Things may get even hotter for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad this summer, as he fights off the most serious threat to Alawite power in decades. Yesterday, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish F-4 fighter jet on a recon mission, and today Ankara is threatening retaliation:
Turkey will take retaliatory steps against Syria for the downing of a Turkish military jet, President Abdullah Gul said Saturday, even as he suggested that the aircraft may have unintentionally violated Syrian airspace.
It was not clear if Gul was suggesting military retaliation, increased sanctions against Syria or other possible steps, including demands for an apology, and his aide would not comment on his words. But Faruk Celik, Turkey’s Labor and Social Security Minister, said Turkey would retaliate “either in the diplomatic field or give other types of response.”
“Even if we assume that there was a violation of Syria’s airspace — though the situation is still not clear — the Syrian response cannot be to bring down the plane,” Celik told reporters.
“The incident is unacceptable,” he said. “Turkey cannot endure it in silence.”
Gul got diplomatic support from Iraq shortly afterward:
Syria’s downing of a Turkish plane marks a serious escalation of the Syrian conflict, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Saturday.
“The shooting down yesterday of a Turkish aircraft over Syrian territorial waters – this is a serious escalation and indication that the conflict would have far (a) bigger impact than (on) Syria itself,” he told a televised news conference with his Swedish, Bulgarian and Polish counterparts in Baghdad.
The question will be what kind of retaliation Gul and his government have in mind. Celik’s statement leaves the field wide open. Undoubtedly, Turkey would prefer not to go into an open military conflict, as they have enough problems with Kurdish separatists to keep them busy, but as the conflict grows in Syria, the refugee problem will make the Kurdish conflict more complicated, too. Furthermore, Gul has to deliver some kind of emphatic response in order to maintain his credibility with his own military, a powerful force in Turkish politics that might decide to find someone else to run the country if Gul fails to respond adequately.
That brings us to the NATO question. As a member of the alliance, Turkey lives within the same protective policy as all the other nations in the Cold War paradigm: An attack on one is an attack on all. If Turkey chooses to respond militarily and a war breaks out between the two nations, will NATO come to the defense of its member — and will that give the West the opening it has sought to intervene in Syria for more than a year? And if NATO acts, will Russia be far behind in protecting its client dictator Assad?