Justin Vela and Adrian Blomfeild – Telegraph.co.uk June 23, 2012
But in an interview on Saturday morning, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, said there was no reason for the Syrian military to have interpreted the move as a hostile act.
“It is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over (national) borders … when you consider their speed over the sea,” Mr Gul told the Anatolia news agency. “These are not ill-intentioned things but happen beyond control due to the jets’ speed.”
The loss of the Turkish Air Force plane on Friday marked the most dangerous development yet in Syria‘s 15-month uprising and left Western powers scrambling over how to respond. While countries are co-operating together in a search for the two pilots, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has promised a “decisive” response after the full facts of the incident have been established.
Although he has not divulged what steps he may be contemplating, a senior member of his ruling party declared last night that if the aircraft was shown to have been shot down by Syria it would amount to a “declaration of war”. Mr Gul added: “Whatever is necessary will be done.”
It was not clear if Mr Gul was suggesting military retaliation, increased sanctions against Syria or other possible steps, including demands for an apology, and his aide would not comment on his words. But Faruk Celik, Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Minister, said Turkey would retaliate “either in the diplomatic field or give other types of response.”
“Even if we assume that there was a violation of Syria’s airspace – though the situation is still not clear – the Syrian response cannot be to bring down the plane,” Mr Celik told reporters. “The incident is unacceptable,” he said. “Turkey cannot endure it in silence.”
Mr Erdogan flew home from Brazil to hold an emergency briefing with his intelligence and military chiefs after radio and radar contact was lost with the aircraft as it conducted a mission close to the Syrian coast.
“Following the evaluation of data provided by our related institutions and the findings of the joint search and reduce efforts with Syria, it is understood that our plane was downed by Syria,” his office said in a statement.
The deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, added that contrary to reports, the plane was not a fighter jet but a reconnaissance aircraft.
Syria confirmed that it had brought down the plane, saying in a statement: “Our air defences confronted a target that penetrated our air space over our territorial waters pre-afternoon on Friday and shot it down. It turned out to be a Turkish military plane.”
In a sign that it was aware of the gravity of the situation, Syria seemed to be trying to repair the damage, deploying vessels to join a search and rescue operation to locate the aircraft’s two pilots in the waters off its coast.
The incident represented the fulfilment of one of the international community’s greatest fears after months of predictions that the Syrian conflict could easily burst its borders.
Western powers, and particularly the United States, are likely to come under pressure to support Turkey should it choose to retaliate with military force. Mr Erdogan’s government has long warned that it would not tolerate any Syrian challenge to its security.
The Turkish press has reacted relatively cautiously to the incident. While some headlines said: “Damascus playing with Fire” and “They will pay for it”, the overall coverage was not as angry as it sometimes is in responding to attacks by Kurdish rebels in south-east Turkey.
As a member of Nato, Turkey could potentially invoke Chapter V of the alliance’s treaty which states that an attack on one state would be viewed as an attack on all signatories of the alliance.
But because the clause dictates that such an attack must be carried out on European or American soil, Mr Erdogan is unlikely to make such demands of his Western allies.
But he could well invoke Chapter IV of the treaty, which allows a member state to convene an emergency summit of the whole alliance if “the security of any of the parties is threatened”.
Turkey came close to doing so in April after Syrian forces opened fire into its territory, wounding two Turkish nationals and two Syrians at a refugee camp close to the borders.
It was persuaded not to do so by the United States, but is likely to be less malleable now. In return for agreeing to allowing Saudi and Qatari funnel weapons to the rebels through its territory, Mr Erdogan sought and received assurances that America would protect Turkey from any Syrian backlash, according to Western officials.
Turkey, which has been at the forefront of regional efforts to oust Mr Assad and has given sanctuary to rebels seeking his overthrow, could also try to revive previous efforts to win international support for a buffer zone in Syria’s border regions.
Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus in March as relations between the two countries deteriorated, and in late May, expelled Syria’s diplomats. There is, however, still a Turkish consulate operating in Aleppo.
Meanwhile on Saturday, Syrian army forces battled rebels and shelled neighbourhoods in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, killing at least 28 people, opposition activists said. The victims, who included three women and several children, were mostly civilians killed when shells hit their houses in the city’s Old Airport and al-Hamidya districts, a source at a city hospital told Reuters.
Loyalist forces have lost control of parts of the surrounding Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland as alliances between President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling elite and Sunni tribes have collapsed.
The fighting came as President Assad issued a decree to form a new government, shaking up many cabinet posts but keeping the heads of the interior, defence and foreign ministries.
The reappointment of defence minister, Daoud Rajha, will quash widespread rumours that he had been killed by a rebel hit squad.