When Syria shot down a Turkish civilian plane belonging to the land registry directorate 23 years ago, relations were not exactly good. However, after listening to radio communications made between Syrians during the incident, the Turkish side concluded that it was an accident. “We could clearly hear a Syrian official yelling at the other for having shot down the plane,” a former Turkish diplomat familiar with the incident told me. The case was closed when the Syrians agreed to pay compensation for the incident.
Listening to the latest radio communications, the Turkish government seems convinced that the shooting down of the Turkish reconnaissance plane last Friday by Syria was not an accident. Ankara
has concluded that not only did the Syrians know it was a Turkish plane, but that there was a sort of a decision-making process proving that this was not simply the decision of a junior official.
Looking at the political background, we have to underline the fact that Turkey is currently in a position hostile to Syria. Not only does it openly want regime change, but it is also hosting opposition groups. The importance, of course, is the fact that it is not alone in seeking regime change and in supporting the opposition.
So far Syria has been extremely careful not to openly confront Turkey. So, the question one has to ask is: Why has Syria now decided to take a step that is sure to infuriate Ankara? While suffering from international isolation, why would it take a step to further rouse the reaction of the Western alliance?
Is it a show of force against Turkey? “While you are trying to unseat me, don’t expect me to sit and watch.” Is that what the regime is saying to Ankara?
“This is not a typical Syrian move. Syria does not usually engage in open hostile actions. It usually hits quietly,” the same Turkish diplomat who is familiar with Syria told me.
Actually, while Syria was very careful in its official rhetoric towards Turkey, it was already sending the message that it would not stand still. It did so by letting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK) move freely in Syrian territory, and by bribing members of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) to hand over defected Syrian army officers, in accordance with “avoid open confrontation, hit quietly” approach. (For those not familiar with the issue, let me recall that Syria was successful in bribing one MİT official to hand over an army officer, while it has been also revealed that similar such initiatives have been prevented by Turkish security forces.)
The question, then, is why has Syria now decided to openly confront Ankara, rather than “hitting it quietly?”
Maybe, it was aiming to kill three birds with one stone. One, to make a show of force to Turkey; two, to send a message to the opposition not to rely too much on Turkey; three, to send a message to the international community saying: “Don’t mess with me, I can turn the whole region into a fireball.”
The answers to these questions will determine Turkey’s next steps, as well as the international support it will get for these steps. It might choose to “somehow” hit back, get even and close the case, or it might try to use this occasion to continue harassing the regime militarily in order to trigger a controlled hot engagement with Syria, with the conviction that this might quicken the end of the regime.