On Tuesday, a Turkish Air Force F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 that had intruded into Turkish airspace. If Turkish reports are to be believed, two Russian jets were warned over emergency frequencies as they approached the border. One broke off and headed south. The other did not respond to the 10 warnings issued over five minutes, so the Turkish fighter fired a missile, downing the Russian plane. Its two occupants are both believed to have ejected. One is currently reported alive; the status of the other pilot is unconfirmed.
The incident happened over the Turkish border with the chaos formerly known as Syria, slightly inside or slightly outside Turkey, depending on whose account you believe. That border extends more than 500 miles, or 800 km — a considerable amount of terrain to patrol and monitor for the flow of weapons, refugees, and fighters that constantly wash back and forth across the line. And what happens around, and above, that border increasingly determines the fate of the Syrian civil war.
While the government led by Syrian President Bashar al Assad hasn’t been in a particular state of conflict with Turkey over the last few years, there has been a regular string of border skirmishes, punctuated with the occasional downing of a jet or helicopter. Turkey is determined to keep the mess at bay on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, the Syrian government, or what’s left of it in areas close to the border, is determined to prevent Turkish territory from turning into a safe haven, supply depot, or base for anti-regime forces.
Related: A Group of Veterans Is Equipping Western Fighters Heading to Battle the Islamic State
And it was almost inevitable that when Russian forces got involved, without much if any coordination with the other nations flying heavily armed planes over and around Syria, someone would get shot down sooner or later.
As for the border region over which much of this heavily armed flying happens, it has taken on a life of its own — and a dangerous one.
There’s a strip of formerly Syrian territory between 25 and 50 miles (80 km) wide that runs most of the length of the border between Turkey and the mess to the south. Sometimes called Rojava, it is land held by Syrian Kurds, who — being Kurdish — share the other Kurds’ longstanding enmity towards Turkey. The Turks spend a lot of time bombing the Kurds in this de facto almost-state, even though both are ostensibly fighting against the Islamic State.
Then there are the nearby parts of northern Syria heavily populated by Turkmen people — who are Syrian-born ethnic Turks. Over the last few years, forces representing those people have combined forces into a collection of Syrian Turkmen Brigades. These brigades are reportedly receiving funding, support, and training by Turkish Special Forces. Given that some of the training is supposed to occur on both the Turkish and Syrian sides of the border, it’s not a huge jump to assume that the Turkish “advise and assist” mission involves some number of Turks on the ground in Syria.
The Syrian Turkmen Brigades are roughly aligned with various elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who are opposed to both the Assad regime and IS, but relatively ambivalent toward the Kurds.
Since the Russians have arrived in Syria, they’ve been bombing from the air various militias and groups they label terrorist, and that includes the FSA-aligned Syrian Turkmen Brigades, which hold territory that for the Russians is dangerously close to their airbase in Syria. Quite predictably, their bombing has resulted in some civilian casualties among the population of Syrian Turks.
Thus the Russians stubbornly insist on bombing targets that aren’t properly part of the Islamic State they are officially fighting, like those forces a few dozen miles away that happen to be not just ethnically Turkish, but supplied, armed, and trained by Turkey.
That’s not going to turn out well.
Indeed, if you look at the flight path of the downed Russian jet and overlay it with maps showing Russian airstrikes, it’s pretty clear that the planes overflew areas likely held by the FSA, if not directly by Syrian Turkmen Brigade units. Early reports don’t indicate whether the Su-24 (a ground-attack aircraft) was on its way back from a bombing raid, but that would certainly be a logical explanation.
So yes, in retrospect, this seems about as inevitable as a scene where a foot is slowly descending on a banana peel.
Which raises questions about why it happened now and what happens next.
That’s hard to say, because this exchange occurs at possibly one of the least opportune (or at least most confusing) moments in the Syrian civil war.
Just a couple days ago, Russians asked nearby Lebanon to shut down its airspace so they could go blow stuff up. This is on the heels of a vigorous round of Russian airstrikes. Those strikes were arguably intended to let France know that Russia is backing France in its response to last week’s brutal bout of terrorist attacks in Paris.
On the other hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was scheduled to visit Turkey on Wednesday. That visit has been cancelled. As much as saber-rattling is a time-honored tradition in nation-to-nation diplomacy, actually firing a shot in anger and taking down an aircraft is not normal.
Similarly, French President François Hollande arrived in Washington on Tuesday in order to seek support for a grand coalition with Russia to take IS down. These talks are starting as the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is moving into the eastern Mediterranean, bringing French jets in range to hit IS, and the French military is opening new communication channels with their Russian counterparts. Unfortunately, this incident, one that Russian President Vladimir Putin has likened to being stabbed in the back, is going to make an already ambitious diplomatic feat all but impossible.
In the end, and true to the ongoing madness that is Syria, it’s going to be very difficult to dig down, over the next few months, to what actually happened and when. Did Russian jets habitually buzz Turkish airspace on their way back from bombing missions? Was the airspace incursion deliberate or accidental? Why did one pilot turn away and the other stay on course?
Similarly, even as facts are established, the sheer density of coincidences and timing make the immediate consequences completely unpredictable. Politicians who subscribe to the idea that one should “never let a crisis go to waste” will be scrambling to establish competing narratives.
So far, there are few winners in this. The pilot or maybe pilots who find themselves in the hands of Turkey-aligned rebels, rather than of the Islamic State — who immolated the last pilot it captured — are probably having the best worst day of their lives. Or at least better than those guys in the Russian helicopter that got shot down on its way to rescue the downed pilots.