Turkey has warned Syria many times about incursions by Syrian aircraft into their airspace. This weekend, they once again made good on those warnings via downing one of Syria's geriatric MiG-23s. What's going on here?
Turkey says that they were tracking a pair of Syrian MiG-23s as far as 80 miles to the south of Syria's northern border. The MiGs made their way north, having arrived very close to the Turkish-Syrian border, they were apparently operating as part of the fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and Assad's forces in the northern Syrian province of Latakia.
Turkey says the jets were warned to turn back at least four times starting at about ten miles from the border. Subsequently Turkey scrambled a pair of F-16s to the airspace around the Kasab Crossing. One of the MiGs disengaged from the border area while the other came about a mile into Turkish airspace, at which time one of the Turkish F-16s fired an AIM-9 Sidewinder (most likely an AIM-9X block I) at the MiG-23 turning it into a flaming wreck. The MiG impacted the ground just back inside Syrian territory and the pilot is said to have safely ejected from the stricken "Flogger."
While there's been some references to Turkish Prime Minister Erodgon's recent problems, and the made-for-TV nature of this is certainly suspect, tensions between Turkey and Syria have remained extremely strained since June of 2012 when Syria shot down a Turkish RF-4E that was weaving in and out along Syria's coastal boarder at low level. Since that incident, along with Assad's actions leading up to and during the ongoing Syrian civil war, Turkey has been extremely clear that it will lock up and engage any aircraft that it deems a threat. They made good on this promise last September when, once again, Turkish Vipers shot down a Syrian Mi-17 helicopter that had strayed into Turkish airspace.
The Turkish Air Force has been launching alert aircraft regularly to monitor and deter Assad's aircraft flying near their airspace. Just last week, Turkey launched F-16s to intercept a pair of SU-24s, considered Assad's most potent ground attack aircraft, that were operating dangerously close to the border between the two countries. And then, a day after the downing of the MiG-23, Syria locked up F-16s patrolling in southern Turkey with an SA-5 surface to air missile battery for an extended period of time.
There is now talk that Turkey is considering preemptive measures when it comes to Assad's pesky air force and rumors of a potential destruction of enemy air defenses campaign near the Turkish border has been floated.
What about the aircraft?
Syria's MiG-23s: Syria still operates the MiG-23 in a couple of variants, some being more geared towards ground attack (MiG-23BN), while others were delivered as primarily fighter-interceptors (MiG-23ML/MLD). Syria's mixed fleet of "Floggers" have also experienced many ad hoc modifications and are now mainly used as bomb and rocket trucks for attacking free Syrian forces. Although different sources site that Syria has close to 150 of the jets in inventory, in reality far fewer are serviceable at any given time, and some will never fly again as they have been cannibalized for parts to the point that they are hardly recognizable. Syria was rumored to have received close to forty additional MiG-23 examples from Belarus around 2008. These aircraft are thought to have been used primarily as a source of spare parts for the surviving and locally upgraded Syrian Air Force MiG-23 fleet.
Turkey's F-16s: Turkey, a powerful member of NATO, is the world's third largest operator of the F-16 Viper. Under the US foreign military sales "Peace Onyx" programs, Turkey has amassed close to 300 Vipers and has assembled them indigenously under license for years. The majority of these jets have been upgraded to the point that they are equal to Block 50+ standard, making them equivalent to, if not slightly more capable than the most advanced F-16 derivative flying with the USAF, the Block 50 F-16CM.
Photos via Turkish Air Force and FAS.org