On Wednesday, Nov. 25, US President Barack Obama, in a conversation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, said Turkey has the right to defend its territory just like any other country. He also said that the Russian Su-24 plane crossed the border and stayed in Turkey for 17 seconds. In other words, it was 1.6 km inside Turkish territory. However, when it was hit by an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile fired by the Turkish F-16, it was either right on the border or already inside Syrian territory. The pilots apparently landed on the Syrian side of the border and Moscow announced Wednesday that both were "in safe hands."
No matter how the incident is interpreted, it has generated five points that could lead to an aerial or naval clash between US and Russian forces in the Syrian theater.
1. It was the first time in 65 years, since 1950, that an American-made warplane from a NATO member state shot down a Russian warplane with an American-made air-to-air missile. This ramifications of this incident were no doubt seriously pondered at the NATO session called after the event.
2. Obama did not only come out in support of the Turkish version of the incident, but asserted that Putin did not speak the truth when he said that the plane was 1 km inside Syrian territory when it was shot down. The Russian president has not yet answered the charge, but there is no doubt that he will.
3. The military clash between Russia and Turkey has now become part of the personal contest between Obama and Putin over the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Obama says that as long as Assad remains in power, not only will there be no agreement on how to end the war in Syria, but it will be impossible to defeat ISIS.
Putin says, the exact opposite: that it is impossible to end the war, or to defeat ISIS, without Assad as president. After those goals are achieved, he says, Assad’s future may be discussed.
4. On Tuesday night, Nov. 24, Putin made his next move in the ramped-up chess match between the US and Russia in Syria.
The Russian general staff announced that the missile cruiser Moskva, one of the largest warships in the world, was ordered to move closer to the Syrian coast opposite the port of Latakia, near the Turkish border, and to “destroy any target posing danger.”
debkafile’s military sources say the Moskva serves as a floating missile base with a complement of advanced S-300 ground-to-air missiles.
This was a message for Ankara that any Turkish warplane nearing Syria, or flying in the Hatay province of southern Turkey – where the Su-24 incident occurred – was exposed to being shot down by Russian missiles. The Russian general command also announced that Russian warplanes would henceforth escort all Russian flights operating in Syrian airspace, including bombers.
5. Although he backed Erdogan verbally, Obama has not resorted to any military steps against Russia. But he does have a card up his sleeve. The USS Harry S. Truman carrier with strike force is on its way to the Mediterranean, having sailed from the US on Nov.16.
The Truman will join the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, whose planes started bombing ISIS targets in Iraq on Nov. 23. If Obama orders the Truman to enter the Syrian theater, there will be two warships from NATO member states facing Russian naval forces off the Syrian coast, led by the missile carrier Moskva.