Turkey suspends Syria flights after crisis with Russia
Deniz Zeyrek - ANKARA
The Turkish army has suspended flights over Syria as part of an ongoing joint military campaign with the United States against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after it shot down a Russian jetfighter, sparking an unprecedented crisis between Ankara and Moscow.
The decision was taken following the eruption of the crisis with Russia in which a Turkish F-16 downed a Russian warplane early Nov. 24 after it allegedly violated Turkish airspace, according to diplomatic sources.
Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed that the suspension of the Turkish jetfighters’ participation in the U.S.-led military operations against ISIL was in fact a mutual decision taken with Russia, which also halted its aerial campaigns near the Turkish border. Both parties will continue to be as careful as possible in a bid to avoid a repetition of such incidents until they re-establish dialogue channels to reduce the tension.
Turkish and Russian military officials held initial talks on the incident on Nov. 25 as the office of the Chief of General Staff invited defense and military attachés from the Russian Embassy to military headquarters to inform them about how the incident took place. However, there is still a need for high-level political meetings to let the two parties reconcile and reduce the tension.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu proposed to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, a meeting on Dec. 3 or 4 in Belgrade on the sidelines of an international conference. However, the Russian side has not yet confirmed that the meeting will take place.
Turkey-Russia hotline established in October
Following the downing of the plane, the existence of a memorandum from October emerged calling for the establishment of a special radio channel between Turkish and Russian warplanes.
Russia’s deputy Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Sergei Dranov, visited Ankara on Oct. 15 following consecutive airspace violations by Russian warplanes after Moscow started a massive military campaign in Syria on Sept. 30. The objective of the agreement and the establishment of the channel was to avoid potential confrontation between the two countries’ air forces, sources said.
The agreement was largely similar to one Russia agreed on with the U.S., sources said. “Russia’s message to us during the Oct. 15 talks was like: ‘We use only one channel in Syria. Contact us through this channel to send your warnings to avoid problems.’ We accepted this, and we have issued all our warnings through this channel since then. As this channel is being used by the U.S. Air Force as well, warnings Turkey has made to Syria have been recorded by both the Russian air base [in Syria] and the Americans at İncirlik base [in Adana].”
Russia’s non-response regarded as threat
Although Turkish pilots reportedly warned two Russian warplanes 10 times in five minutes while they were approaching Turkish airspace, there was no response on this special radio channel, sources said.
“Despite the agreement with Russia, the fact that both warplanes did not communicate through this channel caused Turkish pilots to profile these planes as ‘Profile: Syria aircraft,’ and consider the situation a ‘serious threat’ as part of the military rules of engagement. One of the aircraft returned to Syrian airspace but the other that insisted on heading toward Hatay was downed by the F16s,” a source said.
Air Force commander aware
A military official also said the downing of the Russian warplane occurred within the knowledge of Turkish Air Force Cmdr. Gen. Abidin Ünal and under the political instruction of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
“Pilots have full authority and should follow a certain procedure in the implementation of the rules of engagement. In the ‘combat phase,’ pilots inform the base but do not seek consent. Every step pilots take in the emergency phase is followed by the relevant commanders. During the five-minute warning period, both Air Force Commander Gen. Ünal and Combat Air Force and Air Missile Defense Commander Lt. Gen. Mehmet Şanver were informed. The pilots succeeded in implementing the procedure as there was no negative command from either commander,” the official said.