NATO warns Russia over airspace violations as Syria airstrikes widen

Belgrade:NATO’s top official warned Russia on Monday to avoid another “unacceptable” crossover into Turkish airspace as Moscow widens its airstrikes in Syria to back the country’s embattled government.The sharp rhetoric from NATO’s secretary general — two days after Turkish warplanes confronted a Russian aircraft — underscored the clear divides between Russia and the West over Syria, and the higher stakes for the military alliance after Moscow began aerial attacks last week.

With tensions already high, a senior Russian lawmaker raised a potential new flash point by suggesting Russian “volunteers” could join the fight alongside the forces of Moscow’s key ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.Such a development — while far from clear — would significantly deepen Russia’s military gambit to prop up Assad, and leave bring Russians in possible direct battles with U.S.-backed rebels opposing Assad.

In Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called a special meeting to discuss the “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace by Russian combat aircraft.”“Russia’s actions are not contributing to the security and stability of the region,” Stoltenberg said in a statement, echoing similar comments from the United States and others that want Assad to step aside after more than four years of civil war.

Earlier, NATO-member Turkey warned that any further incursions risked “undesired” consequences.he Turkish armed forces have their orders,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Haber Turk television, according to the Associated Press. “The necessary [actions] will be done even if it’s a bird that violates Turkey’s border . . . Our rules of engagement are clear.”

The statements added to the diplomatic and strategic cross-currents opened by Russia’s moves in Syria. Turkey is a leading opponent of Assad and — like its Western partners — increasingly alarmed by Moscow’s intervention on his behalf.

The border warnings also point to growing concerns over possible military incidents between Russian warplanes and the U.S.-led coalition, which is waging airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State.

Last week, the Pentagon and Russia opened talks over ways to avoid potential missteps with ongoing airstrikes by both sides and, at times, in nearby regions. Russia claims its airstrikes target the Islamic State and other militant groups, but most of Moscow’s attacks have taken place in areas controlled by a range of anti-Assad factions, including rebels aided by the CIA and others.

We’re very concerned” about the Russian warplane pass into Turkey, said Secretary of State John F. Kerry during a trip to Chile, the AP reported. “It is precisely the kind of thing we warned about.”

A provocative twist was introduced by Russian Adm. Vladi­mir Komoyedov, head of the parliament’s defense committee, who predicted Russian “volunteers” could join the fight in Syria.

Such militiamen played a key role in aiding pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine. The Kremlin described them as independent fighters, but there was widespread belief that the units could not have operated in Ukraine’s breakaway regions without some level of agreement with Russian authorities.

“It is likely that groups of Russian volunteers will appear in the ranks of the Syrian army as combat participants,” Komoyedov told the Interfax news agency.

Russia and Assad’s other main ally, Iran, have advisers in Syria, but there is no clear evidence of significant regular or paramilitary forces from either country taking part in clashes.

The Turkish military, too, is not directly involved in Syria, but it allows U.S. coalition warplanes to use a base near the Syrian border. Turkey also has hosted more than 2 million Syrian refugees and is the pathway for a huge flow of asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere streaming to Europe.

A statement by Turkey’s Foreign Ministry warned that Russia would be held “responsible for any undesired incident” if its warplanes stray over the border between Syria and Turkey.

On Saturday, two Turkish F-16 fighters intercepted a Russia warplane in Turkish airspace and forced it back over the border, the Foreign Ministry said.

Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, said Moscow described the airspace violation as a “mistake,” but he added that Russia’s entry into the conflict has added to the crisis.

In Madrid, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declined to comment on Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace, though he said U.S. and Turkish officials have been in contact about the incident and that NATO defense ministers will likely discuss how to respond when they meet in Brussels on Thursday.

Other U.S. officials called the Turkish airspace violation a deliberate provocation and the kind of unpredictable act they have worried about since Russia began its military buildup in Syria last month.

“I don’t believe this was an accident,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations with Turkey and other NATO allies. “This is exactly the type of unprofessional, non-professional incident we were hoping to avoid.”

But the official questioned whether Russia was willing to be cooperative on the subject.

“Needless to say, we’re deeply concerned about it and it is something that contributes to our overall sense that there’s real strategic and tactical problems with the way Russia is conducting itself in Syria,” the official said.

But in a sign of possible wider objectives for the Russian military, Assad on Sunday said there can be no reforms in Syria until “terrorism” has been eliminated.

Speaking in an interview with Iran’s Khabar television station, Assad also ruled out negotiations with the Western-backed groups opposing his government.

“We pin great hope on this coalition now, and on these international changes,” Assad said in reference to his allies Russia and Iran. “Western officials are in a state of confusion and their vision lacks clarity.”

Russia is promoting a peace initiative that President Vladimir Putin says should include what he calls the “healthy opposition” to Assad’s rule, a reference to a small group of long-standing government opponents whose presence has been only somewhat tolerated by the authorities and who have long been in contact with Moscow.


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