Turkey Vows Action After Downing of Jet by Syria
CAIRO — Turkey’s president said Saturday that his country would do “whatever is necessary” in response to the downing of a Turkish military jet by Syria, adding a new complication to the tense relationship between the former allies split by Turkey’s support for Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the government.
“It is not possible to cover over a thing like this,” said President Abdullah Gul of Turkey, according to the Anatolia news agency. “Whatever is necessary will no doubt be done.”
Syria said Friday that its military forces had shot down a Turkish jet that had entered its airspace just off the Syrian coast. But Mr. Gul said Saturday that while the exact route of the plane had not yet been confirmed, it was routine for military jets flying at high speeds to briefly cross into another country’s airspace, and that the jet’s presence over Syrian territory was not intended as a hostile act.
The plane went down over the Mediterranean off the coast of the Syrian province of Latakia and south of the Turkish province of Hatay. On Saturday, Turkish officials confirmed that parts of the jet had been recovered.
Mr. Gul said the two governments were communicating at a high level despite the absence of a Turkish ambassador in Syria since Turkey closed its embassy in March. Syria’s state news agency, SANA, reported that the Syrian and Turkish Navies had established contact and were searching for the missing pilots.
Syria appeared eager to try to defuse the crisis. “We have no hostile intentions against Turkey,” Jihad Makdessi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, told the Lebanese broadcaster LBC.
But Mr. Gul’s promise to respond — he did not specify whether he meant diplomatic or military measures — signaled Turkey’s anger and resolve. Faruk Celik, Turkey’s labor and social security minister, said that even if Syria’s airspace had been violated, the Syrian response was unacceptable, according to The Associated Press. “Turkey cannot endure it in silence,” Mr. Celik said.
Other Turkish officials urged restraint. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Turkey was awaiting an explanation from Syria about the downing of the plane, which he said was an unarmed surveillance craft. He called for calm while the details were sorted out, saying, “We should not give any credit to provocative acts and statements.”
The episode was another blow to relations between the neighbors, who were close before President Bashar al-Assad of Syria began his crackdown on Arab Spring protests 16 months ago, setting off a revolt by political and militia groups now supported by Turkey.
Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been one of the most strident critics of Mr. Assad’s government and its long crackdown, which has killed thousands since it began in March 2011.
Since then, Turkey has allowed more than 32,000 refugees to seek shelter in a string of camps across its 550-mile border with Syria. It has also provided crucial support to dissident groups and the Free Syrian Army, an anti-Assad militia whose leaders live under the protection of Turkish security forces in a fortified camp near the Syrian border.
On Friday, opposition activists reported that as many as 25 men had been shot dead in the village of Daret Azzeh, in northern Aleppo Province, in what the activists described as a battle between the Free Syrian Army and members of a pro-Assad paramilitary group.
On Saturday, Al Dunya television, a channel close to the Syrian government, dismissed those claims, saying those killed by the rebels were civilians and not armed fighters.
Opposition activists said the bloodshed continued on Saturday across Syria, with dozens reported killed in fighting and shelling in Deir al-Zour, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Dara’a, Idlib and Damascus and its suburbs. Syria’s restrictions on journalists make it impossible to confirm such reports.
Abou Bilal al-Homssi, an opposition activist in Homs, said that shelling had deterred the Red Cross from entering the area. “This is our second week under siege; the humanitarian situation is extremely dangerous,” he said.
In Deir al-Zour, near the border with Iraq, at least 22 people were killed on Saturday as Syria’s army battled rebels and shelled neighborhoods there, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activist groups in Syria. The activists described “intense shelling” that made it impossible to reach the wounded and recover the bodies of the dead. In the Tareeq Halab neighborhood of Hama on Saturday, security forces conducted a sweep to arrest young men and shelled the area, damaging the mosque of Fatima al-Zahraa, a local landmark, activists with the Local Coordination Committees said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group with contacts in Syria, said that government forces killed at least two people in Hama on Saturday.
The group also reported that the Syrian Army on Saturday raided the southern town of Dara’a, where the uprising against Mr. Assad was born, with tanks, leaving one person dead.
On Saturday, Mr. Assad announced the formation of a new cabinet, led by a longtime insider, Riad al-Hijab, according to state news media.
But the move fell short of a pledge he made last month for a more inclusive government, as crucial ministers kept their positions, including Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim al-Shaar and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.