ISTANBUL — Turkey and Syria on Saturday pulled back from a possible confrontation over Syria’s downing of a Turkish fighter jet that had strayed across their common border into Syrian air space Friday. As their respective navies searched for the two missing Turkish crew, both sides said Friday’s clash had been accidental.
A spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry said the military unit that shot down the Turkish F4 Phantom interceptor had not realized the aircraft was Turkish and added: “There was no enmity against Turkey.” Spokesman Jihad Makdisi made the comment to the Turkish state news channel TRT, AP reported.
Earlier Saturday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said the Turkish incursion into Syrian air space was not deliberate. “It is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over borders,” he said. “These are not ill-intentioned things, but happen beyond control due to the jets’ speed.”
It wasn’t clear how or whether Turkey would retaliate. Gul said it was “not possible to cover over a thing like this,” and added: “whatever is necessary will be done.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s had said Friday night that after completing an investigation, Turkey would “decisively take the next steps.”
The F4, which a top Turkish official said was on a reconnaissance mission, had departed Erhac base in Malatya province to the northwest of the Syrian border Friday morning. Shortly before noon, Turkish authorities lost contact with the aircraft as it was flying over Hatay, a Turkish border province.
The Syrian government said an “unidentified object” had approached Syrian territorial waters from the west at “a very low altitude and at high speed.” Syrian anti-aircraft artillery fired at the jet when it was one kilometer (0.6 mile) off the Syrian coast, and it crashed 8 kilometers, about 4.8 miles, off the coast.
Gul’s statement put the onus on Syria to explain why its army chose to shoot first, rather than try to establish radio contact, fire warning shots or even send up aircraft when the F4 crossed into Syrian territory. Neither he nor Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc provided details of the aircraft’s reconnaissance mission.
The F4 can carry 18,000 pounds of bombs and missiles and was used widely by the United States during the Vietnam war, but the U.S. phased the plane out in the mid 1990s. It is still a mainstay of several other nation’s air forces, however.
Relations between the two countries were close as recently as two years ago, but have been deeply strained by the 16-month old Arab Spring uprising and crackdown by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With thousands of civilians reported dead and at least 30,000 refugees inside Turkey, Erdogan has demanded Assad’s ouster and has welcomed the political and military wings of the resistance on Turkish soil. Syrian fighters move back and forth across the border, and cash, provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is also flowing into the coffers of the resistance.
But an escalation into a Turkish-Syrian military conflict could drag in the big powers backing the two sides, the United States for Turkey and Russia and Iran for Syria, and there is no sign any of the major powers wants that to happen.
As a NATO member, Turkey could invoke Article V of the European defense pact and ask its allies to come to its defense, but a NATO military spokesman said Saturday that Turkey had not approached the alliance for assistance.
Even if the shoot-down is written off as an accident, the tensions along the border are high, and there are any number of possibilities for a clash that would ignite a broader conflict.
Early in April, after Syrian troops fired shots into Turkish territory, wounding two Syrian refugees, Turkey warned that it was prepared to take “all measures” against Syria if there was a recurrence.