ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish armed forces statements over the loss of a warplane off the Syrian coast last month are fuelling speculation the military may be revising its initial assertion the plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses in international airspace.
Turkish government spokesman Bulent Arinc, seeking to allay confusion over apparent contradictions emerging in official accounts of the plane’s loss along with its two pilots, reasserted the original version to reporters on Thursday.
“It is better not to come to different conclusions by getting hung up on certain nuances. We are talking about an important subject. The Turkish jet was downed, the Syrian government which downed it has said ‘we downed it’,” he said.
But Turkish newspapers homed in on a military statement issued hours after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan himself complained on Wednesday of a “campaign inside Turkey and ... a campaign abroad” to misrepresent the June 22 incident.
The General Staff referred in the statement to the aircraft which “Syrian official authorities subsequently claimed to have shot down”. The use of the word ‘claimed’, absent from previous accounts, aroused confusion over an incident which many Turks had initially feared could lead to a war.
The loss of the aircraft raised tensions between Syria and Turkey, which has been harboring Syrian rebel forces and refugees on its territory and has called for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey dispatched its own air defense systems to its long frontier with Syria.
Turkey said after the incident that its aircraft was testing Turkish air defenses. Some analysts have speculated that, flying low and fast as it was near the boundaries of both states, it could have been probing Syrian defenses.
Further adding to uncertainty over the plane’s fate, the armed forces statement declared that no traces of “petroleum-based, combustible or fire accelerant substances, organic and inorganic explosive substance residues, or any kind of ammunition” were found on debris from the wreckage floating on the sea’s surface.
Hurriyet daily, quoting an unnamed retired Turkish admiral, said this statement meant there was no possibility of the jet having been brought down by a missile. Retired Brigadier-General Ali Er Was quoted as saying the statement could mean the plane had, for instance, crashed on an evasive maneuver.
The military has offered no clarification of its statement, despite several enquiries by Reuters.
“Okay, so how did this plane crash?” ran the front-page headline of the liberal daily Radikal on Thursday. “19 days later the discourse has changed,” Milliyet said. “The military said ‘claimed’,” ran the headline in Cumhuriyet.
Syria said hours after it crashed into the Mediterranean that it had shot down the F-4 jet in self-defense and without knowing that it was a Turkish aircraft. It said it shot the plane at close range with anti-aircraft fire after it flew into its air space at high speed and low altitude.
Turkey has said it violated Syrian air space accidentally for a few minutes but maintains its plane was shot down by a missile in international air space and without any warning.
With many questions still unanswered, the military and government’s handling of the incident may not be enough to satisfy everyone.
“The confusion sparked is not the kind to be forgotten easily, and with such clumsy moves Turkey is overshadowing its own thesis, supported by its NATO allies, that its plane was shot down without any warning, even if it had violated Syrian air space,” wrote Murat Yetkin in Hurriyet Daily News.
Writing by Jonathon Burch