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Turkey to seek NATO support over downing of jet by Syria

An official says Turkey will ask NATO to consider the matter an attack on all its members. Analysts see little prospect of military action against Syria now.

June 26, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, foreground, arrives for a Cabinet meeting in Ankara.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, foreground, arrives for… (Associated Press )

BEIRUT — Turkey hinted it would ask its NATO allies to consider Syria's downing of a Turkish jet to be an attack on the entire alliance, as it struggles to craft a response tough enough to satisfy outraged public opinion at home while trying to avoid a slide into war.

On the eve of Tuesday's NATO meeting called by Turkey to discuss the incident, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said during a news conference in the Turkish capital that "this action will not go unpunished and will have consequences."

Turkey is to present its version of events under NATO's Article 4, which allows for consultations if a member fears threats to its security or territorial integrity.

But the deputy prime minister said Ankara would call on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to consider the matter under the more robust terms of Article 5, the collective self-defense arrangement that regards an attack against one member as an attack against all.

And, as the gap widened between each country's version of how and where the Turkish F-4 Phantom jet was shot down off the Syrian coast, Arinc charged that Syrian batteries also opened fire on a Turkish search-and-rescue plane that was dispatched to find the jet's two missing pilots.

Analysts said there is little prospect of NATO seriously contemplating military action against Syria when so many of its members, including the United States, have warned against foreign intervention in Syria's ongoing civil strife.

Arinc also sought to damp any prospect of Turkish military retaliation.

"We have no intention of going to war with anyone," he said after a seven-hour Cabinet meeting dedicated to the confrontation.

Some diplomats close to the discussions said Turkish authorities were weighing a range of possible retaliatory moves against Syria, including new economic sanctions. But Turkey's options are limited since it has already imposed sanctions on Syria and expelled Syrian diplomats, a move reciprocated by Damascus.

Turkey says its aircraft was shot down Friday in international airspace after the jet inadvertently wandered into Syrian skies. Syria says the jet was hit well within Syrian airspace off the Mediterranean coast of Latakia province.

Turkish officials, viewing the incident as a clear affront to the nation's standing as an emerging world power, are seeking to satisfy a domestic audience outraged over what is widely seen as a humiliating and unwarranted attack that led to the apparent loss of two pilots.

Using NATO channels is a way to try to internationalize the response, without real risk of military action that could unleash a wider conflict.

Last year, NATO-led bombardments were decisive in the fall of Libya's Moammar Kadafi. But NATO's use of force in Libya had legal sanction in a United Nations resolution. In the case of Syria, both Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, have indicated that they are opposed to any Libya-style intervention.

A formal NATO condemnation of Syria's actions seems a more likely outcome of Tuesday's alliance meeting, analysts say, though another verbal broadside from the international community seems unlikely to phase President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian government has weathered a storm of global censure for its handling of the 15-month-old uprising — which has left more than 10,000 people dead — without bowing to pressure for Assad to step down.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said in Damascus on Monday that "the NATO meeting should work for preserving security and stability, and in case it were aggressive in nature, we say that the Syrian territories, water and air are sacrosanct for the Syrian army," according to the official Syrian news service.

The downing of the jet has greatly aggravated already-tense relations between two nations bitterly at odds over Turkey's tacit support for the Syrian rebellion. Ankara and Damascus also fundamentally disagree about the circumstances surrounding the demise of the Turkish aircraft.

According to Syrian officials, the Turkish jet, flying low and fast, was shot down by a Syrian antiaircraft gun that has a maximum range of about 1.5 miles. The gun's full range from the Syrian coast would be within Syria's territorial limits, according to Syria's account. There had earlier been speculation that the aircraft was hit with an antiaircraft missile, which would have a longer range.

On Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkish television that the aircraft was shot down in international airspace 13 nautical miles off the Syrian coast, after it had "momentarily" strayed into Syrian skies. Turkey said the jet was on a routine exercise and denied that it was spying on Syria or testing Syria's air defenses. Turkey says Syria made no effort to contact the aircraft or Turkish authorities before firing. Syria says it was unaware the jet was Turkish, an assertion the Turks say is not credible since the jet was not concealed in any way.

Search efforts continued for the two pilots, officials said. Turkey says wreckage has been found on the seabed at a depth of more than 3,000 feet.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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