Phantoms Over Syria?
My oh my! What was Syria thinking when one of its commanders decided to unleash its air defenses against that Turkish F-4 shot down on Friday? We do not know what happened for certain, nor do we know how Turkey will ultimately respond, but we do know one thing: taking that shot was not a good idea.
This situation involves a great many variables, as does anything having to do with Syria these days. Syria claims that the Turkish fighter approached to within a half-mile of Syria’s coast before AAA fire brought it down. Turkey says that the fighter was shot down over international waters. Given that the pilots have yet to be recovered despite the rescue efforts of both Syrian and Turkish ships, it is unlikely that they will be found alive. Therefore investigation will have to rely on witnesses, radar tracks, and analysis of the fighter itself – assuming it can be found and recovered. AAA would most likely be ineffective at the 13 nm range Turkey claims the fighter was shot down at; evidence of missile damage would bolster Turkey’s claim. Yet really… it doesn’t matter.
So the Turkish plane was in Syrian airspace – maybe it was a training error, maybe it was doing a little reconnaissance on the sad situation in Syria. Maybe it just dipped inside the border for a moment, and maybe it was inside for a lot longer. So what! Syria never sent it a warning. The Syria government has noted that the jet was engaged, that when inside Syria’s airspace Syria had the right to engage it, and that international law allows such a right. Fine. But there is also such a thing as customary law, and I am confident that it includes attempting to make contact with unidentified aircraft prior to engaging it with force. Syria makes no claim that I have seen that such contact was even attempted; it saw, it shot, and now it is trying to cover itself because it knows full well that taking that shot was utterly stupid. It gained nothing (unless the Turkish response opens up some new dynamic that I will not even attempt to predict) and it opened itself up to diplomatic, economic, and possible military retaliation. Syria does have a few friends in high places left, but I think it is safe to say that Turkey has more backing on all fronts from NATO than Syria has from Iran, Russia, and China.
We will know more about what actions will be taken after Tuesday’s NATO meeting, but almost anything is possible. Diplomatic statements and economic sanctions are what is likely, but military strikes against Syrian air defenses near the Turkish border could also occur. For Assad’s grasping regime, this will certainly not be what the doctor ordered.