Turkey shoots down Syrian regime plane, PM announces at election rally

Turkey shoots down Syrian regime plane, PM announces at election rally

Turkey shoots down Syrian regime plane, PM announces at election rally

Fierce fighting was still under way March 23 at the Kasab crossing. AA photo

Turkey said its fighter jets shot down a Syrian jet on March 23 after it crossed into Turkish airspace and warned the Syrian regime of a “heavy response” if its airspace was violated again, in a fresh incident that could potentially escalate tension on the already unstable Turkish-Syrian border.

The announcement of the downing of the Syrian fighter jet came from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a pre-election rally in Kocaeli.

“They [Syrian jets] violated our borders, our airspace. Our F-16s took off and downed a plane,” Erdoğan told thousands of voters gathered to watch him speak. “Our response will be heavy if our airspace is violated. I congratulate our armed forces, our honorable pilots and particularly our chief of general staff.”

His announcement of the incident at an election rally was reminiscent of the main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s warning that the government could provoke an armed conflict with Syria on the eve of the municipal elections.

“We have been hearing from sources that the government could push the army to enter Syria, citing the threats against the Süleyman Shah Tomb as pretext,” Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kılıçdaroğlu told reporters last week, urging the Turkish army not to fall into the government’s “trap.” 

President Abdullah Gül also congratulated Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel over the phone for the protection of Turkish borders. “Turkey has shown its determination in protecting its borders,” Gül told Gen. Özel, according to Anadolu Agency.

Apart from the shooting down of a Syrian helicopter in September 2013, it is the first time the Turkish armed forces have downed a Syrian jet in more than three years of turmoil, during which the Syrian army downed a Turkish jet and killed two of its pilots in June 2012.

Hit in just one minute

According to the statement issued by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), Turkish radars detected two Syrian MIG-23s approaching Turkish airspace at 13:00 p.m. local time yesterday and warned the pilots not to get closer to the Turkish border four times. One of the jets changed its route and returned to Syria, but the other flew into Turkish airspace for nearly 1.5 kms, the TSK said. The pilot was able to eject, it added as the jet was downed in Syrian territory.

It stated that the MIG-23 entered Turkish airspace at 13:13 p.m. and was shot down just a minute later, in line with the rules of engagement. It was shot down by a Turkish F-16 jet that was already on a patrol mission in the region, along with another Turkish jet.

Turkey changed its rules of engagement in the aftermath of the downing of a Turkish jet by Syria in June 2012 and announced it would take “every measure” against any Syrian military vehicle approaching Turkish borders, either by air or sea.

Syria blames Turkey

Syria denied that its jet had violated Turkish airspace and accused Turkey of “flagrant aggression.” “In a flagrant act of aggression that is evidence of Erdoğan’s support for terrorist groups, Turkish anti-aircraft defenses shot down a Syrian military aircraft that was chasing terrorist groups inside Syrian territory at Kasab,” a Syrian military source said, according to Agence France-Presse.

The region where the incident took place has been witnessing serious clashes between the Syrian regime and the Free Syrian Army. The MIG-23 jets were in a support mission to ground forces, according to Syrian sources who have been accusing Turkish security forces of facilitating the infiltration of anti-regime radical groups into Syria.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the plane was bombing rebels fighting to seize Kasab when it was hit, catching fire and crashing within Syrian territory.

The monitor said jihadists had overrun the crossing, but were still battling loyalist forces in the area and in the nearby town of Kasab. It also said the government has sent military reinforcements.

The battle for Kasab erupted on March 21 and at least 80 fighters on either side have been killed.

According to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground for its reports, the fighting in Latakia spread March 22 to a string of villages under regime control. As a result, “significant military reinforcements have been sent to the government forces,” it said. The Latakia province, which includes al-Assad’s family village, is considered a regime stronghold, and many of its residents are part of the Alawite minority.

Large parts of the province have remained relatively insulated from the three-year conflict that has reportedly killed more than 146,000 people.

Turkey is a staunch opponent of the al-Assad government and hosts more than 750,000 refugees, many in camps along the border.