Conflict encroaches on Nato’s eastern frontiers as Turkey shoots down Syrian fighter jet it says violated its airspace
By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent and Caleb Lauer in Istanbul – The Telegraph
1:02PM GMT 23 Mar 2014
The Syrian conflict encroached threateningly on Nato’s eastern frontiers on Sunday when Turkey shot down an Assad regime fighter jet that it said had crossed into its territory during a major battle for a key border post.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, immediately claimed responsibility for the direct hit on the jet, which the Syrian authorities condemned as a “blatant aggression”.
Mr Erdogan said: “A Syrian plane violated our airspace. Our F-16s took off and hit this plane. Why? Because if you violate my airspace, our slap after this will be hard.”
The jet was one of two MiG-23 fighter planes operating above a ground battle that has been bitterly contested between regime forces and a coalition of rebel groups for several days.
They have been fighting over what had been the last remaining border crossing with Turkey still in the Syrian government’s hands.
The Turkish military said it issued four warnings to the two jets as they approached its airspace, but one crossed into its territory at Yayladagi, east of the border crossing, which is located near the village of Kasab in Syria’s far north-west.
The crossing allows rebels direct access to the heartlands in Latakia province of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect – his birthplace, Qurdaha, is just 20 miles away. It was seized by rebels on Friday, but the regime reinforced its troops over the weekend and was continuing to besiege it.
The Syrian fighter plane crashes down near the Turkish border Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
One of the two jets was seen to turn back but the Turkish military statement said that the other trespassed more than half a mile inside Turkish airspace before turning west, continuing to fly inside the country.
The order was then given to shoot it down. Shortly afterwards a dramatic vertical trail of smoke marked the spot where the plane had apparently nosedived from the sky.
The pilot was said to have ejected into Syrian territory and, according to one report, made it safely to a regime checkpoint, while the plane crashed 1,300 yards inside Syria, not far from Kasab.
Mr Erdogan’s announcement of the downing of the Syrian jet was made at an election rally. It followed a week in which he has come under intense scrutiny for his attempts to ban Twitter in Turkey and accusations of dictatorial behaviour in advance of municipal ballots regarded as an important test of his popularity.
One of the two main opposition parties, the CHP, described the incident as “a dictator’s adventure marching us to war”. A spokesman said: “The events which happened today at the Syrian border are grave and thought-provoking.”
But Mr Erdogan won the immediate backing of his own party, which has not always been the case in recent days.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan during Sunday morning’s rally in Ankara (AP)
President Abdullah Gul, who publicly attacked Mr Erdogan’s ban on Twitter last week, sent a message of congratulations to the Turkish chief of staff, Gen Necdet Özel.
“You have shown resolution and determination with regards to the protection of Turkey’s borders,” he said.
Cemil Cicek, the speaker of the Turkish parliament, said his country had acted within its rights under international law.
It is not the first aerial clash since the start of the civil war in Syria, where Turkey has taken the side of the rebels and allowed its territory to be used to funnel in money, men and supplies. In June 2012, it was Syrian forces that shot down a Turkish jet off the coast, saying it had encroached on its airspace.
Last September, a Syrian helicopter was shot down over the northern border.
There have also been exchanges of artillery fire, provoking the most serious Nato involvement, with Germany, Holland and the United States all sending Patriot anti-missile batteries to the Turkish border.
Turkey remains a member of Nato, despite the anti-Western rhetoric often deployed in recent months by Mr Erdogan.
An attack on its territory could theoretically trigger Nato intervention in the war under the “mutual defence” provisions of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
The Syrian reaction to the incident on Sunday night was angry but made no mention of a military response.
“This escalation came in the framework of the aggressive policies of Erdogan’s government and its openly-provided support to the armed terrorist groups,” the regime said, according to state news agencies.
Before the Syrian uprising began, the two countries were growing close, to the consternation of Turkey’s traditional Western allies, including both the US and Israel. However, Mr Erdogan has emerged as the strongest regional critic of Assad, and has called for Western military intervention on the rebels’ behalf, although Turkey’s own support has been mainly logistical.