NATO, Russia face to face on Turkey’s Syrian border

NATO, Russia face to face on Turkey’s Syrian border

NATO, Russia face to face on Turkey’s Syrian border

AFP photo

Turkey’s border with Syria and its airspace has turned into a new stage for NATO and Russia to flex their muscles.

NATO’s chief accused Russia on Oct. 6 of deliberately violating Turkey’s airspace during bombing raids on Syria, amid fresh reports of confrontations in the region.

Eight Turkish F-16 fighters jets were harassed by unidentified MIG-29 aircraft for four minutes and 30 seconds during a patrol flight on the border with Syria on Oct. 5, the Turkish General Staff said Oct. 6, adding that Syrian anti-aircraft batteries put Turkish jets conducting a border patrol under a radar lock for four minutes and 15 seconds.

NATO has criticized the violations as “irresponsible” and urged Moscow to end raids against civilians and Syria’s putatively moderate opposition forces.

On Oct. 6, it stepped up the rhetoric, insisting the violations were intentional.

“For us, this does not look like an accident; it is a serious violation,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference in Brussels.

He said such incursions were “unacceptable” and “may create a dangerous situation. It is important to make sure this does not happen again.”

Russia’s NATO envoy, meanwhile, said he thought the military alliance was using the Russian plane’s “accidental incursion” into Turkish airspace to distort the aims of Moscow’s air campaign in Syria, according to the Russian News Agency TASS. 

“The impression is that the incident in Turkish airspace was used to plug NATO as an organization into the information campaign waged by the West to distort the aims of the operations carried out by the Russian Air Force in Syria,” Alexander Grushko, Russia’s NATO envoy, was quoted as telling reporters in Brussels.

Russia has proposed that Turkey send a military representative so that the military actions could be coordinated, according to diplomatic sources.

Turkey said it had summoned the Russian ambassador to Ankara for the second time in as many days to protest a violation of its airspace on Oct. 4.

Ankara said that on Oct. 3 its fighter jets intercepted a Russian warplane and forced it to turn back.

Then on Oct. 4, two Turkish F-16 jets were “harassed” by a MIG-29 plane, according to the army.

Russia has acknowledged the Oct. 3 incident, which it blamed on “unfavorable weather conditions.”

“There is no need to look for some conspiracy theories,” the Russian Defense Ministry said of the incident, which it added lasted “several seconds.”

A U.S. official told Reuters the incursions lasted more than a few seconds and described Moscow’s assertion that the incursions were an accident as “far-fetched.” 

The United States, leading the coalition attacking Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, wants to avoid being drawn into a proxy war with Russia, which is defending its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would not put ground forces in Syria, where the civil war has killed 250,000 people. However, Stoltenberg said there was a large presence of Russian forces in Syria. 

“I can confirm that we have seen a substantial build-up of Russian forces in Syria: air forces, air defenses, but also ground troops in connection with the air base they have, and we also see an increased naval presence,” Stoltenberg said. 

U.S. officials have previously said Russia has sent seven T-90 tanks, some artillery, plus about 200 marines. It also has deployed temporary housing units, a portable air traffic control station and components for an air defense system. 

The United Nations warned Oct. 5 that having so many powers operating in Syria “creates a situation that is fraught with danger and very delicate.”