Tensions in the Middle East ratcheted up dangerously Wednesday, a day after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, with the Turkish President accusing Russia of deceit and Russia announcing it would deploy anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said on his ministry’s Twitter feed that the country would deploy S-400 defense missile systems to its Hmeymim air base near Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
The missiles have a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles), according to the missilethreat.com website. The Turkish border is less than 30 miles away.
And Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian TV on Wednesday that Russia has “serious doubts” that Turkey’s downing of its warplane Tuesday was “an unpremeditated act.”
“It looks very much like a planned provocation,” Lavrov said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned what he said was the violation of Turkish airspace by Russian warplanes, calling the incident an infringement of his country’s sovereignty.
He charged Russia with propping up the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad — a regime he said was inflicting terrorism on its own people. His remarks came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of being “the terrorists’ accomplices” for shooting down a plane he claimed was on an anti-terrorism mission.
Erdogan disputed that claim in a speech Wednesday.
“There is no Daesh” in the area where the Russian planes were flying, Erdogan said, using another name for ISIS. “Do not deceive us! We know the locations of Daesh.”
An alarming wave of international turbulence
And experts agreed.
“None of the targets that … the Russians were going after had anything to do with ISIS. Those were all those Turkmen groups,” said CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel.
The Turkmen minority in that part of northern Syria has strong ties to the Turkish government, which wants to afford them a degree of protection. Anyone who bombs that area attacks “our brothers and sisters — Turkmen,” Erdogan said.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country doesn’t want to “drive a wedge” into its relationship with Russia, according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency. And the foreign ministers of these two nations have already spoken by phone and plan to meet in person over the coming days, the news agency also reported, citing Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic.
Still, even as Erdogan has insisted Turkey doesn’t want to escalate the situation, the anger in his words — and those of Putin — showed that the conflict in Syria has now churned up a new and alarming wave of international turbulence.
The stakes are high in Syria, where the United States, Russia and a swarm of other global, regional and local forces are entangled in the civil war.
Turkey releases tape
Turkey, a NATO member, said it had repeatedly warned the Russian warplane, shooting it down only after it ignored several warnings and violated Turkish airspace.
Russia rejected that version of events, with the rescued co-pilot Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin telling state media reporters that “there were no warnings — not via the radio, not visually.”
“If they wanted to warn us, they could have shown themselves by heading on a parallel course,” Murakhtin said, according to the official Sputnik news agency. “But there was nothing.”
Russian officials have also asserted that the Sukhoi Su-24 bomber was attacked 1 kilometer inside Syrian territory.
But Erdogan said parts of the downed plane had fallen inside Turkey, injuring two people.
On Wednesday, Turkey’s military released an audio recording of what it says was its warning to the Russian warplane.
In one portion, a voice is heard saying: “This is Turkish Air Force speaking on guard. You are approaching Turkish airspace. Change your heading south immediately. Change your heading south.”