A war of words has flared between Ankara and Damascus this week after a Turkish air force Lockheed Martin F-16 shot down a Syrian air force Mikoyan MiG-23BN ground attacker on Sunday. While Syria described the shootdown as a “flagrant act of aggression,” Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned Syria, “Our response will be heavy if you violate our airspace.” Syria has also accused Ankara of shooting down the aircraft to deflect attention from Turkish domestic political issues, just a week before local elections.
On March 23 two Syrian MiG-23BN Floggers were operating in support of government forces engaged in heavy fighting with rebels, including the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. The battle was for control of the border post of Kasab in Lakatia province, in the northwest of Syria. The aircraft were reportedly tasked with strafing and bombing rebel forces close to the border.
According to a Turkish armed forces statement, an air defense command and control center began tracking the aircraft when they were 80 nm from the border, and broadcast four warnings to them as they continued to approach, the last given at a 10-nm distance. One of the MiGs turned away, but the other continued, crossing into Turkey at 1:13 p.m. local time. A minute later it was shot down by one of two patrolling F-16s from 181 Pars (panther) Filo (squadron), based at Diyarbakir. The MiG was reportedly approximately one mile inside Turkish airspace, and the wreckage fell just inside Syrian territory. The pilot ejected safely, and was later interviewed by Syrian TV, apparently admitting that he had crossed the border for a short time.
Sunday’s shootdown was not the first in the region. On September 16 last year a Turkish F-16 shot down a Syrian Mil Mi-17 Hip helicopter that strayed around a mile into Turkish airspace.
Tensions have been high between Syria and Turkey since June 22, 2012, when a Syrian surface-to-air missile downed a Turkish air force McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom from 173 Filo. The aircraft had been conducting maneuvers over the Mediterranean Sea and inadvertently violated Syrian airspace. When warned by Turkish controllers, the crew changed course and immediately vacated the area, only to be shot down after reaching international airspace. In the aftermath, Turkey established new rules of engagement that would treat any Syrian aircraft approaching the border as a military threat.