Syria is apologizing to Turkey for shooting down one of its F-4 Phantoms that flew into its airspace. The Assad regime says it was an accident and that the aircraft was only identified as Turkish after the incident. The Turks are still furious and are talking about unspecified measures in response. President Gul says that it is not uncommon for fast-flying planes to violate the airspace of other countries and that the F-4 was unarmed. It is possible that Syrian military did make a mistake but what was Assad’s intention if it wasn’t?
Assad is acutely aware of U.S. concerns about Syria and has skillfully manipulated them to his advantage ever since he came into power in 2000. Speculation about international intervention in Syria is increasing as the massacres continue and France isn’t ruling out U.N.-authorized military action. Obama Administration officials have pushed back by emphasizing the threat posed by Assad’s air defenses of Russian origin. Russia is sending more advanced missile systems to Syria.
Elliot Abrams recalls what Anthony Cordesman, a top military expert, said about Syria’s air defenses in 2007. He assessed that the numbers of Syria’s armaments were misleading and that Assad actually has “one of the least capable air forces” and his air defense system is “generally obsolete in weapons, sensors and command and control capability.” In September 2007, the Israeli air force flew deep into Syria and destroyed a secret nuclear site without a problem.
Assad has upgraded his systems since then. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey says Syria’s air defenses are five times as sophisticated as Libya’s were and are near civilian populations. Other experts say this threat is being purposely exaggerated.
The actual state of Syria’s defenses is another discussion. The point is that Assad is hearing the U.S. worry about his air defenses. The shooting down of a Turkish aircraft may be meant to amplify these fears.