Contrary to previous reports, the two pilots of a Turkish F-4 Phantom which was shot down by Syria in June were not killed in the crash, but were murdered by the Assad regime on Russian orders, according to a devastating series of alleged Syrian intelligence documents leaked to and published by Al-Arabiya on Saturday.
A file “sent from [President Bashar] Assad’s palace,” said the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya, conveys and thus apparently approves a Russian suggestion to “eliminate” the pilots in the “natural way.”
Syria had claimed that the plane was downed by accident, and at one point asserted that it had believed the plane was Israeli — hence the need to down it.
The leaked paperwork purports to show that the pilots were captured by Syrian Air Force Intelligence forces after their plane was shot down “in coordination with the Russian naval base in Tartus” on June 22, according to a document sent directly from Assad’s office to that of Syrian Special Operations Unit head Brig. Hassan Abdel Rahman.
Russia maintains a naval facility — the last Russian military facility outside the FSU bloc — in the Syrian port city of Tartus, where it provides technical support and maintenance.
According to the files, Assad’s government officially requested that the two men be investigated concerning Ankara’s purported support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main force of anti-Assad rebels. In the documents, Assad warned that Turkey would face grave repercussions if it were to act aggressively against Damascus — not least by utilizing the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK), mobilized with Syrian help.
A plan to transfer the two pilots to Lebanon, where they would be placed in the custody of Hezbollah, was reportedly also considered; however, the documents indicate that their fate was quickly sealed — with Russia’s helping hand.
According to Al-Arabiya: “A subsequently leaked file, also sent from the presidential palace and addressed to all heads of units of the Syrian foreign intelligence, reads: ‘Based on information and guidance from the Russian leadership comes a need to eliminate the two Turkish pilots detained by the Special Operations Unit in a natural way and their bodies need to be returned to the crash site in international waters.’”
The Russians, the leaks indicate, suggested that the Syrian government quickly issue a formal apology to its counterpart in Ankara for shooting down the plane — a recommendation the Assad regime followed.
The June 22 incident strained Turkish-Syrian relations amid heightened tension over Damascus’s use of violence against civilians in the now 19-month civil war.
Following the incident, the Reuters news agency reported that a statement on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website urged caution and warned that “it is important that what happened is not viewed as a provocation or a premeditated action” by Syria.
But contrary to claims by the Syrian military in the wake of the incident that the plane was shot down by anti-aircraft guns while flying low over Syrian territory, no evidence of anti-aircraft gun damage was found on the aircraft. Turkey claimed the plane was in international airspace, and was shot down without warning. The pilots were hitherto believed to have been killed in the crash.
In July, the Sunday Times of London claimed that Russian technicians had played a key part in shooting down the plane, citing sources who said 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 Assad in the UN Security Council and sent a number of refurbished helicopters to Damascus.
“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,” the Sunday Times quoted the sources as saying.
Later in July, a vessel owned by US ocean explorer Robert Ballard, best known for discovering the wreck of the Titanic, located the bodies of two Turkish pilots on the Mediterranean seabed.
The documents — of which there are hundreds, according to the report — were said to have been verified by Al-Arabiya.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.