BEIRUT – A day after Syria shot down a Turkish jet, officials from the neighboring countries moved to tamp down tensions Saturday as they mounted a joint rescue operation for two pilots still missing in the eastern Mediterranean.
The incident had the potential to escalate tensions between two countries whose relations are already severely strained because of Turkey’s tacit support of the 16-month Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul conceded Saturday that the F-4 Phantom aircraft downed Friday, apparently by a surface-to-air missile, may have wandered into Syrian airspace, but he said any such action was not “ill-intentioned.”
Turkey is a NATO member and was likely consulting the United States and other allies before deciding how to respond. But there was no public indication that Turkey was seeking support from NATO allies for a retaliatory action.
Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, will also be watching closely. Moscow has said it opposes any foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict, which has left at least 10,000 people dead.
Turkish authorities were said to be studying the doomed jet’s flight path to conclude if it was indeed in Syrian airspace when it was shot out of the sky at 11:40 a.m. Friday. The determination of whether the aircraft had strayed into Syria’s airspace seemed likely to color Ankara’s response.
Syria’s official state news agency reported that the aircraft was down when it was less than a mile from the Syrian coast, well within domestic airspace.
A war between the two nations – both with huge armies, modern air forces and considerable missile-launching capabilities – would likely create instability in an already volatile region.
But the overall tone of the Turkish response did not suggest that Ankara regarded the incident as a justification for war. On the Syrian side, a Foreign Ministry spokesman took the unusual step of calling a Turkish television channel and reassuring the Turkish people that the incident was not an act of aggression.
“There was no hostile act against Turkey whatsoever,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told Turkey’s A Haber television news channel, according to a translation provided by the station and quoted by the Associated Press.
The incident did put foreign powers on notice that Syria’s Russian-made air defenses remain capable of defending its borders. Washington and other Western nations have so far ruled out a Libya-style intervention in Syria, but Western military planners have been examining the options.