Turkey Weighs Response After Jet Downed by Syria

Turkish prime minister Erdoğan vows retaliation but NATO isn’t prepared to act.

Ahmet Davutoğlu and William Hague, the foreign ministers of Turkey and the United Kingdom, participate in a NATO summit in Brussels, April 19
Ahmet Davutoğlu and William Hague, the foreign ministers of Turkey and the United Kingdom, participate in a NATO summit in Brussels, April 19 (NATO)

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened Syria with retaliation on Tuesday for shooting down one of its fighter planes while NATO made clear the same day that the alliance was not considering a collective armed response.

In a speech to parliament, Erdoğan described the downing of an F-4 on Friday as a deliberate and hostile act on Syria’s part that could not go unanswered. He announced that the rules of engagement for Turkish forces positioned on the Syrian border would be changed so they could respond more forcefully to threats emanating from Syria.

“Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria by posing a security risk and danger will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target,” the prime minister said. So further Syrian violations will be met with force.

However, in Brussels, following an emergency meeting called by Turkey to discuss Friday’s incident, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO stopped short of condoning escalation. He said that the allies “expressed strong condemnation of this completely unacceptable act” and “stand together with Turkey in spirit of solidarity” but added that the possibility of invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, under which an attack against one NATO member is considered an attack upon all, had not been discussed.

Turkey says that its jet had unintentionally strayed into Syrian airspace while on patrol but was shot down over international waters. The Syrians claim that they didn’t realize it was a Turkey military plane and would have shot down any aircraft that violated their airspace.

Unilateral Turkish retaliation seems unlikely. Whereas Erdoğan and his government reacted cautiously to the disappearance of the Turkish fighter jet over the weekend, his bombast in parliament may be designed more to appease a domestic desire for vengeance than a real threat to Syria. Although, in a meeting of his party in Ankara, he warned that Turkey’s “rational response should not be perceived as weakness,” adding, “Everybody should know that Turkey’s wrath is just as strong and devastating as its friendship is valuable.”

Syria enjoyed strong trade relations with Turkey before the uprising against the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad began there some fifteen months ago. The Turks have since disavowed Assad and thrown their support behind the largely Sunni Muslim opposition in his country.

Several tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have entered Turkey while opposition members and rebels are allowed to organize on Turkish soil.