According to a statement posted on its website, the Turkish General Staff, which manages the country’s armed forces, claimed on Nov. 24 that two Turkish F-16s shot down a “warplane of unknown nationality” that breached Turkey’s airspace over Hatay province on the border with northwest Syria. The Turkish military said that it warned the unidentified warplane 10 times in five minutes and that a second unknown plane approaching the border was also warned. Turkish president sources talking to Anadolu Agency and the Russian Ministry of Defense both said the warplane in question was a Russian Su-24 fighter jet. The Russian Ministry of Defense also stated that it could prove the Su-24 had been in Syrian airspace for the entirety of its flight path. The Turkish military, however, has released flight radar data that it claims shows the Russian fighter jet violating Turkish airspace.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it believed that the Russian fighter crashed inside Syria, in the Jabal Turkman area of Latakia province in Syria. According to BBC, the two Russian pilots were able to eject themselves and Turkey’s Anadolu Agency has aired footage of two pilots parachuting from a fighter jet that it claims was the Russian Su-24. Reuters reported that it has received video of a dead Russian pilot by an unnamed Syrian rebel group operating in northwest Syria, but the video’s authenticity has not yet been confirmed. According to the Guardian, the Syrian rebel group in question was Alwiya al-Ashar, a Free Syrian Army group. BBC meanwhile reported that one of the pilots had been captured by an ethnic Turkmen rebel group.
The details themselves at this point are unclear. The Russians claim they can prove the fighter was in Syrian airspace for the duration of its mission and Russian state media has suggested that the SU-24 was shot down from the ground by Syrian rebels and not by the Turkish air force. A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said it would be imprudent to make any evaluations or statements in the absence of more information, adding that Putin would make a statement himself after his previously scheduled meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Jordan. Despite the lack of clarity on what happened, the incident itself could benefit the Islamic State by creating tensions between forces fighting IS.
The Russians and the Turks disagree deeply over the future of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Assad is a Russian ally, whereas Turkey has actively supported rebels trying to bring Assad down. The decision by the Russians to get involved in Syria militarily ran against Turkish policy. Accidental intrusions of the kind being claimed are understandable and they do not as yet mean there will be a major Russian-Turkish crisis, though the fact is that the area where the pilots crashed is clearly in Syrian territory. In any case, the circumstances are still unclear and will likely change as more details are released. We will continue to follow this story and update as important information is revealed.