Turkish and Syrian navies conducted a joint search on Saturday for Turkish airmen shot down by Syria over the Mediterranean, only a short distance from a Turkish province hosting thousands of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
Signals from both sides suggested neither wanted a military confrontation over Friday’s shooting down of the jet near their borders. However, the joint operation will clearly sit uneasily with both forces, given the bitter hostility between the two former allies over Assad’s 16-month-old crackdown on opponents.
Iraq, which borders both countries, said the incident marked a serious escalation of the Syrian conflict and demonstrated its potential to infect other countries in the region.
“No country is immune from this spillover because of the composition of the societies, the extensions, the connections, the sectarian, ethnic dimensions,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said in Baghdad. “This is not an excuse to do nothing about Syria, no. But there will be an impact.”
Turkey has declared it will respond decisively.
“It is not possible to cover over a thing like this. Whatever is necessary will no doubt be done,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters, adding that Ankara had been in telephone contact with Syrian authorities.
The incident, whatever its causes, showcased Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses - one of the many reasons Western powers are loathe to intervene to halt bloodshed in the country.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Turkey and Syria to handle the matter with restraint, using diplomatic channels.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the downed jet was a reconnaissance aircraft. Turkish media had said it was an F-4 Phantom, a fighter also used for reconnaissance.
According to a Syrian military account, the Turkish plane was flying fast and low, just one kilometer off the Syrian coast when it was shot down. It had been tracked at first as an unidentified aircraft and its Turkish origin established subsequently.
“The navies of the two countries have established contact. Syrian naval vessels are participating along with the Turkish side in the search operation for the missing pilots,” it said.
With the second biggest army in NATO, a force hardened by nearly 30 years of fighting Kurdish rebels, Turkey would be a formidable foe for a Syrian military already struggling to put down a popular uprising and an increasingly potent insurgency.
A civil war, or something closely resembling one, is already in full swing in Syria, where fighting or shelling engulfed parts of the cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Deir al-Zor and Douma, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met Turkey’s military commanders and intelligence chief to discuss the search for the pilots and Ankara’s next steps.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was to hold a second security meeting with senior officials later in the day, less than 24 hours after he convened a crisis session on Friday evening.
“Turkey will present its final stance after the incident has been fully brought to light and decisively take the necessary steps,” Erdogan’s office said after the first meeting.
Neither side gave any details of the joint naval search or any communication between the two sides.
The operation was not without its ironies. Less than 50 km (30 miles) away in Turkey's southeastern Hatay province, authorities give refuge to Free Syrian Army rebels who cross daily to attack Syrian government forces. The territory also shelters over 30,000 refugees from the fighting.
Turkey denies suggestions it is supplying weapons to rebels or that it is allowing third party weapons to travel across Turkish territory into rebel hands.
The souring of Syrian-Turkish relations has provoked concern among Turks that Syria may revive its former support for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents in southeastern Turkey in retaliation for Turkish backing of Syrian rebels.
“It’s possible the Turks were sending jets in the area in response to an apparent escalation of the PKK's activities,” Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told Reuters.
However, Khashan said he did not expect a harsh military reaction from Turkey. “It is under a tight leash by the United States. They don't want to start a war tomorrow.”
Over 100 killed
Meanwhile on the ground in Syria, the Observatory said 102 people, two-thirds of them civilians, were killed in violence across the country on Saturday as regime forces stepped up attacks on towns.
The monitoring group said 69 civilians were killed in bombardment of rebel bastions, including a family of six in Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria.
Nineteen soldiers were killed in fighting with rebels, of whom four also died, the Observatory said, adding that 10 troops were gunned down as they tried to defect to anti-regime forces.
On Friday, at least 116 people were reported killed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned the killing of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer, in the fourth such incident in the country's deadly unrest.
Bashar al-Youssef, 23, was shot and fatally wounded on Friday in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, the two organisations said in a joint statement.
“This comes at a time when the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are virtually the only organisations able to work in areas affected by the violence in Syria,” said Alexandre Equey, deputy head of the ICRC's delegation in the country.