“We learned that it [the plane] belonged to Turkey after shooting it down. I say 100 percent ‘if only we had not shot it down’,” the Cumhuriyet newspaper quoted Assad as saying in an interview published on Tuesday.
“We are in a state of war, so every unidentified plane is an enemy plane,” the paper quoted Assad as saying. “Let me state it again: We did not have the slightest idea about its identity when we shot it down.”
Turkey, however, has insisted that the plane’s electronic signals, which indicate if an aircraft is friend or foe, were activated during the entire flight and that Turkey even intercepted radio conversations in which Syrian forces referred to the plane.
His comments emerged as fighting raged throughout Syria to unseat Assad in what is increasingly taking on the character of an all-out civil war, fuelled by sectarian hatred. Syrian helicopters bombarded a Damascus suburb on Monday and Turkey scrambled warplanes near the border in the north, as the U.N. human rights chief warned that arms supplies to both the government and rebels were deepening the 16-month conflict.
Asked whether the tensions between Syria and Turkey could lead to war, Assad said: “We will not allow [the tensions] to turn into open combat between the two countries, which would harm them both.”
He also said Syria had not amassed and would not amass military forces along the Turkish border, whatever action Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s government takes.
The paper did not specify when the interview was held, but in it Assad refers to an international meeting held in Geneva on Saturday under the auspices of peace envoy Kofi Annan.
Turkey has heightened military activity along its southern border since Syria shot down the Turkish jet over the Mediterranean on June 22, prompting a sharp rebuke from Ankara which said it would respond “decisively.”
Syria says it shot down the Turkish jet in self-defense and that it was brought down in Syrian air space. Turkey says the jet accidentally violated Syrian air space for a few minutes but was brought down in international air space. Assad said Syria would not shy away from apologizing if it emerged that the plane was shot down in international airspace.
“The plane was using a corridor which Israeli planes have used three times before. Soldiers shot it down because we did not see it on our radar and because information was not given,” he said. “Of course, I might have been happy if this had been an Israeli plane.”
“If there was communication between our armies, we would have known that it was a Turkish jet and would not have shot it down,” he added. He added that Syria has no anti-aircraft batteries that could reach areas outside of Syria’s airspace and that Turkey’s statements about the jet’s location aren’t true.
“We believe that the Turkish government has an inclination for war with Syria, but the Turkish people absolutely do not want war. … War would be harmful to both Syria and Turkey, and we will not allow [these developments] to turn into hot conflict,” Assad said.
The Syrian leader also directed harsh accusations at the Turkish government, saying: “The Turkish government has been successful in destroying everything we have built [together]. But ties are strong between the Turkish and Syrian people. … We were aiming to maintain our perfect relations with Turkey. But the Turkish government’s every step has been aimed at destroying the relationship.”
When asked about the Turkish military’s threats of retaliation following the jet incident, Assad said, “No country can shoot at a military target unless there is violation of another state’s territory.”
As for international and domestic calls for him to step down, Assad said: “I would, of course, leave if millions didn’t want me. Why would I stay? I’ve never had any interest in this [presidential] seat. I would not stay as a president for even a single day if the salvation of my nation and country depended on my departure.”