Military Intervention Still Unlikely After Syria Shoots Down Turkish Jet

After shooting down a Turkish jet flying in international airspace, the embattled Syrian regime is sticking to its guns. But Turkey, Syria's infuriated neighbor, and the rest of the international community are not likely to escalate tensions

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Adem Altan / AFP / Getty Images

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives at the Prime Ministry building to lead a Cabinet meeting in Ankara on June 25, 2012, to discuss Turkey's possible steps of action against Syria, which is accused of shooting down a Turkish fighter jet over international airspace

In the year since the Syrian uprising began, Ankara and Damascus — once allies that enjoyed an open border and robust trade — have lurched from one barely contained diplomatic crisis to the next. Their simmering hostility threatened to spiral out of control Friday after Syrian artillery shot down a Turkish fighter jet, claiming border violation. Turkey conceded that its jet — allegedly unarmed and on a routine radar-testing mission — had strayed into Syrian skies but said it was in international airspace when it was downed. It has called for immediate NATO consultations. On Monday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister told reporters that Syria had also fired on a Turkish search plane but stopped after a warning from the Turkish military.

As violence in Syria rages, the porous 900-km border shared by the two countries has become an increasingly volatile arena for conflict. The plane shooting came just days after American news reports emerged of Ankara turning a blind eye to arms shipments, allegedly Saudi- and Qatari-funded, being made to Syrian rebels. The Syrian opposition meets regularly in Istanbul, and hundreds of senior military officers have defected there in recent months — most recently, on Monday, a general, two colonels, two majors, one lieutenant and 33 soldiers. Most pressing, a steady flow of Syrian refugees arrives daily. Some 31,000 Syrians are now housed in five camps in Hatay, a Turkish province on the border.

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“There is an undeclared, veiled war going on,” says Soli Ozel, an international-politics professor and a columnist for the Haberturk newspaper. “And Turkey is the chief actor in this. So how does Ankara expect Syria to respond?”

Turkish officials say the jet — whose two pilots are still missing — was unarmed and that international law dictates that Syrian authorities should have issued a warning or attempted to escort the plane out of Syrian space before resorting to shooting it down. “The Syrians knew full well that it was a Turkish military plane and the nature of its mission,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkish state-run TV on Sunday. “Nobody should dare put Turkey’s [military] capabilities to the test.” For its part, Syria accused the plane of being on a military reconnaissance mission but said the shooting was an accident. The plane disappeared and then reappeared about 1.2 km off the Syrian coast, flying at an altitude of 100 m, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in Damascus on Monday. “The Syrian response was an act of defense of our sovereignty carried out by antiaircraft machine gun, which has a maximum range of 2.5 km,” he said. Some analysts have suggested the plane might have been testing the responsiveness of Russian-supplied Syrian radar that could thwart any foreign intervention, including reconnaissance sorties and efforts to supply Syrian rebels, according to Reuters.

Despite its anger, Ankara appeared to step back from any unilateral action after a daylong flurry of telephone diplomacy, with Davutoglu saying Turkey would not act “impulsively.” It has called for NATO consultations over the incident, invoking Article 4 of NATO’s charter, under which any ally can request consultations “whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.” “No war, but this won’t go unpunished” read the banner headline on Monday’s top-selling Hurriyet newspaper.

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The U.S., meanwhile, slammed Syria. “The United States condemns this brazen and unacceptable act in the strongest possible terms,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington. “We will work with Turkey and other partners to hold the Assad regime accountable,” she said.

The meeting of 28 NATO member states is due to take place in Brussels on Tuesday, but it is unlikely to result in further military escalation: Western leaders are unwilling to intervene in Syria, where fighting has fractured grimly along sectarian lines. NATO officials have repeatedly stressed that the alliance has made no contingency plans for a military intervention. Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who heads peace talks with the Assad regime on behalf of the U.N. and the Arab League, is pushing for a “contact group meeting” on Syria on June 30. His six-point peace plan has yet to be implemented, and further action has thus far been stymied by stiff resistance from Russia, Syria’s chief supporter along with Iran. Annan suggested Iran too should be invited to the meeting, drawing U.S. ire. “Geopolitics is back,” says Ozel. “Everyone is playing hardball now.”