BEIRUT — Syria and Turkey are providing sharply conflicting accounts of the shoot-down of a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet, with Turkey saying the plane was in international airspace, 13 miles from the Syrian coast when it was hit by a missile, and Syria saying it was in Syrian airspace, around a mile from the coast, when it was brought down by anti-aircraft machine gun fire.
The plane was found in Syrian territorial waters, but Turkish officials say it crashed there after being fired on several miles away.
At a press conference in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi called Turkey’s version of events “baseless and inaccurate.” He said the plane had been flying fast and low in an act of “aggression on Syrian sovereignty,” according to the official news agency SANA.
Turkish officials have said the plane did briefly stray into Syrian airspace, but left when it was warned away by Turkish officials. The missile strike came 15 minutes later, and intercepted communications suggest the Syrians not only knew the plane was Turkish, but took a “deliberate” decision to target it, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal.
Makdissi disputed that, saying the anti-aircraft defenses were automatically triggered when the plane approached the Syrian coast.
He cautioned against NATO involvement in Syria ahead of a meeting Tuesday called by Turkey, saying that Syria was prepared to defend its territory.
“I want to reassure everyone that the Syrian territories, waters and airspace are sacrosanct for the Syrian army,” he said.
He also issued a warning to Turkey about its role in hosting the Free Syrian Army, whose leadership is living in a refugee camp in southern Turkey. Turkey is also reported to have been helping facilitate an effort to supply arms and funding to rebels inside the country.
“There is a crisis in Syria, but the solution cannot be through aggravating, mobilizing and arming the movement in Syria, nor through hosting entities that do not believe in a political solution but rather believe in militarizing the movement and undermining the stability of the neighboring country, Syria.”
Turkish news outlets reported that a fresh wave of defectors from the Syrian army had recently crossed the border, including a general, two colonels, a major and at least 33 soldiers.
But officers with the Free Syrian Army in southern Turkey said the defections weren’t new, though they are often only announced some time after the event after defectors are sure their family members are safe.
According to Col. Malik Kurdi, the most recent general to defect and arrive in Turkey 10 days ago was General Adnan Slaw, a retired administrator in the chemical weapons division of the Syrian military. General Abdullah Omar Zakaria, who identified himself on Friday in a video as belonging to the air force rehabilitation academy in Aleppo, had defected several weeks ago but did not make an announcement until his three relatives, who were colonels, joined him in Turkey, he said.
Defections have been taking place on a daily basis around Syria, steadily draining the regular army, but no significant figures have yet proved disloyal to the regime. The defection of a pilot with his MiG 21 fighter jet to Jordan last week raised questions however about the loyalties of the air force.
At a news conference in Ankara on Monday, Turkey’s deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc said that Syrian forces shot at a second Turkish plane that was searching for the wreckage of the jet, but stopped after a warning from the Turkish military, the Associated Press reported.
But Arinc also said that Turkey has “no intention of going to war with anyone,” Reuters reported.
On Sunday, Turkey announced it had summoned its NATO allies to an emergency meeting over the incident under Article 4 of the Alliance’s charter, which allows consultations in the event of a threat.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the ambassadors of the alliance’s 28 member states will meet in Brussels on Tuesday to hear a Turkish presentation on the incident.
“Under Article 4, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened,” she said in a statement.
A NATO official, speaking anonymously as is customary, noted that the organization’s Secretary General has repeatedly stated that “a regional solution is ideal, and that NATO has no plans to intervene whatsoever in Syria, and that has not changed.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the downing of the jet “a brazen and unacceptable act.” She said the United States was consulting with its allies and partners regarding “next steps” to be taken against Syria, at a time when a United Nations-led effort to address the spiraling bloodshed inside Syria through diplomacy is faltering.
The AP reported that European Union foreign ministers on Monday condemned Syria’s action, but said they will not support military intervention.
Though immediate military action seems unlikely, and Western nations have repeatedly said they don’t want military intervention in Syria, Turkey’s summons puts the Syria crisis on NATO’s agenda for the first time since the uprising began, and as such, “it is very significant,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“The preferred option for everyone, including the United States, is still a political solution,” he said. “But whereas a few days ago a military option was not on the cards, now it will be discussed in a way it hasn’t been for the past year and a half. It activates NATO, which we haven’t seen before.”
Turkey’s request for a NATO meeting came after two days of deliberations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his ministers and top Turkish military officials on the most serious cross-border incident yet since the Syrian revolt erupted 15 months ago, triggering fears of a wider regional conflict.
Staff writer Karla Adam in London and special correspondent Suzan Haidamous in Beirut also contributed to this story.