Turkey threatens military retaliation along Syria border
BEIRUT — Turkey warned Syria on Tuesday that it had given orders to commanders along its southern border to treat any Syrian military approach as a threat, further escalating tensions between the two neighbors in the wake of last week’s downing of a Turkish plane by Syria.
FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS - NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen briefs the media after a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels on June 26, 2012. NATO member states condemned Syria on Tuesday for its shooting down of a Turkish military jet.
The warning came as NATO issued a strong condemnation of Syria, saying the attack on the plane was “completely unacceptable” and stressing that NATO stands with Turkey “in the spirit of strong solidarity.”
NATO did not propose any measures against Syria, but Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels that the organization would closely monitor events along its southeastern border and would gather to “discuss what else will be done” should another such incident occur.
“It is my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate,” Rasmussen said.“What we have seen is a completely unacceptable act, and I would expect Syria to take all necessary steps to avoid such events in the future.”
In a strongly worded speech in Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the shooting of the plane was deliberate, and that henceforth “any military approach to the Turkish border from the Syrian side will be perceived as a threat and will be dealt with accordingly.”
“This incident shows that Syrian has become an open threat to Turkey, so we have come to a brand new stage,” he told parliamentarians.
It is clear Turkey plans no immediate military retaliation for the downing of the jet. But by changing its rules of engagement along the southern border Ankara is putting Syria on notice that it can no longer operate there with impunity, potentially curbing Syria’s capacity to hunt down rebels active in the northern province of Idlib.
Smuggling routes between Turkey and Syria are used to secure supplies of weaponry and money by the rebel Free Syrian Army, whose leadership is based in a refugee camp in southern Turkey, one of the many sources of friction between Ankara and Damascus.
There have been numerous instances in recent months in which Syrian troops have fired into Turkey to target fleeing refugees, Erdogan said. He said Syrian helicopters have strayed into Turkish territory at least five times in their pursuit of rebels staging an uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey and Syria have offered sharply contradictory versions of what happened when the Turkish fighter jet was downed over the eastern Mediterranean on Friday. Turkey says the plane was in international airspace when it was struck by a missile; Syria says it was within a mile of the Syrian coast, in Syrian airspace, when it was targeted by anti-aircraft machine gun fire. The jet’s two pilots have not been found.
Though the Turkish jet did briefly stray into Syrian airspace,“this kind of short-term border violation can never be regarded as a pretext for a hostile attack,” Erdogan said.
The escalating tensions coincided with renewed reports of fighting between rebels and the Syrian security forces in the suburbs of Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 10 people had been killed.
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