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Assad: We Mistook Turkish Jet for Israeli

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stated yesterday that his forces made a mistake when they shot down a Turkish jet last month, claiming that they mistakenly thought the aircraft belonged to Israel. The Syrian leader said he does not want the relationship between the two countries to deteriorate into serious conflict.

While Assad’s comments, made in an interview published on Tuesday in the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, may have sounded like a genuine apology, the Syrian president soon switched gears, contending that Turkey’s decision to cut channels of communication between the two countries led to the mistaken conclusion.

“We learned that [the plane] belonged to Turkey after shooting it down. I say 100 per cent ‘if only we had not shot it down’,” he said. “Of course I might have been happy if this had been an Israeli plane. It’s a shame that now we don’t even have the telephone number of a single commander in the Turkish army we can call in an emergency situation.”

Assad’s forces have been facing an increasing amount of pressure on the ground, with rebels against his regime gaining in military capability and casualties rising among Syrian Army soldiers. It is thus understandable that the Syrian government would attempt to diffuse any additional conflict.

Turkey scrambled F-16 jets to the Syrian border for a third day on Monday after Syrian helicopters were sighted in the vicinity. “We will not allow [tensions] to turn into open combat between the two countries, which would harm them both,” Assad declared.

Syria is also trying to cope with an ongoing flow of defections from its armed forces. Approximately 85 Syrian troops, including a general and five other officers, traveled into adjacent Turkey with 300 relatives on Monday night. This was noted as the biggest single day of military defections since the start of the rebellion.

Human Rights Watch charged yesterday that would-be escapees who are caught are often subjected to horrific torture by state security forces. In its report – which was compiled from about 200 interviews – the organization revealed that Assad’s forces routinely inflicted  prolonged beatings with objects such as batons and cables, stress positions, suspension upside down, electric shocks and the use of acid and humiliation. The human rights watchdog has identified 27 detention facilities as locations for torture.

HRW called for the supervisory Syrian personnel to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that England would work with its European Union partners to impose sanctions on those responsible. In Cairo, an Arab League-coordinated opposition meeting that has been wracked with infighting concluded on Tuesday. The Syrian General Revolution Commission exited the meeting, saying it could not countenance a political solution after the Free Syrian Army condemned the gathering. “Building the Syrian State,” a moderate grassroots opposition group, also said it would not join any discussions held outside Syria.

At the same time, another meeting of Syrian opposition leaders has been scheduled for next week in Moscow. Previous talks in Geneva concluded with the major nations still disagreeing over the meaning of the final text. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the upcoming meeting in his country did not imply that Russia was calling for Assad to resign, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said definitively, “Assad will still have to go.”

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