ISTANBUL – On June 22, a stricken Turkish RF-4 Phantom reconnaissance aircraft splashed down in the Mediterranean, brought down by anti-aircraft fire from the Syrian military. The pilots have yet to be located, and are most likely dead. The incident has deepened the rift between Turkey and Syria, former allies whose partnership deteriorated along with President Bashar al-Assad's brutal 15-month crackdown on his own people. Although this incident alone will not push Turkey into direct military confrontation with the Syrian regime, it has put the country in a position where one more incident will force it to, in the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "teach those who dare to test the limits of its might."
Beyond the basic
fact of a downed Turkish jet, Ankara and Damascus disagree over the essential
details that led to the incident. Turkey insists that the plane was in international
airspace when it was fired upon and had only crossed into Syrian airspace
briefly, an event that President Abdullah Gul described as "routine." The Syrian regime, meanwhile, insists
the Phantom was shot down well within Syrian territory -- a claim that backs up
the regime's claim that the uprising, which the U.N. estimates has left
more than 10,000 dead, is being guided
by foreign powers.
Erdogan responded with typical anger over yet another Syrian provocation. In a June 26 address to a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara that was attended by Arab diplomats, he announced that any Syrian forces approaching the countries' 565-mile border would be considered a threat and that any infringement of the border would be met with force. The Syrian regime presented a "clear and present danger," Erdogan said.
Meanwhile, Erdogan's top aides publicly pushed the message that the rules of the game had changed. Ibrahim Kalin, one of the premier's top foreign-policy advisors, expanded on the statement on Twitter: "The rules of engagement for the Turkish armed forces have been changed and expanded," he wrote. "Any military element approaching Turkish borders from the Syrian side will be considered a direct military threat."
A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, backed up this newly aggressive rhetoric. With the continued bloodshed in Syria and, now the shooting down of the Turkish Phantom, Ankara is no longer playing "Mr. Nice Guy," the official said.
Erdogan's words immediately raised the question of whether a de facto safe zone -- a policy option long broached as one way Turkey could hasten the Assad regime's demise -- was being created to aid opposition forces, yet neither the prime minister nor his advisors specified what "approaching Turkish borders" meant.
Turkey's understanding of how the incident played out has its increased outrage at Assad. The Turkish official told me that the pilots accidently entered Syrian airspace for five minutes, most likely miscalculating their flight path by incorrectly identifying a pair of mountain ridges toward which they were supposed to fly. They were informed of their mistake by Turkish radar station operators and returned to Turkish airspace. The pilots were then asked to correctly repeat their maneuver, which was meant to test Turkey's domestic radar capabilities, the official said. They returned to international airspace, looping around and flying back toward Turkey, parallel to the Syrian coastline, when they were shot down near the Syrian city of Lattakia, according to the official.
Turkey intercepted the Syrian radio communications during the incident. There was "no panic" in the voices of Syrian forces, the Turkish official said. It appeared they had been previously instructed to take such actions and proved themselves aware it was a Turkish aircraft, referring to it as the "neighbors'" plane.
There is no denying that Turkey has emerged as a regional hub of anti-Assad activity in the Middle East. In the past year, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has established an office in Istanbul, with a section dedicated to military coordination. The nominal leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with an estimated 33,000 Syrians who fled the spiraling violence inside their country, are based in 10 Turkish camps in the border region. The U.S. State Department has also established an office in Istanbul to help train activists and provide non-lethal equipment to the opposition.
In the past weeks, reports have also claimed that Turkey's National Security Organization (MIT), its intelligence agency, has transported multiple shipments of weapons to rebels along the border. Turkey's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Selcuk Unal denied the claims, but one Syrian activist involved in transferring the new weapons from MIT to the rebels along the Syrian-Turkish border confirmed the shipments. "For myself, it was not my aim," said the activist, who had previously told me he preferred nonviolent measures to bring down the Assad regime. "But it's generally what everyone wants. It's sort of a victory."