COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON – Under pressure from politicians at home and Russian maneuvering abroad, the Obama administration moved this week to reassert leadership of the international fight against the Islamic State, a task greatly complicated Tuesday by the shootdown of a Russian warplane.
Three Russian airmen died Tuesday and a Russian jet was shot out of the sky by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, the first known casualties in the Kremlin’s ranks since it sent air power, naval forces and a 2,000-strong ground contingent to Syria in September.
Turkish F-16 fighter jets patrolling the volatile coastal border area shot down the Russian warplane after it penetrated Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings to leave, the Turkish Armed Forces Command said in a statement.
Both Russian pilots on board ejected but were killed by Syrian rebel fighters as they parachuted into the enemy territory they had been sent to attack, rebel sources told Turkish media.
A third Russian airman aboard a helicopter dispatched to look for the bailed pilots was killed when Syrian rebels fired on the search-and-rescue operation, forcing the chopper to land in neutral territory and evacuate the surviving crewmen.
The downing of the jet could not have come at a worse time for the complex relationship between Russia, Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition as the Syrian civil war continues to draw in a series of outside actors with differing agendas.
On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden presided over a closed-door gathering of ambassadors representing the 65-nation coalition against the Islamic State. Secretary of State John Kerry met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two major backers of the Syrian opposition.
Russia’s role came up in both Monday meetings, as participants discussed how to broaden the fight against the Islamic State without sacrificing the goal of eventually toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad.
President Obama and French President Francois Hollande emerged Tuesday from meetings at the White House with a pledge to increase airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, bolster intelligence sharing and push commercial airlines to exchange passenger information to better block air travel by terrorists.
The French president’s brief visit is part of an aggressive push to get world leaders to escalate their campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, which took responsibility for the attacks in Paris that killed 130.
Hollande had wanted the United States and Russia to work more closely together. Already unlikely, that goal was made all the more challenging with Turkey’s action. Turkey is a NATO ally of both France and the U.S.
Obama and Hollande said Russia would be welcome in their global anti-extremist coalition – but only as long as it concentrates efforts on striking the Islamic State rather than on protecting Assad.
Russia is ‘outlier’
“France can work with Russia, if Russia concentrates its military action on Daesh, against ISIL, and if Russia fully commits to the political position in Syria,” said Hollande.
Obama touted the U.S.-led 65-country coalition fighting the Islamic State, which has conducted 8,000 airstrikes. He dismissed Russia and Iran, backers of Assad, as a “coalition of two.”
“Russia is the outlier,” Obama said. “We hope that they refocus their attention on what is the most substantial threat, and that they serve as a constructive partner.”
Focused on shootdown
Russian President Vladimir Putin was focused instead Tuesday on the loss of its aircraft and the fate of its crew.
He said the aircraft was downed over Syria while pilots were targeting “terrorists,” specifically militants with Russian origins, and posed no threat to Turkey. He threatened “serious consequences” over the incident.
In the remarks, carried by Russian news agency RT, Putin denounced the downing as “a stab in the back carried out by the accomplices of terrorists.”
Both Obama and Hollande said they would work with NATO and speak to the Turks and Russians to find out what happened.
“Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace,” Obama said. He urged Russia and Turkey to “step back” from the brink of an intensifying conflict and keep in mind their common goal of containing the militants who have waged horrific acts of terror on both.
Russia says its mission is to fight Islamic State militants in Syria. But NATO member nations and allied Arab states that are also waging airstrikes against Islamic State charge that Russia’s bombings are directed at U.S.- and European-backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad, the Kremlin’s most important Middle East ally.
Among the rebel forces in the Russians’ gun sights are Syrian Turkmen, ethnic kin of the Turks who are among the fiercest opponents of Assad’s government and as such de facto enemies of Russia.
Turkey had warned Moscow last week to cease attacks on the Syrian Turkmen, who hold territory near the Assad government’s shrinking stronghold on the Mediterranean Sea.
Russia denied in its diplomatic protest that its planes had crossed into Turkish airspace, and Ankara conceded that the violation had lasted only 17 seconds and penetrated just over a mile beyond the Syrian border. But Turkey had warned Moscow after similar buzzing incidents last month that future violations would be dealt with severely.
NATO nations once aligned with the Soviet Union – Poland and the Baltic states in particular – have complained in recent years of deliberate provocations by Russian warplanes flying through or near national airspace.
Analysts of the multifactional conflict that has ravaged Syria for nearly five years said they doubted the incident would escalate into a volley of retaliatory actions by NATO and Russia in view of the high stakes that would entail for both sides.
Putin’s anger over the shooting down of the fighter jet was predictable, analysts said, but unlikely to break up what has become an important and symbiotic trade relationship between Moscow and Ankara.
Russian-Turkish energy trade is robust, as is commerce in consumer goods since the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Moscow last year for its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea territory.
Turkey is also a popular destination for Russian travelers. More than 1.4 million Russians visited Turkey in the first seven months of this year.
Natali Tours, one of Russia’s biggest travel agencies, said it was suspending the sale of Turkish vacation packages due to “an unstable political situation” in the country.
But with the equally popular destinations of Egypt now off-limits following the Metrojet bombing last month that killed all 224 on board, popular pressure to resume visits to Turkish resorts and cultural treasures is expected to make that purported security measure short-lived.
Carol J. Williams and Jeremiah Bailey-Hoover of the Los Angeles Times; and Mitchell Prothero, Anita Kumar, and Hannah Allam of the McClatchy Washington Bureau / TNS all contributed to this report.