Confusion about what happened to a military jet that went missing off the Syrian coast on June 22 has already sparked criticism at home towards the government for the way it has handled its process of investigation. But the ramifications may not be solely domestic as the confusion also puts Turkey’s international credibility, including within NATO -- which rushed to express solidarity with Ankara after the incident -- at stake.
In a statement on Wednesday, the military signaled revision in its version of the events, referring for the first time to the RF-4E Phantom that went missing as “our aircraft that Syrian authorities have claimed to have downed.” This means the plane may not have been downed by Syria at all and that it may have crashed into the water as a result of malfunction or piloting error or – assuming that the Syrians did attack the plane – faulty maneuvering while trying to escape from attack.
Soon after the jet went missing over the Mediterranean, Turkey said the aircraft was shot down by the Syrian forces with a missile in international airspace, calling it a “hostile act.” Ankara then summoned an emergency meeting of NATO under Article 4 of the alliance’s charter, which allows a NATO ally to request such NATO consultation if it feels its territorial integrity or security has been threatened.
“If it turns out that the Turks, who were among the first members of the North Atlantic Alliance, were less than honest with their NATO partners, it is going to put a major strain on the relations,” wrote Steven A. Cook, a Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, although he said this cannot be the case because Turkey “would never risk its status within the alliance.”
But even in the event that there was no deliberate attempt to hide facts from NATO allies, the way the government has handled the process still raises questions of trustworthiness. “Of course this risks Turkey’s credibility,” said Duygu Sezer, a professor of international relations at Doğuş University, commenting on the confusion that emerged after the military statement.
She said the Turkish authorities acted “hastily and on incomplete information” but also questioned the position of the United States, NATO’s biggest power, which she said is very unlikely not to have detailed information on the incident because of its impressive naval presence in the region. “It is out of the question for the US to not to have information on any incident unfolding in the Mediterranean,” she said. “I believe the Americans have all the information about the incident and find it confusing that they were completely silent when it was taken to NATO.”
Speaking after NATO’s emergency talks on June 26 in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen condemned Syria for shooting down the Turkish jet and declared that the alliance was in solidarity with Turkey.
Turkey initially said the RF-4E jet was shot down with a missile in international airspace while Syria says the plane was flying fast and low when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire with bullets having a range of only 2.5 kilometers.
According to a Wall Street report on June 29 that has become highly controversial in Turkey, NATO officials said Turkey’s presentation on the incident during the emergency meeting was very detailed, but diplomats didn’t closely question the Turks on their version of events. The US backed Turkey and, American officials said, pushed NATO to issue a statement sharply condemning Syria, the story read.
The June 26 meeting, in fact, was the second time NATO ever had talks under Article 4 throughout its history and the only other time NATO has convened under Article 4 was in 2003 to discuss the Iraq War, again at the request of Turkey.
Earlier this year, Turkish officials have also said they might seek NATO help after two Turks were injured by bullets fired from the Syrian side of the border near a Syrian refugee camp in an April incident. “NATO has a responsibility to protect Turkish borders,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then said, signaling that Turkey may officially ask NATO members to apply Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which says that an attack on any member shall be considered to be an attack on all, if the situation in Syria becomes a serious-enough threat to Turkish national security.
But this incident, too, was full of questions due to contradicting information regarding the chain of events that led to the injuries on the Turkish side of the border. Local officials talked of clashes for several hours between the Syrian forces and opposition fighters after the latter attempted to seize control of the custom gates between the two countries and then to escape to Turkey.
Responding with moderation?
For some, despite its hasty call on NATO for emergency talks, Turkey still acted with sufficient moderation and refused to be drawn into military confrontation with Syria despite nationalist calls urging the government to retaliate in the immediate aftermath of the June 22 incident.
“Despite aggressive and nationalist rhetoric, Turkey managed to respond to the crisis with moderation,” Professor Kemal Kirişçi of Boğaziçi University told Today’s Zaman.
“The situation would have been far more complicated in regards to Turkey’s relations with the international community in general and with NATO in particular, if we had resorted to any military action,” he said.
Gözde Nur Donat in Ankara contributed to reporting.