Assad backpedals on shoot-down of Turkish fighter

In a rare display of reticence, Assad publicly questioned the decision of his military leaders to take down the F-4 fighter, which crashed somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria. 

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“I say 100 percent, I wish we did not shoot it down," Assad said in an interview with Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet on Tuesday. 

Damascus claims the jet had flown into Syrian airspace and was warned to leave before being shot down. Ankara claims the fighter was in international airspace and was fired upon by Syrian forces without warning. 

Syria has also alleged the plane was conducting surveillance on military positions along the Turkish border, claiming the F-4 was not carrying any kind of armaments when it was taken down over the Mediterranean Ocean. 

While Assad never explicitly apologized for the incident during the interview, he did say that Syrian troops only fired on the jet only after mistaking it for an Israeli fighter. 

"The plane used the corridor used by the Israeli planes three times in the past,” he said. “We learned it was Turkish after we shot it down.”

Mistaken identity aside, the incident triggered an immediate military response from Ankara.

Armed with batteries of anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired rockets, waves of Turkish troops headed for the Syrian border, setting the stage for conflict in the region. 

Despite Assad's mea culpa over the fighter incident, Turkish warplanes based out Incirlik air base have been on high alert since the shoot-down. 

Military commanders in Ankara have scrambled the jets at Incirlik on several occasions over the past two days, in response to Syrian forces nearing the border. 

While tensions in the region remain high, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey downplayed concerns over the simmering conflict. 

"I wouldn't read too much into [those] movements," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon last Friday, regarding Turkey's show of force along the border. 

For his part, Dempsey said he discussed the border buildup with Turkey's Chief of General Staff Necdet Özel, adding that Ankara is "taking a very measured approach to the incident." 

In May, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter after Assad forces fired into Turkish territory in pursuit of rebels who had fled across the border.

Article 5 claims that an attack against one NATO member can be considered an attack on the entire alliance.

Invoking Article 5 could open the door for a NATO-led attack on Assad's forces, similar to the campaign that removed former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Assad has been locked in a brutal campaign against anti-government forces in the country for months, with thousands of Syrian civilians and rebel fighters injured or dead. 

His bloody crackdown on rebel groups inside Syria has drawn international condemnation and spurred talk of possible military action to depose the longtime Syrian leader.