Syrian official calls Turks "our friends and brothers"
He said maybe Syrian forces thought the plane was from Israel
Tensions have flared over Syria's jet shootdown last week
Syria and Turkey are looking for the missing pilots
A Syrian official said his country’s forces might have thought the Turkish jet it downed last week was from Israel.
“As you know there is a country called Israel there and as you know this Zionism country’s planes are very similar and because they both are from the same factory, from the U.S., maybe Syria thought it was an Israeli plane,” Syrian Information Minister Omran Al Zubi told the Turkish A Haber channel on Wednesday.
Israel and Syria are longtime neighboring adversaries and don’t have diplomatic relations.
Al Zubi adopted a friendly tone toward Turkey in the interview, which belied the increase in tough rhetoric in recent days over the downing of the jet. Relations between the two neighbors have deteriorated during the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The act drew sharp condemnation from NATO, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday his country is changing its military rules of engagement and will now treat a military approach toward its borders by Syria as a potential threat that “will be dealt with accordingly.”
Both sides say the jet strayed into Syrian airspace, but Turkey says the incursion was accidental and quickly corrected.
“I underline that Syria did not launch an attack and I wish that the Turkish-Syria relations are at a better point. The current issue is that the Turkish plane entered Syrian space and it was responded as an unknown target. It was not downed because it was Turkey’s plane,” Al Zubi said. “We never want to do any harm to the Turkish people and Turkey.”
Both countries are searching for the jet’s pilots.
“We have no information about the two pilots currently. Our wish is that they are alive and well,” Al Zubi said.
Erdogan, dressed in a bomber jacket for a photo op inside the cockpit of a Turkish military jet in Ankara, stressed that his country isn’t an aggressor but will respond to it bluntly.
“I express this at every opportunity: we never have our eyes on any country’s lands. We don’t show a hostile attitude against any country. We never threaten the security of any country,” Erdogan said, in remarks aired on CNN Turk.
“We never hesitate to respond in the harshest way and do what is necessary with all our existing power as well as with the power and inspiration that we get from our history, against hostile attitudes, attacks and threats against us.”
NATO did not promise any action in response to the incident. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Turkey did not invoke the NATO article calling for collective defense of members.
The NATO consultations were held under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s founding charter. The article allows any member to call for consultations “whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened,” the charter says.
Syria raised the stakes Monday in the war of words over the incident.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the plane was shot down in Syrian airspace, disputing Turkey’s claim that it was downed over international waters after briefly straying into Syrian airspace by mistake.
“What happened was a violation of Syrian airspace. Even Turkey says Syrian sovereignty was violated. Regardless of whether it was a training mission, a reconnaissance mission, it was a violation,” Makdissi said.
He insisted that Syria was the wronged party, not Turkey.
Also Monday, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry told CNN that Syria on Friday fired at a second Turkish plane that was part of a search-and-rescue mission sent in after the jet was shot down. The plane, which entered Syrian airspace in search of the jet, was not hit, said Selcuk Unal.
“There was no injury, nobody was harmed. But that plane immediately returned to Turkish airspace. And through military diplomatic channels we (asked) them: ‘What’s going on?’” Unal said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Sunday that it considered the shooting to be a hostile act. Turkey delivered the message in a diplomatic note to the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, Unal told CNN.
In addition to NATO, Turkey also submitted a letter about the incident to the U.N. Security Council. The country made no request for action, but outlined its version of events.
“This attack at the international airspace, causing possible loss of two Turkish pilots, is a hostile act by the Syrian authorities against Turkey’s national security. Thus, we strongly condemn it,” read the letter, dated Sunday.
It identified the downed plane as a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft, a version of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. It was flying alone, without arms, in international airspace when it was shot down, the letter read.
Turkish search-and-rescue teams found the wreckage of the jet in the Mediterranean Sea on Sunday, about 1,300 meters (4,260 feet) underwater, Foreign Ministry spokesman Unal said.
CNN’s Ivan Watson contributed to this report