What a difference a couple of years may make!
The frank and disturbing realism is: If a country’s air force can mistakenly bomb its own people and kill 34 innocent citizens it is hardly surprising that the air defenses of another country can mistakenly down a foreign aircraft in its airspace.
Turkey certainly has every liberty to demand a formal apology from Syria for shooting down one of its reconnaissance aircrafts, but it should first apologize for killing 34 Kurdish smugglers which its fighter jets mistook for terrorists six months ago.
It’s bizarre that Turkey has had to knock on NATO’s door to invoke Article 4 of the alliance’s treaty three years after it pledged a foreign policy of “zero problems” with neighbors. Ironically, the last time NATO held a meeting under Article 4 was also at Turkey’s request in 2003 regarding another neighboring nation, Iraq. I personally do not want to think about the consequences if Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had built an aggressive foreign policy instead of a peaceful one.
It is also bizarre that Ankara, once an all too willing broker for peace between disputing countries in the region, now needs multiple brokers to settle deepening disputes with countries in the surrounding vicinity. These days, the neo-Ottomans need the good offices of Russia and China to keep peace with Syria; ironically call on NATO and Iran at the same time to help sort out the crisis of the downed military plane in Syria; the United States for peace with Israel; the European Union for peace around Cyprus; and Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani for peace in Turkey’s southeast.
We have no idea if the doomed Turkish jet flew at an altitude of 100 meters as the Syrians claim or much, much higher as the Turks claim. Nor do we know if it was shot by air defense guns as the Syrians claim or by a missile as the Turks claim. But a few things look suspicious.
First, Turkey’s claim that the RF-4E was on a training mission is not entirely convincing. The RF-4Es are equipped with surveillance and photography pods for reconnaissance (intelligence gathering) missions. For the best results they generally fly in the lowest possible altitudes to escape radar detection and to obtain better “photography” in the targeted area.
Second, Ankara claims the aircraft was shot down 13 nautical miles off the Syrian coast, hence in international airspace. According to this thesis the Turkish plane was flying one mile outside Syrian airspace. If we recall that Turkey also admits the Turkish plane briefly violated Syrian airspace before it was downed, we can conclude that the Syrian air defenses must have fired while the Turkish jet was flying in Syrian airspace.
This is because it would take an RF-4E approximately less than 30 seconds to fly one mile while the anti-aircraft gun or missile that hit the plane could not have traveled that distance in 30 seconds. And how many times before could Turkish aircrafts have violated Syrian airspace for similar “training missions” is not known.
That’s the darker side of the technicality of the tragedy, but I am not sure if the incident is perceived as a tragedy or as an opportunity in Ankara. All the same, we can guess that further Turkish acts of gambling over Syria may eventually squeeze the Turkish government under a domestic suspicion with more and more people questioning Turkey’s newfound might.
There are already millions of Turks gossiping in coffee houses who will cheer if Turkey declared war on Syria, Turkish jets bombed Damascus and tanks rolled into Aleppo. When these neo-Ottoman masses have noticed that their all-too-powerful Turkey failed to knock down all of Syria, Iran, Russia and China altogether they may be dangerously disappointed.
With an Israeli apology for Mavi Marmara not in sight, the Israeli-Cypriot exploration for hydrocarbons off Cyprus progresses, the RF-4E downed by Syria with two pilots unfortunately still missing and the helplessness against perpetual PKK attacks, the foreign policy masters in Ankara may have to find an easier target to distract public disappointment.
Georgia, Armenia (and others), watch out!