Here’s a simple rendering of the disputed accounts of what the Turks call Syria’s “violation of international law” when a Turkish fighter jet was shot down in late June.
Syria: We hit the Turkish plane at close range using a simple anti-aircraft battery that has a range of less than 2km. It all happened so fast, we only found out afterwards that the plane was Turkish. We gave Turkey a piece of the tail fin with bullet holes in it, to prove that’s what happened.
Turkey: The plane was 13 miles (21km) offshore in international airspace when it was hit. So the Syrians must have used a missile, and therefore radar and command channels were involved. The Syrians knew it was a Turkish plane, and we have the evidence to prove it.
Except that, as more information seeps out of the Turkish camp, it appears they still don’t have the proof.
In a statement on Monday, Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz said, “Among the pieces [of the F4] retrieved so far there have been no traces of a missile.”
And on Tuesday, General Ates Mehmet Irez gave the official Turkish Air Force presentation on the matter, saying: “There are no traces of a SAM [surface-to-air] missile. If it was a SAM, it would have definitely left a trace on our radar. However, there were no such traces on our radar.”
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Then, intriguingly, he continued: “This plane cannot have been hit by a SAM missile. However, it could have been hit by a missile carried by a man [MANPAD]… it could have been hit from the deck of a Syrian ship sailing in those waters.”
As for the chitter-chat on military radio frequencies, which Turkish officials say showed the Syrians knowingly hit a Turkish plane, General Irez revealed: “In the radio conversations between the Syrians in relation to the plane, they define it as ‘a neighbour’. Then, later, they say: ‘We’ve hit the Turks’.”
In addition, Brig-Gen Baki Kabun of the Communications Division of the Turkish military confirmed that there was a missile detection/alert system on the plane which apparently did not go off.
Turkish experts, studying the photos of the plane wreckage lying on the Mediterranean seabed – released on the day of the pilots’ funerals – are saying that if it was a heat-seeking missile, it would have hit the engine – but the plane’s engine is intact. If it was a radar-guided missile, you would expect it to have hit the cockpit, but the cockpit is not destroyed.
Autopsy reports on the two dead pilots show no evidence of either a missile or a bullet, but only “trauma related to falling”.
Time, perhaps, for the Turks to produce that piece of F4 tail fin the Syrians ceremoniously presented to them, more than two weeks ago.
Instead, the government rolled out Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc who explained that despite there being no evidence yet of what downed the F4, Turkey “does not backtrack” from its claims that the plane was hit 13 miles off the Syrian coast.
“If we claim and certainly believe that the plane was hit at such a distance, there is no way it could have been hit by anti-aircraft fire,” he said.
Arinc added that the tail fin – which has yet to be seen in public – had no mark indicating it was hit by anti-aircraft fire, either.
“Since we all saw where the plane crashed, we can technically prove that it is a bigger possibility that it was hit by a missile,” Arinc continues.
“We should not allow speculation about where the plane crashed. We should respect the information provided by our General Staff and Foreign Ministry,” he said. “We are confident about the authenticity of our sources.”
What if the sources are authentic, but their information was wrong?
To cap it all, a former general in the Turkish Air Force, Erdogan Karakus (rtd), is now questioning the state of Turkish air defences. He’s concerned about a recent move by the government taking away border electronic surveillance from the Military and handing it over to a civilian intelligence body working directly with the Prime Minister’s Office.
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“How could our electronic systems have not recorded that a missile was fired?” says Gen Karakus.
“Back when we were doing training flights in the Aegean, they’d even pick up an engine being switched on, on a Greek Island… and inform our pilots.”
“Did they notice any movement in the missile launch bases of Syria? And did they inform our pilots? If they did, the pilots would have acted accordingly. This is a critical question to answer.”
The National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), has been controlling the “comprehensive communications interception unit”, the Electronic Systems Command (GES), since January. It has not offered any data so far indicating the Turkish jet was shot down by a missile.
Tukish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still insisting on Wednesday that the F4 was hit in international waters. “It is very clear,” he said.
Following ‘great powers’
So, what about Turkye’s NATO ally, the US? Surely, they have some decisive data from their spy satellites?
In an interview with the Hurriyet Daily News on Wednesday, an anonymous US Foreign Affairs official said they know the details about the Turkish jet – but have no intention of sharing the information with the press.
“Those in the American government who need to know [details] know them,” the official told the paper. “But we will make no statements about the topics in question.”
“Whether the jet was shot over Syrian territory or over international waters, or what it was shot with, what difference does it make? What matters to us is that it was downed,” the official said.
But – the reporter must have pointed out at this point – the Turkish PM was so strong and insistent in his condemnation and outrage about Syrian actions.
“Turkey thought the louder its statements were, the more believable they would be,” the un-named US official said. “I guess that was why the prime minister made those statements. It’s like an American shouting to someone who doesn’t speak English.”
Turkey has significantly increased its military presence along the 911km shared border with Syria since the incident and has scrambled Turkish M16s several times in response to seeing Syrian helicopters too close to the line. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has said, “I wish 100 per cent the plane had not been downed,” but defended Syria’s response to an uninvited military plane in its airspace during this time of tension.
Gen Necdet Ozel, head of the Turkish Military, has been giving the matter careful thought.
“It’s not like we will start a war…” he said in an interview with Turkish newspaper Aksam. “But we are following everything very closely. We have every capability of doing so.”
Turkey will do “whatever great states do,” he added.