Turkish PM gets tough over downing of jet by Syria
TURKEY'S prime minister risked an escalating confrontation with Syria yesterday, voicing "wrath" over the destruction of an air force jet and toughening the rules of engagement of his armed forces.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Syria for the "heinous act" of shooting down the F-4 Phantom last Friday.
The incident deepened antagonism between the two countries, which share a 500-mile border and have been bitter foes since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
The "unarmed reconnaissance" plane from the Turkish air force had been struck by a missile inside "international airspace" without any warning, said Mr Erdogan.
Addressing the ruling AK party in Ankara, the prime minister added: "The rules of engagement of the Turkish armed forces have changed given this new development. 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."
In practice, this means that Turkey might go to war with Syria if last Friday's incident were to be repeated, said Umit Ozdag, a leading analyst of Turkish defence policy.
"If they were to hit a Turkish aeroplane a second time, it could cause a war between the two countries," he said. "But I don't believe the Syrians want a war. They know that what they did was really risky."
Earlier this year, a series of shooting incidents took place along the border. Syrian troops repeatedly fired at targets inside Turkey, claiming at least one life. At the time, however, the Turkish army did not react. Under the new rules of engagement, retaliation would probably be authorised.
"If Syrian soldiers try to organise a cross-border attack or try to hit targets within Turkey like they did a few months ago, then the Turkish army will hit targets in Syria," said Mr Ozdag.
Turkish officials concede that the F-4 briefly entered Syrian airspace, but the crew is said to have realised its mistake and changed course accordingly. A missile destroyed the aircraft as it flew over the Mediterranean.
At first, Mr Erdogan declined to condemn Syria, waiting for the facts to be established. Yesterday he said: "Our mild manners do not mean we are a tame lamb. Everybody should know that Turkey's wrath is just as strong and devastating as its friendship is valuable."
By shooting down the jet, Syria had exposed itself to greater pressure, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"Syria has almost invited Turkey to become even more proactive against it and against the Assad regime," he said.
Turkey, a member of NATO, invoked Article IV of the North Atlantic Treaty, convening the alliance's ambassadors in Brussels to discuss the incident. This move fell short of triggering Article V, which binds all NATO members to defend any that are attacked.
After the meeting, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, described the "unacceptable" shooting down of the jet as "another example of the Syrian authorities' disregard for international norms, peace, security and human life".
(© Daily Telegraph, London)