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Syria war pulls Russia and Turkey into a risky confrontation

Just as was feared when Russia intervened in the dysfunctional effort to eradicate Islamic State militants two months ago, the vortex of geopolitical battles in Syria has drawn Cold War-era rivals into deadly confrontation with each other.

Three Russian airmen died Tuesday after a Russian Su-24 warplane 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.

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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 Europe-backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad, the Kremlin's most important Middle East ally.

Among the rebel forces in the Russians' gun sights are Syrian Turkmens, 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 Turkmens, who hold territory near the Assad government's shrinking stronghold around Latakia, on the Mediterranean Sea.

Turkish F-16 fighter jets patrolling the volatile coastal border area shot down the Russian warplane early Tuesday 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 news media.

A third Russian airman aboard an MI-8 helicopter dispatched to look for the 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 Kremlin immediately and vehemently condemned the attack, summoning a Turkish diplomat in Moscow to receive an official protest that called the shoot down "an unfriendly act." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a planned visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Wednesday, and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that "serious consequences" would follow.

"Neither our pilots nor our jet threatened the territory of Turkey," Putin insisted, accusing Ankara of aiding Islamic State by secretly marketing the oil it extracts from occupied Iraqi territory. "The loss today is a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists. I can't describe it in any other way."

President Obama defended Turkey's action and suggested that such unfortunate incidents could be avoided if Russia would focus on defeating Islamic State rather than attacking the rebels fighting to oust Assad.

"Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its airspace," Obama said at a news conference alongside French President Francois Hollande, who was visiting the White House on a mission to strengthen the multinational coalition taking on the extremist group also known as Daesh or ISIL. "Our view from the start has been that Russia is welcome to be part of this broad-based coalition that we've set up.... The challenge has been Russia's focus on propping up Assad rather than focusing on ISIL."

Obama 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 terrorism on both. There had been high hopes after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris and the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31 that better collaboration between the eastern and western powers would result in their shared objective of eliminating Islamic State.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged "calm and de-escalation," and asked Moscow and Ankara to communicate to work out a strategy for avoiding further confrontations.

At Turkey's request, NATO convened an urgent meeting of allies to discuss the downing of the jet, a move seen by Putin as another instance of the Western military alliance encroaching on his traditional "sphere of influence."

"Instead of immediately getting in contact with us, as far as we know, the Turkish side immediately turned to their partners from NATO to discuss this incident, as if we shot down their plane and not they ours," Putin chided.

He vowed to maintain Russia's military engagement in Syria, and a defense spokesman said the cruiser Moskva, armed with antiaircraft defenses, was being deployed to the Latakia area near Russia's sole Mediterranean base at Tartus.

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 in Hatay province. But Turkey had warned Moscow after similar buzzing incidents last month that future violations would be dealt with severely.

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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 multi-factional conflict that has ravaged Syria for nearly five years said they doubted that 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.

"We're not there yet," Jon Alterman, Middle East program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the risk of an intensifying clash between Moscow and the West. "This serves to remind people that there are real stakes and real consequences" when military forces with conflicting agendas operate in the same space.

Russia has little to gain by "going to the mat for Syria," and has so far pursued a strategy of expending rather meager resources on Assad's behalf while extracting disproportionate benefits for their intervention, Alterman said. Flexing the Kremlin military muscle in Syria has diverted the Russian public's attention — and that of the rest of the world — from the bogged-down war the Kremlin instigated in eastern Ukraine last year and the bite of international sanctions that has plunged Russia into recession.

Russia and NATO have been conducting massive military exercises in Europe over the last year in what looks like preparation for war, Ian Kearns of the European Leadership Network has been warning for months. After Tuesday's confrontation between Turkey and Russia, Kearns reminded the geopolitical rivals of the potential for unintended escalation in Syria, which he said is "now the most serious security crisis in Europe since the Cold War."

Putin's anger over the downing 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 has 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, which is not an EU member, is also a popular destination for Russian travelers. More than 1.4 million Russians visited Turkey in the first seven months of this year.

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Natalie Tours, one of Russia's biggest travel agencies, said it was suspending the sale of Turkish vacation packages because of "an unstable political situation" in the country. But with the equally popular destination of Egypt now off-limits after 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.

Times staff writer Williams reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Bailey-Hoover from Istanbul. Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan and Christi Parsons in Washington, and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow, also contributed to this report.

Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

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