Although the the Turkish fighter jet downed by Syrian forces on June 22 has been found and the Turkish military is analyzing the wreckage, the questions regarding how the jet was brought down and what its actual mission was continue to linger and are now leading to a heated political debate in Turkey.
For now, Ankara is sticking to its version of events, which is that the unarmed reconnaissance airplane was shot down without warning by a Syrian missile over international waters while on a mission testing a domestic radar system. Damascus, meanwhile, insists the Turkish F-4 was mistakenly shot down by fire from an anti-aircraft gun after suddenly appearing flying fast and low just off the Syrian coast.
The Syrian version of events was given something of a boost by a June 30th Wall Street Journal article that quoted unnamed American defense sources as saying that US intelligence indicates the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire inside Syria's airspace. The article led to an angry response from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called it a "lie" and criticized several Turkish media outlets for publishing material based on the WSJ's reporting. But the Turkish military itself has also created some confusion, with a brigadier general telling the Milliyet newspaper that Ankara doesn't have any evidence of a missile striking the plane.
The questions over what happened to the jet have now started to work its way into Turkey's domestic political scene, offering the opposition a chance to go after Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and question whether it is being completely straight with the Turkish public. “We have been informed that our jet was downed in international airspace. But there are still so many dark points about it. We demand [the government] publicizes the autopsy reports [of the two pilots],” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) said in a party meeting on July 8. “I repeat my calls to Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom to share the information they have with the world. I believe that many points will be clarified when they do this.”
In response, Erdogan lashed out at the CHP leader, accusing him of being a mouthpiece for the regime in Damascus. Reports Today's Zaman:
“[Syrian leader] Bashar al-Assad is not talking about our [downed] jet as [CHP leader Kemal] Kılıçdaroğlu is already talking on his behalf. The CHP has apparently undertaken the role of spokesperson for the Baath regime in Turkey. The CHP leader did not display a nationalistic stance on our downed jet,” Erdoğan said on Wednesday during his party's expanded provincial chairmen meeting.
Erdoğan also criticized Kılıçdaroğlu for giving credence to a report by The Wall Street Journal that stated that the Turkish jet had been downed by Syrian forces in Syrian territorial waters. “You will, on the one hand, slander the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party by accusing it of carrying out some foreign countries' policies and, on the other hand, you will trumpet the lies of an American newspaper. What are you running after? Why are you pawns in this scenario? Kılıçdaroğlu is encouraging Turkey's enemies,” Erdoğan continued.
Meanwhile, military analyst and columnist Lale Kemal, writing in Today's Zaman, makes the point that while the Syrian downing of the Turkish jet is unacceptable, the way Ankara has dealt with the event's aftermath has not only opened the door for questions about the incident but also about how transparent the Turkish government has been about what happened. From her column:
The problematic aspect of the jet downing incident is the fact that the recent statements contradict Turkey’s initial ones. Turkey initially stated that the radar tracking information concerning the flight of the jet proved that the jet, which was unarmed, was shot down in international air space. Ankara also said that such technical information was shared with NATO allies. Yet, conflicting reports continue coming from within both NATO and Turkey, casting doubt over Turkish explanations concerning the downing of the jet.
Gen. Baki Kavun, head of the communications department of the Turkish General Staff, for example, told the Milliyet daily on Monday that there was no information so far over whether the jet was downed by a Syrian missile. Turkey says technical analysis being made over the debris of the jet recovered late last week together with the bodies of the two pilots, are concluded; a further announcement will be made over the findings.
It is not, however, the first time that Turkish official version of explanations for an incident have been both confusing and misleading. Concerning the bombardment of Turkish-Kurdish smugglers last year in late December by Turkish F-16 jets near Uludere township and across the Iraqi border whom they were said to have mistaken for outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists, no light has so far been shed….
….Both the Uludere and the Turkish jet downing incidents underline the serious problem of an absence of transparency, accountability and good governance in Turkish affairs.