Turkey downed a Syrian warplane that crossed into its airspace yesterday, escalating already inflamed tensions with its neighbor as the Turkish government battles widening corruption allegations.
The Turkish air force fired a missile yesterday at a Syrian MiG-23 that had ignored four warnings and briefly penetrated 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) into Turkish airspace, Turkey’s military said in a statement.
“A Syrian plane violated our airspace,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday during an election rally in Kocaeli province, east of Istanbul, ahead of March 30 local elections. “Turkish F-16s took off and shot it down. Our slap will be heavier if you violate my airspace again.”
Syria’s official SANA news agency cited an unidentified military official as saying the plane was shot down while chasing terrorists inside Syrian territory. Erdogan’s government supports rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to retaliate for any violation of Turkey’s sovereignty since Syrian forces shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane in June 2012, killing two pilots. Turkey downed a Syrian helicopter that entered its airspace in September, and has fired guns at Syria in response to shells that have struck Turkish frontier towns and villages in a spillover from the Syrian fighting.
It recently began threatening military action if needed to defend a tomb in Syria belonging to an ancestor of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which Turkey says is surrounded by al-Qaeda affiliated militants. In the Netherlands yesterday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said his country would defend the burial site of Suleyman Shah against any attack.
The Syrian plane targeted yesterday crashed about 1.2 kilometers inside Syria, and another aircraft that was flying with it turned back before the missile was fired, the military said in its statement. The pilot of the downed jet survived, Syrian state TV said.
The frictions with Syria come at a time when Erdogan is trying to fend off allegations of corruption against his government. Erdogan accuses a former ally, an Islamic preacher now based in the U.S., of fabricating the allegations to weaken him before a series of three elections.
The benchmark stock index has lost about 14 percent since news of the investigations broke in December, and the lira has fallen 9 percent.
Over the weekend, Erdogan took action to block access to Twitter Inc. after the social media website distributed documents and recordings that purport to implicate the Turkish leader and his closest circles in graft cases. Turks have eluded some of the controls, which have drawn condemnation from the U.S., whose State Department called it “21st-century book burning.”