Could downing of Russian jet over Turkey really lead to a wider war?

By David J Galbreath, University of Bath

The dangerous skies over Syria have now earned their reputation. The Turkish foreign ministry has confirmed that its forces had shot down a fighter aircraft near the Turkish border with Syria. The Russian foreign ministry confirmed soon afterwards that it has lost an SU-24 over Syria.

The situation remains tense: two pilots were filmed ejecting from the stricken aircraft; one is reported to be in the hands of pro-Turkish Turkmen rebels along the border but the fate of the other is unknown – early reports from Reuters said it had video of the second pilot seemingly dead on the ground.

Russian president, Vladimir Putin, called the incident a “a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists”. He said the shooting down would have “significant consequences, including for Russia-Turkish relations”.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is understood to have cancelled a planned trip to Turkey and NATO announced there would be a meeting of its North Atlantic Council in Brussels to discuss the shootdown.

The bigger picture

This comes at a time, following the Paris attacks, when the US and its Western allies had been reaching a tentative agreement with Russia to solve the previous impasse over a possible transition of power in Syria. Turkey and other Sunni Middle Eastern states are ranged against the Assad regime and not happy at the prospect of a deal that would leave him in power – even if only on a temporary basis. Iran and Russia have been keen to see their Syrian ally remain in power, although Russia has been coming around to the idea of a transition but has steadfastly argued that it is imperative to defeat Islamic State militarily first.

After the Paris attacks, France was swift to act against IS and NATO has appeared to accept that the first priority is to act against the terrorist group, leaving the Assad question for the time being. Will that common ground be lost over the downing of the SU-24?

Historic tensions

It is important to keep in mind that while shooting another country’s plane down could be see as an act of war, it has rarely precipitated a larger conflict. The last time a NATO member shot down a, then Soviet, fighter aircraft (MiG-15) was in 1953, destroyed by the United States (US) during the height of the early Cold War tension and towards the stalemate that would end the Korean War.

Many NATO fighter aircraft were shot down during the 1950s – though this tailed off as the Cold War became less war and more hot air. But the prospect for such an event is always greater when you have adversaries in the sky together. NATO and Russia both had planes in the sky over the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s – happily they avoided the sort of incident which threatens to set the old adversaries at loggerheads once again.

When Russia began flying over Syria in August 2015, there was considerable anxiety over how to maintain a safe theatre, at least in the air, for manned and unmanned aircraft. By early October, both the Turkish and US governments were stating that there was concern over Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace and the bombing of pro-Turkish and pro-Western rebel forces.

At the time Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said:

NATO has issued a stern ultimatum … We cannot endure it. Some steps that we do not desire are being taken. It is not suitable for Turkey to accept them. This is also beyond the principles of NATO.

Russian air crew ejecting from the stricken jet.
Haberturk TV channel

Russias’ foreign ministry responded with the assurance that any violation of Turkish airspace had been accidental and would be prevented in the future. Afterwards the US secretary of state John Kerry said that “it is precisely the kind of thing that, had Turkey responded under its rights, could have resulted in a shootdown”. He said there was increasing evidence that Russia is violating Turkey’s territorial sovereignty.

Rules of engagement

Where does this leave Russia’s relationship with Turkey and NATO? The Russian government has been quick to avoid calling this incident a Turkish act of aggression. The Turkish government meanwhile stated that its aircraft had warned the Russian Su-24 ten times before taking action.

A Russian SU-24 M bomber (the type that was shot down) at the Syrian Hmeymim airbase, outside Latakia.
EPA/Russian Defence Ministry

No longer is there a NATO-Russia Council where Russia could have become more operationally engaged to avoid such events, whether accidental or otherwise. However, NATO and Russia established a hotline in May 2015 which will be useful in making sure that Russian and NATO heads remain cool as we discover what happened and more about the state of the Russian pilots.

There is a clear problem here in the larger conflict. Turkey is against the continuation of the Assad regime. Russia’s entry into the war may make Western leaders more acquiescent in allowing Bashar al-Assad to remain in power for longer if not for too long. Russia and Iran are against removing Assad from power.

The rules of engagement should have prevented a Russian fighter aircraft from further violating Turkish airspace – but of course we do not know how often this has happened or if the pilots were just unlucky the Turkish F16s were in the same vicinity.

Cool heads needed

The worry is that this event marks a transition in the rules of what some have referred to as the New Cold War. Already we have seen situations where RAF fighter aircraft have locked on to and been cleared for firing on hostile Russian aircraft in the Middle East.

Will this escalate? Are we likely to see more fighter aircraft downed – for whatever reasons – with the possibility of further conflict? This is the main concern – especially as Russian aircraft and submarines continue to violate national airspaces. And then there is NATO’s continued testing of Russian radar along the Russian border and Arctic Ocean which is not exactly helping relations.

As long as Russia and Turkey are able to work this out between themselves, it is likely that Russia will simply navigate more carefully, rather than triggering a further deterioration of the war which has claimed enough victims already.

The Conversation

David J Galbreath, Professor of International Security, Director of Centre for War and Technology, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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3 thoughts on “Could downing of Russian jet over Turkey really lead to a wider war?

  1. Syd

    The rule of thumb in reading newspaper headlines that ask a question is that the answer is always “no”, but in this case the response is: “hell yes it could start World War III!” It probably won’t, but every incident of this kind absolutely increases the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. This shows the madness of creating a no fly zone in Syria.

    It’s also way too early to be saying with any certainty that Russia violated Turkish airspace. Maybe the crew of a 1960’s bomber deliberately flew over the border and ignored multiple warnings to turn back, knowing all the time they would be easy meat if the Turks engaged, but I think it’s equally possible the Turks are fudging a bit — if not on the whole story, then on the severity of the violation.

    The Turkish gov’t is supporting the rebels — apparently including ISIS — all along their border. Turkish newspapers have claimed that Erdogan has given safe haven to ISIS and other extremists. As a NATO member, the Turks should not be supplying groups like Al Qaeda that have attacked us. So long as this continues, we’re under no obligation to them — diplomatically or militarily.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Of course, who could doubt the unimpeachable word of the Russians in this or any other case? Still, there is a problem with the Russia-friendly analysis: the fact that it was only last month they were admonished by Turkey and NATO for violating Turkey’s airspace and warned that future violations might result in their aircraft getting shot down. At that time, the Russian’s didn’t deny the violation, they simply claimed it was a result of bad weather.

    What this looks like is a classic example of limits testing. One side sets a “red line” — remember, Russia forever trumpets its respect of national sovereignty — and then the other side crosses that line in a very minor way to see if it can get away with a small infraction.

    The fact that Russia is now describing the shooting down as a “planned provocation” by Turkey suggests to me that, among other things, they are fishing for support in social media where there is such a plentiful supply of people willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Did Turkey do the right thing?

    On October 5, they sent their own F-16s to intercept the Russian jets and issued a stern warning that next time they might shoot down aircraft violating their airspace. If they didn’t subsequently follow through with that threat, the Russians could reasonably conclude it was an empty threat.

    Turkey has previously shot down Syrian aircraft when they violated Turkish airspace. Irrespective of whether one wants to argue that its responses to such violations has been harsh, they have nevertheless been consistent. In fact, one could argue that Turkey prudently showed some leniency in its earlier response to the Russian infraction, given that the repercussions of shooting down a Russian aircraft would likely be more far-reaching than those from shooting down on of Assad’s aircraft.

    Turkish support for Syrian rebels is irrelevant here — unless Assad wants to declare war on Turkey and call on Russia to join that war. Of course, that’s not going to happen.

    Is Turkey’s involvement in the war in Syria messy? No question. But it will only get messier if Russia persists with what certainly have the appearance of its own acts of provocation.

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