Turkey says Syrian forces fire at second Turkish plane

Turkey said on Monday that Syrian forces have fired on a Turkish military transport »»

Turkey said on Monday that Syrian forces have fired on a Turkish military transport plane involved in searching for an F-4 jet shot down by Syria last week, but that the second aircraft was not brought down.

Damascus described its shooting of the F-4 jet on Friday as an act of self-defense and warned Ankara and its NATO allies against any retaliation. Turkey said the incident would “not go unpunished,” but added that it did not intend to go to war with Syria.

The disclosure of a second incident came on the eve of a NATO crisis meeting that Turkey has called to address the shooting down of its F-4 jet, which Ankara has described as an unprovoked attack in international airspace.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said at a news conference on Monday that shortly after the F-4 jet was shot down, four helicopters and two ships were dispatched on an initial search and rescue operation, followed by a military turboprop transport aircraft. “Our plane, which had gone to rescue [the pilots], was fired upon. This situation was resolved following a warning from our Foreign Ministry. But yes, there was a short period of harassing fire,” said Arınç.

A Foreign Ministry official later said the plane returned to Turkish airspace immediately after being fired on and that search and rescue efforts resumed following communications “through military and diplomatic channels.” He said there were no injuries reported aboard the transport aircraft.

Turkish F-4 military jet downed

Arınç also said on Monday that Turkey would protect itself within the framework of international law against what it called Syria's “hostile action.” Arınç said following a seven-hour Cabinet meeting to discuss the incident, “Everyone should know that this kind of action will not go unpunished.”

However, he added: “Whatever is required will definitely be done within the framework of international law. We have no intention of going to war with anyone. We have no such intent.”

According to Ankara's account of Friday's episode, the jet entered Syrian airspace briefly and by mistake while on a mission to test Turkish radar systems. Some analysts have suggested it might in fact have been testing the responsiveness of Russian-supplied Syrian radar that could pose a major obstacle to foreign intervention, including supplying Syrian rebels or reconnaissance support.

Arınç also said Syrian “air elements” have violated Turkish airspace five times in the recent past, but that the incidents had been settled peacefully.

Syria's account of Friday's incident, though tempered with a stated commitment to a “neighborly relationship,” seemed likely to increase anger in Turkey ahead of the NATO gathering. “NATO is supposed to be there to strengthen countries,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said at a Damascus news conference. “If their meeting is for hostile reasons [they should know that] Syrian land and waters are sacred.”

Turkey says the wreckage of the aircraft, shot down close to the Mediterranean maritime borders of both states, is lying in deep waters. Makdissi said some flotsam had been found and handed over to Turkey. There was no word on the two airmen.

“The plane disappeared and then reappeared in Syrian airspace, flying at an altitude of 100 meters and about one to two kilometers [0.6-1.2 miles] from the Syrian coast,” the Syrian spokesman said. “We had to react immediately. Even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down. The Syrian response was an act of defense of our sovereignty carried out by anti-aircraft machineguns which have a maximum range of 2.5 kilometers.”

Turkish Air Force commanders briefed President Abdullah Gül, the armed forces chief, and the Cabinet on what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said would be a “decisive” response. Turkey also said it would take the matter to the UN Security Council.

The United States said it would work with NATO ally Turkey to hold Syria accountable for what US officials believe was a deliberate act. White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about what an appropriate response might be, but officials at a US Defense Department briefing said they believed the downing was deliberate.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said: “The Syrian regime needs to answer for it. This once again shows the illegitimacy of the [Bashar al-]Assad regime and what it's doing and is deeply troubling.”

Though not known for his emotional restraint, Erdoğan has eschewed bellicose rhetoric, aware perhaps of Western reluctance to commit to any military action and wary himself of anything that could trigger a regional sectarian war. Erdoğan turned against former ally Assad after he rebuffed advice to bow to demands for reform. Turkey now allows the rebel Free Syrian Army to use Turkish territory as a safe haven, though Ankara denies supplying the FSA with arms.

“I'm not of the opinion that Turkey will immediately respond militarily,” said Beril Dedeoğlu of Galatasaray University. “But if there is another action, then there will certainly be a military response. There is no doubt.”

After Friday's attack, Erdoğan invoked Article 4 of NATO's founding treaty which provides for urgent consultations if a member considers its security interests threatened. Had he sought some kind of retaliation at the NATO meeting, set for Tuesday, the prime minister could have invoked Article 5, pertain to mutual defense. That he did not do so suggests the reaction will remain, at least for now, at the diplomatic stage.

A European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg called for a calm response from Turkey, saying they would increase pressure on Assad. “Military intervention in Syria is out of the question,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal. “It is not a matter of consideration for the Dutch government. That is also at stake in the ... context of NATO.”

Recent defections

In the shell-shattered districts of Homs, the heart of a 16-month-old revolt against Syrian President Assad, rebels battled troops as aid workers tried to evacuate civilians. Turkish television reported the desertion of a Syrian general and other officers across the border.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was again trying to arrange for the safe evacuation of civilians trapped in Homs. But anti-government activists have reported heavy shelling in central districts, including Jouret al-Shiyah and al-Qarabis. Video showed detonations and machinegun bursts from the skeletal shells of abandoned apartment blocks.

The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad's troops carried out raids and arrests in areas still under military control and that heavy fighting between government forces and rebel fighters was reported in the opposition centers of Idlib, Deir al-Zor and Deraa, the birthplace of the uprising.

“In Deraa, regime regular troops are trying to reassert control of some villages with heavy shelling, gunfire and helicopters firing missiles,” the Observatory said in an email.