Assad regrets downing of Turkish jet, says won’t allow open combat with Ankara


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regretted that his country’s defense forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet on June 22, he said in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet published on Tuesday.

“The plane was flying in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli air force,” he said, but added that he regretted the incident -- which has further fuelled tensions between the two former allies – “100 percent,” according to AFP.

Assad said that he would not allow the tensions between the two countries to turn into open combat.

“We learned that it (the plane) belonged to Turkey after shooting it down. I say 100 percent ‘if only we had not shot it down’,” the newspaper quoted Assad as saying.

His comments emerged as fighting raged throughout Syria to unseat Assad in what is increasingly taking on the character of an all-out civil war, fuelled by sectarian hatred.

Syrian helicopters bombarded a Damascus suburb on Monday and Turkey scrambled warplanes near the border in the north, as the U.N. human rights chief warned that arms supplies to both the government and rebels were deepening the 16-month conflict.

Asked whether the tensions between Syria and Turkey could lead to war, Assad said: “We will not allow (the tensions) to turn into open combat between the two countries, which would harm them both,” Reuters reported.

He also said Syria had not amassed and would not amass military forces along the Turkish border, whatever action Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government takes.

The paper did not specify when the interview was held, but in it Assad refers to an international meeting held in Geneva on Saturday under the auspices of peace envoy Kofi Annan.

Turkey has heightened military activity along its southern border since Syria shot down the Turkish jet over the Mediterranean on June 22, prompting a sharp rebuke from Ankara which said it would respond “decisively.”

Syria says it shot down the Turkish jet in self-defense and that it was brought down in Syrian air space. Turkey says the jet accidentally violated Syrian air space for a few minutes but was brought down in international air space.

Assad said Syria would not shy away from apologizing if it emerged that the plane was shot down in international airspace.

“The plane was using a corridor which Israeli planes have used three times before. Soldiers shot it down because we did not see it on our radar and because information was not given.”

“Of course I might have been happy if this had been an Israeli plane,” Assad said.

Having sheltered leaders of the Free Syrian Army and allowed them to operate from its territory for months, Ankara now seems signaling much clearer support for the opposition.

“What we now have today is a regime who has strayed so far away from a basic sense of rationality,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu told a Syrian opposition meeting in Cairo on Monday.

“The only interlocutor for Turkey in Syria is now the Syrian people,... that is the Syrian opposition, which means you.”

That seems likely to mean that Ankara will let the Gulf Arab states increase shipments of military supplies to FSA forces based in Turkey. For the opposition, they are sorely needed.

Western intelligence and special forces operatives already believed to be operating in Turkey may also be pressured to provide much greater support. So far, officials in Washington in particular say their primary task has been less to assist the rebels and much more to find out who they are and whether it might ever be safe to work with them more closely.