BEIRUT, Lebanon — The skies above Syria are dangerously crowded, and so it was perhaps inevitable that something like this would happen.
Ever since Russia’s entry into Syria’s war, analysts have warned that an accident or misunderstanding in the air could lead to an escalation between the various powers involved in the fight. On Tuesday, that escalation came, but it doesn’t appear to have been a mistake.
Turkey’s military said it shot down a Russian jet after it violated Turkish airspace at 9:20 a.m. local time. It added that the pilot of the Russian jet had ignored repeated warnings.
Russia denied that it had strayed from Syrian airspace, where it is involved in fighting rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
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The fate of the pilots is yet to be confirmed, but Reuters cited a rebel fighter as saying two crew members were shot dead as they parachuted from the jet. Later in the day, a Turkish official told Agence France-Presse that the government believed “the two pilots are alive and right now Turkey is trying to recover them.”
Vladimir Putin reacted furiously to the incident, calling it “a stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists,” a reference to Turkish support of rebel groups in Syria and of alleged support for the Islamic State (IS). He added that it would have “significant consequences” for relations between the two countries.
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Before Tuesday’s incident, there was a sense that Turkey was losing patience with Russia’s actions in Syria.
If a Russian jet did indeed violate Turkey’s airspace, it won’t have been the first time. Back in October, Turkey “strongly condemned” a number of Russian incursions. NATO Secretary general Jens Stoltenberg also spoke out against the “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace” by a Russian jet.
Moscow attributed the error in course to bad weather, but Turkey warned that Russia would be held “responsible for any undesired incident that may occur” if it were repeated.
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A little under a week ago, Turkish media reported that Turkey had warned Russia over its bombing of Turkmen villages. Turkmens are Syrian citizens of historic Turkish descent, who hold close links with Turkey to this day. Turkmen rebel groups are opposed to Bashar al-Assad and have received support from Turkey.
The situation in Syria is such that the world’s greatest military powers are sharing the same airspace to carry out diverging missions.
Ostensibly, Russia, the US, France and Turkey are all fighting the same enemy, the Islamic State. In reality, defeating IS is a secondary aim, or at least one of many, for most outside powers. Russia has carried out more airstrikes against rebels not aligned with IS than IS itself. Turkey, meanwhile, has focused on supporting groups committed to the removal of Bashar al-Assad.
All of this has made the Syria-Turkey border a very volatile place. It is made even more dangerous by the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, the Western military alliance created to counter the Soviet Union. Any conflict between Turkey and Russia would involve NATO powers, hence the proliferation of references to World War III on social media in the aftermath of the jet being downed.
So what comes next?
Russia isn’t about to attack a NATO member, but it could react harshly against Turkey’s allies among the rebels in Syria — not just Turkmen fighters, but others like the powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which maintains ties to the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
Diplomatically, the incident is also likely to do great harm to the cautious moves toward cooperation that had been growing between Russia and the West in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. NATO will likely side with Turkey in the dispute, which will in turn anger Russia.
More broadly, a negotiated peace in Syria — however far away that appeared before the Russian jet was blown from the sky — depends on the cooperation of Russia and the West. This incident is certain to make that prospect even more distant.