Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has spoken for the first time about the Turkish jet incident, telling a Turkish newspaper he wishes his military had not shot down the jet last month and adding that he will not allow tension between the two neighbors to deteriorate into an armed conflict.
Syrian forces shot down the RF-4E Phantom, an unarmed reconnaissance version of the F4 fighter jet which according to Ankara was on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems and was hit in international airspace after it briefly strayed into Syrian airspace, on June 22.
Syria described the incident as an act of self-defense. Turkey, while saying the act would “not go unpunished,” emphasized that it does not intend to go to war with Syria.
Assad offered no apology for the downing of the plane, insisting that it was shot down over Syria, and that his forces acted in self-defense. He added that Syria would have apologized if the plane had been shot down in international airspace, and argued that the rise of tensions could have been prevented if channels of communication between the two militaries had remained open.
He said that the plane was flying in a corridor inside Syrian airspace that had been used by Israeli planes in 2007 when they bombed a building under construction in northern Syria.
“The plane was using the same corridor used by Israeli planes three times in the past,” said Assad, adding Syrian forces shot it down because the plane didn’t appear on their radar and they were not informed about it. “Of course I might have been happy if this had been an Israeli plane,” said the Syrian president.
“We learned that it [the plane] belonged to Turkey after shooting it down. I say 100 percent, I wish we had not shot it down,” said Assad. “We are in a state of war, so every unidentified plane is an enemy plane. Let me state it again: We did not have the slightest idea about its identity when we shot it down,” said Assad.
When asked whether the increased friction between Syria and Turkey could lead to war, Assad said he would not allow the tension to turn into open combat between the two countries, which would harm them both.
He also said Syria had not and would not build up its military forces along the Turkish border, whatever action Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government takes. Turkey started to send reinforcements to the border after Erdoğan said the Turkish military had been given instructions to treat any approaching Syrian military unit as a threat.
Commenting for the first time on a UN-brokered plan for a political transition in Syria that was adopted by world powers at a conference in Geneva on Saturday, Assad said he was satisfied with the communiqué from the meeting. “There is only [one] thing that interests me in the text. It is this sentence: ‘The future of Syria will be decided by the Syrian people,’ which is enough for me,” said Assad.
“I would, of course, leave if millions didn’t want me. Why would I stay? I’ve never had any interest in this [presidential] seat. I would not stay as a president for even a single day if the salvation of my nation and country depended on my departure.”