BEIRUT -- Amid escalating cross-border tensions, Syrian President Bashar Assad has told a Turkish newspaper that he regrets “100%” Syria’s downing of a Turkish aircraft last month and said ground gunners assumed the jet was an Israeli warplane.
“In the case of a Turkish plane I am saying 100%, 'If only this had not happened,'” Assad told the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet in an interview published Tuesday. “In this kind of climate when a plane approaches like this it is naturally considered hostile.”
But Assad offered no apology and did not retreat from Syria’s account that the aircraft was hit well within domestic airspace — a version disputed by the Turks, who say the plane was shot down in international airspace moments after having inadvertently strayed into Syrian skies.
The Syrian president also vowed to avoid a direct confrontation with Syria's former ally.
“We will not allow relations between the two countries to turn into a shooting war that will harm us both,” Assad said, according to a partial transcript in English published by the BBC.
Most analysts say neither nation wants a full-scale war to break out, but leaders of the two countries want to appear resolute in the face of any threat.
The Syrian leader’s comments seemed to be a calculated effort both to defuse tensions with Turkey and to stand ground on Syria’s version of the jet incident.
Though Assad is widely perceived as determined to hold onto power, he told the Turkish newspaper he would be willing to leave office if Syrians voted him out.
“If the people so choose they can send me packing,” Assad said.
Independent observers say Assad’s recent political “reforms” have not eased his stranglehold on power in a nation where political dissent has been crushed during more than four decades of autocratic rule by the Assad family.
The Syrian uprising had already ravaged Syrian-Turkish relations -- each nation had expelled the other's diplomats -- when the jet shoot-down plunged matters to a new low.
In Assad’s telling, the Syrian military believed that the doomed aircraft was Israeli, since Israeli warplanes had used a similar route three years earlier.
Turkey says intercepted radio communications make it clear that Syrian authorities knew the jet was Turkish.
The Syrian president expressed condolences for the loss of the two Turkish pilots, but also called on Turkish officials to clarify why their jet was flying so close to the Syrian coastline.
“The basic fact that the Turkish authorities need to explain is: What was that plane doing in that area?” Assad said, “We do not even want to think that this plane was deliberately and purposefully sent into our airspace. We want to think that the pilot made a mistake.”
Turkey has said the aircraft was engaged in a test of Turkish radar and has denied speculation it was a spy plane on a reconnaissance mission or probing Syrian air defenses.
The incident sparked outrage in Turkey and prompted a heightened alert and a buildup of forces along the Turkish side of the two nations’ more than 500-mile border, already a haven for Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad. Since the incident, Turkey says it has scrambled F-16 fighter jets on several occasions in response to Syrian helicopters nearing the tense border zone.
While extolling the Turkish people as “our friends,” Assad accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of trying to capitalize on the crisis, which prompted Erdogan to label Syria a “clear and imminent threat.” Even before the jet incident, Erdogan had called on Assad to step down.
“Whatever the Erdogan government does, we have not and will not mass forces on Turkey’s border,” Assad declared.
Syrian batteries shot down the F-4 Phantom jet on June 22 off the coast of Syria’s Latakia province. Syria says the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft guns that have a range of less than 2 miles. But Turkey insists the jet was hit in international airspace, apparently by a guided missile, after it momentarily strayed into Syrian skies.
The stricken jet crashed into the eastern Mediterranean. The two pilots are presumed dead.
--Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: A picture made available on Tuesday by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency shows President Bashar Assad speaking during an interview with the Cumhuriyet Turkish newspaper in Damascus, Syria. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency / Syrian Arab News Agency handout.