Tensions along Syria – Turkey border heat up
Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Turkey scrambled six F-16 fighter jets near its border with Syria, in a warning to the al-Assad regime after a Syrian helicopter approached Turkish territory. The Turkish military revealed that, acting according to the revised military “rules of engagement” towards Syria put forward by Ankara, it had scrambled six jets to the area in response to three such incidents on Saturday, adding that there had been no violation of Turkish airspace.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “Syrian planes were approaching the Turkish border in a hostile manner, and this prompted us to take precautionary measures.”
Whilst a Turkish official, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, claimed that the movement of Turkish military units towards the Turkish – Syrian borders “is proceeding according to the plans of the General Staff of the Republic of Turkey.” He added that this movement does not intend to incite war with Syria, but are part of precautionary military measures “in anticipation of all possibilities.”
The source stressed that Turkey’s military rules of engagement with Syria have changed, adding that any Syrian military unit or force that approaches the Turkish border is immediately classified as “hostile”, adding “it does not need to penetrate the Turkish borders.” He also stressed that any Syrian Air Force jet that the Turkish forces “believe” intents to cross the border “will be dealt with.”
For his part, senior presidential adviser Arshet Hormozlo told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Turkey was not the preemptor in changing the rules of engagement, rather the Syrian regime pushed Turkey to do so when it, without warning, shot down a Turkish plane in international waters.”
As for the possibility of war breaking out between Ankara and Damascus, Hormozlo stressed that Turkey will not take any such decision in isolation from the international community, adding “after today, we do not want anybody to test Turkey’s patience.”
After Syrian forces show down a Turkish reconnaissance jet last month, Ankara vowed to take “necessary steps”, whilst Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Syria as a “clear and present danger.” The shooting down of its jet led to Turkey reinforcing its 550-mile border with Syria and declaring new rules of engagement at the frontier, whilst Ankara also began to send long-rage weapons and troops to the border region.
The Turkish military revealed that four of the six F-16s were scrambled from the Turkish air force base in Incirlik in response to two separate incidents during which Syrian helicopters flew close to Hayat province.
Later on Saturday, two more F-16s were scrambled from a base near Batman, in south-eastern Turkey, after Syrian helicopters were spotted close to the province of Mardin.
The Turkish military said the helicopters flew as close as 6.5 km (4 miles) to the border.
Turkey on Sunday reiterated its position that Syria shot down its fighter jet in international airspace, denying reports that the plane may have been downed with shore-based anti-aircraft guns over Syrian territorial waters. Turkey’s armed forces issued a statement stressing that its unarmed F4 Phantom plane had briefly entered Syrian airspace, but was one mile outside this territory – over international waters – when it was show down on 22 June. The statement was accompanied by a detailed annotated map charting the plane’s route before it was shot down.
The statement read “we have felt the need to clarify reports based on a foreign news organ about our plane which was downed in international airspace by Syria on June 22 in the eastern Mediterranean. As a conclusion according to current radar images and the administrative investigation our plane was shot one mile outside the 12 miles of Syrian territorial waters.”
The Wall Street Journal had published a report citing several American officials who said that US intelligence indicated that the plane wasn’t hit by a surface-to-air missile and instead was most likely hit by shore-based anti-aircraft guns inside Syrian airspace. The use of anti-aircraft fire would suggest the Turkish plane was flying low to the ground and slowly.
Turkey has completely rejected this story with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan describing this as a “lie” and criticizing local media outlets that translated the Wall Street Journal article or questioned Ankara’s accounting of the incident.
Speaking to supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party in Kayseri, eastern Anatolia, Erdogan reportedly said “those who follow the path of the cowardly, also publish this. Who are you with? How many times have we made a statement on the jet?”
The Turkish army has revealed that it has failed to find the downed military plane, and the US exploration vessel Nautilus has now joined the search and recovery efforts. A Turkish diplomatic source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, revealed that the Nautilus, a 64-meter-deep-sea research vessel which is currently based in Bodrum, Turkey, joined the recovery efforts at the request of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.