A Turkish warplane was apparently brought down by Syrian air defenses on the Mediterranean coast on Friday near the border between the two countries. Turkish president Abdullah Gül vowed to do “whatever is necessary” but his government has yet to contest Syria’s assertion that the fighter jet was in its airspace at the time.
“Turkey will present its final stance after the incident has been fully brought to light and decisively take the necessary steps,” read a statement from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s office on Saturday.
Syria’s military said that the Turkish aircraft, an F-4 type fighter jet that was first sold to Turkey in the 1970s, was flying low, just one kilometer off the Syrian coast, when it was shot down.
The Turkish Hürriyet Daily News reports that Syria has apologized for the incident and offered to cooperate on a rescue mission. Syrian and Turkish navy ships are supposed to be searching for the pilots in the Mediterranean Sea. The Milliyet newspaper reports that the pilots have already been recovered.
What isn’t clear is just what the plane was doing over Syrian airspace although President Gül said that it was routine for air force jets to cross borders for a short distance. In any event, this uncertainty complicates the case for retaliation.
Turkish newspapers are already screaming for blood. “They,” the Syrians, “will pay the price,” said the nationalist Vatan while Hürriyet Daily warned that Assad “is playing with fire.”
If Syria can make that case that the Turkish incursion constituted an act of aggression, other NATO countries are not obliged under Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty to support it. It stipulates “that an armed attack against one or more of [the parties] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” There is also the technicality of this attack not having taken place in Europe.
Turkey suggested as recently as in April that it might turn to NATO to help defend its border in response to an incursions by Syrian forces. Boasting the second biggest army in NATO, Turkey would be a formidable foe for the Syrian military which is struggling to put down a rebellion.
The downing of the Turkish F-4 does provide a demonstration of Syria’s capable Russian-made air defenses, one of the many difficulties that Western military officials and experts have referenced in contrasting the prospect of intervention in Syria to last year’s NATO mission in Libya. That country’s antiquated air defense systems were obliterated by American and British forces virtually overnight.
Since the uprising in Syria began, Turkey has distanced itself from Damascus despite fostering trade relations with the Ba’athist regime there in previous years. Refugees from Syria have been allowed to cross the border with Turkey while Syrian opposition groups organize on Turkish soil.
Prime Minister Erdoğan seems anxious to position himself and his government as the champion of the revolutionary Arab cause lest the new rulers in countries as Egypt and possibly Syria remember that it was quite willing to work with their authoritarian predecessors until just last year.
As the uprising in Syria drags on, pressure has mounted on the Turks to take the lead in an intervention to bring the slaughter of civilians by forces that are loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime to a halt. Without Western support, however, Turkey has hesitated to go it alone.