NATO member states condemned Syria on Tuesday for its shooting down of a Turkish military jet, calling it “unacceptable” and demanding that Damascus take steps to prevent further incidents.
Ambassadors of NATO’s 28 member states met in Brussels on Tuesday to consult with Turkey on the incident. Turkey, a NATO member, had called for the meeting.
“NATO allies have expressed strong condemnation of this completely unacceptable act,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after the gathering.
Rasmussen said NATO security was “indivisible,” but he said NATO’s Article 5, which calls for member states to see an attack on one country as an attack on all the alliance’s members, had not been discussed.
“We stand together with Turkey in spirit of solidarity,” he said.
It is only the second time in NATO’s 63-year history that it has convened under Article 4 of its charter which provides for consultations when a member state feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat.
The only other time NATO has convened under Article 4 was in 2003 to discuss the Iraq war, again at the request of Turkey.
Turkey rejected assertions from Damascus that its forces had no option but to fire on the F-4 jet as it flew over Syrian waters close to the coast on Friday.
In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Turkey condemned the “hostile act by the Syrian authorities against Turkey’s national security,” saying it posed “a serious threat to peace and security in the region.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told a news conference Syria’s actions “would not go unpunished.”
Tension hightened between Turkey and Syria
The incident has further heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria already strained to near breaking point over the 16-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Though not known for his restraint, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has so far been measured in his response, perhaps due to Western reluctance to commit to any military action and wary himself of anything that could trigger a regional sectarian war.
European Union foreign ministers called on Monday for Turkey to show restraint, saying they would increase pressure on Assad.
“Military intervention in Syria is out of the question,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal.
After a seven-hour Turkish cabinet meeting in which an air force chief gave a detailed briefing on Friday’s incident, Arinc said Erdogan would make an announcement on Syria on Tuesday.
Syria’s description of the event as an act of self-defense, though tempered with commitment to a “neighborly relationship,” seemed likely to further anger Ankara.
“The plane disappeared and then reappeared in Syrian airspace, flying at 100 meters altitude and about 1-2kms (0.6-1.2 miles) from the Syrian coast,” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a Damascus news conference.
“We had to react immediately, even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down,” he said. “The Syrian response was an act of defense of our sovereignty carried out by anti-aircraft machinegun which has a maximum range of 2.5 km.”
U.S. will hold Syria accountable
The United States said on Monday it would work with NATO ally Turkey to hold Syria accountable for what U.S. officials believe was a deliberate act of shooting down a Turkish fighter jet.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States stood in solidarity with Turkey as it investigated last Friday’s downing of the Turkish jet and determined its response.
But Carney sidestepped questions about what an appropriate response might be to the incident.
Washington has already condemned the jet’s downing in strong terms. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday called it a “brazen and unacceptable act.”
At a Pentagon briefing on Monday, officials said they believed the downing was deliberate.
The State Department said senior officials including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman had been in touch with their Turkish counterparts, and would be listening for Turkey’s suggestions at Tuesday’s NATO meeting.
Syria warns against retaliation
Syria warned Turkey and NATO against retaliating.
“NATO is supposed to be there to strengthen countries,” said Makdissi. “If their meeting is for hostile reasons (they should know that) Syrian land and waters are sacred.”
The unarmed reconnaissance jet had briefly entered Syrian airspace as it approached land after patrolling the eastern Mediterranean, Arinc said, but was warned by Turkish radar controllers and immediately left and turned again out to sea. It then made another approach to land when it was shot down 13 miles off the coast in international airspace, he said, out of the reach of Syria’s anti-aircraft guns
“According to the data in our hands, it points to our plane being shot by a laser or heat-guided surface-to-air missile. The fact our plane was not given an early radar warning, suggests it was not a radar-guided missile,” said Arinc.
By invoking Article 4 of the NATO charter, rather than Article 5 which calls for military action, Turkey has signaled it wants action against Syria short of armed intervention.
The United Nations has said more than 10,000 people have been killed by government forces, while Syria has said at least 2,600 members of the military and security forces have been killed by what it calls foreign-backed “Islamist terrorists.” Syrian activists put the number of those killed along the 16-month uprising at 15,000 people.
The intensification of the fighting has raised fears in Turkey of a flood of refugees and a slide into ethnic and religious warfare that could envelop the region. Ankara, like the West, is torn between a wish to remove Assad and the fear that any armed intervention could unleash uncontrollable forces.