The Turkish military shot down on Sunday a Syrian aircraft after it violated Turkish airspace on the Turkish-Syrian border near Yayladağı, a district in southern Hatay, leading to concerns over possible government efforts to cover up a corruption scandal that has deepened with leaked voice recordings ahead of local elections scheduled for March 30.
According to a statement by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), two Syrian MIG-23 warplanes were warned four times when they began flying close to Turkish airspace. After the warnings, one of the Syrian aircraft started to leave the area but the other warplane began flying over Turkish airspace near the border outpost in Yayladağı at about 1:13 p.m.
When the Syrian warplane flew 1.5 kilometers westward within Turkish airspace, one of two Turkish F-16 fighter jets fired a missile at the Syrian warplane in line with Turkey's rules of engagement. The Syrian warplane was shot down and fell in Syrian territory 1.2 kilometers away from the Turkish border.
The TSK statement said a Turkish F-16 jet shot down the Syrian aircraft at 1:14 p.m. and the aircraft fell in the Syrian town of Kassab in the coastal province of Latakia.
“A Syrian plane violated our airspace. Our F-16s took off and hit this plane. Why? Because if you violate my airspace, our slap will be hard. Now in your presence, I congratulate the General Staff, the Turkish military and our air forces,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said during a rally in the northwestern province of Kocaeli on Sunday.
President Abdullah Gül, who was in the Netherlands for a conference, called Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel to congratulate him and his staff. He reportedly said the TSK showed Turkey's determination to protect its borders.
Gökhan Bacık, a prominent analyst on foreign policy, told Today's Zaman the Turkish-Syrian border is porous and Turkey has many opportunities to act against Syria violations every day.
“This act by the Turkish military arouses suspicions. The border between Turkey and Syria is porous and this border provides Turkey with situations to act against Syria everyday. What is important here is Turkey's political will, not the technical issues. When you go to the TSK's website you see there is a violation every day. But the timing of this downing during a [Justice and Development Party] AK Party rally in İstanbul with only six days remaining before the elections is really meaningful.”
Turkey's embattled Erdoğan has been dealing with leaked voice recordings focusing on him and members of his inner circle and a corruption scandal which became public on Dec.17 with a wave of high-profile detentions, including those of three former Cabinet ministers' sons. The government responded to the corruption investigation by reassigning scores of judges, prosecutors and police officials, including those involved in the investigation, as well as by restricting the body responsible for appointments, promotions and removals in the judiciary. However, voice recordings of high-level Turkish officials leaked onto social media have not helped the AK Party against the allegations targeting its members.
The incident came as the government was mulling options to briefly intervene in Syria to protect the tomb of Süleyman Şah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, whose security is provided by Turkish troops as part of an agreement with the Syrian authorities.
Concerns over a possible Turkish military intervention in Syria have emerged following news of clashes between an al-Qaeda splinter group and other Syrian opposition groups in the area. Responding to reports, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had said Turkey would retaliate in the event of an attack on the tomb of Süleyman Şah irrespective of where the attack comes from.
During a televised interview late on Wednesday, main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warned against any military incursion into Syria ahead of the elections. According to the CHP leader, Erdoğan aims to divert the public's attention from a sweeping graft scandal that has implicated Erdoğan and his family.
Hasan Kanbolat, an analyst on foreign relations, told Today's Zaman the “main reason for the downing” will become clear in the coming days, underlining however, the need for this to be examined.
Kanbolat pointed to the events of Sept. 6-7, 1955, saying there was a deliberate provocation at the time and noting that something similar might occur with the Suleyman Şah tomb. In the autumn of 1955, some news in the local media claimed that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's house in Thessalonica, Greece, had been bombed. Following the news, a move targeting non-Muslims in İstanbul was carried out. Thousands upon thousands of Christians and Jews left Turkey immediately after this incident.
Savaş Genç from the faculty of economics and administrative sciences of Fatih University told Today's Zaman “if this is Syria's first violation since September, then Turkey shooting down the Syrian warplane can be assessed as a normal reaction.”
“However if there have been many violations since Turkey changed its rules of engagement and Turkey chooses to exercise its right to shoot down a Syrian warplane, then some questions must be raised as to why this happened during an İstanbul rally six days before the local elections,” Genç said.
This is not the first time the Turkish military has downed a Syrian aircraft near the border. Turkish warplanes first shot down a Syrian helicopter last September after it crossed into Turkish airspace. Following Syria's downing of a Turkish jet in 2012, the military's rules of engagement changed and Erdoğan said any Syrian element approaching the border would be deemed a threat and treated as a military target.
A Syrian military spokesman confirmed on Sunday that Turkey's armed forces shot down a Syrian warplane near the border, calling the act a "blatant aggression."
The unnamed spokesman was quoted by Syrian state TV as saying the plane was downed in Syrian airspace on Sunday while it was attacking rebels who were on the offensive in the coastal province of Latakia. The spokesman said the pilot ejected from the aircraft.
Early on Sunday, Syrian rebels took control of a border crossing just across from the Yayladağı border gate in the southern province of Hatay after clashes between Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels over the weekend to gain control of a border crossing point with Turkey. However, while Kassab crossing has come under the control of rebels, clashes to seize the town of Kassab were ongoing.