The unprovoked shooting down of a Turkish Air Force (TuAF) RF-4 Phantom aircraft by the Syrian Air Defence System on June 22 has sent shockwaves across the world. Syria, already mired in multiple crises of serious magnitude, has certainly added another one to its menu.

Syria’s downing of the Turkish jet has triggered a chorus of international condemnation as well as appeals for restraint to prevent a military escalation. Like most of the countries, Pakistan has also expressed its deep shock and regret over the uncalled for and unacceptable downing of an unarmed aircraft that was on a routine training mission to test Turkey’s radar capabilities. “We express our solidarity with Turkey over this unprovoked tragic incident. We urge Syria to cooperate with Turkey in carrying out a joint investigation,” said a spokesman of the Foreign Office. He added that Pakistan desires peace and stability in this important region with due respect for international laws; “we urge restraint in avoidance of any action that may lead to an escalation of tensions in the region.”

Syria’s point of view is that the Turkish aircraft was on a reconnaissance mission. The leadership insists that it was shot down inside the Syrian airspace. The plane crashed into the eastern Mediterranean. However, its profile and communication with the radar support the Turkish contention that it was on a radar calibration mission.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said: “To target an aircraft in this fashion without any warning is a hostile act of the highest order.” He further informed that the F-4 Phantom was hit by a heat-seeking laser-guided missile in international airspace; and that later the Syrian troops opened fire on a rescue plane searching for the pilots. “One of our CASA planes took off with a rescue team. Unfortunately, shots from the ground targeted our plane,” he maintained.

There is a wide-ranging “tool box” of international rules, regulations and norms to choose from, for confronting such situations. Some of them are: challenging the intruding aircraft on international distress frequency (also known as guard) and informing the pilot that he is violating the airspace, advising him to turn to a safe heading to exit; ordering a visual identification check by flying in their own plane close to the intruder; firing of a warning burst by the interceptor aircraft, giving the option to the pilot to leave the airspace if he has entered by mistake and guide him to an appropriate exit point; or asking him to land the plane at a suitable airport if it is presumed beyond reasonable doubt that it was a deliberate move to carry out a hostile act. The purpose of such forced landing is to conduct a physical check of the aircraft with respect to the transport/carriage of any security-related equipment like cameras or weapons.

According to available information, all these steps were skipped by the Syrian side, and shooting down was ordered on the pattern followed when two countries are in a state of war. Ironically, warning to the unfortunate aircraft about its drifting flight path came from the Turkish radar, and not from any Syrian facility.

In all probability, the Turkish aircraft had mistakenly strayed into the Syrian territory. Such straying is not unusual while flying over the sea where navigational aids are scant, and there are no nearby land features to make accurate estimates. At times, the costal winds are pretty fast that induce error in the flight path of the aircraft.

The Turkish assertion that the plane was not on a spying mission is quite convincing because it was flying at low level. For a typical reconnaissance mission, the aircraft has to fly at much higher altitudes. Moreover, on receipt of information from the Turkish radar, it had initiated a corrective turn to get out of the Syrian airspace.

Another factor is that the sanctity of 12 nautical miles as territorial water does not enjoy universal acceptance. A number of countries are of the view that the territorial seas extend up to three miles only.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for a meeting of the Nato under Article 4 of its charter, which says that member countries “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.” It was held on June 26 at the Nato headquarters in Brussels.

The alliance discussed the shooting down of the plane and said that the act was “unacceptable”. It condemned it in the strongest terms and expressed its support for Turkey. It said: “The shooting down of the plane was another example of the Syrian authorities disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.”

Despite the brutal attack, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister said: “We have considered that for humanitarian reasons one should supply electricity to Syria so that the daily lives of the people are not affected.” But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stressed that his country’s response should not be seen as a weakness, and that Turkey was adopting a “common sense” attitude. Also, the Turkish leadership said that the rules of engagement have changed after Syria shot down the plane, and if the Syrian troops approached its borders, they would be seen as a military threat.

It is a matter of great relief that Prime Minister Erdoğan showed patience, stopped short of action and did not opt to retaliate physically, though Turkey has all the capacity to do so! It is, indeed, reflective of a responsible pragmatism by Turkey that has saved the region from a conflict. The country’s prudent approach relies on active diplomacy, potent economic sanctions, and mobilisation of global support.

To de-escalate tensions between the two countries, the Syrian leadership owes an unconditional apology to Turkey. Here, in Pakistan, our thoughts at this difficult time are with the missing Turkish aircrew, their families and their loved ones. We hope that the two brotherly countries would exercise self-control, soon overcome their weaker moments and difficulties; and in due course, would revert back to their traditional friendly relations of yesteryears.

n    The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.

    Email:khalid3408@gmail.com