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Questions Raised Over Syria's Downing of Turkish Reconnaissance Aircraft

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While Turkey's NATO allies publicly support Turkey in the downing by Syria of Turkey's unarmed, two-seat RF-4E Phantom -- a reconnaissance version of the F-4 fighter jet -- U.S. and NATO officials are now privately raising questions about the incident.

The questions surround the aircraft's real mission, its flight path, and where and how it was downed.

The BBC sums up the questions as follows:

  • Where exactly was it when it was engaged by Syrian air defences?
  • Why had it strayed into Syrian air-space for at least a small part of its flight?
  • Why were measures not taken to alert the aircraft's crew of their error before knocking the plane out of the sky?
  • Was this just a routine training mission as the Turks say, or was the aircraft seeking to monitor what was going on the ground?

Regarding the latter, the aircraft's mission, the New York Times points out that preliminary analysis of available data by American and allied officials suggests that "there may have been more to the aircraft's mission than just a routine training exercise to test Turkey's air defenses."

However, Turkey's deputy prime minister, Bülent Arınç, while acknowledging that the RF-4E Phantom was equipped for surveillance, strongly denies it was doing reconnaissance on this particular mission, according to the Times.

As to where and how the aircraft was shot down, Syria claims that the aircraft was brought down by anti-aircraft artillery that has a maximum range of two miles, concluding that the aircraft must have been well inside its 12-mile territorial airspace.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, claims that the aircraft was struck by antiaircraft fire outside Syrian airspace (see below): "Our plane was hit in international airspace," he said according to the Times, "13 nautical miles out of Syria, when Syrian territorial space is 12 miles."

Quoting the Syrian Arab News Agency and Turkish officials, the Times graphically presents the "conflicting stories" offered by the two sides.

The map shows the path of the Turkish plane, according to Syria, clearly well within Syrian airspace and with the Syrian version claiming, "As the plane flew at low altitude toward the coast, land-based Syrian antiaircraft batteries fired at it with cannons that have a maximum range of less than two miles. Syrian salvage workers recovered wreckage from the jet showing cannon damage."

The Turkish version claims:

The jet "mistakenly entered" Syrian airspace over the Mediterranean, but left after Turkish radar operators warned the crew. There was no warning from Syria. Nine minutes later, the jet was struck by a heat-seeking missile at a point 13 nautical miles from the Syrian coast (A).The jet turned toward shore and crashed at this point (B).

[(A) and (B) are references to points on the map.]

In Ankara, on Monday, Prime Minister Erdoğan said Turkey had revised its military rules of engagement toward Syria: "Every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target," he said in a speech to lawmakers attended by Arab diplomats, according to the Times.

Read more here.