ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey said June 23 one of its fighter jets may have violated Syrian airspace after Damascus confirmed shooting it down, in comments seen as a bid to cool the latest spat between the former allies.
President Abdullah Gul said it was not unusual for warplanes flying at high speed to cross maritime borders, stressing that such actions were not “ill-intentioned.”
Both countries were searching for the two missing crew of the Turkish F-4 Phantom jet shot down over the eastern Mediterranean on June 22.
“An unidentified aerial target violated Syrian airspace, coming from the west at a very low altitude and at high speed over territorial waters,” a Syrian military spokesman told the official SANA news agency early Saturday.
Anti-aircraft batteries opened fire, hitting the plane as it was about a kilometer from the coast and it crashed about 10 kilometers (six miles) off Latakia province, he added.
It had been established that the plane was a Turkish fighter jet and the two countries’ navies were now cooperating in an operation to find the two pilots, SANA reported.
Turkey on June 23 summoned a new meeting of key ministers, as well as top military and intelligence officials to discuss efforts to locate the crew and future steps, a foreign ministry diplomat said.
The two-hour meeting followed a midnight security summit chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said afterwards Ankara “will announce its final position and take necessary steps with determination after the incident is entirely clarified.”
Relations between the two neighbors were already strained by Erdogan’s outspoken condemnation of Syria’s bloody crackdown on protests against the government of President Bashar Assad.
But Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc downplayed the tensions and instead called for restraint.
“We should be calm. ... Yes, we accept this is a critical matter but we don’t have clear information,” he told Anatolia news agency, adding that the results of the ongoing investigation would be publicized “as soon as possible.”
Arinc further noted that the downed jet was on a reconnaissance mission, implying that it did not carry weaponry.
The Phantom vanished off radar screens about 11 a.m. local time June 22 after it took off from an airbase in Malatya in Turkey’s southeast.
President Gul said contacts were established with Syria although Ankara had withdrawn diplomats from its Damascus embassy and expelled Syrian diplomats after the violence escalated in its neighbor.
“We withdrew our envoy from Syria for security reasons. This does not mean that we have no contacts [with Damascus],” he said.
The incident is the most serious between the two countries since the violence began in Syria in March 2011.
Turkey has now taken in more than 30,000 refugees from the unrest, according to foreign ministry figures, and is also playing host to army defectors, including 12 generals.
But Ankara on June 22 denied a New York Times report that cited U.S. officials and Arab intelligence sources saying that Turkey was among a number of countries shipping weapons to Syrian rebels across the border.
“The question that needs to be asked here is if Syria shot down the plane out of animosity against Turkey,” commented Serkan Demirtas, Ankara bureau chief of the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. “The answer will determine Ankara’s approach toward Damascus.”
“If it is interpreted as an assault on Turkey, the debate over whether to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty could resurface,” Huseyin Bagci, international relations professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, told the private NTV television channel.
The article referred to stipulates that an attack on one member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is considered an attack on all members of the alliance.
Turkey had already considered invoking the NATO article after stray bullets fired on the Syrian side of the border killed two Syrians on Turkish soil in April.
“Assad is playing with fire,” headlined mass-circulation daily Hurriyet, while Vatan newspaper said: “They [Syria] will pay the price.”