Russian technicians played a key part in the shooting down of a Turkish jet near the Syrian coast late last month, sources told a British newspaper in a story published Sunday.
The Turkish RF-4E Phantom fighter jet was on a routine surveillance run when it was shot down by Syrian gunners near the coastal city of Latakia. The incident sparked a serious international incident, with Turkey sending tanks and anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian border and Damascus responding with tanks of its own.
Turkey, which admits that the plane strayed into Syrian airspace, has promised to shoot down any Syrian plane that enters its territory.
According a Sunday Times of London report, the Russians and Syrians believed the plane was on a NATO mission to test Syria’s airspace and was shot down, in a split-second decision, to send a message to the organization.
Analysts had suspected Russian involvement in the incident, which drew harsh condemnations, but no military action, from NATO. Russia has protected Syrian President Bashar Assad in the UN Security Council and recently sent a number of refurbished helicopters to Damascus.
Russians supplies Syria with its anti-aircraft batteries and trained its soldiers on their use. Diplomats say the Russians are still on hand in Syria in an advisory role, the Sunday Times reported.
The story quotes an Israeli air force source as suggesting Russia had a hand in the incident: “We would not be surprised if these Russian experts, if they didn’t push the button, at least were beside the Syrian officers who did it.”
Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zubi said last week that Syrian soldiers who downed the plane may have thought it was an Israeli aircraft.
“Turkish planes and Israeli planes look alike,” the minister told the Turkish news station A Haber.
Al-Zubi also noted that the “Zionist country” was in the area, and that the Syrian military is on alert for Israeli aircraft.
“If an Israeli plane enters Syria, it is welcomed by fire. [The Turkish plane] might have been believed to be an Israeli plane; we did not want to take down a Turkish plane,” he said.
Syria has been embroiled in a nearly 18-month-long civil war as rebels attempt to oust Assad from power. Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, has harbored fleeing rebels and called for Assad to step down.