After last week's Syrian downing of a Turkish air force jet, some things are becoming clear. Turkey, while refraining from doing anything rash and doing all it can to get international and NATO backing for its diplomatic efforts, is also leaving itself with a military option for responding to Syria's action. In a speech in parliament today, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian forces to stay away from the now tense border with Turkey or face retaliation from Turkish forces who may perceive their movements as a threat. At the same time, Ankara also sent to the border area a (somewhat symbolic) convoy of fifteen military vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Still, while Ankara is ratcheting up the pressure against Damascus, last week's incident still leaves behind it some big questions that have profound implications for how Turkey, Syria and the allies of both countries will or can move forward. Among these:
1. Just what happened last week? So far, we have been left with two very contradictory stories about how a Turkish F-4 ended up in the sea. Ankara has variably described the plane on being on a "training" mission and on a mission to test Turkey's radar system. According to Turkey, the Syrians shot the plane down while it was flying over international waters. Damascus, meanwhile, has released a very detailed reply, saying the Turkish jet was only a few kilometers away from its coast and flying fast and low when it was shot down.
2. Just what brought the jet down? Again, there is a lack of consensus about just how the Turkish fighter jet came down. Ankara, on the one hand has claimed it was brought down by a missile. Damascus, on the other hand, says they shot the jet down with anti-aircraft guns and have provided the Turks with the plane's bullet-riddles tail as proof. It's an important distinction, since the range of the anti-aircraft guns is limited to a few kilometers, meaning the jet was shot at while inside Syrian territory rather than in international airspace.
3. Just what was the Turkish jet up to? Would the Turkish air force really be either callous or brazen enough to send an unarmed, Vietnam war-vintage fighter jet to fly a "training" mission alongside what must currently be the globe's hottest border, only a day after a Syrian pilot defected to Jordan in his Mig? On the other hand, if Turkey was actually testing its own radar system, wouldn't their be a way to coordinate this with Syrian authorities to avoid any mishaps? There's no excuse for Syria shooting down the Turkish jet without warning, but elements of the Turkish jet's mission still remain very hazy.
4. What does this incident mean for Turkish-Russian relations? While Turkey is looking to its allies, particularly the United States and NATO, to back it up over the downed jet, Syria is counting on its allies -- in particular Russia, which provided the country with its air defense system -- to give it their support. While Turkey and Russia have seen their trade and political ties improve dramatically in recent years, the increased tension between Ankara and Damascus has the potential to drive a major wedge in Turkish-Russian relations. That may already be happening. Responding today to the Kremlin's statement that the Syrian downing of the jet should not be seen as a "provocation," Erdogan angrily accused Russia -- which, it should be noted, provides the bulk of Turkey's energy supply -- of acting as Damascus's "mouthpiece." The Russian part of the equation could very well limit how far Turkey hard Turkey might want to punish Syria for its action. (Turkish analyst Mehmet Ali Birand has more on this question here.)
5. And finally, just how far does Turkey want to go with this? That might be the hardest question to answer. Turkey has, as analyst Hugh Pope told the Christian Science Monitor, "zero wish to get dragged into anything in Syria." Still, that great slurping sound we are hearing is that of Ankara slowly getting sucked deeper into engaging militarily with the Syrian crisis, either directly or by proxy. On top of previous reports (denied by Ankara) that the CIA is using Turkey as a staging ground for delivering weapons to the opposition in Turkey, today's New York Times has a lengthy piece on the large and effective supply and support network the opposition has developed inside Turkey. Ankara, as proof of Damascus's ill intentions regarding the downing of the jet, said the F-4 was broadcasting an "friend or foe" signal that openly identified it. That would indicate that up until this recent incident, Ankara still believed that Damascus somehow would consider a Turkish jet flying near its border as one that belongs to a friend. Following the jet's downing, it's fairly clear that from Damascus's perspective, "foe" was a more fitting description.