Ankara/Amman: Turkey accused Syria on Sunday of shooting down a military plane in international airspace without warning and called a NATO meeting to discuss a response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Amid growing acrimony between the once-friendly neighbours, Syria said its forces had shot dead “terrorists” infiltrating its territory from Turkey, which along with Western and Arab nations has backed the cause of Syrians fighting Assad.
Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the search for two missing pilots was still under way, in coordination with the Syrian authorities. He denied it was a “joint” operation.
Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) leaves a meeting focused on Syria with army generals and other officials on Syria, in Ankara . AFP
He told state broadcaster TRT the plane had been clearly marked as Turkish and dismissed Syria’s assertion it had not identified the aircraft before opening fire.
Davutoglu said he also planned to set out Turkey’s case before the United Nations Security Council where Western powers are seeking, in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition, to push through a motion that could allow stronger measures against Assad. Moscow fears this could lead to military action that could undermine its interests in Syria.
What began as demonstrations against Assad developed last year into armed rebellion, tipping the country towards a sectarian civil war, with thousands already killed across Syria.
Davutoglu said the jet was unarmed and had been on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems, but acknowledged it had briefly crossed Syrian airspace 15 minutes before it was attacked. There was no “secret” element to its mission.
“Our plane was shot at a distance of 13 sea miles from Syria’s border in international airspace,” Davutoglu said.
“According to the radar images, our plane lost contact with headquarters after it was hit and because the pilot lost control, it crashed into Syrian waters after making abnormal movements,” he said. “Throughout this entire period no warning was made to our plane.”
Some analysts said the aircraft, in violating Syrian airspace at a time of great sensitivity, could in fact have been testing Syria’s Russian-made radar and air defences, which might prove a major factor in any possible Western armed action.
The foreign ministry said Turkey knew the coordinates of the wreckage, 1,300 metres underwater, but had not found it yet.
Syria, formally at war with Israel and the target of Israeli air raids in the past, has said the plane was flying fast and low, just one kilometre off its coast when it was shot down as an unidentified intruder. It was only later found to be Turkish.
Turkey shelters the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA) and hosts 32,000 Syrian refugees on its southeastern border with Syria, some 50 km from where the Turkish aircraft was shot down. But it denies providing arms for the insurgents.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said Syrian border forces had confronted “terrorists” who had crossed the Turkish frontier into the coastal province of Latakia and killed several of them on Sunday.
Syria and Turkey share a border 600 km long.
As if to underline its potential military reach, Turkey’s military announced on Sunday it had carried out air strikes against nine Kurdish militant targets in northern Iraq on 22-24 June. Turkey has carried out frequent air strikes against Kurdish fighters seeking more autonomy in southeast Turkey and has even sent ground forces across the border to attack bases.
Turkey’s hostility to Assad has mounted steadily since the Syrian leader ignored its advice to enact democratic reform in response to protests that erupted 16 months ago as part of a wider Arab awakening, rather than violently suppressing them.
Assad’s security state, dominated by his minority Alawite sect, is now embroiled in a bloody fight for survival against rebels mostly from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
NATO envoys will meet on Tuesday at Turkey’s request under Article 4 of the military alliance’s founding treaty, which provides for states to “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”.
It stops short of the explicit mention of possible armed responses cited in Article 5.
Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, condemned Syria’s downing of the Turkish jet as an “outrageous act” and said his country was ready to support robust action against Damascus by the United Nations Security Council.
Russia and China have previously blocked any firm measures by the council, twice vetoing draft resolutions on Syria.
Moscow, which said on Sunday it had “no doubt” there were attempts at regime change in Syria, is one of Assad’s main arms suppliers and a firm opponent of any outside intervention there. It says Western powers would invite an unpredictable spread of violence if they attempted any intervention in the country.
A ship carrying Russian helicopters to Syria, which turned back after its insurance was cut, was expected to sail back to Syria accompanied by at least one other vessel, Interfax news agency said, citing a military source.
European Union foreign ministers will discuss the Syria crisis, as well as Iran and Egypt, in Luxembourg on Monday.
“The subject of Syria was already on the agenda for Monday’s meeting, so they’ll have a chance to talk about this before the NATO meeting on Tuesday,” a Spanish government source said.
In a telephone conversation with Davutoglu, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, whose government is a firm backer of Assad, said he hoped both sides would “settle the issue peacefully to maintain regional stability”.
Iraq described the incident as a serious escalation that demonstrated how Syria’s conflict could spread beyond its frontiers and open up ethnic and other tensions in the region.
It remains unclear exactly what the Turkish jet had been doing - a reconnaissance mission to support Syrian rebels or to test Syria’s air defences are among the theories. Syrian anti-aircraft gunners may also have been jumpy after a defecting Syrian pilot flew his fighter to Jordan the previous day.
While the incident has aggravated tensions and exposed the risks of Syria’s crisis spilling over its borders, neither Ankara nor Damascus seems likely to seek a military showdown.
“What all this tells us is that there are a lot of ‘fishy´ tactics and strategies going on in the region, with numerous players behind many curtains,” said Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the US Naval War College.
“Nonetheless, the idea that it would be in Turkey’s and Syria’s respective national interests to engage in military conflict with each other is not plausible. Both sides would have too much to lose and very little to gain.”