The Cable

Turkey Downs Drone That Violated Its Airspace

Russia’s lunge into the Syrian civil war is rattling Ankara, which has been forced to defend its airspace against repeated violations.

A missile-loaded Turkish Air Force warplane takes off from the Incirlik Air Base, in the outskirts of the city of Adana, southeastern Turkey, on July 28, 2015. After months of reluctance, Turkish warplanes last week started striking militant targets in Syria and agreed to allow the US to launch its own strikes from Turkey's strategically located Incirlik Air Base. In a series of cross-border strikes, Turkey has not only targeted the IS group but also Kurdish fighters affiliated with forces battling IS in Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO/STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A missile-loaded Turkish Air Force warplane takes off from the Incirlik Air Base, in the outskirts of the city of Adana, southeastern Turkey, on July 28, 2015. After months of reluctance, Turkish warplanes last week started striking militant targets in Syria and agreed to allow the US to launch its own strikes from Turkey's strategically located Incirlik Air Base. In a series of cross-border strikes, Turkey has not only targeted the IS group but also Kurdish fighters affiliated with forces battling IS in Syria and Iraq. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey shot down a drone that violated its airspace Friday, further ratcheting up tensions in the region that has been inflamed since the end of last month with the deployment of Russian military units to the defense of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

“An aircraft, whose nationality is unknown, has been downed as demanded by engagement rules,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said in a statement.

It wasn’t immediately clear whose drone Turkey shot down. Russia says it’s not one of theirs; and U.S. officials say all their drones are present and accounted for. But the airspace violation is in keeping with a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the skies over Syria and Turkey over the past several weeks.

Russian fighter planes operating in Syria have violated Turkish airspace on several occasions since kicking off a bombing campaign there on Sept. 30, even locking on Turkish aircraft with their radar. The Turkish military has also complained that surface-to-air missile batteries in Syria have tracked Turkish F-16s flying in domestic airspace over the past two weeks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew so incensed over Russian violations that he has threatened to jettison multibillion-dollar energy deals linking the two countries.

Russia has buzzed other members of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition, as well. U.S. officials said earlier this week that Russian jets have flown within two miles of American fighter planes over Syria but didn’t show any hostile intent. And in Ukraine over the past year, there have been multiple reports of Russian drones being shot down while monitoring the front lines between government forces and Russian-backed rebels.

American, Russian, and Syrian drones have been buzzing in the skies over northern Syria, underscoring the emergence of a new factor in air warfare: the proliferation in contested areas of unmanned vehicles used for reconnaissance and precision strikes. By shooting down the unmanned drone, Turkey can send a strong message that it will defend its airspace, but without risking the dangerous diplomatic and military escalation that would be brought about by downing a manned jet.

Friday’s drone incident isn’t limited to Turkey: Any violation of Turkish airspace is also a violation of NATO territory, which could carry further ramifications depending on whose drone it was. A NATO official told Foreign Policy that the alliance is keeping an eye on the situation, but “Turkish authorities are investigating the origin of the unidentified drone that was shot down. Turkey has not asked for any NATO assistance or consultations.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said recently that the Russian overflights are unacceptable and NATO has “a duty to reinforce” its member state.

Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow are still trying to establish the rules of the road for an awkward coexistence on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war. Keeping U.S. and Russian jets out of each other’s way has been a key objective since the beginning of the Russian military push, but the two countries have yet to formally find a way to “deconflict” their operations in Syria.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said on Friday that while there are still “technical details” to be worked out, Russia and the United States are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding in the coming days detailing how their forces will operate in close proximity in Syrian airspace.

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

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