Turkish officials have revealed in recent statements that there is no evidence so far confirming that the RF-4E Phantom was shot down by a missile, raising suspicions that the plane might have been hit by antiaircraft fire, as Syria maintains. Given the short range of antiaircraft bullets, media critics say, this might be an indication that the plane was hit within the Syrian airspace, and not in international airspace as Turkey maintains.
In a statement, the military said on Wednesday that it was still examining video footage of the wreckage in the seabed, adding that examinations of the retrieved pieces have found no traces of petroleum derivatives that could have been used as a fire starter or accelerant or any organic/inorganic explosive material. The statement also said the authorities were looking for new means of retrieving the rest of the wreckage after the exploration vessel Nautilus left the area when its camera system broke down.
But while the government refuses to back down from its initial assertion that the plane was hit while in international airspace, military officials said a missile attack option should not be eliminated just because there is no radar recording of the attack.
“The plane was not shot down with a radar-guided missile. So it is normal that there is no radar record [of a missile attack],” an official from the Air Forces Command, speaking on condition of anonymity, was quoted by the Sabah daily on Wednesday.
The report said the military is sticking to its earlier assertion that the plane was not hit by antiaircraft fire. Officials at the Air Forces Command also explained that the fact that the plane had broken into eight pieces shows that it crashed as a result of a close explosion, and not from being hit directly by a radar-guided missile that are designed to precisely hit their specific target.
But defense experts say optic guided missiles also have a short range, which means that such a weapon could not have hit the Turkish plane flying 13 miles off the Syrian coast. Optic guided missiles are effective only when the target is an aircraft flying low and slow, the experts told Today's Zaman.
Thus, according to the experts, another option, based on the possibility that the plane was hit by a heat-seeking missile, emerges. Such missiles are small and do not use satellite signals either, making their detection by a radar system very difficult.
In remarks made on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said the plane seems to have been hit by a missile or “another device similar to a missile” and that a final assessment would be made after ongoing examinations are completed.
Addressing a meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted that the plane was hit 13 miles off the Syrian coast and added that it would become clear if it was shot down by a missile or antiaircraft fire after the wreckage of the plane is completely retrieved and examined.
The government had earlier said the jet was shot down by a missile 13 miles off the Syrian coast. Syria, on the other hand, has said it was flying low, at an altitude of 100 meters, and fast when it was hit well within the Syrian airspace by antiaircraft fire, with bullets having a range of only 2.5 kilometers.
The controversy had assumed a new dimension when The Wall Street Journal newspaper quoted US defense officials as saying that the plane was hit within Syrian airspace, disputing the Turkish account of the incident.
Separately, in remarks published on Wednesday, a senior US official was quoted as saying that the US has information about circumstances surrounding the jet incident but is not planning to make them public.
The official, who spoke to the Hürriyet daily on condition of anonymity, said whether the plane was hit over the Syrian territorial waters or international waters did not matter to the US. “What matters to us is that it was downed,” the official said, adding that it was a mystery why the defense official quoted in the Wall Street Journal report said what he said.
The official was also puzzled as to why a top Turkish official like Erdoğan felt the need to speak on the matter. “Turkey thought the louder its statements were, the more believable they would be. I guess that was why the prime minister made those statements. It's like an American shouting to someone who doesn't speak English. We, however, will not say anything on the matter.”
The official also revealed that although Turkey and the US are “90 percent” on the same page in regards to how to respond to the Syrian crisis, they differed in that Turkey was more “interventionist.” And the US is not alone in its stance, the official said, reminding that other NATO states are also against an intervention in Syria.