A week after being shot down by Syrian forces, a Turkish air force fighter jet and its two crew members remain missing at sea. While rescue crews have been searching for it, Turkish officials announced that the EV Nautilus, a research ship that had previously been used to search for the wreck of the Titanic, was being called in to help with finding the wreckage of the F-4 jet.
What also remains unclear a week later is what was the Turkish jet's real mission and how and where it was shot down. As the BBC lays out in a helpful graphic, Ankara and Damascus have given vastly different accounts of the event, which has led to a serious ratcheting up of tensions along the Turkey-Syria border, where the Turkish military is now beefing up its presence and has made clear that any Syrian military activity in the area would now be viewed quite differently than before.
Although the Syrians clearly shot the Turkish jet down without any warning and, based on Damascus's track record, their explanation of the event should be taken with many grains of salt, the questions about what the jet was doing near the Turkish border are important, considering its downing has now put Turkey and Syria -- and perhaps even the region -- many steps closer to all out conflict.
1- Why was a Turkish fighter jet flying so close to – and possibly in – Syrian territory in the first place?
The answer to this question may lie in the type of aircraft that was shot down. According to a recent news report, the jet in question was an “R” variant of the F-4 Phantom. The “R” in the nomenclature stands for reconnaissance. Though it can be armed with bombs for targeting static ground forces/facilities and is a capable air-to-air combat fighter, the more common role for the Phantom is anti-aircraft missile suppression; an essential component of establishing air superiority and/or no-fly zones. An RF-4 would be equipped with specific electronic warfare capability for the identification of radar and missile sites in Syria that would need to be destroyed in the event of an air campaign.
Initial thinking was that the Turkish jet was shot down by a SAM; however new reporting indicates that it was anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire that brought the jet down. If true, this information would refute Turkish claims that the jet was shot down in international airspace and would support Syrian claims that it was flying very low within Syrian territory, as AAAs are short-range air defense weapons. This would also indicate that the jet’s mission was focused more on testing and identifying Syrian air defense capabilities and not testing Turkish radar systems, as Turkey’s foreign minister recently stated.
2- Why did Syria shoot it down? Could it have avoided doing so?
Breaches of territorial airspace are not a rare occurrence for any nation. Unidentified aircraft are regularly spotted on radar systems and countries usually follow a prescribed protocol to identify those aircraft and their intensions. Attacking such aircraft is generally the last option on an air defense protocol. With this in mind, there are two possibilities as to why Syria fired on the Turkish jet:
Syria’s air defenses are on high-alert in light of the current unrest and threat of international intervention. As such, their rules of engagement are shoot-first, ask questions or apologize later.
A Syrian air defense operator spotted an unidentified aircraft and fired on it without authorization.
Either case is likely; however, in times of heightened tension or conflict, air defense postures can be recalibrated to decrease the options available to site commanders short of attack. Considering the current turmoil in Syria and the rhetoric of the international community, it is likely that the Syrian air defense posture is at high-alert. This would give lower-level commanders the authorization to fire on suspect aircraft without direct orders from a higher command. Takeaway, Syria’s armed forces have itchy trigger fingers (as if their brutality against their own people wasn’t proof enough).
So what does this incident mean in the context of potential intervention? The answer to that is still unclear. One thing is certain, the argument of international security experts that Syria is not Libya has been confirmed. No NATO aircraft were lost to enemy fire during the Libya operation. Even if it was a “lucky” shot, the incident demonstrates the capability of Syrian air defense systems. This will make an international community, already reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, even more hesitant to do so – unanimous condemnation of Syria from NATO notwithstanding.
3- Do you think this incident will deter Turkey from sending more jets into Syrian airspace?
This incident will most likely dissuade Turkey from embarking on similarly risky missions, at least in the near future. Turkey has a much larger air force than Syria’s (twice as large) but in terms of modernity of technology the two countries are roughly evenly matched. The reluctance of Turkey’s NATO allies to get involved in Syria is another factor that could keep Ankara from pushing back too hard against Syrian action or risking further escalation by testing Syrian air defense capabilities in the near-term.