The Syrian military shot down an unarmed Turkish Air Force RF-4E Phantom fighter plane on June 22, killing its two pilots, captain Gokhan Ertan and lieutenant Hasan Huseyin Aksoy. According to Turkish authorities, the Syrians also fired on a search-and-rescue aircraft attempting to find the wreckage of the destroyed jet, which eventually was located on the Mediterranean sea floor, 3,300 to 4,300 feet (1 to 1.3 kilometres) below the surface.
Turkish officials assert that the aircraft was targeted without warning while inside international airspace, and after straying briefly into Syrian skies. Syrian government sources claimed the shoot-down took place while the plane was inside Syrian airspace and may have been caused by "mistaken identification." Syrian functionary Omran Al-Zubi insinuated on June 27 that the Turkish fighter was mistaken for an Israeli jet: as he said, "they both are from the same factory, from the U.S., maybe Syria thought it was an Israeli plane."
The response of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the neo-fundamentalist leader of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been characteristic: combining harsh rhetoric with limited performance. On June 25, Erdogan denounced the downing of the Turkish warplane as a "hostile act" and said that Turkey would react with military force to any further aggression by Syria. Turkey has since moved tanks and artillery to the Turkish-Syrian frontier.
Turkish-Syrian relations however, are complicated by the violent conflict between the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad and its opponents. Some 30,000 Syrians have already sought refuge in Turkey. After promising the Syrian protestors publicly that he would support their struggle, Erdogan reportedly has allowed the main anti-Assad group, the Free Syrian Army, to recruit and train on its soil.
The downed RF-4E Phantom raised tensions between the two countries to a new and dangerous level. Ankara was allied with Damascus until the callous nature of Al-Assad's recent terror against his subjects became obvious to the world. Turkey and Syria, however, have previously approached open war. In 1998, Turkey, then firmly secular, pressured Syria, under threat of direct military intervention, to expel Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the radical Kurdish Workers Party, PKK. Syria expelled Ocalan, but did not hand him over to the Turkish government. Ocalan instead travelled via Russia eventually to Kenya, where, after being sheltered by the Greek Embassy, he was arrested in 1999 at Nairobi's international airport.
How successful Erdogan's employment of military pressure will now be is uncertain. His speech on June 26 to AKP parliamentary deputies was broadcast live by the pan-Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera. In the speech, he declared that Turkey would not accept, with hands tied, an attack on its air force. He went on to say, "However valuable Turkey's friendship is, its wrath is just as strong."
In the same discourse, Erdogan denied any legitimacy to the Al-Assad hierarchy. Erdogan emphasized, "We will offer all possible support to liberate the Syrians from dictatorship… a tyrannical regime that kills its own people" and which is also "a clear and present danger" to Turkish security. He warned that the Syrian rulers would suffer Turkey's "furious anger," and announced that "any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria, posing a security risk or danger, will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target."
Erdogan has sought international support for Turkey's posture on Syria. NATO, of which Turkey is a member, assailed Syria's attack on the Turkish plane. The secretary-general of the Atlantic alliance, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said, "We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms." Rasmussen referred to it as "another example of the Syrian authorities' disregard for international norms, peace and security and human life."
Unanswered questions surround the episode: as the Turkish RF-4E jet is a reconnaissance craft, Ankara has been accused of testing Syrian air defenses. The Turkish academic Hasan Koni, who is critical of Erdogan's administration, noted on the Turkish television network NTV that the plane, one of the oldest models in Turkey's air arsenal, was brought down near the Syrian city of Latakia, 44 miles (70 kilometres) from the Russian navy base at Tartus, Syria -- the last Russian military facility outside its territory, and the sole refueling station for Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean. Koni suggested that the plane could have intended to observe the Russian installation.
The Turkish public has been, as it has been so often, swept by conspiratorial rumors about the Syrian shoot-down. Many Turks are convinced that the United States wishes to use their country as a proxy against Syria in a war that could deeply harm Turkey. Anti-war sentiment is high, and supported by many in the secular opposition's Republican People's Party, or CHP. In a statement after a meeting with Erdogan on June 25, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu called the Syrian attack "intolerable," and said, "Nobody should dare test Turkey's deterrence and strength. Turkish foreign policy, at the same time, should not pursue a line that would lead to such incidents." Still, according to the authoritative daily, Hurriyet, Refik Eryilmaz, a CHP deputy for Hatay, the Turkish province on the boundary near where the plane was downed, "reportedly said at his party's closed-door parliamentary group meeting, 'We have to believe our foreign minister. But our past experiences show that we have to be cautious. The [AKP] initially denied secret talks with the PKK, but later they admitted it. That is why we should be very careful.'"
Erdogan projects himself as a patron of the Muslim world. This is the danger in his position. Isolated operations by Turkey against Syria will not resolve the situation. Erdogan appealed to NATO only for talks with its other members based on Article 4 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which provides for mutual consultations when a member is threatened. He did not invoke Article 5, which describes an attack on one NATO member as an attack on all, in which the entire body must mobilize to defend the member under assault. As he has before, Erdogan employs bluster and intrigue simultaneously, with one single aim: the expansion of Turkish regional power.