Back to square one as Turkish jet incident turns into messy mystery

Back to square one as Turkish jet incident turns into messy mystery

Pieces of the plane wreckage, found eight-and-a-half miles off the Syrian coast, have been retrieved during search and rescue efforts. But the main chunk of the wreckage remains on the seabed and is yet to be recovered. (Photo: Reuters)

July 12, 2012, Thursday/ 17:18:00

A series of public statements meant to shed light on how a Turkish jet crashed off the Syrian coast in a June 22 incident have ended up raising a barrage of questions including whether the aircraft was shot down by the Syrian forces at all, and are set to create a headache for the government.

The possibility of an accident, rather than a Syrian attack, now appears to be an option in the June 22 Turkish jet incident following the most recent statement by the military

In its most recent statement on the incident, the military has apparently called into question the one constant of the Turkish narrative of the event; that the RF-4E Phantom was shot down by the Syrian forces over the Mediterranean. Contrary to all other statements made to the public so far, the military referred to the plane as “our aircraft that Syrian authorities claimed to have downed,” immediately raising questions whether the plane's crash was an accident.

In the light of this statement, experts say, the plane might have crashed because of malfunction or piloting error. The statement made on Wednesday afternoon also said an ongoing examination of pieces of the plane's wreckage has revealed no result indicating what kind of a weapon was used in the downing of the jet. It said 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 or any ammunition. “So how did this plane crash?” was the question dominating headlines in the Turkish newspapers on Thursday.

The government has reacted with fury after the jet incident, vowing this “hostile” act will not go unpunished, and the military has sent reinforcements along the Syrian border with a promise to respond to any Syrian military movement near the border. Any discovery that the whole incident was actually an accident would put the government in a difficult spot. But the government is sticking to its earlier assertion that the plane was shot down by the Syrian forces.

A senior official dismissed the questions raised by the latest statement, saying on Thursday that some “nuances” should not be overrated.

“We are talking about an important issue. A Turkish jet was downed and the Syrian administration said ‘We downed it.’ It is clear where it was hit, where it crashed,” Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç told reporters. Referring to Wednesday’s statement by the military, Arınç said statements over “what was found and what was not on the retrieved pieces of the wreckage or use of certain phrases” should not be overestimated.

“All the statements will be made in full when this investigation ends,” he said. “One should not be in an effort to reach different conclusions by focusing on some nuances.”

Consistency problem?

The Turkish narrative of the event -- that the plane was hit by the Syrian forces with a missile in the international airspace without any warning -- already came under question. Earlier in the week, a military spokesman led to suspicions over whether the plane crashed as a result of a missile attack when he revealed that there was no evidence at hand yet indicating conclusively that the plane was shot down by a missile. “Our jet had a missile detection system. So if there had been any missile threat, the system would have detected it,” Brig. Gen. Baki Kavun said in remarks published in a newspaper. When asked if Turkey had any footage or radar image decisively confirming that the plane was shot down by a missile, Kavun said, “There is no image of a missile.”

Syria has said it downed the jet but did not know that it was a Turkish plane. Turkey says the jet -- an unarmed reconnaissance version of the F4 fighter jet -- was shot down by Syria 13 miles off its coast, meaning a mile beyond its national airspace, while it was on a mission to test domestic radar systems. Syria, on the other hand, claims the aircraft was flying fast and low, at an altitude of 100 meters, when it was shot down by anti-aircraft fire well within its airspace. The bullets that shot the plane, according to Syria, have a range of only 2.5 kilometers.

Some pieces of the plane wreckage, found 8.5 miles off the Syrian coast, have been retrieved during search and rescue efforts under way since the incident. But the main chunk of the wreckage remains in the seabed and is yet to be recovered.

Lack of evidence confirming that the plane was shot down by a missile has led to questions in the Turkish media over whether the aircraft was really in international airspace. If it was hit by anti-aircraft fire, as Syria maintains, it would be a strong indication that the plane was within the Syrian airspace, given the fact that the anti-aircraft fire is not capable of hitting targets from a long distance because of their very short range.

For some, however, focus on details on how and where the jet was downed will “water down” the basic facts about the incident that the plane was shot down by Syria without warning. “If the plane was hit without proper prior warnings or interception, it does not matter whether it was hit by anti-aircraft fire or missile and whether in international or Syrian airspace,” said Professor Mustafa Kibaroğlu, an arms control expert at Okan University in İstanbul.

“Such debates undermine Turkey’s stance even when it is in a rightful position,” he told Today’s Zaman.

If the incident was nothing but an accident, then cooperation with other countries that have declared to possess information about it could be an option. Data pointing to any sort of accident might be obtained from US radar facilities in the region, according to Yakup Evirgen, a retired major and defense economy expert. “But we don’t know if there has been any effort, at the level of government or the military, to get that information,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a press conference in Geneva on June 30 that Russia has data regarding the jet incident and was prepared to present it. “We have our objective observation data and we are prepared to present it,” Lavrov said.

In remarks published on Wednesday, a senior US official was quoted as saying the US has information about circumstances surrounding the jet incident but is not planning to make it public. The official, speaking to daily Hürriyet, said whether the plane was hit over Syrian territorial waters or international waters did not matter to the US. “What matters to us is that it was downed,” the official said.


Official statements on jet incident since June 22

The government and the military have at times offered differing information regarding circumstances surrounding the crash of the Turkish RF-4E Phantom jet but have been consistent until recently in saying that the aircraft was downed by the Syrian forces without warning.

Hours after the crash of the plane, a statement from the Prime Ministry said it was ascertained, as a result of an “assessment of data provided by our relevant institutions and information obtained as part of search and rescue efforts conducted together with Syria,” that the plane was shot down by Syrian forces.

Two days later, on June 24, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu responded to questions during a live interview on state broadcaster TRT, saying the Turkish plane was shot down in international airspace, calling it an “attack.”

On June 25, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç reiterated that the plane was shot down in international airspace and added that it was clear that “Syria deliberately targeted our aircraft.” He said the plane was shot down without any warning and dismissed Syrian claims that it was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He said the plane was hit by a laser-guided or heat-seeking missile.

A day later, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “Our plane was hit 13 miles off the Syrian coast in an attack. It crashed into the water eight-and-a-half miles off the Syrian coast after it strayed off its route. I want to underline this: Our plane was not hit in Syrian airspace. It fell in Syrian territorial waters after it was hit.”

On July 8, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz raised eyebrows when he revealed that examination of the pieces from the wreckage of the plane showed there was no sign of a missile attack or anti-aircraft fire.

On July 9, Brig. Gen. Baki Kavun raised further suspicions on whether the plane crashed as a result of a missile attack when he revealed that there was no evidence yet indicating conclusively that the plane was shot down by a missile. “Our jet had a missile detection system. So if there had been any missile threat, the system would have detected it,” he said. But in remarks published on the same day, Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel insisted that the plane was hit in international airspace.

On July 11, the General Staff raised the possibility of an accident, referring to the plane as “our aircraft that Syrian authorities claimed to have downed.” The statement made on Wednesday afternoon also said an ongoing examination of the pieces of the plane’s wreckage has revealed no results indicating what weapon was used in the downing of the jet. İstanbul Today’s Zaman

Gözde Nur Donat in Ankara contributed to reporting.

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