Turkey Shoots Down Russian Su-24: What We Know, Don't Know and Fear

Su-24

Make no mistake: a Russian air strike would massively escalate the situation—especially if deployed U.S. forces get involved.

Turkey's shootdown of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer bomber along the Syrian border is dangerously exacerbating tensions not only in the Middle East but between Moscow and the West.

A pair of Turkish-owned Lockheed Martin F-16C fighters shot down the Fencer with AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.  Television footage of the incident from the state-run Anadolu News Agency shows that the two Russian pilots ejected, but it does not show if they survived crash.

While Ankara says that the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer violated its airspace, the Russians say that it did not. Moscow says it has proof that the strike aircraft was on the Syrian side of the border. “The Turkish General Staff said the downed foreign jet was issued 10 warnings in five minutes and it was shot down by two F-16s,” reads a statement from the office of the Turkish prime minister’s directorate general of press and information. “The warplane went down in Syria's northwestern Turkmen town of Bayirbucak near Turkey’s border within the framework of engagement rules.”

The Russian defense ministry confirmed that Turkish forces had downed the Su-24. “The Russian Su-24 aircraft was shot down on its way to the Hmeymim airbase in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic by a Turkish F-16 fighter, “ the Russian defense ministry statement reads. “Analysis of the objective monitoring data definitely showed that there had not been any violation of the Turkish air space.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin responded to the incident with fury. “Today’s loss is a result of a stab in the back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices. There is no other way I can qualify what happened today,” Putin said during a meeting with Jordanian king Abdullah II in Sochi. “Our aircraft was shot down over Syrian territory by an air-to-air missile launched from a Turkish F-16 plane. It fell on Syrian territory, four kilometers from the Turkish border. When it was attacked in the air, it was flying at an altitude of 6,000 meters, one kilometer away from the Turkish territory.”

However, Ankara has released an image depicting a radar track that showed that the Russian aircraft briefly entered Turkish airspace. But Russia too has released its own evidence that its jet was over Syrian airspace when it was downed—but the photo depicts a Su-34 rather than a Fencer.

Putin stated that the downing of the Russian aircraft would not go unpunished—but it is not clear how Moscow will respond. “We will of course carefully analyze what has happened and today’s tragic event will have significant consequences for Russian-Turkish relations,” Putin said. “In any case, our plane and our pilots were in no way a threat to the Turkish Republic in any way. This is obvious.”

One immediate fallout is that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has cancelled his visit Turkey which was set for tomorrow. Russian has also summoned the Turkish defense attache in Moscow for urgent consultations according to the Russian defense ministry. Meanwhile, Turkey has requested an emergency meeting with other NATO members to bring them up to speed on the incident. U.S. officials have denied any involvement with the incident—but confirmed to the BBC that the Turkey did attempt to warn the Russian aircraft prior to shooting it down. U.S. forces are “working to establish exactly where the plane was when it was shot down,” according to U.S. Central Command spokesman Col Steve Warren per a BBC report.

Meanwhile, the BBC is reporting that one of the Russian pilots was found dead by Syrian rebels while the fate of the other remains unknown. Video evidence shows that both men came under fire from the rebel forces as they parachuted down—which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions and is a war crime. A Russian helicopter that was sent to rescue the downed pilots was also attacked.

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