ISTANBUL // Turkey's president said yesterday a Turkish military jet shot down by Syria over the Mediterranean Sea may have violated Syria's airspace.
"Given the speed with which jets fly over the sea, it is routine for them to cross over a border for a short distance," Abdullah Gul said in televised remarks. A flight path like that did not mean "hostile intent", he said.
Analysts said a full-blown military confrontation between the countries was unlikely, even though the incident may have been intended as a warning to Ankara and may have killed the two Turkish pilots.
Turkey's opposition called on Ankara to explain what a military surveillance plane was doing so close to Syria. One analyst pointed to speculation that the aircraft may have been on a mission to gather intelligence about military activities by Russia in the region.
In the second emergency meeting within 24 hours, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, gathered government ministers, military officers and intelligence officials in Ankara yesterday to discuss the search for the two missing pilots and an appropriate response.
The Turkish jet, a Phantom F-4, took off at 10.30am local time (11.30am UAE) on Friday from an airbase in Malatya in eastern Anatolia, the general staff in Ankara said. About one and a half hours later, as the jet was flying over the sea to the south-east of the Turkish province of Hatay, which borders Syria, controllers lost radio contact with the aircraft.
"It has been understood that our aircraft was brought down by Syria," said a statement posted on the prime ministry's website.
"Turkey will make its final position clear and take the necessary steps with determination once the incident is completely clarified," the statement said. According to Turkish media reports, the aircraft was an unarmed reconnaissance jet. Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister, told Turkish media yesterday that the jet was "not a war plane, but used for training and reconnaissance".
A Syrian spokesman told the country's official news agency Sana that the military had opened fire on an "unidentified target" that had entered its airspace, according to Agence France-Presse.
The aircraft was "coming from the west at a very low altitude and at high speed over territorial waters", the spokesman said. Fire from anti-aircraft batteries hit the plane as it was one kilometre away from land. The jet crashed about 10 kilometres off the coast of Latakia province, in Syrian waters, he said. It was only at that point that Syria realised the jet was Turkish.
A video on the website of the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet showed what the newspaper described as Syrians on a beach near the area where the jet came down. In the clip, sudden gunfire is heard and people point to an object on the horizon.
Following an incident in April, when Syrian troops fired across the border, killing two Syrian refugees and injuring two Turkish citizens, Mr Erdogan suggested that Turkey could ask its Nato allies for help. There was no indication yesterday that Turkey wants to get the alliance involved this time. Turkey, a former ally of Syria, has turned away from Damascus because of the government's repression of an uprising against Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president.
Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, said he did not expect Turkey to launch a broad military attack against Syria. "I don't think there will be a big revenge operation," Mr Orhan said. "Maybe a very limited show of strength."
Seda Altug, an expert on Syria at Istanbul's Bosphorus University, agreed. "Turkey will not use this incident as a pretext to go to war in Syria," she said. "I do not see this as the beginning of a war."
Mr Orhan said Turkey's response would depend on whether the Turkish jet had actually crossed into Syrian airspace, whether Syria would offer an apology and on how Turkey's western allies react. He said Ankara's stance would "become clear in the coming days".
Mr Orhan added he was surprised the Syrians shot down the Turkish jet without warning. "That is a hostile act," he said.
Syrian analysts said the decision to fire was intended as a warning for the international community, and to boost the morale of regime supporters domestically. Opposition groups have often speculated that Syria would not react to a no fly zone enforced by Nato, fearing it would trigger a strong military response.
That notion may now have been dispelled.
"This is a clear message from the Syrian regime to Nato and to Turkey that it is not afraid of them and that it has strong air defences and can and will use them if foreign air forces try to become involved," said a Syrian analyst.
In Turkey, Gultan Kisanak, a leader of the opposition Party for Peace and Democracy, Turkey's main Kurdish party, said the government had to tell the public why the aircraft was flying so close to Syria's border. "If it is unable to answer what the plane was doing there, what its mission was and why it violated the border, then we have a big problem," Ms Kisanak said, according to Turkish news reports.
Mr Orhan said the jet may have been on a spying mission. He said there had been reports in recent days saying that Russia had extended its military presence in the region where the jet went down. He also pointed to news reports, denied by Damascus, saying that Syria was planning joint war games with Iran, Russia and China that would include naval forces.