Two big powers supporting different factions in the Syrian civil war clashed with each other on Tuesday when Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane that Turkey said had strayed into its airspace.
The tensions immediately took on Cold War overtones when Russia rejected Turkey’s claim and Ankara responded by asking for an emergency NATO meeting, eliciting more Russian anger and ridicule. After the meeting, the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, called for “calm and de-escalation” and said the allies “stand in solidarity with Turkey.”
It was thought to be the first time a NATO country has shot down a Russian plane in half a century. And while few expect a military escalation, with neither Russia nor NATO wanting to go to war, the incident highlighted the dangers of Russian and NATO combat aircraft operating in the same theater and has soured chances for a diplomatic breakthrough over Syria.
As President François Hollande of France met with President Obama in Washington to urge a closer and more aggressive alliance with Russia against the Islamic State, Turkey’s decision to fire on a Russian warplane attacking targets in Syria has raised tensions between Moscow and NATO and undercut efforts to persuade Russia to drop its support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Turkey wants Mr. Assad gone, and has allowed its border with Syria to be an easy crossing point for Syrian rebels, including those the West regards as terrorists or radical Islamists; Russia wants to prop up Mr. Assad and his government. While Moscow says it is attacking the Islamic State, for the most part Russian planes and troops have been attacking the Syrian rebels, some of whom are supported by the United States and the West, who most threaten Mr. Assad’s rule.
Mr. Obama said again Tuesday that Russian air attacks on moderate opponents of Mr. Assad had only helped him and that they should be directed at the Islamic State.
Mr. Hollande and Mr. Obama clearly hoped that the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, claimed by the Islamic State, would cause Moscow to make defeating the jihadists more of a priority than propping up Mr. Assad. But Tuesday’s events will make that a tougher sell, for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia wants to be seen as an equal player in the conflict, not beholden to Western policies.
Turkey, especially under the increasingly authoritarian rule of its nationalist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been fierce in defending its airspace, shooting down Syrian jets that have strayed in the past. Turkey insisted that it issued 10 warnings over a five-minute period to the Russian pilot of the Sukhoi Su-24 to pull away.
But Mr. Putin, clearly angry, responded that the Russian jet had never violated Turkish airspace and was shot down over Syria. Speaking in Sochi, he called the downing of the plane a “stab in the back delivered by the accomplices of terrorists,” warning that it would have “serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.”
Mr. Putin said that instead of “immediately making the necessary contact with us, the Turkish side turned to their partners in NATO for talks on this incident. It’s as if we shot down the Turkish plane and not they, ours. Do they want to put NATO at the service of the Islamic State?”
A United States military spokesman, Col. Steven Warren, confirmed on Tuesday that Turkish pilots had warned the Russian pilot 10 times, but that the Russian jet ignored the warnings. Colonel Warren, speaking from Baghdad to reporters in Washington, also said American officials were analyzing radar track data to determine the precise location of the jet when it was shot down.
At the emergency NATO meeting, Turkish officials played recordings of the warnings Turkish F-16 pilots had issued to the Russian aircraft. The Russian pilots did not reply. The Turkish account of the episode was described by several diplomats, who asked not to be identified because they were discussing a closed-door session at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.
After Turkish representatives presented their side of the encounter at the meeting, they received expressions of support for their country’s territorial integrity, according to the diplomats’ account.
The Russian Su-24 that was struck was over the Hatay region of Turkey for about 17 seconds, according to one diplomat who attended the NATO meeting. But the plane re-entered Syrian airspace after being hit and therefore crashed in Syria, the diplomat said.
Tensions between Russia and Turkey had increased lately over Russian bombing of Turkmen tribesmen in northern Syria, whom Turkey regards as under its protection and who are fighting to oust Mr. Assad. Just this week, Turkey summoned the Russian ambassador in Ankara to demand that Moscow stop targeting Turkmen tribesmen in Syria.
“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 Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
And so it has. The diplomatic spat may have led directly to Moscow continuing to target the Turkmens on Tuesday, and Turkey’s aggressive response.
What may make matters worse is that those same tribesmen said they shot both Russian pilots as they floated to earth in their parachutes, having apparently ejected safely after the plane was hit by air-to-air missiles. The Russian minister of defense said that the navigator of the warplane is alive and has been rescued by Syrian and Russian special forces, but that the pilot was killed by ground fire.
The tribesmen also reportedly destroyed a Russian helicopter with a TOW antitank missile as it tried to rescue the airmen. The Ministry of Defense said late Tuesday that a marine deployed on the search-and-rescue helicopter died but that the rest of the crew had escaped.
NATO countries have been concerned about Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies for some time, and NATO officials acknowledge that Turkey’s agenda in Syria does not always match that of Washington, Britain or France — let alone Russia.
And while he has recently allowed American planes to use Incirlik air base for sorties into Syria, Mr. Erdogan’s own troops have largely turned their fire on the Syrian Kurds, whom Washington regards as its best local ally so far against the Islamic State.