This morning the worst fears of many came true – a Russian fighter jet was shot down by NATO forces at the Syrian border. What exactly happened to the jet is not entirely clear. According to Turkey, it was shot down by their fighters in Turkish airspace after being warned numerous times. According to Russia, it was shot down 4km inside Syrian territory. Most indications are, however, that the Russian jet was inside Turkish territory for a very short time, and was leaving when shot down.
While the pilots managed to bail out, they apparently landed within rebel territory in Syria, and one rebel group has posted footage allegedly showing that one of the pilots was dead when he hit the ground. President Putin has already responded, calling it “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists”, and saying there will be serious consequences for the relationship with Turkey. So what will happen next? Here are a few scenarios:
Best case scenario
Both the US-led coalition and the Russians realise just how insane the air war above Syria is. With 14 air forces bombing various targets, many of them close to a NATO border, it’s amazing something like this hasn’t happened already. This event serves as a wake-up call, and continues the momentum generated after the Paris attack for all sides to cooperate against IS. The Turkish-Russian relationship becomes problematic for a while, but there are no further consequences.
Most likely scenario
Nothing much changes for the worse or for the better. Russia makes aggressive statements after the crash and NATO responds by supporting Turkey – while behind closed doors recommending that the Turks watch out. The Russian ambassador to Turkey is recalled, that relationship takes a significant turn for the worse (Russian tourist agencies have already started canceling trips to Turkey), and the Russian and US air campaigns over Syria continue on their own separate paths.
Worst case scenario
Russia responds in some way to the shoot down. They step up their support for the Syrian government, flying more sorties and carrying out more air support, or even begin to use their anti-aircraft defences to threaten US and NATO aircraft. They may also make more threatening moves towards the Turkish border. This could lead to more incidents and far higher tensions in the region, with the chance for a significant escalation.
What is important to remember is that this isn’t the start of World War III. Russian and US planes have been shot down before at the height of the Cold War, without escalation, so this isn’t an act of war. But it is still very serious, and a lot depends on how Putin reacts. If he decides that the gradual coming together of policies on IS and Syria is the most important thing, there won’t be any real consequences. But, if he comes under pressure from the public to show a strong face, he may respond in a way that further entrenches Russia’s support for Assad against all rebel groups. The West also has a role to play. If they take a hard line that the incident was entirely Russia’s fault, Putin will be under more pressure not to lose face. It is up to all sides in this to take a step back, take a deep breath, and realise just how dangerous this game is.
Edit 19:00 CET – New info regarding how long the jet was in Turkish territory and measures taken by Russian tourist agencies