Turkish fury over downed plane
Syria's recent downing of a Turkish plane could have multiple repercussions in the region, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid in Ankara
A couple of years ago, Turkish-Syrian relations were good, and, undeterred by the police tactics of the Al-Assad regime in Syria, Ankara's Islamist government forged close relations with Damascus.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Al-Assad, both having come to power at the turn of the century, not only enjoyed close political relations, but they were also family friends. As the two men discussed state business, their wives would often chat to each other. That friendship is now over.
Just a few years ago, a Turkish plane could have strayed into Syrian airspace, or vice versa, without as much as causing a ripple in the smooth waters of good neighbourliness. But when a Turkish reconnaissance plane strayed into Syrian airspace last week, it was shot down without warning.
According to Turkish officials, the plane was fired at just ten miles from the countries' common border, an area that most neighbouring countries are relaxed about, given the frequency of pilot errors.
The downing of the plane was also particularly shocking because Damascus has not in the past been perturbed by frequent Israeli incursions into its airspace. When Israel bombed the site of possible nuclear facility in Syria some years ago, Damascus even pretended that nothing had happened.
Turkey says that its airspace was violated 114 times last year by Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish planes. Even Israeli fighter planes have flown into Turkish airspace 15 times or more over the past three months alone. Ankara has reacted to these violations with nothing more than a routine diplomatic protest.
According to the Turkish media, Syria could have been punishing Ankara for the latter's alleged complicity in the escape of a Syrian pilot to Jordan, together with his Syrian MiG-21 plane. Some say that Damascus is currently holding the two Turkish pilots of the recently downed Turkish plane as hostages.
The current crisis recalls the uneasy relations between Syria and Turkey before the signing of the Adana Agreement in 1998. Ankara was then threatening to invade Syria to eliminate Turkish Kurdish camps set up there by former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad's father.
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu stopped short of threatening retaliation against Syria after the downing of the plane, but he warned Damascus against provoking the Turkish military.
Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, said on Monday that Ankara was entitled to take action in response to the downing of its F-4 plane. Washington and several European capitals expressed similar sentiments, and NATO said it would back Turkey if it decided to act.
At present, it seems unlikely that Turkey will be satisfied with an apology, or even compensation, from Damascus. More likely, Ankara will put further pressure on Syria, in order to try to bring about the collapse of the Al-Assad regime, which explains why it has been urging the UN and NATO to intervene.
Turkey has also been telling foreign diplomats that the Syrian move took place with Russian and Iranian backing. According to a report on the Debka website, believed to be run by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, Russian experts working at Syrian military bases fired at the Turkish plane.
Military experts believe that since Turkish military aircraft stopped being sent to Israel for maintenance work after the attack on the Mavi Marmara peace flotilla two years ago, they have failed to keep abreast of Russian anti-aircraft technology.
In another parallel development, several top Syrian army officers, including a general and two colonels, defected to Turkey a few days ago, underlining increasing divisions in the ranks of Al-Assad's supporters.