Two heavily armed regional powers — Turkey and Syria — are inching toward military conflict following the downing by Syria of an unarmed reconnaissance jet in international waters last week and the subsequent firing on rescue planes by Syria dispatched to search for the pilots.
While Turkey has shown restraint, its warnings to Syria are specific; any further military action against Turkish forces would be met with “retaliation.” This includes a pointed message by Turkish Prime Minister Raycep Erdogan who said that Syrian forces advancing toward the border would be “treated as a military target.” Syria has thousands of troops near its 566 mile border with Turkey who are there to try and stem the flow of rebel fighters into Syria. Erdogan’s warning changes the rules of engagement for Turkish forces, making conflict more likely.
For only the second time in NATO’s history, a member nation invoked Article 4 which allows a country to call a meeting of the alliance if it feels its security is threatened. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen condemned the Syrian attack on Turkey’s aircraft but stopped short of saying that NATO would take any military action. The Obama administration also decried the downing of Turkey’s plane while praising Ankara for its measured response.
Meanwhile, Russia is set to deliver more arms to Syria, including refurbished attack helicopters and a sophisticated air defense system. Indeed, there has been speculation from many analysts about why Turkey was flying an unarmed plane so close to Syrian air space. Testing Syria’s Russian supplied air defenses is thought to have been one of the reasons for the plane’s flight path.
The fear of igniting a regional war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran siding with Syria and squaring off against NATO has never been greater. But it is thought that President Assad doesn’t want a wider conflict, despite the fact that he acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that Syria was in a “state of war.” Assad’s usual tack is to blame “terrorists” for the conflict. But in a televised speech following the swearing in of his new cabinet, Assad said, “When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war.” As he was speaking those words, Free Syrian Army forces were hitting the elite Republican guard headquarters in Damascus. The attack on President Assad’s personal bodyguard shows that the FSA is becoming more capable – and more daring, although it is believed they are still too disorganized to take and hold territory.
In shooting down the aircraft, was Syria sending a message to NATO that the country won’t be the pushover Libya was? That’s the view of Fawaz A. Gerges, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. Gerges points out that radio intercepts by Turkey clearly show the Syrians knew the plane was in international waters and was Turkish in origin — claims denied by Syria who insists it was unaware to which country the air craft belonged. “We had to react immediately, even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down,” said foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi at a press conference in Damascus.
Prime Minister Erdogan isn’t buying that explanation. And while the shooting down of an unarmed jet precipitated the crisis, Syria’s firing on planes sent to rescue the pilots enraged the Turkish government. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Monday accused Syrian forces of opening fire on a Turkish search-and-rescue plane during the search on Friday for the F-4 Phantom jet. He said the attack was called off only when Turkish officials called Syria to tell them of the plane’s mission.
In a speech before Parliament, Erdogan laid down a red line that Syria cannot cross: “Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria and poses a security risk and danger will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target,” Erdogan said. The Turkish prime minister said that there had already been several border incursions by Syrian forces, including at least 5 incidents involving Syrian helicopters violating Turkish air space.