The war in Syria is metastasizing, as long predicted by this author and others. It’s perilously close to a direct confrontation of Turkey and Russia in combat — a situation that didn’t start with the warplane shootdown today, but rather seems to have culminated in it. The ground picture in the area of the shootdown is the key.
What we know for sure today is that Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft, which the Turks say was violating their air space. The Turks report that an F-16 fighter pair took out the Russian aircraft.
It also appears that Russian helicopters sent on a rescue mission for the Su-24 air crew were destroyed. If a video posted by Syrian rebels (below) is valid – assuming it shows something the rebels pulled off today (24 November) – it looks like the rebels used TOW missiles to attack the Russian helos while they were on the ground at the Su-24 crash site.
These rapid-fire events raise questions that will not be answered at a leisurely pace. The basic question is what Russia and Turkey will do now. But there is also the question of “why now?” Turkey has been closely tracking Russian air activity for weeks. The two air forces have interacted at dangerous levels before; the Aviationist has a good summary here. But today, instead of warnings and sword-rattling, the Turks shot the Russian aircraft down.
There is another question, which the Russians could justifiably consider urgent. Rebel video and news reporting appear to indicate that the rebels not only attacked the Russian rescue helos, but “shot dead the two pilots as they tried to land safely in northern Syria after ejecting from the jet.” Shooting at the air crewmen is an egregious violation of the law of armed conflict. Attacking the rescue helos is probably one as well, assuming they were indeed targeted while they were on the ground and unable to mount an attack themselves.
I doubt Russia will wait to drag the Syrian rebels into court in The Hague. That’s probably not even possible, under “routine” circumstances, since the rebels aren’t a recognized nation-state. If the Russians’ punitive attack on these rebels isn’t underway already, I imagine it’s being planned.
But we should take note of how quickly the niceties of the Geneva Convention fall away, once the U.S. is out of the picture. See more on that below.
The key to this answer is that the jet that was shot down was an attack aircraft: a tactical bomber.