Turkey shoots down Syrian helicopter after airspace violation

Turkey is openly opposed to the Assad regime and has supported rebel groups, allowing weapons to cross the Turkish border to Assad's chagrin. 

Umit Bektas/Reuters
A Turkish military armored vehicle patrols on the border line near Turkish Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa in Reyhanli, Hatay province, September 17, 2013.

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The Syrian Army today accused Turkey of deliberately trying to escalate tensions after a Turkish fighter jet “hastily” brought down a Syrian military helicopter along the unstable frontier, highlighting the increasingly uneasy relationship between the two.  

Syria says its helicopter crossed into Turkish airspace Monday while monitoring for terrorists in rebel strongholds along the border. Turkey says it repeatedly warned the helicopter, which had traveled more than a mile beyond its territory. The countries share a 560-mile border, and some 500,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkish soil, reports Reuters.

“The hasty response from the Turkish side, especially as the aircraft was on its way back and was not charged with any combat missions, is proof of the true intentions of [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s government toward Syria to increase tensions and escalate the situation on the border between the two countries,” according to a statement by the Syrian Army published by the state news agency, reports the Financial Times.

Turkey has been one of the strongest critics of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown. It is openly opposed to Mr. Assad and has supported rebel groups, allowing weapons and supplies to cross the Turkish border. Prime Minister Erdogan has said his country won’t “tolerate any violation of the border by Syrian forces,” reports The Associated Press.

This isn’t the first dispute Syria and Turkey have had over airspace. In June 2012 Syria shot down a Turkish aircraft it said violated its airspace, but at the time both sides said they did “not want to escalate an incident that has the potential to explode into a regional conflict,” reported a separate AP story. Syria called it an accident, not an attack. In October that same year, Turkey grounded a Syrian passenger flight, again heightening tensions.

According to Reuters, after the downing of the Turkish jet:

Erdogan said the military's rules of engagement had changed and that any Syrian element approaching the border would be deemed a threat and be treated as a military target.

Turkey has bolstered its defenses and deployed additional troops on its border with Syria in recent weeks, with convoys of military vehicles ferrying equipment and personnel and additional short-range air defenses set up.

The Turkish government "assumed this would be a very fast process [and] wanted to have some stake," so began a "proactive involvement” in the conflict, Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul told The Christian Science Monitor of the conflict last year.  “Actually, this calculation turned out to be wrong." Prof. Kalaycioglu said. "Now we are into this mess up to our waists, probably, if not our neck.”

Time’s Piotr Zalewski writes that the current situation along the border is “far from what the Turks had in mind” just four years ago.

In late 2009, at the height of its detente with Syria, the Ankara government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted visa requirements for Syrian nationals and floated plans for future energy cooperation, investments, as well a free trade zone. Less then four years later, with its southern neighbor gripped by war, and with Turkey openly calling for the US to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad‘s regime, the border has become a flashpoint. The area — expected to be a crossroads for traders, business people and tourists — now teems with refugees, smugglers and insurgents.

Responding to yesterday’s incident, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglusaid said, “nobody will dare to violate Turkey’s borders in any way again,” according to Turkish state-run news agency Anatolia. “The necessary measures have been taken,” Mr. Davutoglusaid said.

He said Turkey “expects no retaliation” from Syria, though it “is ready for all possibilities,” according to state-run A-news TV.

This week’s back and forth between Syria and Turkey coincided with the release of a damning report by the United Nations on chemical weapons use in Syria in August.

The report did not blame Assad’s government or rebel fighters, but Western powers have “jumped on evidence in the report — especially the type of rockets, the composition of the sarin agent, and trajectory of the missiles — to declare that Assad's government was responsible. Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, disagreed,” according to a separate AP story.

Syria’s main opposition group called for “swift international response,” to the reports findings.

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