Turkey Says Russian Fighter Jet Violated Its Airspace With Syria
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warns about threat of escalation
By Julian E. Barnes in Brussels, Emre Peker in Istanbul and Gordon Lubold in Madrid
Oct. 5, 2015
At least one Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace and another jet locked its targeting radar on Turkish jet fighters over the weekend, incidents that some U.S. and NATO officials called a deliberate signal from Moscow as it conducts its own bombing campaign in Syria.
At an emergency North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting, alliance ambassadors condemned what they called Russia's "irresponsible behavior" and said they were deeply concerned with the Russian military buildup in Syria and repeated airstrikes that have inflicted civilian casualties.
The diplomatic scramble came as Turkey stepped up its calls for the creation of a no-fly zone in Syria, while Russian officials made clear their opposition to such a step. Indeed, NATO officials said the Russian incursion into Turkey appeared to be meant as message that Moscow wouldn't abide by any no-fly zone.
The incidents deepened worries within Washington and Brussels of the situation in the skies over Syria escalating into a dangerous confrontation, as Russia and a U.S.-led coalition pursue their separate campaigns.
"We're greatly concerned about it, because it is precisely the kind of thing that, had Turkey responded under its rights, could have resulted in a shootdown," Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to Chile. "We believe that Russia has a fundamental responsibility to act in accordance with international standards here."
Confusion about what exactly happened added to the suspicions.
Turkey said that on Saturday, a Russian plane entered Turkish airspace south of Hatay province, returning to Syria after two Turkish F-16s on patrol intercepted it. The next day, two Turkish F-16s were harassed by a MiG-29 warplane while on patrol along the Syrian border, the Turkish armed forces said.
The MiG-29 is a Russian-made jet fighter also used by the Syrian air force, and Turkey said it wasn't clear to what country the jet belonged.
NATO officials on Monday said there were two incursions into Turkish airspace as well as one incident Sunday where a MiG had harassed Turkish jets, blaming the Russians.
"It was obviously a conscious act to lock on radar firing systems," said an allied official. "They are testing and sending a message."
In Moscow, officials played down the incursion and denied responsibility for harassing the F16s.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a Russian Su-30 jet fighter entered Turkish airspace on Saturday "for a few seconds" due to adverse weather conditions while approaching its base in Syria. "There is no need to look for conspiratorial reasons," the ministry said.
It also said Russia only has Sukhoi jets in Syria, mostly ground-attack craft.
Russia has said it is primarily focused on hitting Islamic State,  but its planes have also taken aim at areas controlled by a mix of Islamist and moderate rebel factions. 
The White House also voiced concern and both U.S. and NATO officials said they found the incursions highly suspicious. "I don't believe this was an accident," a senior U.S. defense official said.
Another senior U.S. military official said the planes were flying in circular patterns over a target in Syria near the border for an extended period of time and then seemed to purposely fly directly into Turkey. "This was not something where they just wandered in by mistake because they were flying along the border," the official said.
The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, which includes Turkey, also seeks to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office, while Russia supports the Syrian leader.
The emergency NATO meeting Monday was called by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg after he met with the Turkish foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioglu. During the meeting several ambassadors said they believed a Russian decision to lock radar on Turkish planes was meant to send a message to the alliance. After the meeting, several officials said the Russians were signaling that Moscow wouldn't observe any no-fly zone.
"It was a political statement from the Russians that said, 'We will fly any where we want,' " a NATO official said.
NATO officials noted that Russian planes don't lock their radar on NATO planes flying policing missions over the Baltic Sea.
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Moscow's focus on the Assad regime's enemies has contributed to the dangerous situation in Syria.
Their effort is "not strategically well thought through and is doomed to fail in its current form," he said at a news conference in Madrid on the first day of a weeklong trip to Europe. "Right now, they are way off track."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Brussels for meetings with European Union officials on the migration crisis, said Russia is likely to step up operations in Syria, according to an EU official present.
European Council President Donald Tusk said that he and Mr. Erdogan agreed on the need to fight Islamic State and that "a solution can't happen by having Russia allied with Bashar al-Assad and bombing legitimate opposition forces."
Turkey is pushing an effort to establish a safe zone across its southern borders as Europe struggles to deal with a wave of refugees and other migrants, many from Syria. In Brussels, Mr. Erdogan said he raised the issue of a no-fly zone again in talks with EU officials.
Although U.S. and other NATO allies have signaled a reluctance to embrace a no-fly zone or other kind of buffer zone, Ankara says the area could be used to settle Syrian refugees, help rebels establish military bases, and provide opposition politicians room to form the country's next government.
On Monday Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency that Moscow opposed an imposition of a no-fly zone, saying it would violate the sovereignty of Syria and the United Nations charter.
Earlier in the day, Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu appeared to play down the Russian incursion, even as he warned that Turkish armed forces would respond to any entity that enters its airspace.
"The Syria matter isn't a Turkish-Russian crisis," he said in Ankara. He said the Russians had informed Turkey that the "this was an inadvertent incident" and it "won't be repeated."
Ankara put in place aggressive engagement rules after Syria downed a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June 2012, and treats any approach from Syria as a military threat. Since then, Turkey has downed one Syrian MiG-23 jet and two helicopters.
Ankara and Moscow have managed to compartmentalize their political differences to forge deeper economic relationships as Turkey seeks to become an energy hub.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said relations with Turkey "are very comprehensive and have a solid foundation."
Since July, Turkish warplanes have been targeting the Islamist organization inside Syria,  while U.S. jets and drones are flying missions from bases in southern Turkey, aiming to clear a swath of land between Aleppo and Turkey to set up what U.S. officials have described as an Islamic State-free, rebel-held area.
--Valentina Pop in Brussels contributed to this article.
Write to Julian E. Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org, Emre Peker at email@example.com and Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com