Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he regrets “100%” that a Turkish warplane was shot down by Syrian forces.
“We learned that [the jet] belonged to Turkey after shooting it down. I say 100% ‘if only we had not shot it down’,” Assad told Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper, as cited by RIA Novosti.
The F-4 Phantom jet went down over the Mediterranean on June 22, in an incident which has further strained relations between the two nations, once close allies.
On Sunday, Turkey scrambled six F-16 fighter jets when Syrian helicopters had approached the border, and Turkish state TV earlier broadcast footage of rocket launchers and anti-aircraft artillery being deployed in border areas.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described Syria as a “clear and present threat.”
But Syrian President Assad said his country would “not allow [the tensions] to turn into open combat between the two countries,” in an interview published on Tuesday, although it is not clear when it was made.
Syria has insisted it engaged the F-4 Phantom “according to the laws that govern such situations” after it strayed into its airspace. Turkey says the plane was in international airspace.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi has said his country’s forces may have mistaken the Turkish jet for an Israeli one.
“The plane was using a corridor which Israeli planes have used three times before,” President Assad told the paper, adding that he would apologize if it transpired that the jet was shot down in international airspace. “[The] soldiers shot it down because we did not see it on our radar and because information was not given.”
“Of course I might have been happy if this had been an Israeli plane,” the Syrian leader said.
But he also warned that it was up to the Syrian people to decide if he should leave and that Syria would “not allow anyone” to violate its sovereignty.
“If my people don’t want me, then there are elections. If people want they can make me leave,” he added.
Meanwhile, Turkish state broadcaster TRT Haber said 85 Syrian soldiers, including an artillery general and 14 lower-ranking officers, have defected and fled to Turkey.
The men were placed in the Apaydin refugee camp in southern Turkey’s Hatay Province, in one of the largest mass military defections in the 16-month-old uprising against President Assad which the UN estimates say has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths.
About 2,000 defectors are already stationed at the facility.
Last month, another Syrian general, two colonels, two majors, one lieutenant and 33 soldiers also abandoned allegiance to President Assad and fled to Turkey.
The U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Damascus government of subjecting tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture, in a new report released on Tuesday.
The report, “Torture Archipelago,” is based on the testimony of more than 200 former detainees, including women and children, and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies.
HRW said the regime’s actions, carried out by state police, amounted to a crime against humanity, and called on the UN Security Council to refer the issue to the International Criminal Court.
Russia – along with China – has previously vetoed UN resolutions against Syria over what it says is a pro-rebel bias.
“The reach and inhumanity of this network of torture centers are truly horrific,” HRW emergencies researcher Ole Solvang said in a press release. “Russia should not be holding its protective hand over the people who are responsible for this.”