As we’ve reported to you earlier, a Russian Su-24M Fencer was shot down this morning after it allegedly violated Turkey’s sovereign airspace. “Facts” and “truth” are radically divergent at this point, so we’re sifting through what we actually know versus what is being reported.
The incident occurred very near to the Turkish border with Syria, close to where Turkey’s Hatay Province and Syria’s Latakia Province meet in wooded, mountainous terrain. Two Su-24s approached the southernmost tip of Turkey, and were warned via radio to change course 10 times over a period of approximately five minutes. The two Russian fighters, flying at an altitude of 19,000 feet, are alleged to have violated Turkish airspace for a total of 17 seconds at a depth of 1.15 miles and 1.36 miles, respectively, at approximately 0924 local time. The first aircraft diverted to the south, but the second aircraft stayed in Turkey’s airspace and was ultimately fired on by at least one of two Turkish F-16s flying combat air patrol (CAP) in the area.
The Su-24 was reportedly struck by at least one missile and burst into flames, entering a steep dive and crashing in the Turkmen Mountains on the Syrian side of the border, approximately a mile to two miles from that nation’s border with Turkey. Both crew members were able to eject from the stricken aircraft before it crashed.
Here’s where the water gets really muddy, so we’ll break this down for you the best we can:
1) Did the Russian Su-24M fighters actually violate Turkey’s sovereign airspace?
According to radar data presented and radio transmissions, the two warplanes appear to have indeed crossed into Turkey above the town of Yayladagi. Prior to the incursion, they were warned several times to change course. The Russians say they have their own “proof” the aircraft never left Syrian airspace. “The Ministry of Defense would like to stress that the plane was over Syrian territory throughout the flight,” was the reponse from the Kremlin.
2) What were Russian fighters doing in that part of Syria, since there aren’t known ISIS elements up there?
The region in question has been hotly contested in recent days. Syrian government forces, under the cover of Russian airstrikes, have been fighting elements of the Free Syrian Army in that area. Very recently, there was a heated exchange between Turkey’s Foreign Ministry and the Russian ambassador, the former demanding that Russia stop “bombing civilians” in the Turkmen villages which, incidentally, are in the same area where the Su-24 went down.
3) How was the Su-24M shot down?
Initially, the Russians emphatically stated it was anti-aircraft artillery (Triple-A, AAA) that downed the aircraft, but President Vladimir Putin himself stated publicly it was a missile fired from a Turkish Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon. A U.S. Department of Defense official said it was infrared-guided AIM-9 Sidewinders fired at the Fencer, but another source claims it was a single AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM).
4) What is the condition of the two pilots of the Russian Su-24M?
Here’s where it gets sketchy. The Kremlin is saying the two pilots are unaccounted for and their status is unknown. Syrian rebels told the Associated Press both pilots came under fire as they floated to the ground in their parachutes. A video has been released showing those rebels celebrating around what appears to be a deceased pilot, minus his helmet but still in the rest of his flight gear and parachute harness. The rebels claim they also killed the second pilot.
The Russians launched helicopters, at least one of the Mil Mi-8 “Hip” variety and another a Mil Mi-24 “Hind” gunship, to locate the downed pilots. According to some accounts, one Mi-8 came under heavy small-arms fire and was forced to land. Syrian rebels then destroyed the helicopter, either with an American-made TOW missile (so they say), or with a mortar attack (according to the Russians).
“During the operation, as a result of small-arms fire, one of the helicopters was damaged, and forced to make a landing on neutral territory. One naval infantry soldier was killed,” Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi, the head of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, told reporters.
You be the judge:
5) What are the consequences for Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet?
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Turkey’s actions are a “stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices,” then went on to say there would be “significant consequences” for ongoing relations with Turkey. Putin also criticized that nation’s government for turning immediately to its NATO partners instead of addressing the issue head-on with Russia. 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. In the past, Turkey enjoyed a cooperative relationship with Russia, so it’s very possible the rhetoric coming out of Ankara was viewed as nothing more than posturing.
Today’s events, however, have changed the game significantly. The United States has assets forward-deployed to locations in Turkey. If Russia declares war, which is a pretty distinct possibility at this point, NATO has promised it will defend Turkey in the event it comes under attack. What does that mean? Turkey’s actions are certainly not in line with NATO doctrine for incidents such as this, so hopefully the situation can be dealt with diplomatically before it escalates into a much larger problem—such as World War III.
(Featured photo courtesy of F-16.net)