Six months after the Uludere massacre, where 34 of our [Turkish] citizens were killed by our own planes, we once again find ourselves confronted by an extremely perilous set of events involving our military command and air force.
Two days ago, [Friday June 22] an RF-4E plane was shot down by Syrian forces. Syria displayed a hostile attitude by opening fire on our plan to deliberately shoot it down. Statements made by Syrian officials on the event make no mention of having warned the Turkish plane to leave its airspace. If there was no error in communication, Syria’s hostile intent is obvious. The Syrian radar operators must have detected that the plane they locked onto was a Turkish one. There can be no other explanation.
Nevertheless, Syria’s hostile attitude does not negate the validity of the following question: why was our plane flying in Syrian airspace?
Furthermore, it is necessary to speak of not one but two hostile attitudes: Turkey’s expressed desire to topple the Syrian regime, and that regime’s reaction.
Ankara is working to help organize the rebellion in Syria. It coordinates it, hosts its key figures and plays a leading role in the international initiatives aiming to oust the Syrian regime. Frequently we read Western press reports that the CIA is working out of Turkey to arm the Syrian rebels and Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are financing the procurement of weapons.
In such a situation, it is in the nature of the game for Syria to perceive this as a hostile Turkish attitude and respond accordingly.
Just because the regime in Damascus oppresses its people, kills women and children and destroys cities does not mean that Turkey is without blame in the hostility between the two countries.
As such, the civilian government in Ankara must ask the military why the RF-4E reconnaissance plane was overtly sent into Syrian airspace given the explosive atmosphere between the two countries.
Just as it was for the events in Uludere, the government is the body politically responsible for all Turkish military operations, and it is the government that will pay the price for them. The government must assume its share of responsibility for the Syrian crisis.
A greater understanding of the technical details of the event will help to explain why such discussions are valid. The RF-4E is the “tactical reconnaissance” version the F-4 Phantom fighter jet. It is an outdated model way past its prime. In modern warfare, the mission it once would have carried out are now being undertaken by UAVs.
The US used RFD-4Es against Iraq 21 years ago. After that, most modern air forces gradually scrapped their RF-4Es. However, the RF-4Es Turkey received from Germany in mid-1990s are still the backbone of Turkish Air Force’s tactical reconnaissance squadrons.
The RF-4Es are equipped with optical tools for long range observation capabilities, allowing them to fly their missions out of range of low-altitude air defense systems.
Until 20 years ago, when the threat of anti-aircraft fire was much more central, RF-4Es were escorted by “Wild Weasel” planes capable of confusing and destroying enemy radars. Sending RF-4Es into the battle field without the protection of the Wild Weasels could only mean sending them to their deaths.
The secrets of this affair are hidden in the technical details.
And, assuming that the Ankara government is not keen to enter into war knowing that no political benefits to be derived from provoking Syria, and bearing in mind that a tactical reconnaissance plane can only fly a given, specified mission, the probability that it only mistakenly violated Syrian airspace is a very low.
I would like to pose the following questions:
If it was our intention to carry out reconnaissance missions and collect intelligence during a time in which we are officially at peace with Syria, why did we opt for the RF-4E instead of a UAV? Why did we risk military escalation given that we have no idea where such an escalation will take us, and who will ultimately bear the responsibility for it? Why did our plane fly so low and close to the Syrian coast to make itself such an easy target?
I believe the civilian Ankara government would be keen to hear the answers...