When Syria shot down an Israeli-upgraded Turkish fighter jet it was delivering a message that the air force, despite the defection of a senior pilot a day earlier, was still in control and a force to be reckoned with.
The incident has also made air commands in the region that fly Western aircraft sit up and take notice, since it marked one of the rare times in recent years when Russian-designed weapons took on and defeated Western systems.
“Excuse me for saying so, but there appears to have been a lack of professionalism by the Turks,” Shmuel Gordon, a reserve colonel and pilot in the Israel Air Force, who has written extensively on air power and national security, told The Media Line.
“It is completely clear that the jet came to a place where it was entirely up to the good will of Syria whether or not he would return,” Gordon said. “I don’t remember the last time the Syrians shot down an aircraft. I can assume that the Turks carry out these flights regularly and they saw that the Syrians didn’t react and each time got a little and little closer until one day on orders from very high up it was decided to show the Turks that they can’t fly around here anymore. And they shot the jet down.”
A Syrian military spokesman told Sana, the state-run news agency, that on Friday their anti-defense systems detected an unidentified aircraft flying in Syrian airspace at a very low altitude and high speed. It said anti-aircraft artillery hit it when it was one kilometer from land, causing it to crash into Syrian territorial waters about 10 kilometers from shore.
Syrian and Turkish naval forces were dispatched to search for the two missing airmen, but neither country gave further details on this mission.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told TRT television on Sunday that their records show the aircraft was shot down in international waters a quarter of an hour after it had “momentarily violated Syrian airspace.”
He also denied that it was on a spy mission and said the jet had been unarmed and on a training flight to test a radar system. The Turkish RF-4E Phantom, reportedly took off from the "Aarkhach" air base in the southeastern province of Malatya, which also hosts the NATO-run missile shield radar. It was shot down by Syria’s air defense system near Latakia, which is close to the Russian naval base at Tartus.
Turkish leaders were cautiously backing down from the belligerent rhetoric of the day before when they had said they would respond “decisively.” But that hasn’t stopped the calls for a backlash from Turkish media. The widely circulated Hurriyet ran a banner headline: “He (Assad) is playing with fire.” And Vatan cried: “They (the Syrians) will pay the price.”
In a move that further escalated tensions, Turkey on Sunday requested that representatives from NATO-member states convene in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the attack. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned Syria’s downing of the Turkish fighter jet as “outrageous" and said Britain was ready to support “robust action” against Syria by the United Nations Security Council.
Turkish-Syrian relations have been deteriorating since the Assad regime started to crush the Syrian opposition, which has been demanding more rights as a result of the Arab Spring. Currently there are more than 33,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, including senior military officers. Also, the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army have their main headquarters in Turkey.
Nevertheless, the latest incident showcased Russian-supplied air defenses, which have just proven their lethality.
Just last week, a Russian arms dealer had boasted to The New York Times that advanced weapons they were shipping to Syria could be used to down aircraft and sink ships.
"I would like to say these mechanisms are really a good means of defense, a reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea. This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this,” Anatoly Isaykin, the general director of Rosoboronexport, was quoted as saying.
Isaykin said weaponry being shipped to Syria included the Pantsyr-S1, a radar-guided missile and artillery system capable of hitting planes at high altitudes; Buk-M2 anti-aircraft missiles; and land-based Bastion anti-ship missiles.
Syria said the jet was shot down by artillery, but the Turkish daily Vatan said the system used to down the F-4 was the BUK-M2, also known as the SA-11.
The Phantom RF-4E jets were part of the batch of 54 Turkish warplanes upgraded by Israel Aerospace Industries in the last decade in a deal worth more than $700 million. While the Israeli air force has since demobilized its fleets of the aging F-4s, the upgraded Turkish jets had been equipped with electronic warfare suites. But Turkish-Israeli relations have soured in recent years and it is not clear if counter-measures for evading anti-aircraft weapons were updated to deal with current Russian-designed systems.
It is no secret that Syrian airspace has been repeatedly violated by various players, including the Turks, Israelis, Americans and more, analysts say. But taking down the F-4 on Friday was likely a decision handed down from the very top Syrian echelon to prove that the air force was still under control of President Bashar Assad’s beleaguered regime.
It also marked the first time in nearly five years that any weapons system with Israeli manufacturing input had faced a Russian weapon acquired by Syria. The last time was in September 2007, when Israeli fighter-bombers reportedly destroyed a Iranian-North Korean-built nuclear reactor in the northern Syrian town of Al-Kibar. Airspace over the reactor was guarded by Russian anti-air missiles, but Israeli aircraft reportedly penetrated by disabling the Russian missiles’ radar so that Damascus never realized its reactor was being bombed until it had been smashed and Israeli bombers were home safely.
“The Russians are very serious and you can’t dismiss them,” said Gordon, who had first-hand experience dodging SAMs during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “They make some of the best anti aircraft systems in the world. Really, they are very sophisticated and at the highest operational levels. They have a huge variety of systems. And no one should dismiss them. And I am absolutely sure that the Israeli air force doesn’t dismiss the Russian air defense systems for one minute and in every plan everything is worked out to the last detail.”
Gordon suggested that the defection last week of a senior Syrian pilot with his MiG-21 was like an earthquake to the Assad regime and probably prompted the decision to pull the trigger on the Turkish jet.
“The (Syrian) air force had been considered until now one of the main sources of might. So in order to send a message externally and internally that one can’t underestimate its capabilities, they took the shot,” he said. “It wasn’t done to raise morale, but rather, to restore Syria’s sense of national security which is capable of not only detecting, but also in shooting down aircraft.”
The Jordanian newspaper Alarab Alyawm reported on Sunday that three more Syrian air force pilots have defected to Jordan and joined their fellow pilot Col. Hassan Hammadeh who flew his MiG-21 fighter jet to Jordan last week. It said the trio crossed the border by land.
For more stories from The Media Line go to www.medialine.org