- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Russia announced plans Wednesday to deploy long-range surface-to-air missiles at its air base near the Syria-Turkey border to destroy any target that threatens its warplanes in the area — an angry response to Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet, which raised fears of a direct clash between Russia and NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the deployment of S-400 missiles in Syria as he and other officials in Moscow escalated a war of words with Ankara after Tuesday’s shootdown, which Turkey claims was justified on grounds that two Russian fighters ignored repeated warnings to change direction after entering Turkish airspace.

Syrians fighting the government of President Bashar Assad said Russian jets launched a fresh series of bombing runs on insurgent-held positions close to where the Russian plane went down.

Mr. Putin said his problem with Turkish leadership runs “much deeper” than the targeting of a Russian fighter jet. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said, has backed extremist elements in Syria and encouraged the “Islamization” of Turkey.

“We see — and not only we, I assure you that the entire world sees that — that the current leadership of Turkey has been for a number of years pursuing a purposeful policy of support and the Islamization of the country,” Mr. Putin told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency.

The charges and counter-charges capped a furious day of international diplomacy as Turkish and NATO officials tried to keep the situation from escalating.

Iran seconded Russia’s charges that Ankara was fueling tensions in the region by backing rebel groups trying to overthrow Mr. Assad.

Obama administration officials tried to cool the rhetoric, with Secretary of State John F. Kerry “urging calm” during a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to the State Department.

Mr. Kerry “offered his condolences for the loss of life in Tuesday’s incident” but “stressed the need for both sides not to allow this incident to escalate tensions between their two countries or in Syria,” the department said in a statement.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu defended his country’s handling of the jet’s incursion and the warnings he said were given to the Russian pilots, but he also told a gathering of his ruling party that Russia remained a “friend and neighbor” and relations should not be “sacrificed to accidents of communication.”

Mr. Erdogan added in a televised speech in Istanbul, “We have no intention to escalate this incident. We are just defending our security and the rights of our brothers.”

But he added that “no one should expect us to remain silent when our border security and our sovereignty are being violated.”

Turkey gave no sign that it would end its material and intelligence support for ethnic Turkmen allies battling Mr. Assad’s regime. A video made public Tuesday showed Turkmen fighters shooting at the Russian pilots as they parachuted to the ground after abandoning their doomed plane.

Putin’s motives

Mr. Putin, who was set to host French President Francois Hollande in Moscow on Thursday to discuss expanded cooperation between Russia and the West against the Islamic State, may have an interest in using the incident to distract from Moscow’s expanded military campaign in Syria. The Russian president voiced annoyance at the quickness with which Ankara turned to its fellow NATO allies instead of speaking directly with Russia, “as if it were us who shot down a Turkish plane.”

Some analysts said there are deep geopolitics at play between Turkey, Russia and France. “While Turkey has a legitimate beef with Putin about violating its border, this is also about the Turks rejecting Russia’s role in the American-led coalition with France and others to fight the Islamic State,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday that Turkey’s “criminal actions” had produced a “dangerous worsening of relations between Russia and NATO.”

According to Tass, Mr. Medvedev also accused Turkey of providing protection to Islamic State terrorists in Syria, claiming there are Turkish officials “linked with the supply of petroleum products produced at enterprises held by [the group].”

Iran, Mr. Assad’s other main ally in the multilateral Syrian civil war, backed the Russian version of events and said it was Turkey’s “provocative actions” that raised tensions in the region.

Iranian parliamentary leader Ali Larijani said in Tehran that Turkey and its U.S.-led allies were equally responsible for the attack, which he called a “big mistake.”

Turkey vehemently denies that it is supporting the Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — and maintains that Turkish military forces are cooperating deeply with a U.S.-led coalition of nations that has been bombing the group for the past year.

Divided over Assad

Moscow and Ankara have been on opposite sides of Syria’s war since it began in 2012. Turkey strongly backs opposition rebels fighting to oust Mr. Assad while Moscow scrambles to defend the embattled Syrian leader, a longtime ally who has allowed Moscow to station an air and naval base in the country.

Tuesday’s clash in the skies, meanwhile, marked the first time since the Korean War in the early 1950s that a NATO member has publicly acknowledged taking down a Russian aircraft.

Militants in Syria killed one Russian pilot who had bailed out of his doomed aircraft. Syrian army commandos rescued his crewmate and delivered him in good condition to a Russian base in Syria.

Speaking in televised comments from the base Wednesday, the surviving navigator, Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin, denied that his jet veered into Turkey’s airspace “even for a single second.”

He also rejected Turkey’s claim that it had issued repeated warnings to the Russian crew before shooting down the plane.

At Turkey’s request, NATO’s governing body convened an extraordinary meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.

Despite the calls by NATO leaders and the Obama administration for calm between Moscow and Ankara, Mr. Putin’s moves Wednesday raised the specter of further escalation.

The S-400 missiles also have the potential to alter the battlefield calculations of the Turks and the U.S.-led international coalition battling the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The missiles have a range of 250 miles, far enough to reach deep into Turkey and to threaten U.S. and coalition planes carrying out bombing runs against the Islamic State.

“It’s a capable weapons system that poses a significant threat to anyone,” a U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “There are significant concerns related to air operations in Syria.”

In addition to announcing the deployment of S-400s to Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, just 30 miles from the Turkish border, Mr. Putin ordered the missile cruiser Moskva to move closer to shore to help protect Russian warplanes with its long-range ship-to-air defense system.

“It will be ready to destroy any aerial target posing a potential danger to our aircraft,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a meeting with military officials.

He added that from now on fighters will escort Russian bombers on combat missions over Syria and announced the severance of all military ties with Turkey.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said Russians could down one of the Turkish warplanes that cross the Syrian border daily for reconnaissance missions and for operations targeting Islamic State fighters.

Mr. Unluhisarcikli told The Associated Press, “In the same way that Turkey argues it has rules of engagement, Russia could also declare its own rules of engagement saying it has a right to protect the skies” over Syria for the Assad government.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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