at Turkey’s request. And in Washington, President Obama echoed NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in calling on Moscow and Ankara to communicate and “take measures to discourage any kind of escalation.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has enjoyed relatively cordial relations with Russia, told reporters in Ankara that “nobody should doubt that we made our best efforts to avoid this latest incident.”

Turkey’s military has been on edge for months over alleged Russian incursions into its airspace. Turkish jets shot down an unidentified surveillance drone on the Syrian border last month that was widely believed to have been operated by Moscow. And on Friday Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador apparently out of frustration over the airspace incursions.

The two powers have been on opposite sides of Syria’s war since it began in 2012, as Turkey supports opposition rebels fighting for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Moscow scrambles to defend its embattled ally in Damascus.

Tensions came to a boil in late-September, when Moscow opened a bombing campaign in Syria. While some Russian sorties have pounded territory held by the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — in Syria a significant portion of the campaign has targeted the anti-Assad rebels backed not only by Turkey but also by Washington.

The Russian plane on Tuesday was supporting Syrian troops loyal to the Assad regime, which have been on the offensive in an area along the Turkish border controlled by several insurgent groups — including al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front — as well as rebels with the U.S.- and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army.

Among them are local Turkmen fighters, Syrian citizens of Turkish ethnicity who’ve lived in Syria since Ottoman times and coexisted with Syrian Arabs for hundreds of years. The Turkmen were among the first to take up arms against the Assad government forces four years ago, and Turkey lent its support to them.

Cautious U.S. response

President Obama called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Tuesday and “expressed U.S. and NATO support for Turkey’s right to defend its sovereignty,” the White House said.

The leaders agreed “on the importance of de-escalating the situation and pursuing arrangements to ensure that such incidents do not happen again,” according to the White House statement. They also reiterated their shared commitment in the fight against the Islamic State.

The complexity of the situation was underscored by the Obama administration’s own cautious and mixed response Tuesday.

Initially, Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman based in Iraq, told reporters that the incident was purely “between the Russian and Turkish governments” and did not involve the coalition of nations the Obama administration has spent years trying to prop up to fight both the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria.

But President Obama then came to Turkey’s defense, telling reporters in Washington that “Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace.”

“I think it’s very important right now for us to make sure that both the Russians and the Turks are talking to each other [to] find out exactly what happened,” the president said, although he added that the incident “points to an ongoing problem with Russian operations” in Syria.

Mr. Obama’s top aides have publicly criticized Moscow for claiming the Russian campaign in Syria is targeting Islamic State when it’s really about defending Mr. Assad. But the administration has struggled to get Russian officials to change their approach and begin coordinating with the U.S.-led coalition against the extremists.

The balance appeared to shift last week when Russia suddenly joined with France in joint strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. The strikes were in response to the extremist group’s Nov. 13 terrorist attacks on Paris — after which Russian officials had said they believed it was also Islamic State that bombed a Russian airliner last month on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

But with Tuesday’s clash between Russia and Turkey now at center stage, President Obama said he remains circumspect about Moscow’s true intentions in Syria.

Mr. Obama, who met at the White House with French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, voiced concern that the Russians “are operating very close to a Turkish border, and they are going after moderate opposition [forces] that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries.”

The potential “for mistakes or escalation” would be “less likely to occur” if the Russians were directing their energies toward fighting Islamic State rather than backing the Assad regime, Mr. Obama said.

He said that during a meeting with Mr. Putin at the G-20 summit last week, he told the Russian president there is “enormous capacity” for U.S.- Russian cooperation if Moscow makes a “strategic shift” to embrace a political transition in Syria that could get all parties — from Mr. Assad to the opposition rebels — to work together against Islamic State.

“Until that happens, it’s very difficult,” Mr. Obama said. “Because if their priority is attacking the moderate opposition that might be future members of an inclusive Syrian government, Russia is not going to get the support of us or a range of other members of [the U.S.-led] coalition.”

Regional experts, meanwhile, say the likelihood of future clashes and mishaps involving Russian jets is high and assert that the U.S., as the most powerful member of NATO, should be pressuring Moscow to avoid encroaching on Turkish airspace.

“The United States has to lead,” said Barry Pavel, who heads the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Washington “needs to step up and work with the Russians to make sure this kind of unnecessary escalation doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Pavel said during a conference call with reporters. “I think we will see additional escalations from Russia,” he said. “We cannot know what actions they will take, but I think with what we see with the images of the Russian pilot out there, that we will see more action.”

Following earlier accusations of Russian intrusion into Turkish airspace, the U.S. European Command on Nov. 6 deployed six U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to help the NATO member-country secure its skies.

Other countries have also complained recently that Russian military aircraft have markedly increased flights close to their airspace since 2014, when relations between Russia and the West significantly deteriorated amid the Ukraine crisis.

NATO said there was a 50 percent increase in 2014 in the number of times its members intercepted military aircraft flying near its borders, but there was no immediate tally of how many of those incidents involved Russian aircraft.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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