Jun 22, 2012 | 22:10 GMT

4 mins read

Turkey Responds to Syria Plane Incident

Turkey Responds to Syrian Plane Incident

Shortly after a two-hour emergency summit with Turkey's National Security Council, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan issued a carefully worded statement confirming that Syria shot down a Turkish jet June 22. Erdogan said that after the details have been further established, Turkey will declare its intent and will respond decisively with the necessary steps. No details were given on the fate of the two crewmen who went down with the aircraft, though a joint Turkish-Syrian rescue mission is ongoing.

Now that Turkey has officially confirmed the downing of its aircraft by Syrian forces, it has no choice but to respond. Turkey is already providing significant financial, logistical, military and political backing to the Syrian rebellion, but the downing of a Turkish aircraft may warrant a conventional military response. The extent of such a response is unclear. Turkey does not want to engage in a military conflict with the Syrian armed forces without heavy Western involvement.

As a member of NATO, Turkey has the option of invoking Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which says that an attack on any member shall be considered to be an attack on all. (The article was invoked the first time by the United States following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.) Turkey raised the possibility of invoking this article April 11 when a border skirmish occurred between Syrian and Turkish forces. It was highly dubious then that a border skirmish would warrant a collective NATO response, but shooting down a warplane is another matter.

June 22 Turkish Jet Crash

June 22 Turkish Jet Crash

It will thus be imperative to watch the response of Turkey's fellow NATO members, particularly the United States, in the coming hours and days. The United States has also confirmed that the Turkish F-4 was shot down, but Washington does not have an interest in engaging itself militarily in Syria and has resisted such action thus far by involving itself more deeply in covert operations to fortify the rebellion. The U.S. preference will be for a limited Turkish response and a continuation of efforts to aid the Syrian insurgency, but such an outcome is not certain at this time. For Turkey to militarily intervene, Syria's air defense must be broken — an operation that would likely require the involvement of NATO (and specifically of the United States, which has the best and largest anti-air defense capabilities of all the NATO militaries).

Following Turkey's confirmation that one of its F-4s was shot down by Syrian forces, the Syrian Defense Ministry released a statement acknowledging that Syrian forces hit the Turkish jet over Syrian territorial waters. The statement said that an unidentified aircraft penetrated Syrian airspace above Syrian territorial waters at a very low altitude and high speed. Syria's air defenses damaged the plane with anti-aircraft artillery located 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) from the coastline. The plane crashed in the sea, west of Latakia. The statement emphasized that the aircraft was in Syrian territorial waters flying at a distance of 10 kilometers from the coastline, and therefore Syrian forces responded accordingly.  Only after the plane was shot down did Syrian forces allegedly ascertain it was a Turkish aircraft. The June 21 defection of a Syrian pilot raises the possibility that Syrian forces overreacted in targeting aircraft in its airspace out of fear of further defections.

Syria is not interested in engaging in a military conflict with Turkey when its own armed forces are already struggling to put down a rebellion at home. Even as a warning message, downing a Turkish aircraft carries a serious risk of war. This raises the question of whether the Syrian forces that allegedly fired the surface-to-air missile were authorized to shoot. The rapid Syrian response to the crash, in which the Syrian government reportedly expressed "regret" over the incident, suggests that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is quickly trying to contain the situation.

In the end, Syria will not be the country that decides how far this conflict goes. Turkish officials are likely communicating with U.S. officials now on whether, at this stage of the Syrian crisis and after the efforts expended thus far in backing the insurgency, it is worth the cost to upgrade this conflict to a military intervention.

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