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NATO Backs Turkey But Seeks to Lower Tensions With Russia

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses the media at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Nov. 24, 2015.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses the media at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Nov. 24, 2015.

NATO says it stands with Turkey following an emergency meeting in Brussels of its 28 ambassadors requested by Ankara to discuss the downing a Russian warplane Tuesday by Turkish jets .

But Turkey’s NATO allies appeared eager to lower tensions, and in a low-key statement after the emergency meeting the bloc stressed the need to reduce the risks in Syrian and Turkish airspace.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called for “calm and de-escalation.” He said the situation demanded prudence and he encouraged further talks between Ankara and Moscow to “resolve the incident and for strengthening mechanisms to avoid these kind of incidents.”

He added, “Turkey informed allies about the downing of a Russian air force plane while in Turkish airspace. I have previously expressed my concerns about the implications of the military actions of the Russian Federation close to NATO borders. This highlights the importance of having and respecting arrangements to avoid such incidents in the future. As we have repeatedly made clear we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our Turkish ally.”

But NATO did not specifically endorse the actions of the Turkish military in shooting down the Russian jet.

Several European diplomats later told VOA the focus now for NATO was to avoid a repeat of the incident and to reduce risks.

Fears of escalation

Their biggest fear is that the shooting down of the jet, the first time a NATO member has downed a Russian warplane since the end of the Cold War, is that Moscow may order a tit-for-tat action on a Turkish warplane carrying out bombing strikes inside Syria in conjunction with the U.S.-led international coalition against Islamic State militants.

“If that happened we would quickly be sucked into a spiral of reaction and counter-reaction,” said a British military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak with the media. “But my sense is that Moscow doesn’t want that either and once the diplomatic fireworks are over we will need to find a face-saving formula for both the Russians and the Turks,” the official added.

European diplomats say Tuesday’s shoot-down was the kind of incident they had feared since Russia launched its air operations in Syria, which NATO and U.S. officials insist have mainly been focused on rebels fighting Russian ally President Bashar al-Assad rather than on the Islamic State terror group as claimed by Moscow.

The skies above Syria and along the border with Turkey are crowded with coalition, Syrian, Turkish and Russian planes flying on bombing runs. Russian aircraft have flown hundreds of sorties over northern Syria since launching a military intervention in September.

“This mess was utterly predictable,” said analyst Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.

“With so many warplanes in the skies over Syria, altercations were almost guaranteed,” he added.

One casualty, he says, of the shoot-down could well be the slight warming of relations between the West and Moscow since the November 13 Paris attacks, including a derailing of attempts led by French President Francois Hollande to draw Washington and Moscow closer together in the fight against the Islamic State.

“The downed jet could obviously trip up recent French efforts to woo Moscow into the global anti-ISIS coalition,” warned Schanzer.

Diplomatic efforts on Syria

The incident could also disrupt U.S. diplomatic efforts to get some traction going at Vienna-based talks to try to find a solution to the Syrian civil war, European officials say. Diplomats have been working to fashion a consensus with Russia on a political transition in Syria.

At the NATO meeting, Turkish officials presented flight tracking data they said proved the Russian warplane had strayed into Turkey’s airspace, something Moscow vehemently denies. The Kremlin insists its SU-24 fighter jet never left Syrian airspace and was carrying out raids near the Turkish border in the mountains of northern Latakia, where Chechen militants have concentrated and are fighting alongside anti-Assad rebel militias.

Syrian rebels dispute that and say the Russian warplane had been conducting bombing runs not in Latakia, but in neighboring Idlib province and on the town of Jisr al-Shughur before it was shot down.

The NATO Secretary General said information he had received from other Western alliance allies was consistent with Turkey’s version of events.

“The world now awaits Russia's reaction,” said Schanzer. “If Moscow considers this a deliberate hostile act, NATO will be drawn in, albeit reluctantly. Putin knew that he risked provoking other militaries when he entered the complex civil war Syria. This is one consequence,” he added.

Turkey complains of repeated incursions

Turkey, a vehement opponent of Syrian President Assad, has warned repeatedly against incursions of its airspace by Russian and Syrian aircraft. Last month, Ankara said Turkish F-16s had intercepted a Russian jet that crossed its border and two Turkish jets had been harassed by a Mig-29. NATO also issued a warning in October condemning the “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace by Russian combat aircraft.”

Mideast expert Shashank Joshi of the London-based Royal United Services Institute argues Russia has been “deliberately probing Turkish airspace both for military reasons and political reasons” to test NATO resolve and Turkish military response times.

In a note to commercial clients Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy, said, “While NATO will provide some diplomatic support, it is also likely to pressure Turkey to adopt a more restrained approach given the pressing need to avoid an outright confrontation with Russia.”