Sunday, March 23, 2014

Iran Urges Turkey, Syria to Exercise Restraint After Downing of Damascus Aircraft

Iran urges Turkey, Syria to exercise restraint

Sun Mar 23, 2014 11:51PM GMT

Iran has called for restraint amid heightened tensions between Ankara and Damascus after Turkish forces shot down a Syrian warplane near the border.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Sunday that a military approach would only escalate tensions in the region.

Amir-Abdollahian stressed that Ankara and Tehran are determined to continue their fight against terrorism and support any political solution to the Syrian conflict.

On Sunday, Ankara said the Syrian warplane was downed after crossing the border into Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulated the army for targeting the plane and warned of a heavy response if Syria violates Turkey’s airspace again.

However, Syrian officials on Sunday rejected Turkey’s claim about the violation of its airspace and said the plane was inside the Syrian airspace when it was downed.

A Syrian army spokesman described the act as “a flagrant aggression,” saying the warplane was targeting foreign-backed militants in the coastal province of Latakia, close to the border with Turkey.

Syrian army soldiers have been engaged in heavy clashes over the past days with foreign-backed militants around Kassab, a border crossing with Turkey close to the Mediterranean.

Reports say over 140,000 people have been killed and millions displaced due to the foreign-backed militancy that has gripped Syria since March 2011.


Turkey Shoots Down Syrian Warplane

Erdogan Says Aircraft Breached Airspace; Critics Call Move a Diversion Ahead of Elections

March 23, 2014 7:23 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal

ISTANBUL—Turkey downed a Syrian warplane on Sunday for breaching its airspace, escalating tensions along the border as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to take a tougher stance against President Bashar al-Assad a week before Turkish elections.

Shortly after lunchtime, a Turkish F-16 downed a Syrian MIG-23 with a missile after it failed to heed four warnings to reverse course and cruised slightly inside Turkish airspace, the armed forces in Ankara said.

The jet was shot while still in Syrian territory, just south of Turkey's border, reflecting Ankara's commitment to enforcing aggressive engagement rules adopted after Mr. Assad's commanders downed a Turkish reconnaissance plane in June 2012.

Turkish television showed images of the plummeting jet, the first time Turkey has downed a Syrian jet since the Syrian uprising began more than three years ago. Damascus said its pilot ejected before the plane crashed.

"If you breach my airspace, our slap will be heavy handed," Mr. Erdogan told thousands of flag-waving supporters in Kocaeli Sunday, when he announced the downing of the jet.

The move is likely to heighten tensions along the 565-mile border that serves as the main line of support for Syrian rebel forces. Damascus condemned the "unprecedented and completely unjustified" strike and demanded Mr. Erdogan's government "end its aggression and support for terrorism."

Mr. Erdogan has drawn fire at home and abroad for seeking to silence his political opposition by banning Twitter Inc. TWTR +1.60% late Thursday, saying the social-media site failed to abide by court orders to remove content. Opposition parties have called Mr. Erdogan a dictator for the move.

"Twitter disregarded this [court order] and the incident was brought to me," Mr. Erdogan told hundreds of thousands of supporters in Istanbul at a rally later Sunday. "I said do whatever is necessary."

The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, criticized the government for pursuing reckless foreign policies that endanger the nation. The party accused Mr. Erdogan of seeking to divert voters' attention to win March 30 local elections, seen as a referendum on the 12-year rule of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Though still enjoying about 40% support in polls, the AKP has faced heavy public pressure since nationwide protests in June against what demonstrators say is Mr. Erdogan's autocratic governance.

In December, a corruption scandal implicated Mr. Erdogan's close allies and four ministers, forcing a cabinet shuffle. The premier has decried the investigation as a foreign-backed conspiracy seeking to topple his government, and denied wrongdoing.

"With just a week to elections, we had said that the government and [Mr. Erdogan]—crushed under the pressures of graft, theft and bribery events—could enter different and dangerous adventures to change the agenda," read a tweet posted to the account of CHP spokesman and lawmaker Haluk Koc. Millions of Turkish Twitter users have breached the ban by using private networks. "The dictator's efforts to start a war, the event on the Syrian border today, is dire," the tweet said.

The Syrian jet crashed just west of Kassab, Syria, near where Islamist rebel factions including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front have been attacking Syrian government forces since Friday as part of a new offensive to expand their foothold to the country's west coast.

One of the opposition groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, in recent days threatened Turkey, demanding the removal of its troops from a plot of Turkish land inside Syria that hosts the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the Ottoman Empire's founder.

"This is our only territory outside the motherland.…It will be defended in the same manner with our nation," President Abdullah Gul said Sunday in Ankara before leaving for Amsterdam on a state visit. Turkey's downing of the jet shows Ankara's determination to protect its territory, the president said later from the Dutch capital.

Earlier Sunday, Mr. Gul faced questions about the Twitter ban, which until the strike on Syria's warplane dominated the domestic airwaves.

"Twitter didn't shut down as you see, the number of users doubled since it was declared banned," said Mr. Gul, who also broke the blockade Friday to tweet his displeasure with the government's move. "Actually, it is not legally possible to shutter the Internet or platforms such as this."

The premier's government has been rocked for three months, with daily leaks of alleged phone recordings that purport to demonstrate meddling and graft by government allies and officials, including Mr. Erdogan. Twitter and Google Inc. GOOG -1.18% 's video-sharing site YouTube have been the primary conduits in disseminating the information.

Mr. Erdogan has responded by tightening his control over the Internet with a law Mr. Gul approved in February, allowing the telecommunications regulator to close websites without a court order.

The premier has criticized the social-media provider, saying it has followed court orders in the U.S. and other Western nations, while ignoring legal demands in countries like Ukraine, Egypt and Turkey under the guise of freedom to foment unrest.

Hours before Turkey's Twitter ban went into effect Thursday, Mr. Erdogan promised to "eradicate" the medium and defend Turkey's interests, regardless of international opinion.

"In certain countries, Twitter collaborates, abides by laws. But when it comes to other countries, it tramples laws," Mr. Erdogan said Sunday.

Access to Twitter was barred Sunday, even after the messaging service suspended at least one of the accounts targeted by the court order. The plaintiff had sued to block a user who was using her identity to post pornographic content.

Antigovernment Twitter accounts that leak voice recordings and documents concerning the graft allegations remain active. Millions of Turks continue to use the medium by employing virtual-private networks, or VPNs, which allow people to breach blockades.

Allies led by the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join, have chastised Mr. Erdogan for what Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said were moves against free speech.

"Turkey has nothing to fear in the free flow of ideas and even criticism represented by Twitter. Its attempt to block its citizens' access to social media tools should be reversed," said Douglas Frantz, a State Department spokesman, who defined Internet bans as "21st century book burning."

—Sam Dagher, Maria Abi-Habib and Mohammed Nour Alkara contributed to this article.

Write to Emre Peker at

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