Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said yesterday he regretted that his country’s defense forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet on June 22, but still insisted the plane was in Syrian airspace.
“The plane was flying in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli airforce,” he said in an interview with a Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.
He added that he regretted the incident — which has further fueled tensions between the two former allies — “100 percent.”
Al-Assad rejected Turkey’s accusations that the Syrian defense forces intentionally shot down the Turkish F-4 jet, which was on a training mission over the Mediterranean.
“A country at war always acts like this, this plane was flying at a very low altitude and was shot down by anti-aircraft defenses, which mistook it for an Israeli plane, which attacked Syria in 2007,” al-Assad said.
He said the soldier who shot down the plane had no radar and could not know to which country the plane belonged.
Al-Assad sent his condolences to the families of the two pilots of the downed plane, who have not been found.
“If this plane had been shot down in international airspace [as maintained by Ankara], we would not have hesitated to apologize,” he said.
The Syrian leader expressed the desire to turn the page on the incident with Turkey, which saw the loss of its fighter jet as a hostile act and decided to fortify its border with Syria.
“We do not want to even consider that this plane was sent deliberately into our airspace,” al-Assad said. “We want to think of it as a pilot’s error and we would consider this an isolated incident, which shouldn’t be exaggerated ... We have nothing to gain in attacking a Turkish fighter jet.”
Al-Assad also said Syria had no plans to send troops to the border with Turkey after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan sent reinforcements of his troops to the frontier.
“Despite whatever the Erdogan government does, we will not proceed with a concentration of troops at the border. The Turkish people are friends and understand us,” he said.
More than 16,500 people have been killed in violence since the uprising against al-Assad’s rule broke out in March last year, according to human rights groups.
The Cumburiyet daily said it would publish the second part of its interview with al-Assad in Damascus today.