Since Moscow launched its military intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Russian jets have repeatedly tempted fate by flying near or inside Turkish airspace. The maneuvers are seen as an effort by Moscow to flex its muscle across northern Syria, sending a message to Turkey and its NATO allies that the area is in Russia’s zone of influence.
Ankara has repeatedly chastised Russia and reiterated its right to defend Turkish airspace from incursion, and last month Turkey shot down a drone in its airspace. But on Tuesday morning, a Turkish F-16 jet finally made good on the ultimate threat, shooting down the Russian plane after allegedly warning its pilots “10 times in five minutes” to turn south, according to the Turkish military. The Russian pilots ejected from the cockpit, but Syrian Turkmen rebels promptly shot at least one dead as he drifted toward the ground by parachute, as depicted in a grisly YouTube video. The other pilot’s fate remains unknown.
Moscow, which has strong economic ties with Ankara but has seen relations sour over their proxy conflict in Syria, offered a different take on the incident. Russian President Vladimir Putin, visibly outraged in a television interview, denied that the plane crossed the border and said it “did not in any way threaten Turkey.” He called Ankara’s actions “a stab in the back delivered to us by accomplices of terrorists,” referencing Turkey’s support for anti-regime rebel factions in northern Syria, many of whom have been targeted by Russian planes.
Given both sides' refusal to coordinate military and their diametrically opposed interests in Syria, it was only a matter of time before an incident like Tuesday’s took place, analysts said. But they offered different explanations for why Turkey chose to pull the trigger at this moment. On one hand, Ankara may have simply decided it had to nip Russia's incremental aggressions in the bud, with the ruling AK Party feeling particularly confident on the heels of an election sweep last month.
Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst at the Washington Institute think thank in Washington, D.C., noted that Ankara may also have been acting under domestic political pressure to defend the Syrian Turkmen rebels — who are considered ethnic Turks — active on the Syrian side of the border in Hatay province, where the plane was shot down. Russian targeting of Turkmen fighters, who are said to number in the thousands, has been a sore spot for many Turks.
But Turkey didn’t appear to have NATO's backing in its decision to shoot down the plane, analysts said. On the contrary, Ankara's allies were quick to distance themselves from the incident. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, addressing an emergency meeting of the alliance, called Russia's incursion “unacceptable” but also sought to frame the incident as a bilateral Turkey-Russia problem, calling for urgent de-escalation.
President Barack Obama, speaking Tuesday at a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande at the White House, struck a similar tone. Though he offered the cursory criticism of Moscow — saying the incident “points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations” in Syria — analysts say Obama will be hesitant to rock the boat any further, especially as long-dormant Syria peace talks restart in Vienna. Provoking the Kremlin could jeopardize the delicate progress that was made last week, when all the major powers backing the different sides in Syria’s civil war met for just the second time since the conflict broke out in 2011.