ANKARA, Turkey – Syria said Saturday it shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane because the plane entered its airspace, insisting it was “not an attack” as both sides desperately tried to de-escalate the episode before it exploded into a regional conflagration.
Turkey threatened to retaliate but did not say what action it would take as it searched for the aircraft’s two missing pilots.
The downed plane heightened tensions between two countries that had been allies before Syria’s 15-month violent uprising, and signaled that the violence gripping Syria is increasingly bleeding outside its borders. Germany and Iraq were among the countries urging restraint in the region.
Syria and neighboring Turkey had cultivated close ties before the Syrian revolt began in March 2011, but since then Turkey has become one of the strongest critics of Syria’s regime. Turkey hosts civilian and military Syrian opposition groups, including hundreds of army defectors who are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and collect food and other supplies to deliver to comrades on smuggling routes.
Turkish authorities also suspect Damascus, which was collaborating with Turkey in its fight against autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels, is turning a blind eye to Syria-based Kurdish fighters who belong to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, considered a terrorist organization in the U.S. and Europe.
The plane, an unarmed F-4, went down in the Mediterranean Sea about eight miles from the Syrian town of Latakia, Turkey said. Syria claimed the jet violated its air space over territorial waters, penetrating by less than a mile. It said Syrian forces only realized it was a Turkish jet after firing at it.
In a telephone interview with Turkish TV news channel A Haber on Saturday, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the downing was “not an attack.”
“An unidentified object entered our air space, and unfortunately as a result it was brought down. It was understood only later that it was a Turkish plane,” A Haber quoted Makdissi in a translation of the interview. “There was no hostile act against Turkey whatsoever. It was just an act of defense for our sovereignty.”
Turkish President Abdullah Gul conceded the plane might have unintentionally crossed into Syrian airspace, but said such an act was “routine” for jets to unintentionally cross borders for short periods. The government has not described the plane’s specific mission.
Gul said his government still was investigating what happened, but “no one should have any doubt that whatever [action] is necessary will be taken.”
It was not clear if that action would involve military retaliation, increased sanctions or other steps, including demands for compensation or an apology.