What really happened to the Turkish RF-4 Phantom jet that went missing over or near Syrian airspace on June 22? That’s what some Turkish journalists and editors are asking today after analysis revealed no trace of explosives on the aircraft’s wreckage and the Turkish General Staff (TGS) released a statement indicating a change in the military’s version of events. Previously, Turkey’s top brass and civilian leadership made it clear that Syrian air defenses were to blame for the loss of the plane and the crew of two. In a subtle shift, however, the officers are now saying, “Official Syrian bodies claimed [emphasis mine] the jet was downed by themselves.” Forget the awkward wording, this is an important shift suggesting there is more to the story than just Syrian perfidy. Indeed, the RF-4 incident raises questions about civil-military relations, Turkey’s relations with NATO, and importantly, official transparency, and accountability in Ankara.
Turkey’s official account of the F-4 incident is straightforward: The Syrians shot down the unarmed reconnaissance aircraft in international waters after it briefly and mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace. Given the bloody events in Syria over the last 16 months, Turkey’s narrative was consistent with the fact that Bashar al Assad and the people around him are capable of absolutely anything. After killing thousands of his own people, it was not terribly surprising (though seemingly stupid) that Assad would up the ante with his powerful neighbor and bag one of its jets.
Yet, from the beginning, a few things didn’t add up:
1. What was in it for Assad to antagonize the Turks? If it was a test of Ankara’s resolve, it was a very risky one. The Syrian military could have ended up fighting both other Syrians and Turkey—which boasts the second largest military in NATO.
2. How come the Israelis can get in and out of Syrian airspace with ease, but Turkish pilots cannot? Maybe it was a lucky shot, but the odds are stacked against the Syrians given their past performance against the Israeli Air Force. In an interesting twist, the lost RF-4 was among a fleet of Turkish planes that Israeli defense contractors upgraded with some pretty advanced gear.
3. The Syrians might have mistaken the plane for an Israeli aircraft but the Israelis retired their F-4s in 2003. Also, despite the tension between Ankara and Damascus, Syrian air defense batteries should have recognized the plane was Turkish by its “identification friend or foe” code. The Turkish and the Syrian militaries have in the not-too-distant past conducted joint exercises. These are not militaries unfamiliar with each other.
4. Finally, in an interview with the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, Assad claimed that he was unaware at the time that the Syrian air defenses were taking action against a Turkish plane. I know times are tough in Damascus and Assad is out of touch, and so it seems possible, but at the same time it is hard to believe any Syrian commander is going to escalate with the Turks without approval from the palace.
Clearly, someone is not telling the truth.
Did the RF-4 just crash? If it did, there would be no reason to get the international community spun up about the Syrians. Military jets crash from time to time; it is unfortunate. Yet the Turks took the incident to NATO, which expressed solidarity with Ankara in a hastily called meeting in Brussels on June 26 to discuss the incident. If it turns out that the Turks, who were among the first members of the North Atlantic Alliance, were less than honest with their NATO partners, it is going to put a major strain on the relations. That cannot possibly be the case. Turkey can be difficult in NATO councils, but it would never risk its status within the alliance.
Perhaps the Syrians did shoot down the F-4, but diminished, yet still powerful forces in Turkey would like to use it to embarrass Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. My friend Murat Yetkin, who edits the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, reported that the TGS statement was made at the same time that the Chief-of-Staff, Necdet Ozal, was meeting with the prime minister. I would put the timing of this statement in the category of “unusual.” The subtle change in the military’s language about Damascus merely claiming to have brought down the Turkish jet may have been intended to make the prime minister look either incompetent or devious, precisely the way that Erdogan has tried to portray the military in the process of bringing the officer corps to heel. It is conceivable that the officers or at least some officers are using the F-4 incident for payback. I’ve written before that we shouldn’t assume that the Turkish military is ready to give up so quickly; maybe the officers sense an opportunity now.
Finally, Murat Yetkin’s reporting on the issue leaves open the unsettling possibility that the Syrians did not bring the plane down, but the Russians did. That would be quite a development and an explanation for why Assad seemed unaware of what was happening, as well as why Ankara was so quick to point the finger at Damascus. It is one thing to ramp up tensions with Syria, it is quite another to tangle with Russia. There is a lot of unhappy history between Turks and Russians. At the same time, Turkey and Russia have robust trade relations and if Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party are “for” anything, they are for doing business. Also, it wouldn’t be a sure thing for Ankara if Moscow was, indeed, responsible and the Turks took the matter to NATO. Partners or not, Europe and the United States are not going to get into it with the Russians over a single Turkish plane. As a result, Erdogan and his team have every incentive to push the blame on Assad.
In the end, it is hard not to veer into conspiracy theorizing about how the F-4 was lost if only because the Turks have been so slow and sparing with the facts.