Russia says downing of its jet won’t deflect it from Syria mission
ISTANBUL/NIZHNY TAGIL, RUSSIA – Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria on Wednesday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.
The downing of the jet on Tuesday was one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member and Russia for half a century, and further complicated international efforts to battle Islamic State militants in Syria.
Russian officials expressed fury over Turkey’s actions, and spoke of retaliatory measures that were likely to include curbing travel by Russian tourists to Turkish resorts and some restrictions on trade.
But the Russian response was also carefully calibrated. There was no sign Russia wanted a military escalation, or to jeopardize its main objective in the region: to rally international support for its view on how the conflict in Syria should be resolved.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by phone with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday. Turkey’s foreign ministry said they would meet soon but Russia’s Interfax news agency said Lavrov had not agreed to meet.
“We have no intention of fighting a war with Turkey,” Lavrov said. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan also said Ankara had no intention of escalating tensions with Russia.
Speaking on a trip to the Ural mountains city of Nizhny Tagil, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the despatch of an advanced weapons system to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia province.
“I hope that this, along with other measures that we are taking, will be enough to ensure (the safety) of our flights,” Putin told reporters.
The despatch of the weapons, which officials later said would be the S-400 missile system, is likely to be viewed as a stark warning to Turkey not to try to shoot down any more Russian planes.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was forced to fly missions close to the Turkish border because that was where the militants tended to be located. “(Russia’s) operations will continue without doubt,” he said.
Russian forces launched a heavy bombardment against insurgent-held areas in Syria’s Latakia province on Wednesday, near where the warplane was shot down, rebels and a monitoring group said.
The Russian Su-24 jet downed on Tuesday was hit by missile fire from Turkish aircraft as it flew a mission over Syria near the Turkish border, where the Russian air force has been bombing rebel targets.
Turkey said the plane had encroached on Turkish air space and was warned repeatedly to change course, but Russian officials said the plane was at no time over Turkey.
The crew ejected, and one pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground. A Russian marine sent to recover the crew was also killed in an attack by rebels. Syrian state media reported the jet’s second pilot had been rescued.
Russia’s foreign ministry issued a protest over the incident to the Turkish ambassador in Moscow, according to a Russian foreign ministry source.
Speaking at a business event in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey had made a “huge effort” to prevent an incident like the downing of the Russian aircraft, but that the limits of its patience had been tested.
“We have no intention of escalating this incident. We are only defending our own security and the rights of our brothers,” Erdogan said.
Turkey has been angered by Russian air strikes in Syria, particularly those near its border targeting Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.
It had repeatedly warned Russia over air space violations and last week summoned the Russian ambassador to protest against the bombing of Turkmen villages.
Erdogan questioned how those Russian strikes squared with Moscow’s assertion it is in Syria to combat Islamic State.
“It has been said that they were there to fight Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
“First of all, the Daesh terrorist organization does not have a presence in this region of Latakia and the north where Turkmens are based. Let’s not fool ourselves.”
Russia and Turkey have important trade ties, and these could be affected in the fallout from the plane incident.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the downing of the aircraft a “senseless criminal act.”
“The direct consequences could lead to our refusal to take part in a whole raft of important joint projects and Turkish companies losing their positions on the Russian market,” Medvedev said in a statement.
Russia is a major exporter of grain and energy to Turkey, and it sends over four million tourists each year to Turkish resorts, second only to the number of German tourists.
The Russian government has already said it will discourage Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey, though the immediate impact will be limited because Turkey is now in the off-season.
Russia imports large volumes of Turkish food products and textiles, and Turkish firms are active in the construction and drinks sectors.
Shares in Enka Insaat (ENKAI.IS), which has construction projects in Russia and two power plants in Turkey using Russian gas, fell for a second day on Wednesday.
Brewer Anadolu Efes (AEFES.IS), which has six breweries in Russia and controls around 14 percent of the market, also saw its shares fall on Tuesday.
Medvedev alleged Turkish officials were benefiting from Islamic State oil sales, a relationship that Russian officials say helps explain why Ankara is not tougher on the militants.
Senior Turkish officials have in the past vehemently denied accusations that Turkey has in any way supported the radical Islamist group. The government says it is doing its best to combat cross-border fuel smuggling, and that it has been able to curb the trade.
The Russian foreign ministry source said the downing of the Russian jet would have an impact not just on bilateral ties but also on multilateral efforts, especially international talks in Vienna to try to find a political solution for Syria’s conflict.
“We will without doubt strengthen our anti-terrorist efforts even more and, most importantly, we will more precisely and more specifically ask questions and press for information about who is sponsoring which terrorist organizations and in what way,” said the source.
That issue is likely to further complicate the Vienna talks, where Russia and its partners on one side and the United States and its allies on the other have been unable to agree on what constitutes a terrorist group in Syria.
The United States and allied countries have supplied arms and other help to some groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad which Russia has been bombing on the grounds it considers them terrorist organizations. –Reuters