What We Know (and Don't) About the Turkish Jet That Went Down by Syria

Three weeks after the Turkish RF-4 mysteriously crashed, someone is not telling the truth.

Turkey-Phantom-Shoot-Down.jpgReuters

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- What really happened to the Turkish RF-4 Phantom jet that went missing over or near Syrian airspace on June 22? That's what some Turkish journalists and editors are asking today after analysis revealed no trace of explosives on the aircraft's wreckage and the Turkish General Staff (TGS) released a statement indicating a change in the military's version of events. Previously, Turkey's top brass and civilian leadership made it clear that Syrian air defenses were to blame for the loss of the plane and the crew of two.

In a subtle shift, however, the officers are now saying, "Official Syrian bodies claimed [emphasis mine] the jet was downed by themselves." Forget the awkward wording, this is an important shift suggesting there is more to the story than just Syrian perfidy. Indeed, the RF-4 incident raises questions about civil-military relations, Turkey's relations with NATO, and importantly, official transparency, and accountability in Ankara.

Turkey's official account of the F-4 incident is straightforward: The Syrians shot down the unarmed reconnaissance aircraft in international waters after it briefly and mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace. Given the bloody events in Syria over the last 16 months, Turkey's narrative was consistent with the fact that Bashar al Assad and the people around him are capable of absolutely anything. After killing thousands of his own people, it was not terribly surprising (though seemingly stupid) that Assad would up the ante with his powerful neighbor and bag one of its jets.

Yet, from the beginning, a few things didn't add up:

1. What was in it for Assad to antagonize the Turks? If it was a test of Ankara's resolve, it was a very risky one. The Syrian military could have ended up fighting both other Syrians and Turkey -- which boasts the second largest military in NATO.

2. How come the Israelis can get in and out of Syrian airspace with ease, but Turkish pilots cannot? Maybe it was a lucky shot, but the odds are stacked against the Syrians given their past performance against the Israeli Air Force. In an interesting twist, the lost RF-4 was among a fleet of Turkish planes that Israeli defense contractors upgraded with some pretty advanced gear.

3. The Syrians might have mistaken the plane for an Israeli aircraft but the Israelis retired their F-4s in 2003. Also, despite the tension between Ankara and Damascus, Syrian air defense batteries should have recognized the plane was Turkish by its "identification friend or foe" code. The Turkish and the Syrian militaries have in the not-too-distant past conducted joint exercises. These are not militaries unfamiliar with each other.

4. Finally, in an interview with the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, Assad claimed that he was unaware at the time that the Syrian air defenses were taking action against a Turkish plane. I know times are tough in Damascus and Assad is out of touch, and so it seems possible, but at the same time it is hard to believe any Syrian commander is going to escalate with the Turks without approval from the palace.

Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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