BEIRUT -- Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the nation’s NATO allies had more harsh words Tuesday for Syria about its downing of a Turkish reconnaissance jet. But, as expected, neither the Turks nor the military alliance indicated a retaliatory strike or any other kind of military action against Syria was imminent.
Erdogan, in a much-anticipated speech before parliament, labeled Turkey’s neighbor and former ally “a clear and imminent threat,” and said that any Syrian military movement toward the two nations' long border could meet a Turkish response under robust new rules of engagement. But the prime minister stopped short of vowing an attack and made it clear that Turkey was not keen to go to war about the incident.
“However valuable Turkey’s friendship is, its wrath is just as strong,” Erdogan said, according to the website of Turkey’s Zaman newspaper. “Don’t take our common sense and cautious approach as a sign of passivity.”
The occasion seemed to present the Turkish leader with an opportunity to vent his fury, warn the Syrians that another such incident would not be tolerated and mollify many Turks who viewed the attack as something approaching an act of war. But his comments maintained a general narrative of tough words mixed with restrained actions from the Turkish side.
“We stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after the closed-door session. “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms.”
Neither Turkey or its allies have shown much desire to intervene in the bloody conflict raging inside Syria, where a persistent insurgency aimed at ousting President Bashar Assad has met fierce resistance from Syrian forces, costing at least 10,000 lives.
In his speech, the Turkish prime minister said that Syrian helicopters had violated Turkish airspace on five recent occasions. In those instances, he said, Turkey warned the aircraft to leave. But he clearly suggested that such future incursions may be met with force. Tensions seem likely to increase along the two nations’ more than 500-mile border.
Turkey has tacitly supported the Syrian rebellion, providing a safe haven for rebel fighters and refugees fleeing the fighting. Ankara has joined Washington and other allied capitals in demanding that Assad step down, and Erdogan vowed on Tuesday to help the Syrian people “get rid of the bloody dictator and his gang,” Agence France-Presse reported.
It was unclear whether the Turkish premier’s forceful words signaled Turkey’s determination to ratchet up its support for Syrian rebels. The government has denied Syrian charges and press reports that it is facilitating the flow of arms and fighters into Syria. Turkey has not allowed Syrian rebels to mount attacks on Syria from inside Turkish territory.
The vitriol directed at Syria on Tuesday seemed unlikely to have much of an effect on Assad, who has weathered waves of global condemnation for what critics call his brutal crackdown on a rebellion that began in March 2011.
The latest crisis between the two onetime allies erupted on Friday, when Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet off the Mediterranean coast of Syria.
The two nations have put out conflicting story lines about the incident. Turkey says its jet was shot down in international airspace without a warning shortly after it inadvertently wandered into Syrian skies. Turkey has denied the jet was on any kind of spying mission or testing Syria’s air defenses, which do appear to maintain considerable capability.
Syria says the aircraft was hit less than a mile from its coast, well within Syrian airspace, with old-fashioned anti-aircraft guns that have a range of less than two miles. The jet's two crew members remain missing.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey on Tuesday. Credit: Burhan Ozbilici / Associated Press.