Turkey said on Monday Syrian forces had fired towards a Turkish military transport plane involved in a search for an F-4 reconnaissance jet shot down by Syria last week, but the second aircraft was not brought down.
Damascus described its shooting down of the F-4 jet on Friday as an act of self-defence and warned Ankara and its NATO allies against any retaliation. Turkey said the incident would “not go unpunished” but it did not intend to go to war over it.
The disclosure of the second incident came on the eve of a NATO crisis meeting that Turkey summoned to address the shooting down of its F-4 jet, which Ankara has described as an unprovoked attack in international airspace.
In shell-shattered districts of Homs, the heart of a 16-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rebels battled troops as aid workers tried to evacuate civilians. Turkish television reported the desertion of a Syrian general and other officers across the border.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told a news conference that Turkey would protect itself within the framework of international law against what it called Syria’s “hostile action” of downing its F-4 warplane last week.
Arinc said at the end of a seven-hour cabinet meeting dealing with the incident: “Everyone should know that this kind of action will not remain unpunished.”
But he added, “Whatever is needed to be done will definitely be done within the framework of international law. We have no intention of going to war with anyone. We have no such intent.”
Arinc said that shortly after the F-4 was shot down, four helicopters and two ships were dispatched on an initial search operation, followed by a military turboprop transport aircraft.
“Our plane, which had gone to rescue (the pilots), was fired upon. This situation was brought to an end following a warning from our foreign ministry. But yes, there was a short period of harassing fire,” said Arinc.
A foreign ministry official later said the plane returned to Turkish airspace immediately after being fired on and the search and rescue operation resumed following communications “through military and diplomatic channels”. He said there were no injuries to anyone aboard the transport aircraft.
According to Ankara’s account of Friday’s episode, the aircraft entered Syrian airspace briefly and by mistake while on a mission to test Turkish air defences.
Some analysts have suggested it might in fact have been testing the responsiveness of Russian-supplied Syrian radar that could pose a major obstacle to any foreign intervention, including supply of Syrian rebels or reconnaissance support.
Arinc said Syrian air “elements” had violated Turkish air space five times “recently” but that the incidents had been settled peacefully.
Syria’s account of Friday’s incident, though tempered with a stated commitment to a “neighbourly relationship”, seemed likely to increase anger in Turkey ahead of the NATO gathering.
“NATO is supposed to be there to strengthen countries,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a Damascus news conference. “If their meeting is for hostile reasons (they should know that) Syrian land and waters are sacred.”
Turkey says the wreckage of the aircraft, shot down close to the Mediterranean maritime borders of both states, is lying in deep water. Makdissi said some flotsam had been found and given to Turkey. There was no word on the two airmen. ID:nL5E8HO0II]
“The plane disappeared and then reappeared in Syrian airspace, flying at 100 metres altitude and about 1-2 kms (0.6-1.2 miles) from the Syrian coast,” he said.
“We had to react immediately. Even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down. The Syrian response was an act of defence of our sovereignty carried out by anti-aircraft machinegun which has a maximum range of 2.5 km.”
Turkish air force chiefs briefed President Abdullah Gul, the armed forces chief, and the cabinet on what Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said would be a “decisive” response. Turkey also said it would take the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
The United States said it would work with NATO ally Turkey to hold Syria accountable for what U.S. officials believe was a deliberate act of shooting down the Turkish jet.
White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about what an appropriate response might be to the incident, but officials at a U.S. Defence Department briefing said they believed the downing was deliberate.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the “Syrian regime needs to answer for it. This once again shows the illegitimacy of the Assad regime and what it’s doing and is deeply troubling.
ERDOGAN CAUTIOUS ON INCIDENT
Though not known for his emotional restraint, Erdogan has eschewed bellicose rhetoric over the incident, aware perhaps of Western reluctance to commit to any military action and wary himself of anything that could trigger a regional sectarian war.
“I’m not of the opinion that Turkey will immediately respond militarily,” said Beril Dedeoglu of Galatasaray University. “But if there is another action, then there will certainly be a military response, there is no doubt.”
Erdogan turned against former ally Assad after he rebuffed his advice to bow to demands for reform. He now allows the rebel Free Syrian Army to use Turkish territory as a safe haven, though Ankara denies supplying arms to the FSA.
Over 30,000 refugees are also accommodated On Turkish soil.
After Friday’s attack, Erdogan invoked an article in NATO’s founding treaty providing for urgent consultations if a member considers its security interests threatened.
Had he sought some kind of retaliation from the NATO meeting set for Tuesday, he could have invoked another article on mutual defence. That he did not do so suggests the reaction will remain, at least for now, on the diplomatic stage.
European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg called for a calm response from Turkey, saying they would increase pressure on Assad.
“Military intervention in Syria is out of the question,” said Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal. “It is not a matter of consideration for the Dutch government. That is also at stake in the … context of NATO.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was again trying to arrange a safe evacuation of trapped civilians from Homs. But anti-government activists reported heavy shelling on central districts, including Jouret al-Shiyah and al-Qarabis. Video showed detonations and machinegun bursts from the skeletal shells of abandoned apartment blocks.
The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad’s troops carried out raids and arrests in areas still under army control, and heavy fighting between government forces and rebel fighters was reported in the opposition centres of Idlib, Deir al-Zor and Deraa, the birthplace of the uprising.
“In Deraa, regime regular troops are trying to reassert control of some villages with heavy shelling, gunfire and helicopters firing missiles,” the Observatory said in an email. “People are fleeing villages because they know the army is trying to push out the rebels,” it said.
A Syrian general, two colonels, two majors, a lieutenant and their families – 199 people in all – crossed the border into Turkey overnight, CNN Turk said. Thirteen Syrian generals are now in Turkey, which is giving logistical support to the rebels.
The new defections from Assad’s armed forces could encourage those awaiting a disintegration of Assad’s army. But there has been little indication of a broader trend to desertion in senior ranks, bound often to Assad by their Alawite background.
Alawites, whose sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, make up 90 percent of the officer corps. Sunni Muslims form the majority in Syria and are driving the uprising.
There are Sunni generals in Assad’s military but they tend to serve in administrative roles rather than field commands, their religious adherence making them in authorities’ eyes more likely to sympathise with the rebels.
The United Nations has said more than 10,000 people have been killed by government forces, while Syria has said at least 2,600 members of the military and security forces have been killed by what it calls foreign-backed “Islamist terrorists.”
The intensification of the fighting has raised fears in Turkey of a flood of refugees and a slide into ethnic and religious warfare that could envelop the wider region.
Ankara, like the West, is torn between a wish to remove Assad and the fear that any armed intervention could unleash uncontrollable forces.