Syrians Anxiously Follow the Case of the Pilot Held “Captive” in Turkey

The events surrounding Mohammed Soufan, a Syrian regime military pilot who was hospitalized in Turkey, shed light on the changing position of Turkey on the Syrian war. Soufan was released from a hospital in the city of Antakya following a week of treatment. The Turkish government transferred him to an undisclosed location, out of fear that Syrians would retaliate against the pilot. About 400,000 Syrians live there, most of whom fled Syria as a result of aerial bombings conducted by Soufan’s fellow pilots.

Opposition activists have fallen silent for the moment, and have instead become observers of the current course of events. Syrians in Turkey are anxious and fearful about the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, Qutaiba Haj Yassin, a journalist from the city of Aleppo, filed an (open) lawsuit against the pilot, accusing him of destroying his house in the neighborhood of al-Halak in 2014. Yassin claims six days passed with no response after he filed the lawsuit.

Lawyer Aura Sousi said he does not believe Yassin has a great case for prosecuting the pilot in Turkey given the lack of incriminating evidence. Yassin has not provided any clear evidence and his case is based solely on accusations. Furthermore, Turkish law operates by the principle that “the burden of proof lies on the plaintiff,” meaning Yassin. According to international law, it is also not clear whether Turkey can claim jurisdiction over crimes that take place in Syria. The crime occurred in Syria and involved Syrians, but both parties are now in Turkey. According to Sousi, Syrian law is similar to Turkish law. Yassin needs recordings to prove this particular pilot was responsible for the air raid of al-Halak in 2014. Yassin is searching for recordings that would prove the pilot’s call sign is “Sea 1,” and that he regularly landed his plane at al-Seen Airbase in Qalmoun, Syria, near Damascus. According to Syrian lawyer Ghazwan Haj Mahmoud, it would be poor timing to bring the pilot to court now given current conditions and how much political pressure there is on Turkey.

Additionally, Syrians in Turkey launched a social media campaign demanding Soufan be exchanged for missing Free Syrian Army officer Hussein Harmouch, but has since lost steam. Per the campaign, Harmouch was kidnapped on Turkish soil and Turkey is responsible for the investigation. One of the brothers of the missing officer, Ibrahim Harmouch now living in Belgium, said appeals by the officer’s wife garnered no response from the Turkish government. He believes his brother is currently detained in the Arwad Island prison off the coast of Tartus and rules out the idea that his brother was killed. He added that other members of the officer’s family are also missing, and their fate is similarly unknown.

Syrians are also afraid of the pilot’s case turning into an exclusively political matter, subject to Turkey’s political whims in the region. Currently, relations between Russia and Turkey are good, but that could quickly change. Relations with the Syrian regime may also get worse as Turkey may need to put pressure on the regime over Turkish deaths on Syrian soil. During the Euphrates Shield operation, several Turkish fighters were killed and shelling by Syrian planes. There is also the case of the Turkish plane downed in the Mediterranean Sea by the Syrian regime with artillery fire from anti-aircraft weaponry at the end of June 2012. At the time, the only action taken by the Turkish government was to raise the level of military cooperation with the Syrian government, according to al-Arabiya reports.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime is taking a completely different approach to the case. The fighter is no less important than dozens of Alawite captives who have fallen into opposition hands. Some are languishing in Jaysh al-Islam’s prisons in Ghouta Damascus, and others sit in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s prisons in western Syria. Official state media has not focused on the captive pilot’s case; it only focuses on Turkey’s demands to maintain its peace. The regime has acted shrewdly in past prisoner exchanges since the Syrian war began in 2011. For the moment, it is forgetting about the pilot’s case, but this is only until a better opportunity appears. Until that time, the Turkish government is ethically and legally bound to protect the pilot and provide everything he needs. This is why the Syrian government media recently sought to draw attention to victories against ISIS in Palmyra and eastern Aleppo countryside. For now, the regime is focused on preventing Turkey from engaging in an operation to retake control of Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS in Syria.

Local media covered a recent prisoner exchange deal between the opposition and regime in February. Pro-government media outlets claimed that al-Qaeda held 58 women for 3.5 years. In contrast, Soufan held in Turkey, a state that abides by international law, appears to be in good health with all his needs met. Moreover, the Syrian regime is counting on the difficult period Turkey is going through. Releasing the pilot will not be in Turkey’s current interests—particularly as local elections are next month. Turkey is unlikely to consider the captive pilot’s case outside of the impact it will have on domestic elections and relations with Syria. However, even Turks living in the municipality of Istanbul have filed other public lawsuits against Mohammed Soufan, accusing him of committing war crimes and killing civilians.

Soufan is likely to remain in Turkish custody for the near future. Ibrahim Harmouch is not optimistic that his brother will be freed soon because Turkey has made no moves to engage in a prisoner exchange deal. He says that Turkey’s interests do not always align with the Syrian opposition’s interests, but that the regime is one of the most notoriously calculating dictatorships in such matters. However, the regime’s powerful allies do not give it the chance or flexibility to offer support for Soufan, and the pilot’s case will not carry more weight than other prisoner cases. Those following the pilot’s case agree that nothing new will happen before the constitutional referendum is finished next month.  

Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.

Image: Photo: A view of the wreckage of a warplane, probably belonging to the Syrian air force, that crashed on the Turkish side of the border with Syria on Saturday, is seen in this still image taken from video, March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Reuters TV