NATO has been plunged into a new Middle East crisis, following the shooting down of the Russian Su-24 warplane in disputed airspace by Turkey.
The incident marks a serious escalation in tensions between NATO-allied countries and Russia amid differing strategies in the fight against ISIS that now seem to be coming to a head.
The downing brings renewed attention to a scenario feared for months by the Pentagon and its partners: a potential conflict arising from overlapping air missions over Syria — with Russia backing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State.
Turkish officials have accused Russia of repeated airspace violations since it launched airstrikes against Assad’s armed opposition in late September.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had strong words for Turkey, calling the incident a “stab in the back.”
In Washington, President Obama called for de-escalation but said Turkey had the right to defend its airspace.
Turkey’s military said the Russian jet was warned multiple times before it was targeted by two F-16 fighter jets in the border zone in mountains not far from the Mediterranean coast.
Turkey called for an emergency NATO session to discuss the incident but has not invoked alliance provisions that would involve other members in its defense.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after the meeting that NATO allies with intelligence assets near where Turkey shot down the Russian warplane had confirmed Turkey’s version of events and rejected Russia’s claim that its aircraft was flying over Syria and had not crossed into Turkish airspace.
“The information we have from other allies is consistent with what we have got from Turkey,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
“This is a serious situation” that calls for prudence and de-escalation, Stoltenberg said. “We have to avoid that situations, incidents, accidents spiral out of control.”
A U.S. military spokesman confirmed that Turkish pilots issued 10 notifications to their Russian counterparts warning that they were in Turkish airspace and that the Russians did not respond.
“On the radio . . . we were able to hear everything that was going on,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman at the Baghdad headquarters for U.S. forces operating in Iraq and Syria.
Last month, NATO decried a “troubling escalation” by Russian forces in Syria and raised concerns about attack missions within sight of the Western alliance’s borders.
Although Turkey and the United States oppose Assad, their warplanes have avoided the Syrian leader’s military and are instead bombarding the Islamic State militant group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq. Russian aircraft have primarily hit non-Islamic State rebels, including some groups that are backed by the United States and Turkey.
The fallout could complicate a diplomatic push to bring greater international coordination to the fight against the Islamic State. The radical group has claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed at least 130, as well as the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that killed all 224 aboard.
French President François Hollande met with Obama in Washington on Tuesday to discuss strategies against the Islamic State and parallel efforts to seek a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war.
Hollande is expected to meet later in the week with Putin and other world leaders.
In the Russian resort city of Sochi, Putin said that the plane “did not threaten the territory of Turkey” and that it was “pursuing operations” against the Islamic State in mountainous areas north of the Syrian port of Latakia.
“Today’s tragic cases will have significant consequences for the relations between Russia and Turkey,” Putin told reporters after talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose nation is part of the U.S.-led coalition.