Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu fired back at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the latter said he regretted the shooting down of a Turkish jet by Syrian forces last month and that they did not know the plane belonged to Turkey.
In remarks published by a Turkish newspaper on Tuesday, Assad said the Syrian forces “did not have the slightest idea” about the identity of the plane when they shot it down and complained of a lack of communication between the Turkish and Syrian armies. “If there was communication between our armies, we would have known that it was a Turkish jet and would not have shot it down,” he told the Cumhuriyet daily.
Assad also said the plane was using a corridor that Israeli planes have used three times before. “Soldiers shot it down because we did not see it on our radar and because information was not given,” he said.
Responding to Assad, Davutoğlu said his regret was insincere and dismissed the Syrian president's remarks that Syrian forces had not known the plane's identity. “He is definitely lying. Either the Syrian air defense systems are not as robust as he claims or what he says is a blunt lie,” Davutoğlu said in remarks published in the Vatan daily on Wednesday. He also insisted that Turkey had records indicating that the Syrian forces did identify the plane before shooting it down.
Turkey has insisted that the plane's electronic signals, which indicate if an aircraft is friend or foe, were activated during the entire flight and that Turkey intercepted radio communications in which Syrian forces referred to the plane. The Syrian forces referred to the plane using the Turkish word for “neighbor” in an intercepted radio conversation, according to a report published last week in the Turkish media.
The foreign minister said it was also a “lie” that there was no one the Syrians could call and said Assad's claim appeared to be aimed at inciting antagonism between the Turkish government and the military by complaining about a lack of contact between the Turkish and Syrian militaries. “Assad wants to restore military relations. We will not let this happen. We cannot consider maintaining our military ties with a regime that slaughters its own people,” he said. “Assad thinks he can manipulate government-military rivalry while he is trying to restore a different kind of legitimacy for himself.”
Responding to Assad's statement that the Turkish plane was using a corridor used by Israeli planes in the past, Davutoğlu said: “Is there a corridor in Syrian airspace that belongs to the Israeli planes? If this is what he means … then he admits that Syrian airspace is constantly violated by Israel. And if Israel is constantly violating Syrian airspace, how come no Israeli plane has been fired at?”
The June 22 incident in the Mediterranean has escalated tensions between Turkey and Syria and added a new dimension to Syria's 16-month crisis by creating a Turkish-Syrian bilateral conflict. Turkey says its plane was shot down in international airspace while on a mission to test Turkey's own radar systems, while Syria says it was hit by antiaircraft fire, which has a range of 2.5 kilometers, well within Syrian airspace.
The wreckage of the plane is yet to be located and the fate of its two pilots also remains unknown.
Assad's statements drew an angry response from Turkish officials, with Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ accusing the Syrian president of conducting a “distortion campaign.”
“One should ask Assad: If the Turkish plane used the corridor used by the Israeli planes, how many Israeli planes have been intercepted [by Syrian forces] so far?” Ömer Çelik, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), said on his Twitter account.
In his interview with Cumhuriyet, Assad said Syria has no anti-aircraft batteries that could reach areas outside of Syria's airspace and that Turkey's statements about the jet's location aren't true.
Davutoğlu countered the claim, saying even if the Syrian statements about not knowing the identity of the plane were true, this did not explain why the Syrians fired at a second Turkish plane dispatched to the area to help search and rescue efforts. “Why did they fire at the CASA plane? It was obvious that this plane was coming from Turkey,” he said.
The foreign minister also revealed that Turkish and Syrian authorities had looked into ways to release a joint statement only hours after the jet was downed and that Turkey, not Syria as has been claimed, offered to set up a joint committee to investigate the incident. But the joint committee was never set up because Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan was told by the Syrian side that Syria did not accept this proposal. “They also presented normalization of bilateral ties as a condition. That is, they first downed our plane and then presented a condition to correct their mistake,” said Davutoğlu.
He added that Assad should not stay in power, “not even for one more day,” and that the Syrian president was “living in a world of fantasy” by assuming that a UN-brokered peace plan for a political transition in Syria proved him to be right. Commenting on the plan that was adopted by world powers at a conference in Geneva on Saturday, Assad said in the interview that he was “pleased” that the decision about Syria's future was left to its people.
“Assad still thinks that he can fix everything while even in Geneva people are talking about a post-Assad era,” Davutoğlu said.