MOSCOW —The downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish F-16s over the Syrian border has split two obstinate strongmen deeply involved in Syria’s increasingly crowded civil war: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Officials from both countries on Wednesday discounted the possibility of direct conflict over the downing. “We are not going to wage a war on Turkey,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters, although he said Moscow viewed the attack as a “planned provocation.”
The Turkish government offered its condolences for the deaths of a Russian pilot and a marine in the downing of the plane and an attempted rescue of its crew, Russia’s first combat fatalities in the country’s two-month-old airstrike campaign in Syria.
But the incident has revealed the potential for conflict between foreign powers supporting and opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite a shared opposition to the Islamic State. In particular, Russian airstrikes against Turkish-backed rebel groups have fomented deep frustration in Ankara.
“There is a clear message from the Turks with this downing of a Russian jet,” said Mustafa Alani, a Middle East expert at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “It is a check on Russia’s policy in the region. Russia can’t do whatever it wants.”
Russia says its Su-24 bomber did not violate Turkish airspace, but Turkish officials say it did. Putin hypothesized Tuesday that even if the plane did briefly enter Turkish airspace, it was not a threat.
In Moscow at least, the event is being seen as something larger than an attack on an errant jet.
“The conflict happened because Russia was attacking rebel groups allied with Turkey,” said Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, when asked about the possibility of an accidental clash. “It’s wrong to say that this happened because of anything like crowded skies.”
The Russian Defense Ministry announced in a statement Wednesday that Russian fighter jets will now escort the bombers, and Moscow will move into Syria powerful new ground-to-air missiles that can reach across the country and far into Turkey from the Russian air base in the province of Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Additionally, analysts say, Russia will choose from a menu of asymmetric responses in retaliation against Turkey, including informal economic sanctions and providing military aid to Turkey’s enemies, including the Kurds.
“Of course, Russia is going to intensify strikes on that part of Syria and on those groups that are affiliated with Turkey,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Russian political analyst. He added that Russia probably would not scale back its deployment in Syria because of the incident.
On Wednesday evening, Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu, reported that Russian airstrikes targeted Turkish aid vehicles in the Syrian border town of Azzaz, killing at least seven drivers. The town is a hub for supplies being delivered from Turkey to Syrian rebels fighting government forces in the nearby city of Aleppo. The details of the incident could not be assessed independently.
Shady al-Ouaineh, a media representative for Determined Storm, a rebel group associated with the Free Syrian Army, said in a telephone interview that Russia had dramatically intensified air raids in rebel-held areas of Latakia province. Syrian government forces and allied Shiite militiamen from Iraq, backed by Russian air cover, have been trying to advance on some of the last opposition holdouts in the province, said Ouaineh, close to where the Russian jet was shot down.
“It is clear Russia is taking out its revenge on us here,” he said.
Russian attitudes toward Turkey, which were reasonably friendly a year ago, have turned cold with alarming speed. Most Russian tour operators stopped selling travel packages to Turkey on Wednesday. Protesters in Moscow pelted the Turkish Embassy with eggs and rocks, shattering windows. Russian lawmakers introduced a bill that would criminalize denying that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire was a “genocide.” The issue remains highly sensitive: Turkey acknowledges that atrocities occurred but has long denied that what took place constituted a genocide.
Last December, Russia diverted a planned gas line away from Europe to Turkey in order to spurn the West. That project’s fate is also now in doubt.
“The consequences are going to be significant,” Lukyanov said.
Russia will seek retribution against Turkey but wants to avoid antagonizing the West, Baunov said. “If this becomes a fight between Russia and the West, then that goes against the goals of the intervention in the first place: to escape international isolation connected to sanctions,” he said.
Those sanctions were imposed after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatist rebels in Ukraine’s southeast.
President Obama, meeting with French President François Hollande in Washington on Tuesday, said that Turkey had a right to defend its airspace and accused Russia of attacking moderate opposition groups as opposed to the Islamic State. Russia has said it carries out airstrikes only against terrorist organizations.
“They are operating very close to a Turkish border and they are going after a moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries,” Obama said. At the same time he discouraged “any kind of escalation.”
The frantic Russian search for the missing bomber crew was marred by the death of a marine on an Mi-8 helicopter hit by an antitank missile.
“One on board was wounded when he parachuted down and killed in a savage way on the ground by the jihadists,” Alexander Orlov, the Russian ambassador to France, told Europe 1 radio. “The other managed to escape and, according to the latest information, has been picked up by the Syrian army and should be going back to the Russian air force base.”
Putin has promised the Russian public a limited engagement in Syria, with no ground forces, to limit casualties. Although the Syrian army has managed to halt a rebel offensive, Russian air power has not yet led to a significant turn of the tide in the war.
“Turkey dealt a major blow to Putin, and now he’s been placed between a rock and a hard place,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “There could be mission creep where Russia will get entangled in an unwinnable war.”
Naylor reported from Beirut.