Plane Incident Increases Turkey-Syria Tensions

The loss of a Turkish jet fighter off the coast of Syria signals a further escalation of tensions between Damascus and Ankara, raising the stakes for Turkish leaders who have heretofore limited themselves to diplomatic efforts and mostly quiet support for Syrian refugees and opposition leaders. 

It is unclear what brought down a Turkish F-4 in the waters off the coast of Hatay province, the tongue of land that hangs down from the Anatolian mainland and that was once part of Syria and remained until relatively recently the object of formal irredentist claims in Damascus.  Lebanese media associated with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement were quick to report that the Syrian air defense downed a Turkish warplane and hit another, but this has not been corroborated – and may have been intended to inflame Turkish-Syrian tension further.  Turkish accounts have discussed only one plane, not two.  Citing unnamed official sources, Turkish media have reported that a search and rescue operation was launched, and other sources have suggested that the Syrian coast guard might be cooperating–which would seem to contradict the assertion that was Damascus responsible for the loss of the plane.  As the day ended in Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan met with the chief of the Turkish general staff and other top security and foreign affairs aides to assess the situation and determine next steps.  That no clear official announcements have yet been made may suggest that the facts are unclear or that Turkish officials wanted more time to consider and develop the right next steps in response. 

The F-4 was presumably on a reconnaissance mission over Hatay and along the coastal waters off the territory and Syria farther to the south.  Reflecting the terrain and the fact that extended families sprawl across nearby towns on both sides, the Hatay-Syria border is a relatively porous one that almost certainly has seen trafficking in arms to the Free Syrian Army and possibly other groups in that, as well as cross-border raids by terrorists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), factions of which have stepped up attacks on Turkish military positions in recent days.  

If Turkey’s F-4 was in fact brought down deliberately, the recent defection of a Syrian pilot with his MiG-21 to Jordan may have put Syrian air defense on a hair trigger.  Mechanical failure or pilot error could also account for the F-4 loss. Turkey’s F-4s are older and less capable aircraft that its larger and recently modernized fleet of highly capable F-16s whose pilots have gained recent combat experience through their operations since late-2007 against PKK targets in northern Iraq. 

Whatever the cause, the Hatay F-4 incident adds substantially to the visible costs Turkey is paying as Syria descends into civil war and the risks of wider conflagration.  The country has already hosted as many as 50,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom have returned to homes across the border.  It leaves somewhat exposed bellicose rhetoric of Turkish leaders calling for regime change in Damascus–especially if the aircraft downing was deliberate.  Turkey will almost certainly respond by tightening its own border and coastal patrols, increasing the possibility of a larger-scale planned or unplanned incident that could more decisively point the two countries, one a North Atlantic Treaty ally of the United States, the other an international pariah supported only by Russia, China, and Iran, in the direction of armed conflict.  

Ross Wilson is director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and former United States ambassador to Turkey (2005-08) and Azerbaijan (2000-03). 

Related Experts: Ross Wilson

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