The Syrian government has gathered around 170 tanks north of Aleppo, near the Turkish border, Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council, an association of defected Syrian generals, said June 29. There was no independent confirmation. Al-Sheikh said the tanks are at the infantry school in Musalmieh and are ready to move against a Turkish deployment or attack towns around Aleppo's north.
This report from Damascus follows the release late last week of a Turkish video purportedly showing military vehicles loaded with antiaircraft weaponry moving south to the Turkey-Syria border.
Russian state television noted the event and pointed out that the military repositioning possibly included Special Forces from Saudi Arabia, although this too is unconfirmed. The Turkish troops are reportedly setting up multiple rocket launchers across the border with Syria. If this is true it would indicate fresh, and dangerous, sabre-rattling between the two Mediterranean countries.
Tensions rose over the past week when a Turkish reconnaissance RF-4E warplane was shot down 13 kilometres west of the Syrian town of Latakia June 22. Initially the details were incomplete, and a joint Syrian-Turkish rescue mission was conducted to collect the pilots, but Ankara eventually confirmed the aircraft was shot down. Damascus responded by saying it felt “deep regret” over the incident.
Turkey and Syria are no strangers to conflict over borders. The two countries have presided over a porous and instable border region for decades. Border skirmishes are common and both governments tend to issue sharp rhetoric about impending retaliation whenever they occur. However, generally nothing is actually done about these apart from diplomats setting up meetings to smooth over whatever current squabbles arise.
However, the shooting down of a military jet is a different matter as there have been many reconnaissance flights conducted by Turkey in the past few months, especially as the violence in Syria escalates.
Syrian refugees are escaping to southern Turkey in their hundreds, perhaps even thousands, and Ankara has a strategic need to gather intelligence over its southern regions and monitor the movements of Syrian people escaping the fighting. Patrols of the kind that resulted in the June 22 shoot-down are probably not uncommon.
Turkey’s response has so far been measured but a conventional military reply is still not completely out of the question. Syria is repositioning troops along the border with Turkey in case the reaction to the shoot-down becomes hot. Regardless of how Ankara responds Turkey will have a tough time breaking Syrian air defences.
Syria has a very large and redundant anti-air network that consists mainly of short to medium-range surface to air missiles and more extended-range SA-5s with a 300km engagement envelope. Their early-warning (EW) systems are robust and probably very informative for ground-based defences. It is the case however that most of these systems are outdated Soviet-era missiles that are unlikely to foil a modern aircraft’s countermeasures. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to dissect the exact countermeasures that the Turkish fighter employed, but reports from Damascus indicate the aircraft was flying well within the range of its missiles. Turkey maintains that its downed fighter jet was conducting patrols in international waters but Damascus has placed the aircraft on an approach to the Syrian coast. The final position of the crashed jet is well within the engagement envelope of at least one SA-2 battery on the Syrian coast.
Turkish aircraft are mostly modern designs, but they field a broad range running from aging frames like the F-4E Phantom II that entered service in the 1960s to the US-designed F-16 variant all the way to the extremely modern IAI Heron unmanned aerial vehicle purchased controversially from Israel in 2011.
The flight systems on Turkish aircraft are unlikely to struggle with simple navigation, and their pilots are probably very experienced and knowledgeable of their surroundings. While a pilot navigational error or a system malfunction could explain the final position and approach path of the Turkish jet, it does not discount the possibility that the aircraft was conducting a premeditated penetrating flight through Syrian airspace at command of Turkish officers.
Given the amount of activity in the Syrian-Turkish skies recently, an over adjustment or a misread flight-plan always carried the potential for a Syrian anti-air defence response. The downing of the Turkish jet therefore, while tragic, had a reasonably high probability of occurring. The airspace between Syria and Turkey is probably extremely crowded these days as the two countries deal to their internal problems and surveil their borders.
What must also be taken into account is that Ankara has complained through diplomatic channels to Damascus about Syrian helicopters violating Turkish airspace, five instances of which occurring just in the month of June.
On top of this, the crisis in Syria is reportedly now including Syrian aircraft in the military strikes on rebel targets, although that can’t yet be verified. Whether the Syrian anti-aircraft action was premeditated, reactionary or simply a mistake is now beside the point.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement June 26 that outlined a change in its rules of engagement toward Syria. Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that “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."
Syrian officials have indicated that the anti-aircraft battery responsible for the shoot-down may have mistaken the Turkish jet for an Israeli one. Both Israel and Turkey use U.S. designed warplanes so there is some feasibility to this reasoning.
There is also no reason to discount an independent decision from the Syrian missile battery to engage without central command approval. Such things have happened in the past, and an unexpected manoeuvre or change in direction from the Turkish aircraft could have spooked the Syrian gunners into responding with deadly force.
All this aside, the two countries are in somewhat of a limbo as a resolution is sought over the incident. Ultimately it will not be Syria that dictates when and how the present conflict will be resolved. Turkey is not a superpower but it is part of NATO and that brings with it some serious options for dealing with the crisis.
An exchange of fire between Syrian and Turkish troops at a border post is not serious, but the downing of a warplane could be legitimate enough to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter. The only time this article has been activated was after 9/11, where “an attack on one member” (the United States) was considered an attack on all NATO members. The resultant Afghanistan war was precipitated by this invocation. Turkey has not yet moved to rally its NATO allies but Ankara does have reason to consider it.
Turkey’s southern neighbour is in a state of flux, and has been for the better part of a year. Syria is experiencing something between an internally instigated rebellion and a foreign-funded proxy way. There are more players involved in Syria than one would at first expect, and the desired outcome of the internecine battles is different depending on which regional power is in question.
Turkey is interested in seeing the Assad regime collapse because the alternative is a Persian dominated Levant. Syria is a strong ally of Iranian politics, a position that threatens Turkish regional influence. Bringing down Assad is therefore in Turkish geopolitical interests because it weakens the inexorable spread of Iranian power.
But Turkey has no intention of going to war in response to its F-4 jet being shot down by Syria on June 22, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said June 25. Arinc added that whatever Turkey's response, it would be within the framework of international law. Turkish officials are reassuring the international community that the military build-up is purely defensive. Given the gravity of the recent shoot-down, any careless move by Syria or Turkey has the potential for escalation.