The Turkish prime minister has been accused of shooting down a Syrian fighter in a cynical ploy to rally voters a few days before the nation heads to the polls. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been badly damaged by accusations of corruption in a brutal election campaign, is accused of attacking the plane without provocation in Syrian airspace.
He and the Turkish armed forces say the Syrian MIG-23 had violated Turkey’s airspace and received several warnings before the F-16s opened fire. Opposition leaders, however, suggested Erdogan was deliberately stoking tensions with Syria in an effort to deflect voter attention away from thorny issues of corruption and the country’s recent ban on Twitter.
“A Syrian plane has been shot down within Syria and under circumstances that leave open to debate whether the rules of engagement have been adhered to or not,” Haluk Koc, spokesman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s biggest opposition party, said in a statement. “The dictator could push the country into a pre-arranged adventure.”
The Prime Minister is facing municipal elections next Sunday that are widely seen as an unofficial referendum on the government. Erdogan has been under pressure after a string of corruption allegations and has reacted by re-assigning thousands of police officers, judges and prosecutors and by banning access to Twitter, which has been widely used to spread the latest corruption allegations. The Twitter ban has proved to be hugely unpopular.
Some polls say Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in for a set-back on Sunday, while most polls agree that the AKP will remain Turkey’s strongest party with around 40 per cent of the vote, ten percentage points lower than in the general elections of 2011. A poor showing of the AKP could mean the end of Erdogan’s ambitions to become president in an election scheduled for August.
The General Staff in Ankara said a Turkish military control center near the Syrian border sent a total of four warnings to the pilots of two Syrian MIG-23 fighter jets that were approaching the border on Sunday at around 1pm local time (6am EST). It said one of the jets turned back after the warnings, but the other one entered Turkish airspace at 1.13pm. “It penetrated our air space for about one kilometer and then turned west, flying another 1.5 kilometers through our air space.
One minute later, one of two Turkish F-16 fighters that were on patrol along the border fired an air-to-air missile and hit the Syrian jet, which went down about 1.2 kilometers south of the border on Syrian territory, the Turkish military said.
But Syria says the jet had been on a mission to attack rebel forces in the province of Latakia and never crossed into Turkey. Damascus accused Turkey of “blatant aggression”. The Syrian pilot, who was able to eject, told Syrian state media he was 7 kilometers south of the Turkish border when his jet was hit, according to Turkish news reports on Monday.
It was the first time Turkey has shot down a Syrian fighter jet. Last September, The Turks downed a Syrian military helicopter that had entered Turkish airspace, according to Ankara. In 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish military jet that was on a reconnaissance mission off the Syrian coast, killing the two pilots.
Several people have been killed by artillery shells from Syria that landed on the Turkish side of the 900 kilometer border. On Monday, the radar system of a Syrian missile battery locked in on a Turkish F-16 while it was flying in the border region, Turkish news reports said. No shots were fired. Also, three shells from Syria landed on the Turkish side of the border near the area where the Syrian jet went down, the reports said.
Erdogan said Turkey’s response to future violations of its territory would be massive. But Turkish newspapers skeptical of the Prime Minister speculated on Monday that there was more to the downing of the Syrian jet than just a defense of Turkey’s airspace. “War games shortly before the election,” said a headline in the Taraf daily on Monday.
Some experts say it is unlikely that the downing of the Syrian jet was ordered by Erdogan for political reasons. “In events like this, the quick decision [to strike] is not made by the Prime Minister, but by the Chief of General Staff and the Commander of the Air Force,” Mete Yarar, a columnist and security analyst, told the T24 news portal. “There is no time to ask for permission.”
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu last week sent a public warning to the General Staff, saying that the military should not “push Turkey into adventures” in Syria under orders by the government. The warning came after the government said any attempt to attack a Turkish tomb within Syria would be answered by the Turkish military. The tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, lies 25 kilometers south of the Turkish border but is considered Turkish territory under a 1921 agreement. The tomb is being protected by a small unit of Turkish soldiers. Fighting near the tomb sparked concerns that it could be attacked by Islamic rebels.
In the case of the Syrian jet, critics are asking why Turkey chose to hit back now. After all, Ankara remained passive after earlier several airspace violations by Syria, columnist Kadri Gursel wrote in the Milliyet daily on Monday. “The decision to shoot down a military plane of a neighboring country that is not officially at war [with Turkey] is not technical, but always political,” Gursel wrote, adding that Erdogan had to expect a “serious loss of votes” in the upcoming elections.
Polls say a majority of Turks is opposed to a military intervention into the Syrian civil war, in which the Erdogan government supports the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad. Given the widespread popular opposition to any move against Syria, the Prime Minister would take a big risk if the decided to go ahead with an intervention anyway, Gursel predicted. “Steps to an adventure will push Turkey towards a catastrophe, the government towards destruction and would be suicide,” he wrote.