NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday condemned a series of Russian incursions into Turkish airspace, saying they don’t appear accidental, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned his country’s friendship with Moscow was at risk.
Two Russian warplanes operating in Syria violated Turkish airspace in separate incidents over the weekend, prompting Turkey to summon the Russian ambassador for explanations, according to Turkish officials.
Russia last week began a bombing campaign against Islamic State and other extremist groups trying to overthrow the Syrian government.
Following the outcry, Moscow has offered to start talks with Turkey to prevent any further miscommunications in Syria.
“There were two violations over the weekend, and this just adds to the fact that this wasn’t just an accident,” Stoltenberg told a press conference in Brussels.
“It is unacceptable to violate the airspace of another country, and this is exactly what we are afraid of – that incidents, accidents, may create dangerous situations. Therefore it’s important to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Stoltenberg said.
Erdogan, speaking in Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, cautioned that an attack against Turkey would be an attack against the entire alliance, of which his country is a member. He stressed that Turkey sees Russia as an ally, but Ankara’s patience was not limitless.
“If Russia also loses a friend like Turkey, with whom it has made much collaboration, it will lose a lot,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Moscow’s NATO envoy Alexander Grushko denounced the accusation that Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace deliberately.
Grushko said the Western military alliance was using the incidents to distort the purpose of Russia’s actions in Syria.
He described Stoltenberg’s remarks as part of an “information campaign waged by the West” against Moscow, according to state news agency TASS.
In an apparent bid to calm tensions, Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov said his office was inviting representatives of the Turkish military to join various workings group in Moscow focused on Syria.
He spoke after a meeting with US and Turkish military attaches, according to TASS.
The first incursion into Turkish airspace took place on Saturday, prompting a sharp warning from Turkey that future violations could lead to an implementation of the rules of engagement and condemnation from NATO.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the first violation occurred when a Su-30 jet crossed into Turkish territory “for a few seconds” while heading to Syria’s Humaymim air base, about 30 kilometres from the border.
The plane had to come in from the north because of inclement weather, spokesman General Igor Konashenkov told the Interfax news agency.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Russia admitted it “mistakenly” entered the airspace.
The second violation took place on Sunday, a Foreign Ministry official in Ankara told dpa. The ambassador was again summoned to explain that incident on Monday afternoon.
Syrian opposition forces have said the Russian strikes have largely targeted rebel groups, including hardline Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
The strikes seem to be focused on front-line areas where al-Assad’s forces are facing losses to the rebel factions, especially in the provinces of Idlib and Hama in the north.
Russia is a staunch backer of al-Assad’s government, while Western nations and Turkey say he has lost the legitimacy to continue in power over the longer term.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s military reported twice this week that MiG-29 warplanes, of an “unknown nationality,” interfered with its F-16 jets patrolling the border with Syria.
The military, in a statement Tuesday, said the latest incident the previous day also saw a Syria-based missile system interfere with its jets.
Syria’s government has Russian-made MiG-29s that it uses to target rebel-held areas.