Turkey dismissed on Sunday Syrian statements that a military jet downed in the eastern Mediterranean on Friday was in Syrian territorial waters, saying the unarmed plane was shot down in international airspace without warning while on a solo mission to test Turkey's radar system and that the mission had no connection with the crisis in the neighboring country.
Bringing tensions with Syria to a whole new level, Turkey says its military jet downed by Syria in the Mediterranean was hit outside Syrian territorial waters and dismisses the country’s statements that it was not a hostile act. Ankara is taking the dispute to NATO and a notification will also be made to the UN security Council
The statement by Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu takes already existing tensions with Syria to a new level and raises the possibility of further internationalization of the 16-month Syrian conflict.
Davutoğlu avoided saying what measures Turkey will take in response, saying Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will speak about the matter on Tuesday in Parliament after meeting on Sunday with opposition parties and a Cabinet session on Monday, but he said Turkey will take the matter to NATO, which has so far been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian crisis.
Turkey also delivered a formal protest to Syria over the incident on Sunday.
Davutoğlu, speaking in an interview with state broadcaster TRT, said he would present the incident formally to the NATO military alliance this week under Article 4 of its founding treaty, which provides for states to “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”
Soon after Davutoğlu's announcement, NATO said envoys from member states will meet on Tuesday at Turkey's request for consultations over the downing of its military jet by Syria. “Turkey has requested consultations under Article 4 of NATO's founding Washington Treaty. Under Article 4, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened,” Oana Lungescu said. “The NAC [North Atlantic Council] will meet on Tuesday at Turkey's request. We expect Turkey to make a presentation on the recent incident.”
Davutoğlu said Turkey will also take the matter to the UN Security Council. “In addition, a notification will be made to the UN Security Council in light of the information we have regarding the background to this aggressive attitude,” he said.
Syria has said the plane was flying fast and low, just a kilometer off the Syrian coast when it was shot down. Damascus reiterated on Sunday that the shooting of the plane was not a hostile act. Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said the plane had been tracked as an unidentified object entering Syrian airspace and that it was understood only later that it was a Turkish plane.
Davutoğlu, however, dismissed Syria’s explanation, saying Damascus was transmitting “disinformation” to the Turkish public. He said the Turkish plane briefly violated the Syrian airspace but more than 10 minutes before it was shot down. “Our plane was shot at a distance of 13 nautical miles from Syria’s border in international airspace,” Davutoğlu said, adding that in order to conduct the radar test the plane had to fly at a low altitude. “According to the radar images, our plane lost contact with headquarters after it was hit, and because the pilot lost control, it crashed into Syrian waters after making abnormal movements,” he said. “Throughout this entire period, no warning was made to our plane.”
In reference to Syria’s response, Davutoğlu said, “It is either amateurish behavior or ill-intention to describe the Turkish plane as a threat.” He also added that Turkish intelligence intercepted radio communications from the Syrian side, suggesting that they knew it was a Turkish plane.
Earlier reports quoted Prime Minister Erdoğan as saying that Syria has apologized for the incident, but this has not been confirmed so far.
Search for the downed plane and the two pilots was still under way on Sunday. Officials said the wreckage of the plane was 1,300 meters underwater on the seabed in Syrian waters, although it was not yet found when Today’s Zaman went into print. There was also no word yet on the fate of the two pilots. Despite the tension, Turkey has conducted search and rescue efforts within the Syrian territorial waters, but Davutoğlu said although the search operations were in coordination with the Syrians, they could not be characterized as a “joint” operation.
Davutoğlu’s statements came after a series of meetings of Turkish politicians and top security officials since Friday evening. Prime Minister Erdoğan chaired a security meeting on Friday evening while Davutoğlu held a meeting with the deputy chief of General Staff and the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to discuss what steps Turkey would take. The incident came amid already high tensions between former allies Turkey and Syria over a Syrian crackdown on regime opponents. Ankara, which insists President Bashar al-Assad must leave power, hosts anti-Assad groups and provides shelter to more than 30,000 refugees fleeing the violence.
In April, Turkey said after a border shooting incident -- in which two people on the Turkish side of the border died -- that it would call on its NATO allies to intervene should it feel its security was being threatened.
On Saturday President Abdullah Gül said Turkey would take unspecified retaliatory steps after thoroughly examining the circumstances of the incident. Gül conceded that the Turkish aircraft may have unintentionally violated Syrian airspace, but the Turkish officials seemed to tend to dismiss this as an excuse to shoot down the plane, saying the Turkish side should have been warned by the Syrians first. “Even if we assume that there was a violation of Syria’s airspace, the Syrian response cannot be to bring down the plane,” Labor and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik said on Saturday. “The incident is unacceptable. Turkey cannot endure it in silence.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç urged restraint. “We must remain calm,” he said. “We must not give premium to any provocative speeches and acts.”