Why did Turkey shoot down a Syrian warplane?

Turkey says fighter plane violated its borders, but Syria says Turkey's internal politics are to blame

LAST UPDATED AT 12:01 ON Mon 24 Mar 2014

TURKISH forces shot down a Syrian fighter jet after it "violated Turkey's airspace" on Sunday.

Syrian authorities confirmed that the MiG-23 had been destroyed, but said that the pilot had ejected safely. An unnamed spokesman quoted on Syrian state TV accused the Turkish military of "blatant aggression".

Speaking at a rally in northern Turkey before local elections at the end of March, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that any incursion of its borders warranted a "heavy response".

"If you violate our border, our slap will be hard," he said. Syrian officials insist that the plane had been over Syrian territory when it was shot down.

Why was the plane operating in the area?
The Syrian military is fighting a coalition of rebel forces for control of the last remaining border crossing with Turkey still in Syrian governmental hands, the Daily Telegraph reports. The Syrian state news agency Sana said that the downed plane had been pursuing "terrorist gangs" along the border, the government's term for rebels battling the Assad regime.

Turkey claims that two Syrian MIG-23 jets were monitored heading north from Syria for 80 nautical miles, and were warned to turn back four times once they got to within 10 nautical miles of Turkish airspace. According to the Turkish Air Force one of the planes continued to fly for one-and-a-half kilometres into Turkish airspace before it was intercepted and shot down.

Why is the Syrian-Turkish border significant?
Syria's bitter civil war that erupted from protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 has left 100,000 people dead and 6.5 million people displaced, according to UN statistics. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled into Turkey to escape the fighting, many of whom have come across the border crossing where the incident took place.

Turkey cut ties with Syria in 2011 and has broadly supported the rebels in the conflict since then. Rebels operating near the border have benefitted from Turkish logistical and military support, the New York Times says, but the Turkish government has denied providing arms to the fighters.

What are Turkey's broader goals?
Dr Peter Newman, professor of security studies at Kings College London, told BBC radio news that "Erdogan has never made a secret of the fact that he wants to see Assad fall and that he wants to support the opposition in the Syrian conflict".

The two countries do not get on, adds James Reynolds of the BBC. "Turkey and Syria share a border and a mutual hatred - but also a desire not to engage each other in all-out war. Instead, the two sides have been involved in occasional skirmishes and confrontations," he says.

However, Nidal Kabalan, a former Syrian ambassador to Turkey, said the incident was "a flagrant violation of international law" and an attempt by Prime Minister Erdogan to distract from his own internal problems.

"We do not want the Turkish army to be involved in the adventures of the Turkish government, which seems to be in dire straits following the accusations of bribes and corruption," Kabalan told the BBC. "The Turkish government is facing serious problems. With eight days before the local elections it might be thinking of exporting its own problems abroad." · 

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