Turkey says it has found the bodies of the two pilots whose jet was shot down by Syrian forces last month. But the circumstances of how and where the plane was shot down are in dispute that is putting increasing pressure on the Turkish government.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the downing of the plane on June 22 to introduce tough new rules of engagement with Syria.
“If that country now violating international rules and regulations, the shooting down of our plane in international waters and international airspace, we need to take any necessary measures that we see fit,” Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal explained.
But the Turkish government’s account of the downing of the plane has been called into question.
“There are at least three accounts of how things happened,” said Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University. The first one from the Turkish authorities. The second from the Syrian authorities. And the third one from Russian authorities. And even a fourth one from the American authorities. Now we are discussing where it happened exactly.”
National and international media citing foreign diplomatic sources are supporting Damascus’s version of events: that the Turkish jet was in Syrian airspace when it was shot down.
On Sunday, Erdogan launched a blistering attack on the U.S. newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, which quoted a U.S. intelligence source contradicting Ankara’s version of events.
Who are these sources? he asked. They have published lies earlier as well.
The prime minister also criticized the Turkish media, accusing them of being traitors for challenging Ankara’s stance on the jet’s downing.
Despite the heightened tensions between the neighboring countries in recent weeks, opinion polls in Turkey suggest the majority of the public is firmly opposed to a military conflict with Syria. And Turkish public sentiment may explain why Turkey’s media is questioning the government’s version of what happened.
Semih Idiz, diplomatic correspondent for the the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says this explains why Erdogan is lashing out at country’s press.
“One of the main reasons and this is why the prime minister was so angry not just at Assad and his regime but also at columnists and journalists in Turkey who are asking questions that he is not happy [with],” said Idiz.
The controversy has now extended to speculation over possibility that Russians were involved in downing the plan. Much of Syria’s air defenses is supplied by Moscow. International relations expert Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University points out that some analysts believe Russian technicians servicing the air defenses remain in Syria.
“We still don’t know whether or not they played any role in the downing of that plane, because we don’t know what shot the plane [down]. Was it a missile? Who ordered the firing of the missile? Why do the Syrians insist it was anti-aircraft machine guns and not a missile? There are still a lot of unknowns about what exactly happened,” said Ozel.
The region where the plane was downed is one of most closely monitored in the Mediterranean – by sophisticated radar on the nearby island of Cyprus and by Russia’s naval base on the Syrian coast. Still, observers say that, for now, there are more questions than answers regarding the shooting down of the Turkish jet.