Davutoglu: Shooting Down of Helicopter 'Punishment' for Syria

Turkey’s frustration with the Damascus regime going unpunished, even for using chemical weapons, played a major role in shooting down a Syrian helicopter.

al-monitor US Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius after a meeting regarding Syria, at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris, Sept. 16, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Larry Downing.
Kadri Gursel

Kadri Gursel

@KadriGursel

Topics covered

helicopter, turkish-syrian relations, turkey’s syria policy, syrian conflict, syrian, chemical weapons

Sep 18, 2013

First, let’s have look how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc voiced his own and his party’s reaction to the US-Russia accord on elimination of the Baath regime’s chemical weapons: "Until today, according to official counts, about 120,000 people have died in Syria including children, women and youth. None of them were killed with chemical weapons until Aug. 21 at Ghouta. About 110,000 people have been killed with conventional weapons. Assad and his supporters still have those weapons, and they will continue to kill with them. Won’t anyone be held responsible for the massacres? The events we live through make us rebel. The answers to these questions are not in the US-Russia agreement. Turkey’s attitude is humanitarian. We will do our part."

Without fully grasping what Arinc meant, the factors that led to shooting down a Syrian helicopter by a Turkish warplane the next day on grounds of violating Turkish airspace can’t be understood.

The Syrian helicopter that violated Turkish airspace was not actually shot down because of the violation. It was shot down because those who rule Turkey are furious and upset with the entire world and because they feel extremely isolated.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, nine days after the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack said, "A limited intervention against Syria won’t satisfy us. It should be like in Kosovo. You can’t come, hit for a day or two and leave. It must lead to surrender of the regime." He then declared Turkey was "ready to take part in any kind of coalition against Syria."

Then what happened two weeks later?

This was a gargantuan disillusionment for Ankara. The loss suffered was far beyond the hard fact that even a limited operation — which Erdogan found unsatisfactory but would punish the Baath regime and deter it from again using chemical weapons — was not in the cards.

With skillful Russian diplomatic moves, the Baath regime was persuaded to eliminate its chemical weapons. There are two significant aspects of this grand success for the regime and Russia.

The first, with the implementation of the elimination of chemical weapons, the international community led by the United States, with Israel, will no longer be compelled to intervene in Syria to prevent the chemical weapons from falling into hands of dangerous terrorists should the Syrian regime collapse.

The second is if the regime reported its chemical weapons inventory and storage locations to the United Nations in a short time as expected, the minimum conditions that would prevent the use of such weapons against civilians and the rebels would prevail. The reality that the regime accused of killing 1,400 people on Aug. 21 would go unpunished must have been weighted on a realpolitik scale, and those two major aspects must have won the day. What is to be gained from letting the regime go unpunished must have meshed with high security interests of the international community.

Anyhow, this international community was not very keen to punish the Damascus regime from the outset.

These are the parameters that frustrated Ankara, which was hoping the chemical weapons crisis would lead to a military solution that would expedite the end of the Assad regime.

The United States and Russia reached an agreement on Sept. 14, and on Sept. 16 foreign ministers of the United States, Britain and France met in Paris to discuss the UN Security Council resolution regarding the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons. US Secretary of State John Kerry invited Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Paris to hold parallel talks. While Davutoglu was in Paris meeting with his western allies, the helicopter incident occurred.

According to information released by Turkish military command, an M-17 Syrian helicopter was first detected at 1:41 p.m. on Sept. 16 while it was 26 nautical miles from Turkey. Despite all warnings, the helicopter violated Turkish air space at 2:25 p.m. while it was at 14,200 feet altitude. Two minutes later, the helicopter was hit with a missile fired by a Turkish F-16, and it crashed in Syrian territory about 1 kilometer from the Turkish border. 

The Syrian army in its announcement said Turkey had acted "hastily" in shooting down the helicopter. What they mean by hasty was shooting down the helicopter two minutes after it breached Turkish air space.

The statement released through Syria's official news agency SANA said the action by Turkey was "proof of real intention of the Erdogan government to escalate tensions on the border of two countries."

After the shooting down of a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance plane by Syria on June 22, 2012, south of Hatay, 8 miles from the Syrian city of Latakia, Turkey had modified its rules of engagement and declared any Syrian military aerial vehicle approaching Turkish airspace would be considered a threat.

At the time, this was interpreted as a Turkish decision not to wait for violation of its airspace by the Syrian air force.

Davutoglu’s remarks in Paris that Turkey had punished the Syrian helicopter attracted attention. Perhaps the foreign minister’s use of the word "punishment" was a coincidence, or it could be a manifestation of his reaction to non-punishment of Syria for using chemical weapons.

The fact is that the Syrian helicopter violated Turkish airspace just when the AKP government needed it.

The Turkish air force, by shooting down the Syrian helicopter with the permission of the government, somewhat alleviated the political and moral loss suffered from having none of its expectations from the chemical weapons crisis fulfilled. It was also an opportunity to prove to domestic and foreign audiences that Turkey had the means and the will to pursue its own agenda in the Syrian crisis. Of course, it was also a retaliation for the shooting down of the Turkish plane on June 22, 2012.

The pro-government daily Sabah on Sept. 17 ran the headline, "Assad, this is your retaliation."

Of course, one has to keep in mind that such retaliations can prompt counter-retaliations by the enemy. This is how we should make note of the car bomb attack at the opposition-controlled Bab al-Hawa Syrian border crossing facing our Cilvegozu crossing that killed seven and wounded 20. 

Kadri Gürsel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.

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