Tuesday 20 March 2018

Syria keen to ease tension over jet

Damascus says shooting down of Turkish plane was 'accident' as Ankara talks of 'act of war'

A Turkish Air Force F-4 war plane similar to the one which was shot down bu Syrian air defences
A Turkish Air Force F-4 war plane similar to the one which was shot down bu Syrian air defences

Justin Vela in Istanbul

Turkey will this morning announce its response to the shooting down of its warplane by Syrian forces over the Mediterranean Sea.

Officials in Damascus meanwhile sought to defuse tensions with Turkey over the shooting down of the Turkish airplane, insisting that it was "an accident".

As night fell yesterday, the pilots had still not been located. Syrian and Turkish rescue teams were working together in the search for wreckage.

As some Turkish politicians branded the downing of the plane an "act of war", a Syrian government spokesman said the aircraft had been an "unidentifiable object" and that the Syrian military had only realised later that it was a Turkish F4 jet.

"We do not want any tension with Ankara," said Jihad Makdissi, Syria's foreign affairs spokesman in a statement. "Hopefully, we can transcend this issue swiftly... the announcement I have made is Syria's official stance; there is in no way any animosity felt towards Turkey and the Turkish public."

The Turkish government, which has promised a "decisive" response to the incident, is expected to make a statement today, pending the outcome of further inquiries by both countries.

In an interview yesterday, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, conceded that the Turkish plane may have crossed into Syrian airspace. But he said there was no reason for the Syrian military to have interpreted the move as a hostile act.

"It is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over borders, when you consider their speed over the sea," Mr Gul said. "These are not ill-intentioned things but happen beyond control due to the jets' speed."

The loss of the Turkish plane on Friday has left Western powers fearing that Turkey, which has already angered Damascus by sheltering refugees from the Syrian violence, could be dragged into Syria's escalating civil war.

Mr Gul said: "Whatever is necessary will be done." It was not clear if he was suggesting military retaliation, increased sanctions against Syria or other possible steps.

But Faruk Celik, Turkey's labour and social security minister, said Turkey would retaliate "either in the diplomatic field or give other types of response". He added: "Even if we assume that there was a violation of Syria's airspace -- though the situation is still not clear -- the Syrian response cannot be to bring down the plane. Turkey cannot endure it in silence."

The deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc, added that, contrary to reports, the plane was not a fighter jet but a reconnaissance aircraft.

The Turkish press has reacted relatively cautiously. While some headlines read, "Damascus playing with fire" and, "They will pay for it", overall the coverage displayed less anger than toward attacks by Kurdish rebels in Turkey.

Soli Ozel, a columnist at the Haberturk newspaper and professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, said it was unlikely that the incident would be declared an act of war and that the Turkish government was seeking a way to avoid a further escalation of the crisis.

Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus in March as relations between the two countries deteriorated over the crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad on Syrian protesters. In May, Ankara expelled Syria's diplomats but there is, still a Turkish consulate operating in Aleppo.

Yesterday, Syrian army forces shelled neighbourhoods in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, killing at least 28 people, mostly civilians.

The fighting came as Mr Assad issued a decree to form a new government, shaking up the cabinet but keeping the heads of the interior, defence and foreign ministries.

© Telegraph

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