ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane Tuesday – a long-feared crisis in Syria’s civil war and apparently the first time a NATO member has downed a Russian plane in a half-century. At least one of the pilots was reported killed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Turkey’s action a “stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices” and warned of “significant consequences,” and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a visit to Turkey which had been planned for Wednesday.
At Turkey’s request, NATO’s governing body called an emergency meeting.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted his country has the right to take “all kinds of measures” against border violations, and called on the international community to work toward “extinguishing the fire that is burning in Syria.”
Turkey said the Su-24 ignored several warnings that it was nearing, then intruding, into Turkish airspace. Russia insisted the plane stayed over Syria, where it was supporting ground action against rebels.
“We will never tolerate such atrocities as happened today and we hope that the international community will find the strength to join forces and fight this evil,” Putin said.
Rebels said they fired at the two parachuting pilots as they descended, and that one had died. A rebel spokesman said they would consider releasing the body in exchange for prisoners held by Syria. The fate of the second pilot was not immediately known.
Despite harsh words, some analysts believe that Russia and Turkey have reasons not to let the incident escalate.
“Relations have been very strained between Russia and Turkey of late so Moscow will be trying its utmost to contain the damage this might cause,” said Natasha Kuhrt, lecturer in International Peace and Security at King’s College London.
“It’s a serious incident in anybody’s book,” added Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London think-tank.
But Kearns said the Russian-Turkish economic relationship, including in the energy field, is important to Moscow. And Russia and the West appeared to be moving toward an understanding of their common strategic interest in eradicating the Islamic State group following the bombing of a Russian airliner over Sinai and the attacks in Paris.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry invited diplomats from the five U.N. Security Council member countries for a meeting to brief them about the incident. Separately, the Russian charge d’affaires was also invited for a meeting during which Turkey “conveyed its sensitivities” over border violations.
Turkey has complained repeatedly that Russian planes supporting Syrian President Basher Assad were straying across the border – a complaint repeated to the Russian ambassador only last Friday.
Turkey and Russia have long been at odds over the crisis in Syria. Turkey has been concerned over Russia’s bombing of Turkmen areas and the fact that the Russian operations have complicated the possibility of creating a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians as well as moderate rebels fighting Assad. The creation of a safe zone has been a long-term Turkish goal.
Turkey has long been seeking the ouster of Assad – an important Russian ally.
The Russian plane was supporting Syrian troops which have been on the offensive in an area controlled by several insurgent groups including al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, and the 2nd Coastal Division and the 10th Coast Division that includes local Turkmen fighters.
Jahed Ahmad, a spokesman for the 10th Coast Division, said its forces fired at the Russian pilots as they descended. One died, Ahmad told The Associated Press.
A Turkish military statement said the plane entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yayladagi, in Hatay province.
Turkish officials released what they said was the radar image of the path the Russian plane took, showing it flying across a stretch of Turkish territory in Turkey’s southern-most tip, in the region of Yayladag, in Hatay province.
Three Russian journalists working in Syria suffered minor injuries when a missile landed near their car on Monday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said. They were being treated in a military hospital.
Last month, Turkish jets shot down an unidentified drone that it said had violated Turkey’s airspace.
Turkey changed its rules of engagement a few years ago after Syria shot down a Turkish plane. According to the new rules, Turkey said it would consider all “elements” approaching from Syria an enemy threat and would act accordingly.
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 from their base in Britain to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to help the NATO-member country secure its skies.
Sarah Lain, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said the last time she could remember a NATO member country – the United States – shooting down a Russian/Soviet plane was the 1950s. “But the Soviets appear to have shot down more U.S. planes amid the Cold War,” she added.