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Turkey won't strike back at Syria, for now

In the wake of the downing of a Turkish fighter jet, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is talking tough but makes it clear there will be no immediate strike against Syria. His stance reflects a reluctance by other nations to get involved in Syria's internal strife.

June 27, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A Turkish coast guard vessel searches the Mediterranean Sea for remains of the F-4 Phantom jet that Syria shot down last week and the two missing pilots who were aboard the aircraft.
A Turkish coast guard vessel searches the Mediterranean Sea for remains… (Associated Press )

BEIRUT -- In the case of its downed fighter jet, Turkey's bark has proved mightier than its bite.

For days, Turkey has been warning neighboring Syria about the possible consequences of the downing of a Turkish fighter plane in what Ankara says was international airspace in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, however, in a much-anticipated address to parliament, Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear there would be no immediate retaliatory strike or military action against Syria.

He did redefine Turkey's neighbor and former ally as "a clear and imminent threat" and even denounced Syrian President Bashar Assad, once a friend and vacation partner, as a "bloody dictator."

But Turkey's response could be seen more as symbolic bluster than decisive action from a regional powerhouse that views itself as an emerging player on the global stage.

"However valuable Turkey's friendship is, its wrath is just as strong," Erdogan warned. "Don't take our common sense and cautious approach as a sign of passivity."

His speech continued a general narrative of tough words but restrained actions coming from the Turkish side.

The prime minister did unveil robust new rules of engagement that could interpret any Syrian military move toward the two nations' common borders as a threat meriting a response. But the details were vague, and Turkey's hesitancy to be dragged into a potential Syrian quagmire seemed evident.

The NATO alliance, which includes Turkey, also reaffirmed Tuesday that, although it deplored Syria's action, it wanted no part in intervening in that country's internal bloodletting.

The measured responses again underscore how outside nations have no desire to take action in Syria, which is now entering its 16th month of a rebellion that has cost more than 10,000 lives.

Despite its outrage over the jet downing, Turkey is maintaining its traditional reluctance to interfere in the affairs of other nations.

Among the most common proposals to protect Syrian civilians in the conflict is creation of a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. But such a move would require a military takeover of Syrian territory, a project that has not been embraced by Turkey or any other nation.

Analysts say the fear that Assad's government has the potential to stir up trouble with Turkey's restive Kurdish minority is also a factor in Ankara's hesitancy to become entangled in a cross-border conflict. Syria is said to enjoy close ties with some elements of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been battling the Turkish state for decades.

Erdogan told parliament that Syrian helicopters had violated Turkish airspace on five recent occasions, drawing warnings. He clearly suggested that future incursions could be met with force.

Hours after the prime minister's speech, Turkish media reported on military reinforcements heading to the border area and a state of "high alert" among troops there.

Turkey has tacitly backed the Syrian rebellion, providing haven for rebel fighters and refugees. Ankara has joined Washington and other allied capitals in demanding that Assad step down.

One concrete step Turkey could take is to bolster its support for the rebels, either openly or covertly.

Ankara has denied the Syrian government's charges and media reports that it is already facilitating the flow of arms and fighters into Syria. While hosting rebels, refugees and opposition fronts, Turkey has tried to cultivate an image of distance from the insurgency.

The new wave of criticism directed at Syria on Tuesday seemed unlikely to have much effect on Assad, who has weathered waves of global condemnation for what critics call his brutal crackdown on the rebellion, which began in March 2011.

Syrian antiaircraft batteries shot down the Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet Friday off the coast of Syria's Latakia province.

Syria says the aircraft was hit well within Syrian airspace, with old-fashioned guns that have a range of less than two miles.

Turkey says the jet was shot down in international airspace without 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.

The jet's two crew members remain unaccounted for.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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