MOSCOW, Nov 25, (Agencies): President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered state-of-the art air defense missile systems to be deployed at a Russian air base in Syria following the downing of one of its warplanes by Turkey, a move that raised the threat of a military confrontation between the NATO member and Moscow.
The S-400 missile systems will be sent to the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, located about 50 kms (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey. The systems are capable of targeting Turkish jets with deadly precision. If Russia shot down a Turkish plane, NATO would be required to intervene.
Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on Tuesday, saying it crossed into its airspace from Syria despite repeated warnings. One of its two pilots was killed by militants after bailing out, while his crewmate was rescued by Syrian army commandos and delivered in good condition to the Russian base early Wednesday.
Putin said the Russian plane remained in Syria’s skies when it was shot down. He described Turkey’s action as a “crime” and a “stab in the back,” warning of serious consequences.
He said that the Russian Foreign Ministry’s warning to Russians not to visit Turkey was needed “because we can’t exclude some other incidents following what happened yesterday and our citizens in Turkey could be in significant danger.”
On Wednesday, the Russian leader ordered the military to deploy the S-400s to Hemeimeem and took other measures that “should be sufficient to ensure flight safety.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday that the Russian missile cruiser Moskva already has moved closer to shore to protect the Russian aircraft flying missions near Syria’s border with Turkey with its long-range Fort air defense system.
“It will be ready to destroy any aerial target posing a potential danger to our aircraft,” he said at a meeting with military officials.
Shoigu also said that from now on all Russian bombers will be escorted by fighters on their combat missions in Syria. He said that his ministry has severed all contacts with the Turkish military.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who canceled his planned trip to Turkey after the incident, described the shooting down of the Russian plane as a “planned provocation.”
He said the Turkish action came after Russian planes successfully targeted oil infrastructure used by the Islamic State group, alleging that Turkey benefited from the oil trade.
Lavrov also said that Turkish territory was used by “terrorists” to prepare attacks in other countries, but offered no details. He said that Russia “has no intention to go to war with Turkey,” but added that Moscow will re-consider its ties with Ankara.
Some leading Russian tourist agencies already have suspended the sales of tour packages to Turkey. Nearly 4.5 million Russians visited Turkey last year, second only to German tourists.
Some Russian lawmakers suggested that Moscow should respond to the downing of the plane by cracking down on Turkish companies in Russia, but Lavrov said that “we don’t want to artificially create problems for Turkish producers and exporters, who aren’t responsible for what has happened.” Still, he added that “we can’t but react to what has happened.”
Russia was the biggest source of Turkish imports last year, worth $25 billion, which mostly accounted for Russian gas supplies.
Most Turkish exports to Russia are textiles and food, and although Turkish food exports have not been covered by the Russian food embargo, they fell by 40 percent in January-September this year compared to a year ago.
Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a written statement that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Lavrov agreed to a meeting “in the coming days,” during their telephone conversation Wednesday, but Lavrov said he has no such plans.
Turkey informed the UN that two Russian planes disregarded warnings and violated Turkish airspace “to a depth of 1.36 miles and 1.15 miles in length for 17 seconds.”
Lavrov shrugged off the Turkish argument that it had no other choice but to shoot the plane down, pointing at the 2012 downing of a Turkish warplane by Syria in its airspace, saying that Ankara argued then that a brief incursion wasn’t a reason to shoot down its jet. He also pointed at routine violations of Greece’s airspace by Turkish combat planes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his country doesn’t wish to escalate tensions with Russia over the downing of the plane.
Speaking at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation economy meeting in Istanbul, Erdogan said that Turkey favors “peace, dialogue and diplomacy.” He defended his country’s move to shoot down the plane saying: “no one should expect Turkey to stay silent to border violations or the violation of its rights.”
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also sought to ease tensions, saying that Russia is Turkey’s “friend and neighbor” and insisting relations cannot be “sacrificed to accidents of communication.”
In a sign of the tensions, protesters in Moscow hurled eggs and stones at the Turkish Embassy, breaking windows in the compound. Police cleared the area and made some arrests shortly after the protest began.
Davutoglu told his party’s lawmakers on Wednesday that Turkey didn’t know the nationality of the plane that was brought down on Tuesday until Moscow announced it was Russian.
He again defended Turkey’s action, saying Russia was warned on several occasions that Turkey would take action in case its border is violated in line with its military rules of engagement.
Davutoglu also said Russia is an “important partner and tops the list of countries with which we have shown great sensitivity in building ties.”
The Turkish prime minister, however, also criticized Russian and Syrian operations in Syria’s Turkmen region, saying there is “not one single” presence of the Islamic State group there. Davutoglu demanded that operations there stop immediately.
A Russian military pilot whose plane was shot down by Turkey and crashed in Syria arrived on Wednesday at an air base in Latakia province after being rescued by a Syrian army commando unit, Syrian and Russian officials said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Russian news agencies that the man was rescued in a 12-hour operation which ended in the early hours on Wednesday and is now “safe and sound” at Russia’s air base in the government-controlled area in Syria.
A statement from the Syrian armed forces on Wednesday said a special unit carried out overnight a “qualitative” operation with the Russian forces and rescued one of the two pilots.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also confirmed a second pilot has been rescued.
In a statement carried by Syria’s official news agency SANA, the army said the Syrian and Russian forces penetrated into the areas where “terrorists” are entrenched at a depth of 4.5 kms and rescued the pilot. It said he is in “good health.”
Russia’s ambassador to France also said that the second pilot is in the hands of the Syrian army. Ambassador Alexander Orlov said on Europe-1 radio that one of the pilots was wounded, then killed on the ground by “jihadists.”
He said the other “managed to escape and be rescued by the Syrian army.” He didn’t elaborate.
Orlov accused Turkey of being an “accomplice” of Islamic State extremists and playing an ambiguous role in Syria’s civil war.
Meanwhile, several hundred young activists on Wednesday hurled stones and eggs at Turkey’s embassy in Moscow and brandished anti-Turkish placards after Ankara downed a Russian warplane on the Syrian border.
The activists threw eggs, paint and paper planes at the diplomatic mission and broke several windows as Moscow police urged them to stop the protest but did not intervene, an AFP photographer reported from the scene.
Some chanted “We will not forget, we will not forgive” and also yelled slurs directed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Some of the activists’ placards read: “Turkey you will remain without gas” and “Shame to accomplices of terrorists,” a reference to a statement by President Vladimir Putin, who accused the Turkish government of backing the Islamic State group militarily and financially.
After the rowdy protest, demonstrators left behind heaps of rubbish and broken glass.
A Moscow police spokesman told AFP he was not aware of any incidents involving the Turkish diplomatic mission and the embassy was not immediately available for comment.
Meanwhile, Russian warplanes carried out heavy raids in Syria’s northern Latakia province a day after Turkey downed one of Moscow’s jets in the area, a monitoring group said on Wednesday.
“Russian warplanes have since last night been carrying out heavy air strikes on the Jabal Akrad and Jabal Turkman regions” in the north of the province, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
He said Russian planes had carried out at least 12 strikes in the area since the morning, but had no information on any casualties.
A media activist on the ground confirmed the heavy strikes, which he said centred around the Jabal Nuba area where rebels on Tuesday destroyed a Russian helicopter that was forced to make an emergency landing by opposition fire.
State television reported that Syrian warplanes were also carrying out strikes in the north of Latakia, a coastal province that is largely controlled by the regime.
In recent days, regime forces have been waging fierce battles against rebels in the northern part of the province, making some advances in Jabal Akrad and Jabal Turkman.
First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah on Wednesday spoke of tremendous challenges that resulted from the Syria crisis.
He said that the crisis was extended beyond Syria at the hands of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that came to pose a real threat to the region and the world at large.
During a meeting with the chairman and members of the Federation of Arab News Agencies (FANA), Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled stressed that there is no other way but a political solution to the crisis to preserve what remains of Syria.